By Rebekah Denn from The Christian Science Monitor
Zachary R. Wood came into the public eye through “Uncomfortable Learning,” a Williams College club that invited controversial speakers to campus. The 2018 graduate insisted students should hear and debate opposing views – even those considered misogynistic, homophobic, racist to the point of white supremacy. He knew the exercise might or might not change anyone’s mind, but believed it would show students the merits and weak points of their own beliefs.
It was an assured, intellectual position for a college sophomore, at a stage where many contemporaries were still forming their core beliefs. Wood had already been forged far beyond that point, though, shaped by pain and hard lessons.
The Williams blowup is actually one of the less engaging sections of Wood’s new memoir, Uncensored, subtitled “My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America.” The more telling parts are all the years leading up to it.
Wood grew up poor, with an abusive mother and other relatives who couldn’t save him from her mistreatment any better than social agencies could. He recounts his mother’s terrifying humiliations, but also accepts her as a complicated woman who fought against mental illness, and as a fiercely sharp guide to life.
Teachers in Michigan complain Wood is “disruptive” – a red-flag word for disciplining black students – with his brainy questions and outside readings. His mother intervened, moving him to a top-notch private school that provided a 90% tuition scholarship (his father, through great sacrifice, made up the rest.) She drilled him in public speaking and other ways to code-switch into a privileged life.
“Make sure you tell them that your grandmother was an educator and that your grandparents are well traveled,” his mother says his first day of school. “Make sure they know you can swim.”
Wood later moves in with his father in the poorest ward in Washington, D.C., taking on a 2-hour bus commute to prep school. A 24-7 work ethic and a maniac-level drive for knowledge bring him success – but not happiness.
He’s an observant outsider in the school’s upper-class world, working so hard to prove his worth that he leaves in disgrace his senior year for probably the oddest reason on record: When wealthy friends are interested in applying to colleges, Wood forges encouraging emails from professors at their chosen schools rather than admit he can’t follow through on the connections he’d promised. He switches to an online high school and makes it to college, which he knows is “a hard-won means to what would inevitably, no matter where it led, be an even harder-won end.”
There, ravenous for knowledge and “sick of living in an echo chamber,” he invites controversy by writing conservative articles on racism and police brutality. The twist: The pieces not only go against typical campus attitudes, but against his own true beliefs. Wood recalls that the “exercise” was meant to encourage debate, and that he considered the stunt’s risks: “Namely, that if I had one ounce of political success in the future, people would come back to those articles and use them against me.” He doesn’t seem aware of more real-time risks, such as squandering his peer group’s trust, and maybe our own. A richer discussion would also have helped when he gets to his involvement with Uncomfortable Learning and his decision to keep inviting inflammatory speakers to school. Wood learns that “some of my critics weren’t merely as hypersensitive and intolerant as I’d assumed,” but the meaty questions get listed more than developed.
Throughout the book, Wood is a cerebral analyst – he introduces his mother by commenting on her “excellent soft skills” as well as her beautiful smile. The closer we get to the present day, the more his voice shifts from autobiography to a zoomed-in mix of term paper and sometimes-defensive diary. It might be an inevitable consequence of writing about current events, without years to add perspective either to the circumstances or to his own life.
Regardless, he’s an effective translator of the two worlds he navigates – four worlds, really, rich and poor as notable as black and white.
In an age where we all seem stuck in the stubborn bubbles of our own backgrounds, Wood’s greatest service might be showing how impossible it is to escape issues of race and class, no matter who you are. We need to understand this in order to change it. (Some issues are truly beyond debate.)
He brings home “how expensive it is to be poor,” from credit card interest to the unexpected costs of drawing out dental care. In a rarer insight, he also shows how often presumed benefactors come across as patronizing or degrading or just exhausting. They mean well, but they’re still causing damage.
In every area, the book’s broadest lesson might be the reality that good intentions aren’t enough on their own.