Please note 'Color Blind' & 'Precious, A True Story' are the same book (the first is the US edition, the latter is the UK edition)
A vivid account of being given away at three-months-old by a Nigerian mother that is harrowing, yet anything but bitter
Published: 8 August 2010
Author Precious Williams
Length 256 pages
Precious Williams’s Nigerian mother advertised in the back of Nursery World for a private foster mother for her three-month-old baby. Williams explores in this wryly sad memoir her struggle to reconcile two names, two mothers and two conflicting sets of cultural expectations.
Her white foster mother, Nanny, was silver-haired and 5ft tall and lived on a council estate in rural West Sussex. Inspired by her childhood reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Nanny had cared for several African children and would provide, with her grown-up daughter Wendy, a loving home for the girl she insisted on calling Anita, Neet or Nin — short
Mummy Elizabeth, on the other hand, was the granddaughter of a tribal king. She was almost 6ft tall and jangled with gold bracelets, changing her London addresses as fast as the men following in her wake. For the next decade this beautiful but terrifying black woman would sweep in and out of her daughter’s life — mostly late, and almost always explosively critical.
Confusion reigned. To Nanny, Neet was “coloured”, never black, always British — yet, instead of getting the salamander costume she longed for in a local fancy-dress competition, she was done up as “Miss Biafra”. In post-war, nationalistic 1970s Britain she was also the local “wog”, “nig-nog” and “jungle bunny”. During irregular visits to London, her mother revelled in her daughter’s unaccented English but despaired of her inability to dance or to manage her frizzy hair. Sexually abused by an “uncle” while her mother was out, she had her allegations brushed aside by a social worker back
Alienated from her African culture while never feeling quite British, Williams withdrew into herself. Riding the emotional rapids of a bitter “custody” battle fought by Nanny and her mother, she began to binge-eat and shoplift. Aged 16, she was raped in a reeking public lavatory, a brutal act that seemed only to confirm her sense of herself as the one to blame for the rejection at the heart of her life. She attempted suicide and dropped out of school.
Searching for her “black roots” in south London, Williams immersed herself in a world of African prints, dreadlocks, pungent hair oil and the joy of owning 22 pairs of Adidas trainers. But it was the vocabulary of Brixton and the uniform of hip-hop that she was expected to adopt rather than the languid rhythms of her West African heritage. At the age of 18, following her first experience of consensual sex, she became pregnant.
Williams ultimately regained her ambition, returned to college, took three A levels, progressed to Oxford University and pursued doggedly a dream to become a journalist. Wendy looked after her baby, Alice, during the day, for odd nights and then throughout university term time. As a child, Williams could not believe “coloured women could love their own children”, and as a mother, she acknowledges that she has repeated a pattern of abandonment.
Telling her own story, she maintains an often pragmatic stance, reflecting the gnawing isolation and emotional separation that she felt as a child. Astonishingly, there is little bitterness here: Williams’s writing is accomplished — pacey yet carefully spare, so that sadness and anger hover over her narrative rather than suffocate it. Such is the vividness of her characters and dialogue that, having unburdened herself, Williams now might choose — with the promise of some success — to turn her back on her day job as a journalist and find a powerful new voice by making the leap into fiction.
COLOR BLIND: A Memoir By Precious Williams
London-born to a Nigerian princess who decides she doesn’t have the stamina to raise a baby, 3-month-old Precious Williams finds a home in rural Sussex with Nanny, a 57-year-old white woman. Loving and welcoming, with a boisterous family, Nanny insists she’s colorblind, but her love for black people comes from a dubious source: her worship of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ and her yearning for a little Topsy all her own. Called Anita by her white family, Williams will grow up to forge her own identity as Precious, “the writer, the grown woman, the adventuress.’’ How she gets there is a serpentine road that’s as shatteringly moving as it is incredible.
Denied a strong sense of racial identity, Williams is taunted at school for being black and urged by her English family to try to blend in. “The key to surviving . . . when you’re black, is making whites believe that deep down you wish you were white yourself,’’ she writes.
Her mother, during her infrequent and cruel visits, criticizes her for being too white. Besides trying to figure out a racial identity, Williams struggles to map out the bonds of family. Her fierce need for her mother is enormous, even as her mother breaks promises, visits and calls only when she feels like it, and showers her with insults about her hair, her behavior, and her very slim chances of measuring up.
To her mother, Williams is “a doll that can be dressed up and shown off,’’ but when her mother finally does take her back to Nigeria, her cousins laugh at how white she seems, and Williams is soon returned. Buffeted back and forth between the white and black worlds, abused by her mother’s boyfriends, and never knowing where she fits in, she begins to feel like a “kettle so choked up with stagnant water that I can’t even come to a boil and release steam.’’ Who, then, is she? And what does that identity really mean?
This book is not so much a coming-of-age story as a harrowing coming-to-be tale. Williams peels back the layers of who she tries to be to get at who she really is. When she gets pregnant at 18, she decides to keep the child. But being a mother herself doesn’t hold any revelations about why her own mother abused her.
To go to school, to kick down doors, to forge a life she’s desperate to live, Williams allows others in Nanny’s family to raise her child. What’s so fascinating — and truthfully, so disturbing — is that Williams makes no apologies. She doesn’t ask forgiveness for her absence, though she does offer an excuse: She’s yearning for her mother to love her so she can love her own child, a statement so haunting I wished Williams had given more pages over to her daughter’s life.
Still, against all odds, Williams claims her future. Gorgeously written with a fiercely honest voice, “Color Blind,’’ shows that who we are is shaped by how we are nurtured, even when our histories leave damage that is as much a part of us as our shadows.
Williams offers an English journalist's wry, charming memoir of being a black Nigerian girl growing up in a 1970s white foster home in a village of West Sussex, England. As a baby, Anita Williams was farmed out by her glamorous Nigerian mother to a couple in their late 50s, Nanny and her wheelchair-bound husband, Gramps, to be brought up as a proper English girl with the Queen's accent. Altruistic, Christian, and modest of means, Nanny tells her: "Your colour doesn't matter, Anita. You're just the same as me underneath." Yet Anita stuck out like a sore thumb in mostly white Fernmere, visited occasionally by her haughty, highly critical Mummy Elizabeth, an accountant, and Elizabeth's male sidekick, whom the author recalls molesting her sexually when she was very small. While the town bullies routinely called her names, Nanny and her family doted on her, worried sick that she'd be taken back by her mother. Anita's older stepsister, Agnes, turned up for a visit, while a trip to Nigeria with her mother to visit the far-flung relatives cured Anita of her stereotypical notions of Africans. Gradually, Anita learned that being "black" possessed many complicated connotations, and as she grew up she excelled as a student and rebelled in turn. Her beautifully wrought memoir reaches back deeply and generously to regain the preciousness she felt lost to her. (Aug.)
Color Blind: A Memoir
By Precious Williams
Bloomsbury, 241 pp., $24
British journalist Precious Williams upends every expectation about race, class, gender and ambition in her startlingly powerful memoir. It opens in the 1970s, when, at the age of 10 weeks, the author is deposited by her tall, aristocratic Nigerian mother into the arms of "Nanny," a tiny 57-year-old white woman in Sussex. (Upwardly mobile Africans often privately boarded their children with rural U.K. whites.) Though loved by Nanny and her family, Williams spent an odd, unsettled childhood in a white housing project, always struggling to find her place as a black woman and to understand her absent, glamorous mother in London. Of note: Williams' subtle, devastating depiction of early sexual abuse. — Deirdre Donahue
From London-based journalist Williams, an affecting memoir about growing up in two worlds, neither quite comfortable with the other. The author was born to a mother "from a well-heeled and titled Igbo family in Nigeria," her father "a civil engineer from a privileged Krio family in Sierra Leone." Neither was struggling. Yet, writes
Williams, she was given up for "private fostering," a kind of temporary adoption often used by poor immigrants seeking to establish themselves in their newfound country by working nonstop. As the narrative opens,her mother has left her with an elderly white woman named "Nanny" in a housing estate in rural Sussex and does not return for months. Months turned into years, with occasional deliverances in which her mother reclaimed her for a time, then returned her to Nanny "until she is old enough for boarding school." Years turned into decades, and Anita-Precious Achaba, as she is known, was old enough to have a child of her own-and in so doing out of wedlock earned the ire of her mother, who warned her, "Just because you're black, people are already making up their minds about you without even knowing what you're capable of."
In between, Williams touches on themes that have every opportunity to come off syrupy, but she continually rescues the narrative from mawkishness. One important theme is the trope of abandonment. Another is the ineluctable sense of being different in a place in which ordinariness is a virtue-and there are degrees of difference, as when Williams describes a kindling friendship with a young neighbor across class and ethniclines "Africans are stuck up," her friend says, "they hate people like me. I'm Jamaican."
Apart from a few instances of schoolyard bullying and a creepy encounter with a boy cousin, there are few moments of real drama in these pages, and yet the story moves along toward a satisfying conclusion thatspeaks to aspiration and desire. Well done.
The Scottish Herald
Precious Williams: Precious (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
16 Aug 2010
Families and cultures clash in a book that avoids becoming a misery memoir.
One September day, a “sinewy”, “elegantly disinterested” Nigerian woman named Elizabeth came to the door of an unremarkable house in the town of Fernmere, near Bognor. The woman who lived there, “Nanny” Taylor, had fostered African children in the past, and the two of them agreed terms: Nanny would be paid £7.50 a week to look after Elizabeth’s 10-week-old baby girl. Her name was Precious Anita Williams.
Precious lived with the Taylor family, taking into account the occasional hiatus, until her late teens, while her mother, we assume, swept her elegantly disinterested way around the world unencumbered. She would return periodically to check up on her daughter’s progress, a cold and haughty figure who thought nothing of kicking Precious to the ground when she displeased her. As a result of Elizabeth’s treatment, Precious “didn’t realise that coloured women could love their own children”.
It sounds like one of those traumatic books from the genre that’s been dubbed “misery memoirs”. But Precious Williams, a widely published journalist and former contributing editor to Cosmopolitan, isn’t here to pander to prurient fascination with the neglect and abuse of children. This is a story worth reading because it’s about family, self-discovery, culture clashes and Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.
But what looms over it all is the battle waged for Precious by Nanny and Elizabeth, a struggle complicated by the fact that Precious felt conflicted herself.
Nanny knew full well that if she objected too strongly to the cruelty of Elizabeth, then Precious could be taken away from the kindly Taylor family forever. And Precious, lacking vital stability in her life, was plagued by feelings of insecurity.
After Elizabeth introduces a stranger as her fiancé, Precious remembers feeling, “I’m the child; I’m the one who’s supposed to be constantly changing but suddenly it’s the grown-ups around me who are growing, changing, making babies, getting married, stirring up excitement among themselves and I don’t like it.”
Eventually there’s a custody case, but the long road doesn’t end there. As Precious reaches adulthood, the years of insecurity, the stresses of being fought over and the memories of sexual abuse at the hands of Elizabeth’s suitors all take their toll and she goes into psychological “freefall”.
The bewildered Taylors, who think of Precious as an English girl through and through, can’t grasp that there’s another identity she needs to explore. She’s reached a point beyond which her adoptive family can’t help her, but maybe the burgeoning UK hip-hop scene can.
Ultimately, there’s no real comparison between Precious and misery memoirs. Williams’s refusal to provide her readers with an upbeat, cathartic ending, in which she triumphs over adversity against all odds, results in a far more poignant, sobering conclusion.
By the end, we’ve realised that her unspoken motive for writing the book was not the hope that some attention from Richard & Judy would propel it into the bestseller chart, but that her own daughter, to whom it is dedicated, would one day read her words and understand.
By Precious Williams
Bloomsbury Press, $24.00, 241 pages
Color Blind: A Memoir is a captivating story of Precious Williams, a child of a Nigerian princess. Early in Williams’ life, her mother finds Nanny, a 60-year-old white foster parent in rural England. Influenced by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Nanny has had a string of black children live with her for years. One leaves, then another comes along. As Williams grows up under Nanny’s focus, her mother’s infrequent visits provide a jarring glimpse into another world.
Black and a minority in her school, Williams lives in a confusing world because Nanny has been raising her as if she were white. Meanwhile Williams’ mother is unwilling to take her home, and instead, Williams is faced with the discovery of a sister and other family along the way. The confusion, ignorance, clarity, and struggles Williams encounters along the way are riveting reading with Williams’ deft descriptions and child-like honesty. The on-going contradictions and battles among Williams, Nanny, and Williams’ mother are mesmerizing. As Williams researched her memoir, she uncovered some events that add layers to her own memory. Throughout it all, Williams retains her dignity and imparts a simple wisdom.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Humphrey
Bookmark These: August 2010
ELLE's August Reading Recommendations
By Lisa Shea | July 13, 2010 1:00 p.m.
Precious Williams’ memoir, Color Blind (Bloomsbury), recounts how this London-born daughter of a Nigerian princess came to be raised by an elderly white woman in an English housing project. Growing up, she struggled with race and class issues, being renamed Anita, and getting raped. “Anita is the elephant in the room,” Williams declares, while “Precious…[is] the writer, the grown woman, the adventurer.”
PRECIOUS BY PRECIOUS WILLIAMS (Bloomsbury £7.99 / £6.99)
Abandonment, abuse, adoption, attempted suicide — these are some of the elements of this misery memoir and I’m still on the As; with black identity, birth mothers and babies, and all the rest of the A to Z of trauma, still to come.
It begins with abandonment, when the author is farmed out by her Nigerian mother to a white family in a very white Sussex town. Picked on by the local skinheads because she’s black, mistrusted by her Nigerian family because she talks like a white person, cherished by her adoptive mother who calls her ‘my little piccaninny’, Precious Williams would have been confused and troubled enough without the sexual abuse that fuels her nightmares.
Formulaically miserable this memoir may be, but it’s also a cut above the usual in its desire to show, rather than tell, and to disdain easy condemnation.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2025177/OUT-NOW-IN-PAPERBACK.html#ixzz1gbtbsn5n
IF I WAS PRECIOUS, WHY DID SHE SEND ME AWAY?
Reviewed by Lisa J. Long
Saturday, January 22, 2010.
As a toddler, the British-born daughter of a Nigerian princess Precious Anita Williams, was advertised in Nursery World : “Private foster parents required for a three-month-old baby.”
These ‘temporary’ fostering arrangements were apparently common in the 1970s as well as the unregulated care of African children which followed. Precious or Anita (Neety) - her childhood name - was placed with a 57 year-old white woman ‘Nanny’, who had a penchant for fostering black children after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a child.
The fostering arrangement lasted for the majority of her childhood and this memoir recalls how she existed between two worlds - the Sussex council estate where she grew up and the Nigerian heritage she learns of in sporadic exchanges with the largely absent mummy- Elizabeth. Her biological mother is a glamorous yet feared woman who breezes in and out of her childhood, striking terror into both ‘Nanny’ and Neety, and bringing with her an assortment of relatives.
Neety’s appearance is a continuous theme in her own self-loathing: The author sees herself and most black women as ugly, with the exception of her mother who she thinks is beautiful. She is startled when Nanny describes some black women in a picture as pretty; but instead the child sees a flat nose and plump lips like hers and thinks these features are ugly. When she finally reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin and discovers Nanny’s much loved Topsy character described as ‘grinning like an ugly black doll’ it confirms her fear that this is how she is seen by the outside world.
Neety imagines her mother’s country as a primitive place, her views shaped by her well intentioned foster parents, she is shocked when her mother takes her to Nigeria to discover that all of the women do not walk around bare breasted. The absence of whiteness is immediately evident to her and she begins to enjoy not being the only black girl. She is torn between her fascination with her family history, culture of Nigeria and feeling a sense of belonging and her thoughts of Nanny and her British home and identity.
Within the memoir Williams recalls the harrowing details of the sexual abuse she suffered as the young child Neety, at the hands of one of her mother’s boyfriends and later recalls being raped as a 16 year-old by a soldier on the floor of a public toilet. The recollection is unflinching, vivid and painfully raw as Williams brings alive her own agonising experience. The rape in particular triggers her teenage descent into depression and she seeks solace in alcohol. Williams is soon thrown out of college and runs away to London to find her identity. It is in London that she has her first consensual sex, falling pregnant at seventeen, before returning to her foster mother who eventually look after her, allowing Williams to study and forge a career as a journalist.
In the final part of the memoir, Williams bravely explores her own reasons for leaving her child in the care of Nanny’s daughter and son in law, repeating what she sees as the pattern of abandonment.
Williams narrates her story through the eyes of the child in present tense. This style gives the memoir a fictional feel in places, and some of the finer details of conversations from her early childhood may have been fictionalised in memory. Williams can be forgiven for this as what results is a vibrant and lively memoir brimming with real characters, which avoids the detached feeling present in some past tense writings.
As well as allowing Precious Williams to tell her story, this memoir has a lot to say about childhood, Britain in the 1970s, class, race, identity, culture and motherhood. In addition, the book examines the issue of black children fostered by white families and the emotional and identity based conflicts this causes.
Williams achieves a sensitive exploration of all of these issues and produces a provocative, warm, disturbing and at times hilarious memoir; I was pleasantly surprised and I read it in one sitting. When I put it down I was both enlightened and moved: I had laughed, cried, bristled and learnt. This is not the typical self-therapy memoir it is a lot more and deserves to be read.
Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.
Precious Anita Williams was born to a Nigerian mother, but she's also British. She lives in the threatening shadow of her mother, an abusive though distant presence in Anita's life, given that she's lived with Nanny, her 57-year-old foster mother, and Nanny's daughter, Aunt Wendy, for most of her life. In Color Blind chronicles Ms Williams's difficult and downward-spiralling childhood.
So much happens in this book. So much has happened in this life. For this first time, I'm having trouble with this review, because this memoir is so personal--there's a person behind the pages. Someone experienced it, and someone wrote it. Color Blind isn't one of those books that feels just the same as fiction, where the story can be so easily distanced from the life that went through it, and I can blindly chatter on about how thrilling or boring it was to read. It's painful to read at times, even. Painful to read, but impossible to stop. I'd like to say that it has a lovely happy ending at the end, and I suppose in a way it does--the book ended up being written and published, now, didn't it? But it's not a happy book. Ms Williams lays out all the cards here, exposing her painful and brutal childhood at face value.
As a child, she is abused physically in ways she sometimes does and sometimes doesn't understand. Her personality shifts constantly throughout the book as she tries desperately to find and comes to term with her identity, her family, and her body. She tries and fails to please, she lashes out, she comes back. It's not a simple story, and it's not one that necessarily contains any answers, or even the questions to match them. Ms Williams's success speaks for itself in the number of publications across the globe she's written for, but the book doesn't go that far. It's a life in many parts, without a doubt worth the read. Maybe it will teach you something, maybe it won't.
One thing is for certain: The only way to find out is to read it. (Now go pre-order the book on Amazon. Now.)"
"What a wonderful book. I was lucky enough to win an ARC of Color Blind: A Memoir by Precious Williams. Ms. Williams' book made a dent in my heart. I feel like I want to say, "I understand." I understand the different stages that the author explained as she unraveled the story of her unique life.
This book made me cry several times, I think because Ms. Williams is able to write in such a way that I was able to feel what she felt and see what she saw. I don't want to give away the details of her book, but it is not a predictable memoir about racial problems, although they are obviously addressed. Ms. Williams' experiences were ones that I've never heard before. Her courage is amazing. She is brutally honest, and sometimes I felt that she was too hard on herself. ButI think she was hard on herself so that she could teach something about what she has learned from her life thus far.
It is a heart wrenching journey of a sweet angel girl with so many unanswered questions. I think that someday this will be a novel taught in schools for racial issues as well as her excellent writing style.
I highly recommend Color Blind: A Memoir"
"This is everything a memoir should be. There's grit and dirt and honesty. Time also has a very real presence in the novel, we definitely get a good glimpse of what it was like to grow up in the '70's and 80's in the United Kingdom. And even though we only get to see brief moments of how Williams turned her life around, this is not a depressing read. There are hard moments, but they are not presented as being so difficult that they cannot be overcome.
This is a truly amazing memoir, although not necessarily easy for everyone to relate to. And that's okay.
The reviewer is a 2009 graduate of Kent State University's Master of Library and Information Sciences program, an alumna of Antioch College, and the author of the blog A Librarian's Life in Books."