When I start reading a memoir, I’m eager to find that sweet spot, the part of the book that I can identify with in a way that causes me to say to myself, “I've been there. It’s nice to know I'm not alone.” Sometimes I don’t discover it until the end of the book, and sometimes I don’t discover it at all. But when I read actress Gabrielle Union’s collection of personal essays, We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, I found that sweet spot right away.
After 44 years of growing pains, Union, best known for her roles in cult classics like Bring It On and the BET hit drama series Being Mary Jane, is finally nestled comfortably in her beautiful ebony skin and realizing her worth as a black woman. She shared this knowledge with a large audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia on October 19, 2017.
In the first pages of her book, Union highlights a quote from The Souls of Black Folk by W.E. B. Du Bois. The quote highlights the idea of “double consciousness,” a notion that blacks war against two identities: being black and being American:
“One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Union writes about the war between her black identity and the white identity she adopted in high school while living in the San Francisco suburb of Pleasanton. She was called hateful names and her blackness was considered ugly, a joke. She attempted to combat this by acting “white” in the way she talked, walked, and looked.
Juxtaposed against her life in Pleasanton were the summers she spent with her grandmother in Omaha, Nebraska. Her grandmother lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, where Union had to “relearn blackness” so she could fit in. In the book, she explains, “each was me, but the constant code-switching — changing my language, demeanor, and identity expression to fit in — left me exhausted.”
For me, this was the most soul-nourishing part of Union’s book. I could imagine Union and me curled up on a couch in fuzzy socks, her sipping red wine and me sipping chai (I'm not much of a wine drinker), swapping war stories.
My own identity crisis
I attended mostly white elementary and high schools, where I had mostly white friends. Like Union, I struggled with wanting to fit in. Thankfully, I grew up in a household where blackness was celebrated, so instead of completely assimilating, I resisted by wearing my hair short and natural and read books by black contemporary authors such as J. California Cooper.
Some of my white friends questioned my blackness and made comments like, “You would look so much prettier if your hair was long and straight.” It was almost as if they couldn't understand why I would choose blackness over whiteness. Among some of my relatives, things weren’t much better. One day I overheard my aunt tell my mom I wasn’t “black.” I deduced that she equated being black with listening to rap and watching only BET, and I preferred neither. I mean, what’s wrong with ‘N SYNC and Gilmore Girls?
“You were worthwhile and valid”
Infused with rich humor, quirky wisdom, and fierce honesty, We’re Going to Need More Wine is filled with many more moments where I could line up my narrative alongside Union’s in solidarity. But whether Union is grappling with race or offering her even more poignant account of surviving sexual assault, describing her struggles with infertility, or calling for unity instead of competition among women in Hollywood, this book speaks to the hearts of women seeking the courage to share their truth.
Reading an excerpt from the book aloud, she said, “‘You were fly, dope, and amazing from birth,’ I would tell that girl now. ‘From the second you took your first breath, you were worthwhile and valid. And I'm sorry you had to wait so long to learn that for yourself.'”