A series of amorphous, autobiographical essays, Open House uses metaphorical rooms as a structure to rein in Nation columnist-law professor-MacArthur genius Patricia J. Williams’s galloping meditations on cappuccino, miscegenation, African American names, and more. The book emerged from a challenge by Anna Deavere Smith to think about “the one person we could never be.” Williams presses her own flesh for answers. She dubs herself “a soft-spoken, fiftysomething mush of a minority, deferential but strong.” After a disastrous dinner party in which Williams is besieged by a raging neocon, she admits “a tendency to collapse under rightish pressure, but I try to compensate by writing brave, leftish articles.” She confesses that as a girl, she dreamed of enormous Victorian houses but grew into a peripatetic single mom living in a minimalist apartment. Most of all, Williams presents herself as a palimpsest, laid atop the shadows of relatives like her great-aunt Mary, who escaped servitude by passing as a Native American—a double life that allowed her to attend finishing school and later to marry a well-born white lawyer.
Williams glides from tiny personal episodes into trenchant (and occasionally clichéd) social commentary. A visit to the zoo sets off a cascade of ruminations on medieval animal executions, the Heaven’s Gate cult, and the creepy secret habits of lawyers. And an Independence Day party triggers anxiety when Williams is asked to “bring an hors d’oeuvre representing your ethnic heritage.” Something British, from the white plantation owner who bequeathed her the name Williams? What about those West African, Cherokee, and Scottish forebears? “I suppose I could have served myself up as something like Tragic Mulatta Soufflé,” she teases, “except that I’ve never gotten the hang of soufflés.” In the end, Williams brings chicken with rice and beans. It’s the polite thing to do.