Alum Sarah Valentine discusses her memoir When I Was White

“She was one of those students who was smarter than the teacher, and the teacher knew it but wouldn’t say it out loud,” confessed Jim Daniels, English Professor at Carnegie Mellon and former teacher of author Sarah Valentine. Daniels showered Valentine with praise before her MLK Jr. Day Writing Awards speech on her life story and autobiographical book, When I Was White: A Memoir.

During her time at Carnegie Mellon, Valentine was a part of the English Department and the Modern Languages department, where she studied Russian as an undergraduate. She graduated in 2000.

Valentine’s speech was held last Thursday in the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion. Setting the stage for Valentine’s speech, M. Shernell Smith, Associate Director at the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, said, “there are times in this room where you really don’t know who’s who. It’s good because we can create this sense of connection.”

“I graduated almost 20 years ago, and it’s great to see how much the university has grown in terms of its engagement with diversity. Even then, the English department was ahead of the curve. The MLK writing awards program started when I was a student,” Valentine said.

Valentine thanked Daniels for his praise. She also thanked him for being an important mentor to her at Carnegie Mellon. Much of her speech and memoirs from her book focused on her senior year at Carnegie Mellon.

When I Was White and the speech she gave at the MLK writing awards focused on Valentine’s struggles with racial identity throughout her life. Raised in an Irish-Italian household by her biological mother’s family and stepdad, Valentine was expected to conform to her European identity by her mother and was unaware that her father was a black man. Valentine has had to grapple with her African-American identity after believing she was white growing up.

Recounting a Saint Patrick’s day festival from her college years, Valentine said she told her friends that she was Irish, to which they responded, “Yeah, everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s day!” Valentine told the audience that, though her friends saw her as other, she felt connected to her Irish identity, and she was terrified to confront this difference she had with her friends.

Valentine also told the audience about how she stole an Irish heritage ring from a vendor at the festival, later tossing it on the ground out of guilt and abandoning it. A guard searched her to no avail when she was reported for it, and Valentine told the crowd that her friends thought she was being racially profiled.

Valentine wanted to confess about the ring badly, and she finally got her chance in Daniels’ poetry class where she got to write about the incident. She joyfully recalled her time as a student with Daniels.

“Jim showed me what it was like to be a poet in real life. He was such a regular guy,” Valentine said, laughing. “That’s a good thing. He was a family man, no one crazy, who was able to show me he could be a good writer. It let me know I could be myself and be a good writer.”

Valentine also told the audience a few heart-wrenching anecdotes from her childhood. She commented on how she was expected to look and act white, and one aspect of this was straightening her hair. Once her mother ironed her hair, painfully burning her scalp.

“I ended up admiring the white girls at my school for their hair. I fell into the role of the well-behaved, well-groomed daughter to satisfy my parents and other adults. I felt like I was in a struggle to please people as a little girl and be myself at the same time.”

“White people had been asking me questions about my identity my whole life and accepted whatever answer I gave them. I was constantly questioned about my hair, family, and ethnicity. I had few black people in her life, and I felt as though I’d been hiding behind my whiteness,” said Valentine.

During the Q&A session, Valentine revealed to the audience that she has yet to figure out who her biological father is. “I had searched before but decided to suspend the search because of how much energy it took. I came to accept that I didn’t need someone else to validate who I was. I’m still interested, but it’s not something I need to know to move on with my life.”

Many of Valentine’s friends and family were in the audience, and they mentioned that talking about Valentine’s dad during her childhood was very much off limits. Valentine described her current relationship with her mom as being a “truce,” and she says she has forgiven her parents, who now recognize her African-American identity.

After Valentine’s speech, Daniels talked with The Tartan about his time as Valentine’s teacher. From 1998 to 2000, Valentine was in every one of Daniels’ poetry workshops. She also participated in a mentoring program Daniels did with high school students at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

“In class, she wasn’t the student who spoke the most, but when she spoke, she was able to read the subtleties and nuances of poems with amazing depth and insight. She had a warmth and generosity of spirit that set the tone for the class and allowed the other students to be both frank and empathetic with each other,” Daniels said.

“When I first read When I Was White, I found myself underlining and starring passages just like I did when she was my student. On a sentence-by-sentence level, her writing really sings. It’s not just the unusual, provocative story she has to tell, but the skillful way that she tells it that makes the book so special.”