Light Skin Gone to Waste, Toni Ann Johnson’s sharply observed linked story collection, follows the lives of psychologist Phil Arrington, his second wife, Velma, and their young daughter, Maddie, as they move from the Bronx to suburban Monroe, New York, in the early 1960s. Educated, sophisticated and striving for something different, the Arringtons are also Black and thus do not receive a warm welcome from their new white neighbors.
As the Arringtons settle in, Phil starts his own practice and Velma opens an antique store in a neighboring town. They join the country club where Phil can play tennis. Though Velma struggles to make friends, it’s Maddie who bears the brunt of the family’s social isolation. She’s one of the only Black children in the neighborhood and at school. In the stories “Claiming Tobias” and “Better,” she endures daily microaggressions regarding her skin color, hair and, as she gets older, body.
In the terrifying “Lucky,” the family travels to West Africa, where Maddie’s parents, eager to experience the nightlife in Dakar, Senegal, leave their young daughter in an unsafe situation with a male babysitter. As Maddie grows up, her father’s infidelities become bolder and her mother’s moods more inconstant, leaving both parents infuriatingly incapable of noticing their daughter’s misery. “The Way We Fell Out of Touch” and “Wings Made of Rocks” offer insights into the adults’ behavior without exonerating them. By the penultimate story, “Make a Space,” readers will be rooting for the teenage Maddie to find a way out of her childhood home.
If Maddie is traumatized by the racism she experiences in small-town New York, she is equally hurt by her parents’ inability to protect her or even, at times, to fully see her. Johnson’s deft handling of generational trauma, colorism and class—along with just the right amount of 1960s and ’70s cultural touchstones, from Tab soda to the Stillman diet to Barry Manilow—makes Light Skin Gone to Waste an engrossing, even groundbreaking read.