Up from the Projects:
"An autobiography permits me to talk about my life as it actually was, or as I recall it, as opposed to risking having someone else--friend or foe--make untruthful statements, wrong assumptions, and distortions." (Preface, x)
Walter Williams begins his autobiography as one might expect, discussing his childhood. It is one that began in the "projects" in Philadelphia. What one does not expect and what sets the tone for his life and his story is his answer to the question he poses: "What was it like to grow up poor?" He immediately says, "we didn't consider ourselves poor; in fact, being called poor was an insult."(p 4) Thus he turns conventional thinking on its head and alerts the reader that his life and ideas will be unconventional indeed, and sometimes inconvenient and somewhat radical.
He tells his story with simple and clear prose, demurring literary flourishes, providing straightforward reporting about his experiences in school, the army, searching for direction, and the importance of education and family.
I was most impressed that by sharing these experiences he demonstrated a life of integrity, courage, determination through hard work, intellect and curiosity, a sense of humor, and above all an independence in thought and action that, with a bit of luck led him to great achievement in his chosen field of economics. Some notable episodes included his defiance of racial stereotyping during an encounter with the academics of Amherst, his unconventional but principled criticisms of the "Davis Bacon Act" and other government actions, and his courageous decision to not join the Reagan administration. But these were no surprise following his example of independent thinking at UCLA that led him to question his professors including the famed Armen Alchian, and in doing so gaining their admiration for his courage and independent thought. He came into his own during the three decades of his tenure at George Mason University showing determination in developing private funding for the renowned Economics department and eventually leading it as the department head. Domestic episodes of his life include family scenes that demonstrated the importance of the women in his development: mother, wife and daughter.
I began reading this autobiography somewhat familiar with Williams' thought through his opinion columns and media appearances. My admiration for his defense of the liberty and the free market was increased by great measure learning of his development, not without some stumbles, into a principled leader who deserves the admiration of all who love liberty.
Up from the Projects by Walter E. Williams. Hoover Institution Press, 2010.