Identity is a central theme to SNU faculty member’s work


Photo Courtesy: Sarah Valentine

Author of new memoir “When I Was White” Sarah Valentine

Alex Schoff, Editor

Sarah Valentine has the soft-spoken diction of someone who was born to be a writer, and that is exactly what she is. With two books and a PhD under her belt, it was time Valentine tried something new: Teaching at Sierra Nevada University.

With a resume as extensive as hers it is no surprise that Valentine’s upbringing was heavily school oriented.

“I grew up in Pittsburg, in a suburb. It was a pretty privileged upbringing,” Valentine said. “My parents emphasized school a lot.”

While in high school Valentine took a Russian history course and fell in love with the culture and the language. This set her life on an entirely new path.

“It was a culture I knew nothing about,” Valentine said. “The language and history seemed really interesting and I just studied it when I went to college.”

Valentine, now fluent in Russian, even published her first book by translating a soviet era avant-garde poet’s work from Russian to English. And while the concept for her first book is interesting, the idea behind her memoir, When I Was White, is fascinating.

“It’s about my experience growing up in the nice wholesome environment that I did in a white family who taught me to identify as white,” Valentine said. “I didn’t learn that I had an African American father until I was an adult.”

Valentine struggled emotionally with this her whole life. She was aware something about her was different, but nobody was willing to acknowledge it.

“Underneath all the sports and activities and family life that I was experiencing when I was growing up, which was really positive, there was this strange undercurrent of ‘like, we can’t talk about Sarah,’” Valentine said. “‘What are you?’ people would ask me. ‘What’s your ethnicity?’ and I never knew what to tell them because my parents were Irish and Italian and no one would believe that when I told them, for good reason.”

The memoir was really more of a journey to discover who Valentine really was. It deals with race, family issues, and so much more.

“I’m fascinated by the dynamics of family secrets and complex identities,” June Saraceno said in an e-mail interview, reflecting on Valentine’s writing. “So her memoir, When I Was White, hooked me from the beginning.”

The writing of her memoir would gave Valentine more than she expected, inevitably leading her to SNU.

“I came to the Carson Valley to write my memoir because I had family connections out there,” Valentine said. “I was teaching at Northwestern University and two years ago I left that job to write full time. I just happened to be in the area, and I met June [Saraceno] and she just roped me in.”

Valentine is now in her first semester as an adjunct professor in the English department. She teaches students how to read and respond to literature.

“In addition to being a supremely accomplished scholar and writer, Sarah is a very kind, considerate person who clearly cares about her students and loves teaching,” Saraceno said. “We’re very lucky to have her at SNU!”