The short biography of Coleman Dowell on the sleeve of White on Black on White reveals that he committed suicide soon after the novel’s 1983 publication, ‘depressed at his lack of literary success.’ Upon reading the book, it’s soon apparent why he wasn’t more widely acclaimed. Not that he wasn’t good – Dowell wrote like an angel. Rather, he was ignored because he chose to write with brutal honesty about the most disturbing and shadowy area of the American psyche – the sexual relation of blacks and whites.
White on Black on White is told from the point of view of a gay, white writer. He is embroiled in a tumultuous love affair with Calvin, a black Vietnam veteran who is an ex-convict. After a disastrous holiday on Long Island which ends in a rift, the unnamed narrator returns to Manhattan, trying to make sense of his fascination with Calvin. He meets an attractive, intelligent white woman named Ivy Temple at a dinner party and is drawn to her by a sense of some shared hurt. As they become friends it emerges that Ivy has also suffered in a biracial relationship, with a young black man during the heady days of the marches in Selma. Racial and cultural differences drove them apart, leaving Ivy obsessed by sex with black men. She took an apartment in Harlem, where she spun through a series of one-night stands with blacks that left her increasingly confused and tormented. Gradually, she sank into heroin addition, disease and crime, winding