Don’t be black on my account

A black mother's gift to her biracial children.

Topics: Tiger Woods

Don't be black on my account

Out of the blue last week my son, who is 5, asked me if I’d ever been “burned.” I thought he was referring to the tattoos that I always tell him and his sister are boo-boos (how else to justify voluntary scarring when I won’t even let them use a butter knife?), so I repeated my usual lie and added that “Mommy would never play with fire.” I thought this was a safety discussion. He looked confused.

“Oh. I thought that was why you were brown.”

My biracial, white-looking baby is discovering race. Granted, both of my children think my nappy, unprocessed, Sideshow Bob hair looks that way simply to entertain them, and never understand why everyone asks if I’m their nanny. I can’t say I wasn’t on notice. But I’d envied them their racial innocence. Too bad them days are over.

My son first brought up the subject of race two months ago. I took him and his 3-year-old sister to a concert at an inner-city elementary school right before Christmas. There were lots of cornrowed kids singing “Jingle Bells.” My own child, as he sat fidgeting in my lap, stared at the crowd around him goggle-eyed and perplexed.

“Mommy,” he said, craning his neck to scan the room, just so he could be certain, “everybody’s brown. Really, look! They’re all brown.”

We live in snow-white upstate New York, but was he really so clueless?

“Why is everybody brown, Mommy?”

Yup. He was. Caught unawares, I just gulped for air. But he was waiting for an answer.

“Really, Mom. Everyone’s brown. Everyone. Why?”

Finally, I responded. “Mommy’s brown, honey,” I said, and I covered his hand with my own. “See?”

This did not compute. He blinked at me a few times and went back to squirming around and checking out all the brown people in the room.

The music was playing but his questions continued. I talked about how, like Mommy, these people had two brown parents while he and his sister had a brown mom and a … “not brown” dad. (My kids are not brown at all; homie’s blond and his sister has waist-length ringlets with natural blond highlights.) I told him that he and his sister would likely get “browner” as they got older and talked about variety being the spice of life. I analogized from the many colors in his paint box and reminded him that his Grandma Johnnie was brown but that his Grandma Ruth was … not brown. Then, I took a deep breath and laid it on him.

“Honey. You’re black. Did you know that?”

And even as the words left my mouth, I knew they made no sense. He was talking skin color, I was talking politics.

Hopelessly lost now, he just gaped up at me. Then he pulled his black clip-on tie from his sweater and said, helpfully, “My tie is black.” Still wriggling on his brown mommy’s lap, he went back to staring in confused wonderment at all the Negroes.

Now, two months later, he has come up with an explanation. “They” are all brown because “they” are irresponsible with flammables. I know I need to nip this in the bud. But how on earth do you explain things as complicated as race and blackness to creatures who believe that the police will know when we need help because they all have baby monitors in their cars? They’re so young; I’m still in the gooey, overprotective stage of motherhood wherein I shield them from knowing about crime, homelessness, war, rape, pedophilia and the horrors of capitalism. But I’m supposed to tell them that white people, their father’s people, enslaved, raped, sold and Jim Crow’d us simply because we look burned all over? And I’m supposed to tell them now, when my 3-year-old daughter is still oblivious to the whole subject of race, that racism is far, far from over? Even if I wanted to tell them all this, I’m not sure where I’d start.

And then, last night, while still meditating on my son’s burn theory, I located the true source of my ambivalence about helping my children discover their blackness.

Like most kids, mine love to “give me five” to signal any sort of triumph. Last night, I realized that I’d stifled a reflexive impulse to teach them part of the high-five — “on the black hand side.” Back in the militant ’60s and early ’70s when I was a kid, black men would often slap each other five, then flip their hands over and do it again on “the black hand side” or “the black man’s side.” Now it’s rarely done and only then as kitsch, but what explains my hesitance, my refusal, to initiate my children into the club when this relic of my identity formation naturally surfaced? As I thought about that, all at once it hit me that I never “talk black” with my kids either. None of the “used ta coulds” and “mighta woulds” and “he be’s” that I slip into so comfortably with my Miss’ippi mama and relatives back home. Without realizing it, I had made Chez Debra Ebonics-free when the kids were in earshot, even though my bilingualism has been the key to my mainstream success. So why wasn’t I teaching them to be bilingual? Why was I refusing them their ghetto pass?

If I’m honest, I know why. It’s because I know they’re not black. I am but they’re not. They’re biracial.

I lived blackness. All they can do is study and perform blackness. My parents were Mississippi sharecroppers who became part of the Great Migration north. My great-grandfather, who lived well past 100 and was still kicking when I was a child, had been born a slave. His son, my grandfather, got a “Klan escort” out of Mississippi. I saw “Whites only” signs when we went visiting down south and remembered white cops coming to my A’int Mazelle’s to “urge” her to teach her kin from up north in St. Louis “how to behave.” Clueless, I hadn’t yielded my place in line to whites at the country store. At my own home in Missouri I knew not to enter South St. Louis after dark, and I grew up sharing my World War II combat veteran father’s bitterness at the racism of the Marine Corps. Segregation made black culture pervasive in our lives; the same oppression that so limited our options gave us all a common frame of reference. My kids can only study that in books.

I never make them the soul food I grew up eating — it’s so unhealthy, however heavenly. Besides, I only know how to make cornbread and cabbage for eight. I live far, far from my relatives; my kids have spent far more time with their relatives on their father’s side because travel is foreign, and too expensive, for my working-class family. I lasted only a few Sundays taking my kids to a black Southern Baptist church like the one I attended growing up because I couldn’t, in good conscience, give my implicit stamp of approval to all that drove me away in the first place. We belong to a Unitarian church now, though I deeply miss gospel music. Had the kids and I stayed in D.C. things might be different, but now that we live in upstate New York, we encounter very few black people and even fewer who are not mainstream professionals, with all the requisite class implications that follow (affluent, private-school educated, i.e., not very culturally black).

I can’t bring myself to turn my kids into cultural tourists of their mother’s people by, for example, sending them to black church camps during the summer, like some of my bougie black friends have done. Blacks are not exotic creatures to be visited on brief safaris. How could I ever make my daughter understand why I wept through “The Color Purple” on Broadway a few weeks ago? Truth be told, I don’t even want her to understand how cathartic that was for someone born a poor and very black woman. I don’t want to force experiences on my son and daughter just to make them feel black. And that’s not because they look white. It’s because they’re half-white, features be damned.

As much as blacks bemoan the “one drop rule,” no one works harder to enforce it and keep it alive. See: blacks’ attitude toward Tiger Woods. I thought he was as much a self-hating sellout as most blacks did with his “Cablinasian” routine. Then, I heard him say that he didn’t consider himself solely black because it was an insult to his mother. That nearly blew a hole in my brain. He’s absolutely right — it is an insult to the mother who carried him, birthed him in agony and raised him. Why on earth should her Thai heritage count for nothing and his dad’s black heritage count for everything? If my children ever self-identify as “white” I’ll be crushed. That would be tantamount to saying all my love and sacrifice and devotion meant nothing. Mrs. Woods is not a brood mare and neither am I. If my kids end up identifying as “black” rather than white or biracial, I’ll be secretly pleased. But in the end, if they can go toe to toe with me, they can consider themselves whatever they like.

Given the level of intellectual and moral rigor to which I plan to hold my children, I can’t in good conscience as a human being tell them which category to pick, if any. If that means they prefer sushi to fried catfish, so be it. If they prefer Europe to Africa, if they’re consumed by environmentalism but not civil rights, fine. Since my son recently whined about wanting a bigger house and blithely opined that “everyone has a car,” I’m more focused on teaching them about class and injustice than race right now. Still, I dug out all the old family photos of my Jim Crow ancestors to teach them about their forebears as individuals, not via their relationship to whites (that will come later). I’ve also invested in books like “I Like Myself,” “The Skin I’m In” and “The Colors of Us” to teach them about all the variations in the human race and among people of color. I want them to understand that their lives will be enriched by diversity, not by forced field trips to where the Negroes live. We break out the globe frequently and I teach them about Africa and England, the two places I know figure in my bloodline. I ask them to get Daddy to tell them about their Scottish and Norwegian heritage, but I doubt he does. No matter, the world will teach them about their whiteness.

My attitude on all this will undoubtedly evolve with time and my kids will come home with more and more questions about being black. I still don’t know what to do with the more exclusionary facets of our culture, like Ebonics or “on the black man’s side.” I don’t know whether I’m begrudging them their blackness or sparing them baggage that might hold them back, but we’ve got time. I look forward to it, because, like the T shirt says, if you love something, set it free. I grew up black. They’re growing up multiracial citizens of the world, born to two cultures, neither more worthy or intrinsically interesting than the other. Because passing for black is no better than passing for white.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>