Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was
Black By Gregory Howard Williams. Plume (1996), 285 pages, $13.95 paperback
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother By James
McBride. Riverhead Books (1996), 297 pages, $12.95 paperback
Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self By Rebecca Walker.
Riverhead Books (2001), 323 pages, $23.95 hardcover
Divided to the Vein: A Journey into Race and Family By Scott Minerbrook.
Harcourt Brace and Company (1996), 261 pages, $24.00 hardcover
When I was 18, I learned, quite belatedly, that my
father's brother had married a black woman. The wedding took place in 1958--the
year I was born, the year after my parents married. Instantly I knew that racism
had kept me from knowing my uncle (by then dead of a heart attack), my aunt, my
cousins. Instantly I knew I would have to find them. But it was one thing to
discover that the deepest, most volatile division in the country ran right
through my family; actually crossing that divide to claim kinship was, for a long
time, too daunting for someone whose only experience with "diversity" was being
the sole Jewish kid among her semirural Ohio high school's 2,300 students.
And so it wasn't until my thirties that I finally met my aunt and
cousins. To my surprise, they treated me not just as a cousin but as a living
symbol of racial reconciliation. Once we'd met, told stories, and compared
features--we share a long jaw and sharp chin--I started to notice how arbitrarily
I'd sorted the world around me into "black" or "white." All around were black
people who looked related to me. White friends had color in their families of
blood or choice: a stepfather, a spouse, a sister-in-law, a dearest friend. I
started to feel that every American whose family has been here more than a few
decades is from a mixed-race family, that somewhere out there--however near or
far--we all have relatives of the "other" color. African Americans know this, of
course, often down to the name of at least one plantation owner in the family
tree. But for a white girl in a color-bound world, this was news.
As it happened, the insight that was striking me so personally--that the color
line is drawn in shifting sand--would soon strike the culture. In the past few
years, the headlines have been full of such things as the 2000 census's
mix-and-match option; genetic evidence that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
(his dead wife's half-sister and slave) left a widening delta of descendants; and
the ascending god Tiger Woods's refusal to reject his plural ethnicity. And since
1995, a number of mixed-race memoirs have hit our shelves, opening discussion of
a new identity: biracial writers who have a black parent and a white one. These
authors grapple with the sense that they don't quite belong anywhere, that they
aren't fully claimed by either race. But their wide range of experiences reveals
how deeply racial identity, like any identity, is affected not just by society
but also by family, character, time, and place.
For some reason, I expected to find that these memoirs had proliferated
because children born during and after the civil rights movement had come of age
and were telling their stories. I'm not sure why I had such a naive idea. Ever
since Africans were first dragged onto this continent, Americans have been
wondering how to treat mixed-race babies. Until the Civil War, racial definitions
varied dramatically by time, place, looks, and wealth. In New Orleans and
Charleston, color codes were as complicated as those in Brazil or Jamaica today.
"Mulatto" was a census category as late as 1850. But racial openness slammed shut
after the Civil War, as segregation was substituted for slavery in defining an
underclass. By the end of the nineteenth century, "one drop" of African ancestry
was being legally treated as if it could spread like a drop of food dye in water
and turn its bearer (of whatever complexion) inescapably "colored." The American
racial code was binary by the early twentieth century when Harlem Renaissance
writers like Nella Larsen and James Weldon Johnson took up the subject: You were
either black or white. That either/or division was reified in the 1960s, as the
black-power movement declared "black" beautiful. Why not root for the club that
did want you as a member?
The moment, then, to which these books testify is not the 1960s but the 1990s:
our own MTV and Oprah and Eminem moment when it's again become possible to
claim a mixed-race heritage and to have "white" people listen. When Julia
Jefferson Westerinen, a white woman, learned as an adult that she was descended
from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, she told NBC's Nightly News,
"It's such an American thing to have a drop of this and a drop of that. I'm
Scotch, Irish, English, French, Welsh, and black." From that point of view, these
recently published biracial memoirs can be read as quintessentially American:
stories of immigrants' children who don't quite belong, who must invent a new
identity that their parents can't help them with and that leaves their parents
behind. The added twist, of course, is black/white racism, which grew from the
American original sin of slavery and thus is so much more intractably built into
our culture than anti-immigrant bias. It's possible to read these books in
historical order and see them as snapshots of American racial attitudes: from
"passing" in the 1940s to the 1960s civil rights movements to 1990s roots
research. Each memoir offers a slightly different angle from which to view the
question of racial belonging, of who is claimed by whom.
"Passing" is that very American attempt to belong by escaping the
weight of the past. "In the 1940s, everybody who could pass did pass," New York
Times writer Brent Staples recently reported being told, "but you had to be
strong." Strong because passing meant emigrating and leaving behind familiar and
comforting foods, family, habits, and language; as Staples repeatedly pointed out
this April in his W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University called
"Excavating Race in Mongrel America," in African-American vernacular "passing"
also means dying. And passing--both explicit and implicit--has its place in
several of these memoirs.
Gregory Williams, recently named president of the City College of New
York, was 10 years old when he got the news that his identity had been based on
deception. He had grown up white in segregated 1950s Virginia. Then his mother
absconded with her lover; his father, Buster, bankrupted himself through
alcoholism. On a Greyhound to his Indiana hometown, Buster told his two sons that
Miss Sallie, who'd once worked for them, was in fact Buster's mother and the
boys' grandmother. Stunned, the boys objected that that couldn't be: Miss Sallie
was "colored." Exactly, their father told them. Although they had been white in
Virginia, when they got to Indiana--where Buster's origins were known--they would
be colored. When the younger boy started to cry, Buster promised they wouldn't
stay in Indiana for long: "We can still be white, but not in Muncie."
What do "white" and "black" mean if they're so mutable, so dependent on one's
address? Quite a bit, it turns out. In the 1950s Muncie was a Klan town. The
color line ran along the railroad tracks: whites on one side, blacks on the other
with no money or opportunities. What makes Williams's Life on the Color Line
a riveting book, despite its workmanlike prose, is the author's straightforward
look at how the color question intrudes into every corner of his life. The
Caucasian-appearing boys ("quadroons" like Sally Hemings) fight black kids who
attack them for being white and white kids who hate them for being black.
Williams gets hostile stares from whites when he sits at the high school
cafeteria's black table and when he goes downtown with his informal stepmother,
Miss Dora, who probably saved the boys from starvation when she rescued them from
their alcoholic grandmother's tar-papered shed. Teachers, coaches, and
schoolmates threaten him if he even speaks to a "white" girl; if he dates a black
girl, strangers jeer at and threaten the apparently interracial couple. "White"
and "black" are revealed as wildly arbitrary and yet furiously important. This is
a book that exposes how society constructs race: one plank laid down after
another, nailed in by the surrounding crowd.
That those nails secure racial identity for everyone is one of the lessons of
James McBride's memoir The Color of Water. McBride reminds us that passing
isn't just for blacks, that many Americans buck the social fate assigned at
birth. His mother--who, in their all-black section of Brooklyn, brushes off her
children's questions about her origins and calls herself "light-skinned"--is a
white woman who can't pass even to her 12 children. As a child, James McBride
worries that the black-power movement will kill his mother, whitey right in their
midst. He worries that she cries in church because God likes black people better.
His mother has no time for his nonsense about color; when he asks whether God is
black or white, she answers: "God is the color of water. Water doesn't have a
Eventually McBride does pry from his mother the story of her origins. By
alternating chapters between her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s and his own in
the 1960s, he unreels the story of how Ruth McBride Jordan started her life:
Ruchel Shilsky had a brutal father who cheated the blacks who bought his
groceries; a crippled and helpless mother; and a childhood in segregated
Virginia, where Jews weren't yet white. As a pregnant teen in 1936, she was sent
to stay with New York City relatives, got an abortion, glimpsed freedom in
Harlem, fell in love with a churchgoing black man, and was "reborn in Christ."
When Ruchel became Ruth, she wholeheartedly emigrated into an all-black world; as
a result, McBride had the advantage of growing up with a fairly coherent sense of
belonging. He can therefore feel "privileged to have come from two worlds." He
writes: "My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a
black man with something of a Jewish soul... . When I see two little Jewish old
ladies giggling over coffee at a Manhattan diner, it makes me smile, because I
hear my own mother's laughter beneath theirs." It's no wonder this lovely, lucid
book has been a hit.
Rebecca Walker's recent book Black, White, and Jewish moves the story
forward from the 1940s to the early civil rights era of the 1960s. Walker's
parents, as readers may know, are the author Alice Walker and the civil rights
lawyer Mel Leventhal, who broke the law when they married in Mississippi in 1965.
Their love was charged with the shiny political hope of the moment, the
idealistic belief that race could be left behind. But alas, writes Walker: "With
the rise of Black Power, my parents' interracial defiance, so in tune with the
radicalism of Dr. King and civil rights, is suddenly suspect. Black-on-black love
is the new recipe for revolution... . The only problem, of course, is me. My
little copper-colored body that held so much promise and broke so many rules... .
I am a remnant, a throwaway, a painful reminder of a happier and more optimistic
but ultimately unsustainable time."
Her parents eventually divorce and make a horrifying custody decision: Rebecca
will spend two years with one parent, then two years with the other. Not her
parents but she herself is the emigrant, tossed back and forth between social
spheres. "As I move from place to place, from Jewish to black, from D.C. to San
Francisco, from status quo middle class to radical artist bohemia, it is like
moving from planet to planet between universes that never overlap." She develops
the chameleon habits of a forever-disrupted military kid, quickly observing and
adapting to the local rules; perhaps as a result, she is especially good at
noting moments of dislocation and shame. An adored black uncle and his sons use
the word "cracker" to "describe me or one of my mannerisms ... even when I am
grown and doing things they think are strange or weird, things they think are not
black." Jewish relatives treat her as not quite one of them. Junior-high girls
"threaten to beat me up for 'acting like a white girl.'" At a Jewish summer camp,
she's called intimidating; later she wonders whether "intimidating might be
another word for black." In a black high school, when the races close ranks, she
rejects her white best friend. In a predominantly Jewish high school where the
black kids seem poor, dirty, and angry, she tells a friend she's not black but
"Spanish, like from Spain." Walker thus conveys the Erving Goffman sense that
racial identity--indeed, all identity--is a performance, that "white," "black,"
or "Jewish" can be rehearsed and displayed through choices in music, clothes,
makeup, gestures, and so on. In this sense all of us are passing, the most
successful being those who feel the least slippage between inner experience and
Is mixed-race identity in a black-and-white world always going to
be painful? Memoir may not be the most reliable genre from which to draw such a
conclusion. Contemporary memoirists self-select for family unhappiness; most of
these books are not exceptions. Scott Minerbrook's Divided to the Vein, a nearly
unreadable screed, begins and ends as he's desperately forcing his way into the
homes of dying white relatives who have repeatedly refused to meet him. At first
it's hard to imagine why he could so crudely ignore their determined rejections
or what he imagines he'll get from meeting these racists. Then we learn about his
parents' unsettling marriage and his father's violent alcoholism. His childhood
apparently left him so miserably numbed that he has a tin ear not just for his
own emotions but for others'. As a result, he's searching in the wrong places for
belonging--a search that is compelling to him, but not to a reader.
The trouble with Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father isn't
unrelieved misery but unfocused meandering. He chronicles in too much detail his
life's various chapters: a childhood with his white grandparents and mother in
Hawaii; later childhood in Indonesia with a cynical Indonesian stepfather; a
stint as a community organizer in poor black Chicago in the 1980s; and his
eventual pursuit of the other families left by his Kenyan father, who appeared in
Barack's life only briefly. Minerbrook's and Obama's books contain fatal flaws for
memoir: no drama, boring writing.
And yet they make it especially clear that even when uncertain racial identity
is blamed for unhappiness, misery may spring as much from parental alcoholism or
abandonment as from race. In Claudine Chiawei O'Hearn's anthology Half and
Half, James McBride writes: "Maybe a black white man will never be content.
Maybe a black white man will never fit." But that doesn't especially bother him.
He belongs: "I never once in my life woke up not knowing whether I should eat
matzo ball or fried chicken. I never once felt I'd be able to play the sax better
if my mom had been black, or that I'd have been better at math if my father were
Jewish. I like me, and I like me because my parents liked me."
Rebecca Walker has it exactly right: Racial identity is more powerful than the
early civil rights movement expected. That's true in part because it wasn't ever
really about skin or hair but about dominance and belonging, affiliation and
hatred. And belonging matters. If we have learned anything from our evolutionary
relatives the primates, it's that we're hardwired to create groups, to forever
distinguish between us and them, insiders and outsiders. Whether that's high
schools with their ruthless sects, New York bouncers with entry lists and velvet
ropes, or southern states elaborating on increasingly bizarre miscegenation
codes, even the most irrational distinctions are violently urgent for folks
living inside them.
Malcolm Gladwell takes up the puzzle of belonging in his brilliant essay "Lost
in the Middle," the other black/white piece in Half and Half. Gladwell tells
us that his father is a British-born mathematics professor who is oddly blind to
social boundaries; his mother is "not black, but brown," an important notch in
the complex racial stratifications of her native Jamaica. While admiring them,
Gladwell concludes with some melancholy:
I never feel my whiteness more than when I'm around West
Indians, and I never feel my West Indianness more than when I'm with whites... .
My parents conquered difference, and we would all like to think that sort of
accomplishment is something that could be passed down from generation to
generation. That's why we're all, in theory, so excited by the idea of
miscegenation: because if we mix the races, presumably, we create a new
generation of people to whom existing racial categories do not exist. I don't
think it's that easy, though. If you mix black and white, you don't obliterate
those categories: you merely create a third category...Racial intermarriage
solves one problem in the first generation, only to create another in the next--a
generation that cannot ignore difference the way their parents did.
These writers would surely agree that their experience has not been freedom
from race but perpetual taxonomic purgatory: repeatedly fielding the tiresome
question (whether from inside or out), "What are you?"
But how these writers feel is only one question. The larger and perhaps more
important question is: Why have these books appeared in a burst now, after an
either/or century? These aren't the only entries in the color-blur category.
Quite a number of authors are writing about American mixed-race families. Two
white women who married and mothered across the color line, Jane Lazarre and
Hettie Jones, recently published memoirs about what Jones calls "being white in a
black family." Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's
The Sweeter the Juice, and Neil Henry's just-published Pearl's Secret
chronicle their authors' successful efforts to chase down relatives of the
"other" color. Since 1998, the Jefferson-Hemings liaison has given birth to eight
books. Anatole Broyard's twentieth-century passing is examined by Henry Louis
Gates, Jr., and in a forthcoming book by Broyard's daughter. There's notable
fiction like Philip Roth's The Human Stain, Colson Whitehead's The
Intuitionist, and Danzy Senna's Caucasia. There's research and
scholarship on the way from such authors as Brent Staples and Harvard law
professor Randall Kennedy, who is writing about interracial intimacy in American
Something new is simmering in American attitudes toward race--if not while
we're policing the New Jersey Turnpike, at least while we're reading. Does all
this signal a new white willingness to face the horrors and offspring of slavery
as part of American history, the way Germans have grappled with the Holocaust?
Are we ready to treat African as just one more drop in the mongrel mix of
American identity? Has the 1980s and 1990s emphasis on multiculturalism and
diversity education actually changed how we rebuild race every day? We won't, of
course, find the answers merely in personal stories; but neither can personal
stories be ignored. My father and his brother didn't speak for nearly 20 years, a
story that was as much (or more) about family unhappiness as about race. Now
their children go to each other's weddings. Can a nation, too, outgrow its old
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