Tag Archives: same-sex parents

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.

Why I Believe Marriage Equality = Common Sense

I am glad to say that by now—nearly a week after Valentine’s Day, 2012, the day  “The Loving Story” aired on HBO—interracial marriage is more accepted in this country than ever.  According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, about one out of every seven new marriages in the U.S. is interracial.  (Which you can read about in this link from GOOD Magazine.)  On that note, I believe it’s time to extend marriage rights to same sex couples.

As the child of a very long and happy interracial marriage, I know that it is possible for two people to have a loving, lasting bond even if there are societal barriers to “their kind” of union.

I believe that a marriage between two people of different races is no less a marriage than one between two people of the same race.

I believe that a marriage between two people of the same sex is no less a marriage than one between two people of different sexes.

If you love and wish to marry someone of a different race, and I love and wish to marry someone of my same race, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

If I love and wish to marry someone of a different gender and you love and wish to marry someone of your own gender, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

But what about the children?  One reason people used to give (and still give) for opposing interracial marriage was the children.   As in: Think of the children!  Won’t they have issues?  Well, yes we do have issues, just as every other group or combination of groups has issues.  We are also teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, writers, husbands, wives, same-sex partners, parents … and—oh yeah—the U.S. president.  We’re doing OK.   As are children of same-sex parents, last I checked.

What about that business about undermining the sanctity of marriage in general? 

I believe that if one couple’s inter-sex marriage is undermined by another couple’s same-sex marriage, then the first marriage wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.  Same-sex marriages don’t undermine marriage any more than same-race marriages do.

What undermines marriage is marrying someone because your publicist told you to.   What undermines marriage is doing it for reality show ratings.  What undermines marriage is infidelity.  What undermines marriage is denigrating other peoples’ marriages when you are supplementing your marriage with extramarital partners.  What undermines marriage is going into it while keeping your options open.  What undermines marriage is violence.

My parents—a black man and a white, Jewish woman—got married in Chicago, Illinois in 1950, eight years before Richard and Mildred Loving wed.  At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in over thirty states.  My parents were married for forty-five years when my father died.  In four and a half decades, their interracial marriage did not threaten the sanctity of anyone’s same-race marriage.   Not even a little bit.

I think it is time to acknowledge that marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two people who love and commit to one another.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Jewish, Right?

“Martin Luther King Jr. Was Jewish, Right?”  And Other Stuff Kids from Multicultural Families come up With.

“I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  1963, Washington D.C.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s, King’s dream of racial harmony was already thriving in many households.  Growing up biracial in that locale and era I was in good company. Brownish kids with wild, free form hair were visible at every turn.  Whatever wasn’t perfect in my life, having parents of different races didn’t feel unusual.

When my husband and I were planning our family, we knew we wanted what I’d had: a hometown where being mixed was as ordinary as breathing.  That’s what we’ve got.  Our town is full of multiracial, multicultural, adoptive (transracially, internationally, and otherwise), interfaith, multi-national families, as well as families headed by same-sex parents.  At school, my children have always had at least three fellow biracial classmates.  No one from our town has asked if I am my children’s nanny.

What I love most is that these kids are so immersed in diversity, it’s not diversity to them.  Children in our town think Jewish, for example, comes in all colors and nationalities—that having two mommies is something to boast about (most kids only get one!).  Maybe our town’s borders support a too-protective bubble, but I hope normalizing difference fortifies our children, provides a sense of grounding for when they venture into the less-blended world outside.

When my daughter was in second grade, I helped her class celebrate Hanukah in December and then returned in January to read a story honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   As I was on my way out, one little boy stopped me:  “Wait,” he said, “Martin Luther King was Jewish, Right?”

When kids share snatches of their open-minded world-views, it’s so refreshing.  You have to stop and acknowledge how much adults assume, how fixed our ideas can be.  The following is an essay I wrote a few years ago about my son’s multi-ethnocentric melding of two great men.

Legacy

Lisa W. Rosenberg, 2009

            “Hey, Mommy—” Theo looks up from the picture he’s drawing: a couple of robots and something exploding.  “Was Grandpa Mel Martin Luther King?”

I smile at the question, which has come up before.  My six-year-old son has conflated my late father with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s not hard to follow his reasoning.  Theo’s grandfather has been dead longer than he himself has been alive; as far as he can see, my father and Martin Luther King have more in common than not: both black, both deceased, each iconic and legendary.

We refer to my father, who died of cancer in 1995, as Grandpa Mel, as if he’d actually survived to be a grandpa.  I show my children his pictures and tell them stories about his life.  On Saturdays, over their pancakes, I pour maple syrup prepared Grandpa Mel-style: piping hot, butter melted right in.  Not that my children want for grandfatherly love. The grandpas my children know adore them.  They read to them, play with them and even make them pancakes.   Like my mother and my husband’s mother, they are white and Jewish; three quarters of my children’s ancestry being Eastern European.  The African quarter—my father’s imprint—is easy to see in my daughter, Zoe.  She understands that we get the brown in our skin and the texture of our hair via Grandpa Mel.  Theo’s black ancestry is less apparent: his skin is pinker than brown, and while his hair gets curly in the summer humidity, he’ll be lucky to have a decent Jew-fro by the time he hits puberty.  Still, Theo knows he takes after Grandpa Mel in other ways.  Small of stature, paradoxically deep of voice—that was my dad; that’s my son.  Round face despite a slight body and thin neck.  Thick glasses that make him look wise beyond his years.  In the right light, when Theo is concentrating on a drawing, a book or a Lego structure, frown angled down to meet the glasses on his pale-yet-African-inflected nose, my little boy brings tears to my eyes.  That’s Mel’s Williamson’s grandson.

Theo’s association with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began with a photograph of my dad, one of many my mother keeps on display.  In the picture, my dad is slighter than King, and wears round, black-rimmed glasses (the reverend wore none).  But his brow is knit with intensity, as King’s often was; he’s deep in conversation with someone outside the frame, unaware of the camera.  Between the facial expression, the dark suit, and the hairline—tight, black kinks high on a broad, brown forehead—if you looked quickly, you might see King, too.   I’ve observed Theo staring at the picture, wheels turning inside his head.

The similarities between my father and King weren’t just physical.  My dad, though an atheist, had enormous respect for the black church; he had a rich bass and was a masterful orator.   He marched for civil rights too—in Mississipi, Chicago, and Washington—handing out pamphlets, registering voters alongside fellow blacks and like-minded whites.

Theo was three years old the first time Martin Luther King, Jr. made an impact on him (the connection to Grandpa Mel being a few years away).   On the Friday before King’s birthday, a friend of mine picked Theo up at preschool for a play date with her son.  The boys, both children of biracial, black and Jewish parents, were chatting excitedly about the important man they had learned about that day.  What was his name? my friend asked, believing she knew the answer.  There was silence as the boys looked at one another, uncertain.  At last, Theo spoke up:

“Marvin Lutenstein.”

Theo aged three as Pirate Knight

When I heard the story, I had a good laugh at my son’s Jewish-ization of the great civil rights leader, touched that he saw the world through the lens of his blended ethnicity.  Then I wondered, as I often wonder, how much of my father’s history and culture will register for my children, with no one but myself to impart them.  I cannot kid myself; my father will never be Theo’s grandpa the way his living grandpas are.  Grandpa Mel can’t teach him chess, throw him a baseball or applaud his masterful tennis swing.  Still, I can hope that as Theo grows and learns about the world—guided by the loving adults in his life—he will one day understand his value as the joining of his two cultures, a walking image of King’s own dream.