Category Archives: Interracial Marriage

Loving Day Re-post: Why I Believe Marriage Equality = Common Sense

In honor of Loving Day, June 12th, 2015, I am reposting this piece from three years ago. Great progress has been made since then. Gay marriage is now legal in thirty-seven states! But the fight for marriage equality is not yet over. There are still bans in place in thirteen states, as well as a number of organizations and individuals who cite religious beliefs to justify their right to discriminate (just as they once did against interracial unions).

TulipsAs fewer and fewer eyebrows are raised by interracial marriages, I look forward to the day where same-sex marriages elicit the same ho-hum reactions. A marriage is a marriage. Love has no room for bigotry.

So here’s the repost:

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.

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Mixed in America: Closing the Arch

New Profile picIn my last post, Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children?, I introduced my White Umbrella Project, including a survey, about the experiences of other black and biracial people whose early guides to the world were white parents. Since the survey went live, here and on various multiracial Facebook groups, responses have been coming in steadily—people sounding off on what it means to reside on both sides of the bridge between black and white.*

This project has been brewing in me for years, but there is a reason I’m launching it now.

This past fall and winter, in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in the wake of the protests and the speeches and the clashes, the calls for justice and calls for dialogue, I kept hearing about an America divided along racial lines. It wasn’t a new phase by any means, but one that rears up and becomes prevalent every few years.

There is a black America and a white America and never shall the two see eye to eye, was the message—expressed most eloquently in the New Yorker cover of December 8th, 2014, by Bob Staake, a “post-Ferguson” depiction of Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch, centerpiece of the St. Louis Skyline, in this case shaded black on one side, white on the other, the arch broken, its ends reaching in vain for reconciliation.

New Yorker image,

I took in that cover with a heavy heart, registering the sentiment loud and clear. I am one of many Americans—the president of the United States included—for whom black and white are inseparable. It is what we are.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that all the blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos I know have varied and nuanced views of the events, to say nothing of the fact that the protestors and police defenders seemed to come in all races.

I’m not naïve. I recognize that the black/white rift is more stark in some parts of the country than others, that the multiracial mobs with linked arms hailed mostly from the two coasts and from university towns. But it’s my pet peeve when the press oversimplifies and disregards those who live in the middle. With interracial marriage on the rise, as well as more multiracial people than ever identifying as such, the racial “grey” area is becoming more and more populous.

It goes beyond America too. Trevor Noah, the South African comedian of black Xhosa and white Swiss parentage, who is slated to replace Jon Stewart in the Daily Show, also grew up in two separate worlds—being shuttled back and forth between his mother’s home in black Soweto and his father’s apartment in largely white Johannesburg. In a New York Times article, Noah describes being alternately embraced and rejected in both settings.

This echoes the experience of so many mixed-race Americans. The both/and-ers, the neither/nors. For some of us, like Barack Obama or Halle Berry, our African ancestry is plainly visible. For others, like Wentworth Miller and Carol Channing—not so much. Many of us have identities that resonate sometimes black and sometimes white, depending on where we are, which side of the family we’re with—regardless of what we look like.

I was raised by a black father and a white mother, but because of their work schedules, it was my mother who accompanied me most places. My early view of the world came through her eyes. Whether we went to her friend’s pool club in the summer, or shopped on the Upper East Side, I assumed—correctly or not—that I would be accepted and embraced. I didn’t grow up feeling particularly different from the white or black people I met. It was not until college that anyone demanded I choose my allegiance.

Everyone’s experience of being biracial is different, but I suspect I’m far from alone in my cringe-reflex when I hear about the irreparable chasm between my two sides.

Soul Food Shiva (reposted)

The Defenders Online Website does not seem to be functioning, which means that there is no way to access my article, Soulfood Shiva.  For that reason, I am placing it below as a regular post.  The following was originally published in The Defenders Online as part of the Father’s Day Edition in 2010.

When my father laughed, he’d show his wide, white teeth, wrinkle his broad nose and let loose.  I remember the sound of it, rich and soulful, with music in the background: Motown and jazz that he’d play when my parents threw parties.  I remember the colors of those big nineteen-seventies bashes: bold red and turquoise plaids leaping from scratchy synthetics; paisleys in dizzying shades of orange, pink and purple.  I can smell the smoke in the air, mingling with the aroma of my father’s fried chicken or my mother’s latkes.   I remember dashikis, bell-bottoms and blazers with suede elbow patches.  I remember afros, which abounded amongst our friends, regardless of whether they were black, like Dad or Jewish, like Mom (everyone was one or the other).  Dad’s afro was short but not too short to play with.  I’d poke his hair down in one spot just to see how long the finger holes would stay.

“Don’t mess up the ’do,” he’d grin at me, reaching for his pick.   (My mother wouldn’t let me play with her hair either, though I longed to.  It was shoulder-length, straight and flipped like Mary Tyler Moore’sthe height of seventies chic.)

Williamsons 1970

But it’s the laughter I remember most.  The humor was adult, usually political, and therefore, miles over my head, but the sound of it thrilled me.  Laughter, I understood from an early age, was courage in the face of pain, hope in hard times: the ultimate measure of survival.  Any time my parents laughed together—which was often—I felt safe and warm; things were good and would stay that way.

My parents’ parties were loud and boisterous, but always wrapped up at a reasonable hour.  My father was an early riser with no patience for late night carousing.  When it was time, he’d turn off the music, turn up the lights and clap his hands.

“It’s that time, folks,” he’d boom, in his rich, good-natured bass, “That’s all she wrote.”

I was the lone kid at the parties, in my parents’ world in general.  By the time I reached kindergarten, all the little friends I’d had in our building had moved to the suburbs.  Their families hadn’t wanted to pay for private schools, my mother explained.  She and I were alone a lot after that, since Dad worked in publishing and was away at the office all day.  My mother taught, but was home whenever I was.  When Dad made his nightly entrance, we were complete.  We’d eat dinner together most nights, breakfast most mornings.  I wasn’t lonely; I had friends at school; I had my parents.

Besides, I could while away endless hours alone, just exploring our apartment.  Dark wood cabinets held leather photo albums, my father’s sketch books, and old things from before I was born.  There were trinkets on shelves, matryoshka dolls and other artifacts that friends had brought back from the Soviet Union.  There were African masks, African sculpture, and a giant stone head of a man, which sat on the edge of my father’s desk.  The sculptor was semi-famous, a friend of my parents.  “The Head” would be worth a lot one day.

On our walls hung original paintings by my father and his friends.  The people in the paintings were black except for a few of my father’s nudes who were white.  (I always assumed the nudes were my mother.  I’ve been told otherwise, but I still think they’re her.)  My dad painted people with posture and facial expressions so vivid, you could feel their emotions.  I knew these paintings by heart; the people in them were family.  I didn’t like it when my parents changed the display; someone was always missing, replaced by something new.

Constant, however, were Dad’s cigarettes—burning away in his hand.  I remember watching them circle and dive, punctuating his arguments as he talked on the phone—about the Vietnam War, race relations, or the city’s economy.   Then he’d inhale fiercely, gathering new words.

For the record, cigarettes weren’t what killed him. There’s no known link between smoking and prostate cancer.  Instead it’s more about being male and black—as if that weren’t enough.   No one but Cancer really knows why it starts, whom it will choose.

I was twenty-three when he got the diagnosis.

“I just want to hip you,” he said, coming into my room, red wine in hand.  I was home visiting from Boston, where I lived at the time.   He explained that his brand of cancer was the best kind a guy his age could get.  It would move slowly; we’d barely notice it.  He looked the same as he’d always looked—neither concerned nor the least bit sad.  He made it so easy for us both to remain in denial for the next few years.  We had my mother to do the worrying, to handle reality for us.

Two weeks before my father died, his blood pressure fell dramatically; we were told “it could be any time now.”  My mother and I took our leaves from work and The Wait began.  We left the apartment only to run errands, to go to therapy, or for short walks to get air.  We’d hurry back, afraid he’d go while we were out—a notion I couldn’t bear.

Dad withered to about seventy-eight pounds, consuming nothing but the few ounces of apple cider into which they mixed his morphine.  There was nothing keeping him alive and yet he lived.  He began to do strange things, like clap his hands over and over again; I never knew why, maybe to reassure himself that he was still there.  The nurse explained that he was “checking out, bit by bit.”  He struggled with words, with names.  He seemed to see people who were not there, but whom he knew, yet I was a stranger to him.

The night before my father died, my mother suddenly announced that she couldn’t take it anymore: the waiting, holding, swabbing, wiping and listening, alternately to Dad’s cries of agony and, in calmer moments, his labored breathing.  We fled to the living room where we had a tiny television set, leaving my father in the care of the Visiting Nurse.  We had no cable out there; all we could get was Batman Returns.  We didn’t care that we were picking up the thread in the middle.  Tim Burton’s Gotham City was just the escape we needed: this dark, surreal, uber-NewYork.  Most freakish of all was Danny DeVito’s Penguin.  They’d whitened his face, darkened his eyes, lips and teeth, given him wild, silver hair, and a long pointy nose.  With the evil umbrella, monocle, and demonic laugh, he was just about as sinister as a guy standing five feet tall can be.  But he also looked so thoroughly ridiculous, that his image sent my mother into a fit of giggles.

My mother snickers when amused, chin buried in one shoulder.  Her laughter is usually at someone’s expense; it’s sometimes rude, but always contagious to me.  All along, I’d had this selfish fear that when my father died, my sense of humor would go with him.  My boyfriend, my friends would tire of my moroseness and desert me one by one.   Now the bitter end was upon us, my father breathing his last, occasionally crying out in pain in another room.  Yet here we were, in stitches, laughing harder still at our own guilt.

My father died at home, on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1995.   We were both at his side.  My mother said, “Goodbye, Mel,” and kissed him for the last time, after forty-five years of marriage.  When I touched my lips to his broad, brown forehead, it had already begun turning cold.

Once he’d been taken out, my mother began making phone calls. I went back into their bedroom, which still looked and smelled like the hospice room it had been for the last few weeks.  I steeled myself and went about transforming it, so my mother wouldn’t have to.  I changed the sheets on their bed, first removing the pads from my father’s side.  I got rid of the bedpans and swabs and blue plastic covers and everything else that had enabled him to stay at home.  Next, I dressed myself entirely in his clothing—a pair of yellow sweatpants with the legs cuffed and waist cinched in, a black sweatshirt, his rag-wool socks.  When I came out into the hall, my mother was still on the phone.

“Mel died this morning,” she was saying to whomever was on the line, and that made it real.

For three days after that, people who had loved him and who loved us poured into the apartment bearing food, memories and their company.  During the day, mostly neighbors came, along with my mother’s colleagues from the school where she taught.  In the evening, friends of the family arrived—the ones I’d known since childhood, who used to show up in dashikis, bell-bottoms and afros, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years.  The first night, their faces were grief-stricken as they hugged and clung to us.  My friends came by later, adding their youth to the mix.

Our shiva was not a real shiva.  There were no boxes, no covered mirrors or quiet.  While most people did bring roast chicken, matzo ball soup, and boxes of rugelah from Fine and Shapiro, others bore ribs and plates of collard greens.  I played Bach at first, then jazz, blues, rock and also gospel, because my father had loved it all.  We set out the food and wound up throwing a party he would have been proud to host.  There were tears, but more so, the sharing of memories and laughter.

On the second day, Valentine’s Day itself, one of Mom’s colleagues brought over a stack of condolence messages from the children in her third grade class.  The substitute teacher had made time that day, not only for this project, but also for the creation of Valentine’s Day cards.   Several of the children had conflated the tasks, decorating my mother’s notes with elaborate hearts and rainbows.  The stand out in the bunch came from a boy who had written in a small, awkward cursive:

Dear Mrs. Williamson,  I’m sorry your husband is dead.

By Sam 

Then, in a cheerfully swirling red:

 P.S.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Something about the juxtaposition of sentiments: Mom and I were instantly consumed by laughter once more.  We proceeded to clutch each other, new tears streaming down our faces, joining the sea already cried that day.   It went on a while; we’d stop, look at each other, look back at the card, and lose it again, residual chuckles erupting for several hours.  Two nights before, Danny deVito had given us respite from the waiting game.  Little Sam had reignited the pilot light of our family’s spirit.

After three days of our alternative shiva, it was suddenly enough.  I was tired of the crowds reminiscing, tired of the limbo.  I remembered the parties of the seventies and heard my father’s voice:

“That’s all she wrote.”

Not Jungle Fever

In London, a few years ago

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been interviewed by the Washington Post’s Carol Morello for her article entitled:  Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  In the article, Ms. Morello graciously included a link to this blog, which led to the highest traffic day it has had since its inception in December.  Checking my stats, I discovered people were not just finding me through the Washington Post article, they were also hitting my blog via other blogs and online publications that were buzzing about the article.   Checking these sites out, I found myself exploring some unexpected turf, including a site that horrified me: a virulently white supremacist site which I will spare my followers by not linking.  Some of the comments, reacting to Morella’s article were along the lines of: how could any self-respecting white person allow themselves to get involved with one of those?  (I paraphrase.)  Suffice it to say I didn’t stay long, though some of the heinously stereotyped caricatures of African Americans stayed with me for a while.

Since that time, I’ve been meaning to do another post on interracial marriage, thinking about why it works when it works, and why, when it fails, race isn’t always to blame.  Here goes:

Not Jungle Fever

 Why does it bother me so much when high profile interracial couples like Heidi Klum and Seal, or Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren break up?  Why do I want run out there and explain to the media: this kind of thing happens with mono-racial couples too!?  This wasn’t about race!?    These highly visible couples were supposed to be poster children for mixed marriages, publicly validating my personal history, thumbing their hue-blended noses at the skeptics and naysayers, the racial separatists who suggest there is something lewd and unsavory about interracial pairings.

The good news is that interracial marriage is more prevalent than ever, that these couples divorce at a rate barely higher than same-race couples.  There’s even a biracial president sitting in the Oval Office, dispelling the insidious myth that mixed couples’ progeny are lower-functioning than others.  Yet, interracial couples still face insensitive questions, sometimes outright hostility, even parental rejection.  Marriage is hard enough; why make it harder?

The irony is that the burden of outside opinion is often the hardest part.  All mixed marriages, especially black and white ones—which draw by far the most press, the most ire—exist in both a public and private sphere; all have to contend with an often unappreciative world outside their home.  Even the strongest such couples—those for whom commonalities outweigh differences—still bear the weight of other people’s prejudices.  But public perception is only part of the story.  What naysayers don’t see is that an interracial couple’s private unity can be its greatest strength.

As a clinical social worker and couples therapist, I have seen many interracial couples.  The happiest share a beautiful sense of partnership—truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  What I have learned, professionally and personally, is that the most successful of these couples have each other’s backs in the face of public stares and criticisms.  In private, the partners’ blend of two selves, two worlds, unifies their home.

As followers of this blog know, I’m the daughter of a black father and a white, Jewish mother.  Though my maternal grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant—she sat shiva for my mother when my parents married.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty states, though not Illinois.

“It can’t last,” my grandmother’s friends consoled her.  “These marriages never do.”

But the day my father breathed his last, after forty-five years of marriage, my mother was at his bedside, his hand in hers.   My parents weren’t an anomaly.  When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my parents’ large community of friends included many other intermarried blacks and whites whose marriages worked and lasted.  As a child, I was unaware that there was anything unusual about this.  Later, when I learned the stereotypes and taboos around race-mixing, I was shocked at how removed they were from my own experience.

In Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, the romance between a black, married architect and a white office temp elicits rage and resentment from family and friends of both partners.  It’s the race difference, not the adultery, which brings on the most vehement censure.  I saw the film with my parents when it was first released; they’d been married forty-one years at the time.  As I sat between them—our three contrasting skin tones visible in the not-yet-darkened theater—I looked around, wondering if people thought we were trying to make a statement.

I remember being outraged by the film’s suggestion that black and white partners were drawn to one another solely for the thrill of breaking taboos.   In fact, Lee was just showing one specific example, making as much a point about gender politics and class as he was about race.  I doubt I’d have taken it so personally if there had been other films portraying black and white relationships in a positive, normalizing light.

Fast-forward twenty years: I’m a psychotherapist, specializing—not surprisingly—in multiracial families and couples, in a strong interracial marriage of my own, with two beautiful second-generation biracial children.  In Montclair, New Jersey, the town where we live (which Interrace Magazine named the Best Town in America for Interracial Families in 2002), our kind of family is so common, we’re boring.  People who give us an extra once-over do so with approval or, in the case of other interracial families, camaraderie.  This town, as I noted in the last post, is also full of multiracial adoptive families, interfaith families, and families headed by same-sex parents.  Many of us moved here to raise our children in a place where they were nothing unusual.  (A typical Montclair moment was the time my daughter came home from preschool and asked how many mommies she had.  When I told her I was it, she said it wasn’t fair; her friends Sophia and Jacob had two mommies each!)

But even if we’re “normal” here, in public our family inspires speculation.  Did our parents approve of our union?  Do Jon and I have struggles at home over our differences?  Do we clash over parenting values?  We know that our racial disparity is what people see—not the fact that my mother’s ancestry is the same as my husband’s.  Like us or not, we’re making a statement just by being us.  The public eye is just part of what you live with as an interracial couple; even if you’re not Heidi Klum and Seal.  Some black and white marriages crack under this pressure; I have seen many split up—some, regrettably in line with the stereotypes.  But many have succeeded, ultimately achieving the stable, loving comfort that makes a good marriage last through the decades.   Interracial couples do require a special kind of care, sensitivity and knowhow, an acknowledgement and ownership of the potential challenges that can arise.  But when commonalities outweigh differences, when there is a good social support network–which may mean family, though not necessarily–when both members of the couple share values about childrearing, the role of religion and other big-ticket items, the odds are well in a mixed couple’s favor.

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.

The Hunger Games, Corduroy and Me

Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time.  I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught.  I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue.  Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family.  I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was.  (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.)  In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black.  When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?

I had reason to wonder.  A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy.   Well sort of.  Here’s the true story.  My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing.  Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept.  Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told.  His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine.  When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book.  He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age.  (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)

Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun.  (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!)  I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart.  But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:

“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?”   Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma?  I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard.  But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child!  Or That’s my children’s favorite book!  Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white.  What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.

I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games.  Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown.  I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss).  But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.

And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes?   (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee  .  Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.)   Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be?  What went into the decision to make her white?  Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice?  Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway.   What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue.  That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.

It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it.  For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial.  She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother.  I loved that no one mentioned race in the film.  It was just there, and no big deal.  Is that reality–race being no big deal?  No, but what a wonderful wish.  If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?

I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games).  In a television show called Flashforward,   which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon  and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman.  Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed.  It was no big deal, which I loved.  I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal.  (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)

We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons,  a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple.  For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)

But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black.  Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.”  Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white?  Not true, not true!)

When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way.  That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died.  (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.)  I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit.  But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.  (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!)  It should be no big deal.  Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them?  I really hope not.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.