Tag Archives: Black

Biracial Identity: I Chose “Neither” before I chose “Both.”

My biracial identity? Black/white. As followers of this blog know, I am the product of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, who were happily married for forty-six years before my father’s death. Williamsons 1970

Today on Multiracial Media, author and founder, Sarah Sarita Ratliff poses the question to the multiracial community: How do We Self Identify? Which got me thinking … 

When I was in my thirties, my twenties, in college and younger, I faced a lot of criticism—was even attacked verbally—for identifying as biracial instead of black. This came from black people who felt I was rejecting blackness, but also from biracial people who felt I didn’t look “mixed” enough to qualify.

Evolving Biracial Identity on Campus

I remember walking across my college campus in 1987 with a white friend, chatting and minding my own business. Two black guys passed us, appearing to be deep in their own discussion. But once they were about a yard ahead of us, one threw me a glare over his shoulder, amplifying his voice:

“… except for those of us who forget what their color is.”

I had no idea what declaration had come before, only that this snatch of the conversation was directed at me. I had a white friend, meaning I had forgotten that I was brown? But my mother is white, I thought. How is white not my color too? Of course, that thought filled me with guilt. I knew the problem with claiming “whiteness” along with “blackness,” no matter how light or dark your complexion. You can’t have a biracial identify. There is no way to identify with your white side and your black side, the logic went. You have to choose, and you’d better choose black, or you’re abandoning your people. But my other people—the white, Jewish people—had also faced struggles and bigotry. The white ancestors on my mother’s side had never owned my father’s black ancestors. (Though the white ones on my father’s side–with whom I do not identify—clearly had.)

From other mixed-race people I heard: “I confuse people. No one can guess what I am.” For some, this was a badge of identity unto itself. To these multiracials, I lacked ambiguity, which meant I was not really mixed. For some of my black-and-white friends, race was a costume they could change at will. For others, blackness, not apparent to the naked eye, was an identity they had to fight to prove–just as I would have to fight to claim my mother’s heritage along with my father’s.

And here’s another twist to my identity: Since I was a ballet dancer and completely immersed in that world for so many years—from the age of seven until my late twenties—Ballet was my strongest identity. Ballet was who I was. I didn’t have time to focus on racial identity until later.

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Me in the center.

I entered college as an exile of the ballet world. I was at the university by choice, but ambivalent, missing ballet, searching everywhere for an ally who understood what I had left behind. Anyone who was unusually thin and walked with excellent posture and duck feet might be a compatriot. And yet, here was all this pressure to identify myself by race.

As I scoured my university town in vain for a halfway decent pointe class, I kept facing the question: “What are you?” more than I ever had.

The question came from blacks more than whites. White people just assumed I was black (they didn’t need my membership anyway). Blacks who asked really wanted to know: are you with us or them? Now I understand why they needed an answer. Blacks were outnumbered, talked over, dismissed, deemed undeserving of the Ivy League education we were getting. Numbers were therefore precious to the group. I was being welcomed, not challenged. Not that I understood this yet.

For me, it was simply too painful and too complicated to choose one race or the other. I loved both my parents. They loved me. They loved one another too, and had created a joint culture in our home. And now I was expected to reject this inclusiveness? Instead, I plunged myself deeper into the world of dancers and theater people, who identified first and foremost as performers.

Racially, I chose neither before I chose both. Neither allowed me to be Lisa-the-ballet-dancer. Which I still am. Which I will always be.

Today I embrace all of who I am, racially, ethnically. Awareness of being black comes first I guess, because that is how I appear, but I identify just as much with my mother’s Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I am biracial, black/white, blanche-et-noir, both-and. To embrace my white, Jewish “side” is not a rejection of my proud black “side.” I am married to a white, Jewish man, whose heritage is similar to my mother’s. We have two children who know both sides of their history and will take both into consideration as their identities form.

Thankfully, the older I get, the less likely people are to tell me I am not identifying the way they believe I should. Or, maybe it’s simply that I take the criticisms less seriously. I know who I am. My identity is what it is: inclusive, unshakeable, me.

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Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children? (Survey included)

Baby 1966This is the first post I have written soliciting responses to a survey—so I’m stating it up front: At the end of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness survey for those who are interested and who fit the demographics* I’m looking for.

So, what is this about “White Privilege?” Sounds kind of political, kind of threatening, no?

The first time I heard the term “White Privilege,” I was in my late twenties and teaching at a very exclusive, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. Peggy McIntosh, PhD., the feminist, antiracism activist and associate director of the Wellesley College Women’s Project, had been brought in by the Parents’ Diversity Awareness Committee of said school. McIntosh, who is white, was there to discuss her famous paper, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, as part of a workshop for staff, parents and students about the ways in which whites unwittingly benefit from racism on a daily basis.

I was fascinated as McIntosh described white privilege as an

invisible package of unearned assets which [she could] count on cashing in each day, but about which [she] was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

However, as she began to list these assets and privileges, I found myself thinking: hold on a minute—I grew up with a lot of those assets and I’m not white! What gave?

As I thought it over, I realized that, as a child—regardless of my color—I had walked through the world in the care and company of a white mother. I had un-harassed entry into upscale department stores and swimming pools. Most everywhere I went, people had treated me with the same respect they paid my mother.

When McIntosh went on to list the ways in which her skin tone worked in her favor:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented …When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … Whether I [use] checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.… I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, withouthaving people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

I started to see her point. Okay, maybe all of those privileges hadn’t been mine, but under the umbrella of my mother’s whiteness, the world had been a different, more accepting, place than it might have been otherwise.

When I was alone with my father, we visited restaurants  and little shops in Harlem—which was mostly black at the time. It was a world apart from the Englewood, New Jersey pool club my mother’s friend belonged to, where Mom and I went almost every day in the summer. As a child, I felt equally welcome in both places. However, if the whole family had shown up together in either location, there might have been stares or even questions.

My father taught me to be aware—and sometimes wary–of racism, that I might be treated differently because of my color. But my mother took me everywhere; the hostility, if there was any—was subtle enough for me not to notice. I believed I belonged anywhere my mother did.

The stories of black and biracial children raised by white parents are as varied as humanity itself. I know my own, but am curious about others. For this reason I’ve started a project I’m calling Under the “White Privilege” Umbrella: Children of Color in their White Parents’ World.

As part of the project I have created a survey where I ask adults of color, like myself, who were raised by at least one white parent, to reflect on their childhoods. My purpose is to understand the experience of growing up black or biracial** in the care and company of a white parent, to learn whether–and how–any of us benefited from the day to day privileges our white parents might have experienced.

*If you are between the ages of 18 and 70, identify as biracial or mixed, the product of a white parent and a black parent, or if you are adopted, either black or biracial/black-white, and raised by white parents, interracially married parents (one of whom is white), or by a single, white parent), I would love to hear from you.

Please note, I have no hypothesis to support and no political agenda. And here is the link to my survey.

**The reason I’m only including black and white in this project–at first at least–is to understand whether parental “white privilege,” dilutes the very specific biases directed toward blacks.

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.”

Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

This post is something I lifted from a novel I once began and then abandoned.  The character is quite obviously speaking for the author. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA younger friend, who is also biracial, has said before that she’s just never felt black, which I understood very well.  It’s hard to feel black—the way you think black is supposed to feel—if you grow up with more advantages than most white people have.  Especially if one or both of your parents is white.  You might get looks when you’re out together with the white parent—but everywhere you go, you go under the shield of the parent’s whiteness, even viewing the world through a white lens.  You can’t see yourself, so you may forget you’re different at all.  To be fair, the mirror will remind you, as will a stray comment from a stranger to your white parent (she’s yours?).    Each time, you’re jolted into awareness: you stand out.   Depending on your environment (better if you live near the coasts, where different is more likely to be status-quo), you may have some self-esteem issues.   Maybe you’ll become self-destructive as a teen: date some bad guys or develop an eating disorder.  You may become a tireless people-pleaser, allowing the world—black, white and other—to walk all over you.  But there will be nothing off limits to you because of your race; nothing a white person gets that you don’t.   Racism itself will be an abstract concept that you read about or hear about—and when you do, you’ll feel not outrage, but guilt.  On those odd occasions when racism is directed at you yourself, you may not notice because it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

I never felt black either—not until I got that black is not a feeling at all.  It is a part of you that you wear and are; it never goes away.  I was still dancing professionally when it all finally clicked for me.  Ballet dancers spend most of their working lives in a mirror-lined studio—company class in the morning, the rest of the day in rehearsal.  The only time you’re not looking in the mirror—comparing yourself to everyone else—is the tiny fraction of the time when you’re actually on stage.  So, maybe I had an advantage: I never got to “forget” that I was the black girl, usually the only one in the room.  (Though I was always told I “washed out” under the stage lights: you couldn’t tell unless you looked at my photo in the program.)

Ballet companies usually have affiliated schools, full of little girls in pink and black with ribbons in their hair.  Each one’s biggest dream is to be you.  When the company is rehearsing, you can see these tiny aspirants watching through the glass doors, hoping, wishing they’ll be in your place one day.  When you pass these girls in the hallways, you’ll hear them sigh with awe (she smiled at me! No—she was looking at me!).  After performances, they come to the stage door, begging for a smelly, used-up pointe shoe with your signature on it.

img002The little black girls—sometimes there were only one or two—always came to me.  I had plenty of white fans—particularly the shorter girls—but the black girls looked only for me.   I remembered the few such role models I’d had as a kid: what they’d meant to me—even on a subconscious level: hope and validation.  I saw myself in the girls—no matter how many shades darker they might have been—they were mine.  I liked most of the kids; I had smiles for all of them but the black girls were always first to get my discarded shoes.  I remember thinking for the first time, thank God I’m black; thank God I’m here or—who would they have?  I’ve single-handedly integrated three different corps de ballet in my career.  Maybe it was an accident that there were no black girls when I got there, but I like to think I opened doors.   Opened their eyes to the fact that—contrary to what George Ballanchine declared—there were skinny black girls out there with “feet” and turn out and all the other non-negotiables a ballerina needs.

It’s like Obama (how does everything circle back to him?).  This country is home to many, many black people who are educated, accomplished, refined, and yes: articulate!  Our president is all those things, as well as being capable of reaching people of all races—all nationalities—without making any of it about race.  And still, he wears his race with pride.

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.

When Cancer Chose Him

(This is the second of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.  For the first excerpt, “A Mixed Marriage in 1950,” click here.)

About 25 years before his diagnosis

I must have been a junior in high school the night my dad got mugged, because he had yet to give up smoking.  They followed him into the elevator—two young black guys—with a hey man and a what’s going on? to which my dad responded in kind.

“You got a light?”  One of them asked (a lot of people ignored the rule against smoking in the elevators—understandable, since they all still had ashtrays in them.)  My father reached into his pocket and pulled out his lighter, only to discover that it was dead.

“Too bad …” the one sighed.  “Maybe this will work …” and produced a long switchblade which he proceeded to press against my father’s neck.

While the unarmed one stopped the elevator, the one with the knife turned my dad around and shoved him face first into the corner.  He held him fast, keeping the knife to his neck, shouting, Come on, come on!  at his partner–who frantically stripped my dad of everything he had on him except for his keys (still in his hand), his wedding ring (on the same hand), and the defunct lighter.

When the men were done, they started the elevator again and got out at the next floor, leaving my father physically unharmed.

I know I woke up when he got inside our apartment on the seventeenth floor.  I heard the anxious voices of both my parents, as my father told my mother what had happened.  I don’t remember if I got out of bed then and joined them, or fell back asleep and heard the story the next morning.  In any case, my father was still badly shaken.  He kept repeating the part about the knife against his neck and how, if the mugger’s hand had been any less steady, he would have been dead.

It was the first time my father had ever seemed vulnerable to me.  My whole life, no matter what was going on, he’d always seemed in command of every situation.  Now some stranger had robbed him of all his authority in a matter of five awful minutes.  He never fully recovered it.

Dad spent a good part of the next day at the police station, going over volume after volume of mug-shot books.  Endless photographs of young, black men on the wrong side of the law. What did it mean to him, I’ve always wondered, that the muggers were black?  What did he have to grapple with as a result?  My father’s brother, Herman—one of my least bright uncles, whom I never met because he’d died long before my birth—had frequently prefaced statements with the phrase:  “If niggas would just learn to act right …” directly attributing the persistence of racism to the bad behavior of black people.   This had outraged my father.  Still—all those photographs.

Nothing had changed outwardly after the mugging, yet my father was never quite the same again.  He suddenly seemed older, smaller, more fragile.  He got sick more frequently.  It felt like he was living—writing—on borrowed time.

I’ve never been able to shake the notion that the mugging was when Cancer chose him.  I know my theory is totally unscientific, but it’s possible that the emotional trauma was extreme enough to affect his body chemistry.  My father’s doctors initially gave him just three years.  The cancer had already metastasized, so removing the prostate would have been pointless.  The best they could do was keep things in check, slow down the progress of an already slow-moving cancer.  They tried him on a new experimental treatment—a form of oral chemo—a set of pills to be taken three times a day for the rest of his life.  There were some side effects, including some weight gain and moodiness.  But for the most part, the drugs were effective and did what they were supposed to do.  He survived more than five years, remaining mostly symptom-free for the first three and a half.

Once my father died, my mother made a very conscious decision not to.   She poured herself back into life with a vengeance.  It would be another four years before she retired, but she began to travel almost immediately.  We went to London together the summer after he died, though we were both still part-numb, part-reeling from the loss.  We made ourselves to go; we had to do something to mark a new stage, where we would celebrate life the way Dad would want us to.   We had a great time in his honor.   By day we’d split up and take in different sights—museums and shoppes and parks and streets and squares whose names I recognized from so many books I’d read over the years.   In the late afternoons we’d come together again and wind around the city until we found a restaurant for dinner.  Sometimes we took the Tube, but more often we walked, talking the whole time, and all through the meal, mostly about my father.  The memories of him as he’d been in his prime—strong and whole and laughing and free of disease—began flooding back on that trip, replacing those of the last year and a half he’d spent in bed.

For my mother, the London trip had sparked a new passion for adventure.  Or maybe it wasn’t so new (she’d married my father, after all) but simply dormant.  In any case, the first thing she did when we got home was begin writing a grant for a new curriculum for her school on the journeys of Columbus and his fellow European explorers.  She got the grant, which meant a month-long, research-filled European tour for her—Spain, Portugal, Italy.   She devised the trip and booked everything on her own; she went alone.  She speaks only English, so it was a daring endeavor which basically showed everyone in her life—herself included—just what sort of stuff Lorraine Williamson was made of.   I believe it impressed everyone just how well she stood up on her own after nearly half a century of marriage.

Since her retirement, she’s taken traveling to the next level.  She’s been back to Europe several times, China twice, visited Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Ecuador, and Africa three times—North, South, and Central.  She’s ridden camels and elephants, hiked the Himalayas, and snorkeled off the Galapagos Islands.

My mother has been busy at home, too.  She tutors; she’s a docent at the Jewish Heritage Museum, and the most loving, involved grandmother my two children could ask for.  She’s part of a book group; she goes to plays, concerts museums—everything the city has to offer.  On some level, I think she’s afraid that if she’s still for a moment—or has too quiet a weekend—age will find her and get the best of her.

When my father was dying, my mother had been part of a support group for women whose husbands were battling cancer.   Seventeen years later, a handful of the widows, my mother included, continues to meet for monthly dinners out.   They still discuss their late spouses—who brought them together after all—but these days talk centers primarily on the here and now: whose daughter is getting married, whose grandson’s bar mitzvah is coming up, and who’s finally moving to Florida.  Some of the younger ones have remarried; others, like my mom, are busy with the grandchildren their late husbands never got to meet.  The discourse flows, I imagine, from past to present and back again.

At one point during the most recent of these dinners, the conversation turned, as it frequently does, to fond reminiscences of the departed.  One of the women sighed, lamenting:  “I wish I’d been first to go.”

As the others took in the statement and gravely nodded their assent, my mother cleared her throat.   “No you don’t.” she said.

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.