Tag Archives: mixed-race

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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Published on Mamalode!

I am honored to say I’ve been published on Mamalode, the top-rated online magazine dedicated to the stories of mothers. My article is a slightly updated version of a post that appeared several years ago on this blog.

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

The Bittersweet Healing Power Of Raising A Daughter Who Looks Like Me

When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”

The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.

Read More …

 

 

Thinking Outside the “Other” Box: An Inclusive Mixed Identity

I am happy to announce that I have joined the blogging team for the Mixed Remixed Festival. I thank Heidi W. Durrow, best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Joy Stoffers, author of Whasian. for bringing me on board. The following appeared on the Mixed Remixed Blog on February 5th.
Thinking Outside The “Other” Box
When I think about my own multiracial identity, when I talk with other biracial writers and friends about the state of being mixed, I usually think of the cultures we inherited from our parents—what was represented in our homes and along the roots of our family trees.

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But a question posed to The Ethicist in last week’s New York Times Magazine made me consider blended racial identity on a broader scale.

“Can I call my Nonbiological Twins black because my Husband is?”

The author of the question was a white woman, married to a black man. When she and her husband had been unable to conceive naturally, she had carried to term a donor embryo—the biological parents of whom were said to be Caucasian and Hispanic. The mother noted:

I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them.

But, when a pre-k application form asked the children’s race, failing to provide a “mixed race” or “other” box, the mother identified her children as black. “Was this the right choice?” She wondered. The Ethicist—Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is himself multiracial, white British and Ghanaian—devoted much of his response to what he would have responded had the twins been the biological children of their parents, going into depth about this country’s frequently challenged “one drop” rule. He concluded:

 …our system of racial classification … presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture …

Dr. Appiah correctly faulted the preschool for not having a “mixed-race” or “other” box to check, and suggested that the mother demand one. He also affirmed the twins’ right to claim their non-biological father’s black heritage.

But what Dr. Appiah didn’t mention is an error the parents made long before the pre-k form appeared. Waiting until the children are “old enough” to have their heritage explained implies that there is something shameful about joining their family through donor insemination, something wrong with having a different racial background from their parents’. The time to broach such information is right away, using the simplest language possible—the same way you might talk to a baby about bedtime or the toys in his room.

Years ago as an adoption caseworker, I encouraged families adopting from China and Vietnam to learn about and incorporate their children’s cultures of origin into their family life. Even in domestic adoptions where the child could “pass” for their parents’ biological offspring, I urged families to begin sharing the adoption story immediately—before the child could understand. Talking about difference and culture becomes as natural as breathing. This is your nose, those are your toes, this is a photograph of the day we met you in a place called Guangzhou, where you were born.

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This way, there’s no fraught moment in the child’s life when parents must sit them down and reveal the Momentous Truth. Though less has been written about children born via donor insemination than adoption, I believe this same openness should prevail.

Where it gets tricky is the discussion of appearance. Going back to the twins in the Ethicist’s question, what will it be like for them to identify as black if they don’t look black? As Dr. Appiah points out in his response, there are many people whose African features are not visible—he names early N.A.A.C.P. director, Walter White—who identify as black. Besides, these twins are Hispanic, which is not a race, but in many cases includes some African ancestry.

My own experience is somewhat reversed. Many people perceive me as black—not mixed—so when I identify as biracial, I am often corrected: you’re black. In graduate school, when I identified as Jewish—an ethnicity as well as a religion—it meant to some African American students that I was denying my blackness. But to identify as black and only black would be to disregard my mother’s ancestry and half of my own.

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Another troubling issue: the mother who wrote to the Ethicist was given few specifics about the embryos’ heritage. Only Caucasian (Swedish? Dutch? Irish?) and Hispanic (Dominican? Venezuelan? Puerto Rican?). The parents are not to blame for this oversight. I know from my friends who have had children through donor insemination that you don’t get much control over how much genetic information you’re given, if any. But in an ideal world, these parents would be able to share the twins’ whole heritage—genetic and adoptive— with them.

One of my closest friends had her twin sons with the aid of an egg donor. Before her boys could understand the word “fertility,” they knew that somewhere in the world was a Very Special Lady who had made it possible for Mommy and Daddy to be their parents. Now the boys are three and the special lady is part of their family dialogue, as is her country, which the twins may visit someday. As they grow, these boys will have more questions which my friend and her husband will be happy to answer. These twin boys will know who they are genetically as well as culturally. One day, they too will be faced with boxes to check. They may choose one or more; they may choose to leave them all blank. Either way, by the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, my friend’s sons will understand that no box will ever truly define who they are.

 

Mixed: A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others?

New Profile picI’ve let this blog grow cobwebs lately, focusing every bit of my writing energy on my fiction. A quick status report: I’m querying my YA novel again and have reserved a spot among the NaNoWriMo  ranks, hoping to complete a draft of a new novel by November 30th.

Full disclosure, I wrote the following a few months ago but never got around to posting it. I’m posting this now, in part because I know I won’t make it back here until December at the earliest. I’m also putting it up at this time because it feels very relevant to me.

Recently, another mother—a mother with children whose racial combination matches mine—a mother who is a wonderful advocate for her children, devoted to making sure they have positive identities—said something that I can’t quite get out of my head.

This mother, who is white and shares my own mother’s ethnicity, corrected me when I referred to myself as “mixed.” She offered a different word instead. A word which, to her, is the way to refer to oneself if one is the product of a white parent and a black parent. (As I am, as her children are, but as she is not.) We were having a fast conversation about something we’re working on together, so her correction came out quickly, too quickly for me to process what I was feeling. I corrected myself, used the word she had chosen, and we went on with our conversation. It was only afterward that I realized what had happened. I had allowed her to define me. The word she chose was just as good as “mixed.” It was in fact a word I sometimes do use to describe myself, but it was not my word choice at that time.

Those of us who are biracial, mixed-race, mulatto— whatever you wish to call us—must claim our own words—even if they don’t ring true for others. Many of us say “mixed,” which was once derogatory—like “mixed up”—but we embrace it the way a gay person might embrace “queer.” It’s empowerment by taking back language that was once designed to wound. Or, maybe it just feels right.

Anyway, here is my first post since the summer, as well as my last post until December.

A Canvas for the Assumptions of Others

You are the “other” box. Maybe not quite black, yet clearly not white. Or not visibly black, but something off-white. You are “exotic.” Possibly Armenian? Koori? Dominican? Really, really tan? No, you’re biracial, mixed, mulatto, colored, depending where in the world you hail from. You’re Both/And.

For some of us, the Barak Obama’s the Halle Berry’s and me, black is a convenient short-hand for our identity. It is how we appear to strangers, and doesn’t cause a stir or elicit extra questions. Black is also a way of adding our numbers to a much-maligned minority. But black skips out on half our story, half of our parentage and identity.

For the Jennifer Bealses, the Rashida Joneses, the black piece of the package is what people question. In both situations, there is a parent whose ancestry is less visible than the other.

And then there are those in the middle, the racially-ambiguous looking, where the trained eye can see a little of everything. In this spot, you’ll be facing the “what are you?” question more than the others, who tend to quickly be (if incorrectly) categorized by strangers. In the middle, you throw people off.

Now I’m wading into the deep waters of “Ascribed Identity,” a concept I first read about in graduate school when Dr. Elaine Pinderhughes came to present on her book, Understanding Race, Identity and Power.  Ascribed identity has little to do with who you actually are and everything to do with how others see you—their snap-judgments, the stories they tell themselves about who and what you are—based on your appearance alone. No matter how far from the truth these inferences are, you deal with them all day long—in the questions people ask, the treatment you receive. Other people’s stories and judgments—whether you believe them or not, whether you know about them or not—are part of your identity. Even when they are totally false. It’s that flicker of here-we-go-again awareness anytime someone compliments your diction or asks where you are “from.”

When you are mixed, this ascribed stuff can feel like a costume that doesn’t quite fit, but that’s always going to be somewhere in your closet nevertheless. It’s important to be aware of it, to be prepared for the things people say and assume. But the good news is that our ascribed identities need have no bearing on our self-concepts, our behavior or choices. For example, I have been judged for not speaking “black,” for not wearing my hair in braids, even for being the wrong weight for my color. (That really happened).

Sometimes, being biracial can feel like being a canvas for other people’s creative assumptions.

My favorite section of Dr. Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (that I think I quoted three or four posts ago) is this one: “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

Frankly, I think this right applies to everyone—not just those of mixed heritage. But when it comes to us biracial types, there are a great many opinions on how we should identify ourselves racially, ethnically and otherwise.

After hearing Pinderhughes speak, my fellow social work students and I were suddenly thinking about identity more than we ever had before. Our daily vocabulary included not just ascribed identity, but also terms like use-of-self and cross-cultural competence. Like everyone else, I was grappling with what it meant to be me—how I was perceived versus who I was and how my background affected my work with clients. When I identified as biracial, black and Jewish, I was challenged by my fellow students at every turn.

Some white students looked at me as a novelty.

“Wait—you’re Jewish? How did you get Jewish?”

“I guess you could be Jewish, like Ethiopian.” My Jewish ancestry is Ashkenazi, actually, regardless of my skintone.

On the other hand, many black students bristled when I identified as mixed, saying I was black, because it was how I was seen. (Ascribed identity.) If I claimed I was “both,” then I was denying or diluting my allegiance to my father’s African heritage. I countered that I had to embrace all of my heritage, and not deny my mother’s background. I was informed that white people didn’t need or want me; blacks did. If I identified myself as Jewish—which, to me, had nothing to do with my race—students of color said I was identifying with the oppressor.

My Jewish ancestors, by the way, arrived by boat at the turn of the last century. Not one of them owned slaves.

So, eighteen years later, imagine my confusion at this curious phenomenon I’m finding on the internet lately. Dismissiveness, in some cases contempt, toward mixed-race people who identify as black. Now people have always taken issue with the words biracial people use to self-identify. For example, when Tiger Woods called himself “Cablinasian,” people became incensed; he was trying to deny his blackness. When Vin Diesel referred to himself as having “ambiguous ethnicity” while playing one Italian American character after another—people had a lot to say, much of it not for tender eyes.

But lately, as I browse the comments on articles that feature mixed race celebrities—writers, filmmakers, athletes, I’m seeing the pendulum swing a new way.

When President Obama calls himself black, many argue that he’s not black, he’s biracial and should stop “pretending.” They say the same about Halle Berry, who grew up being encouraged by her white mother to identify as black. Again, people take umbrage over Lacey Schwartz, producer and subject of the film Little White Lie, identifying as a black woman. After her film aired on PBS, the internet was abuzz with outrage over the fact that Schwartz, who is the child of a white, Jewish mother and black father, could not “accept herself as a biracial person.” The shocking part is that these comments came from mixed people, who know all too well how it feels to be dismissed by the generalizations of others.

How can one biracial person judge another for identifying “wrong?” And how is it suddenly not okay for people like me to call ourselves black? Sure, you can argue that, as the product of a white and a black parent, I’m only as black as I am white (regardless of my appearance). Since I cannot call myself white (see my profile photo? That would just be silly) I should not be allowed to call myself black. The reason that logic doesn’t work is my appearance.

I am not white. But I am Jewish, by way of my mother’s ethnicity. And in this way, I embrace and embody both sides of my heritage. (If my mother weren’t Jewish, but Irish or Italian, for example, I’d identify the same way, black and Irish or black and Italian. Jewish is an ethnicity as well as a religion.)

That’s why to be mixed is to be both-and, as well as sometimes neither-nor. Our identities are fluid by nature. No matter how white or how black we appear. So, instead of being canvasses for other people’s creative assumptions, let us be fountains of our own multiple heritage.

I have no claim to monopoly over the words I use to identify myself. All I ask is to self-identify, to claim all my heritage without challenge. We are all-inclusive, often in flux, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. We’re not confused or out of touch with reality.

We’re not tragic either.

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.

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.

Kwanzaa Next Year

Kinara, Dreidle: two of my son's holiday art projects from school.

Happy Kwanza to all … though I confess, it’s my “Not Yet” Holiday.

I first heard of Kwanzaa in 1993 as an assistant teacher at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York.  This job was my first since leaving Pacific Northwest Ballet and provided my first concentrated exposure to children since I’d been a kid myself.  While the black population in this school hovered around 5%, there was much talk of this African American festival which completed the diverse December trio.  At the “Holiday Assembly,” along with the compulsory Christmas and Hanukah medley, the girls sang a West African song with terrific gusto.

Was Kwanzaa new, I wondered?  Where had it been when I was growing up?  And, as a black American woman—mixed-race notwithstanding—shouldn’t I know about it?

I made a mental note to find out what the deal was.  First I asked my father, though I had an idea of what he was going to say.  My father had always identified himself as black—not African American.  Black history, black culture—these were what he valued.  He did not look to Africa for grounding or validation.  To do so, he felt, would undermine the proud, American legacy of blacks, as well as their contributions to this country.    He appreciated his ancestry; our house was full of African art and photography which he found beautiful.  But Dad did not identify with Africa itself.  To my father, Kwanzaa felt contrived—which he explained in something of a diatribe.

For me, since it was not part of my childhood, I currently have no personal template for Kwanzaa.  Still, I respect it as a celebration of family and heritage, an honoring of ancestors and the survival of a people.  I often wish I could do more to support my children’s black identity, which is a challenge.  I am their only surviving black relative as my father, for all intents and purposes, was mine.   When my kids see my relatives, they see white, Jewish ones, the same as they’ve got on my husband’s side.

I tell my husband: we should look into Kwanzaa, maybe incorporate a few rituals into our life, attend one of the many open Kwanzaa celebrations in our town.  If only for the exposure, just to see what it’s all about and increase our kids’ cultural competence.  He is supportive; he is all for it.  Though of course I am the one who must make it happen.  Next year we’ll do it, I say every year.  But we don’t.  Not because I’m resistant.  Not because I think my father would object.  Instead, it’s laziness and exhaustion.  Frankly, after eight days of Hanukah and one very long Christmas—of presents and cooking and cleaning, I am all holidayed out.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t find the time next year.