From a young age, I remember hearing that my white grandparents urged my mother not to have me – the product of a union between a white woman and a Black man. “It would be easier.” Why that is, I can’t exactly say. Was it racism? Was it pragmatism, fearing for a half white-half Black child’s wellbeing in the world? Regardless, so much of who we believe ourselves to be stems from the stories we hear (and then repeat) to ourselves – some true, others cobbled together from memory. And who can say if these create an accurate perception of “you?”
In my thirties, I learned my grandfather had always wondered why I’d been given a “nigger name.” Again, hearsay. But still, part of the story I tell myself about who I am and where I come from. In my entire life, I don’t recall my grandfather saying a racist word. Despite what others shared about him or the things he may have said, I knew him to be a tough but loving man, which is why we “share ink.” Because really, it’s my perception of him that defines who he is to me.
I never met my Black father but was told repeatedly he didn’t look “that Black.” To me, this meant we were more alike than different, sharing a lighter-skinned appearance. How did it shape my perception of Blackness? Well, it didn’t. Not really. I felt secure in who I was without needing to explore the Black side of my family. It was simply never presented to me as an option.
At 39, after my father’s death, his sister (my Aunt Suzanne) shared with me that my father’s choice of hairstyle, fashion, and romantic relationships with white women were viewed as him rejecting his Blackness. It seems he, too, was intent on being seen as not looking “that Black.” Only at my present age does this strike me as an interesting trait – the desire to distance himself from half of his genetic makeup. It leaves me wondering why…
I share all of this because the following poem and book are simply my interpretation of the stories passed down to me about myself and my heritage. Like you, my beliefs about myself and my identity are a product of information and timing; a reflection of the things I’ve heard and witnessed as I make sense of them, to the best of my ability, at any given point in my timeline.
Like you, my aim is to create a cohesive story from all the pieces I pick up. We are, after all, a product of such stories. And we’re always updating them – adding, deleting, re-sorting based on new information or discoveries and as our view of the world outside ourselves changes. We are works in progress, you and I. Excavators mining for pieces to an ever-changing puzzle of personal identity.
My phone lies on the desk before me, texts continuing to pour in from friends or colleagues expressing their shock and dismay. Each concise “ding” of a message is mirrored on my laptop screen, making their arrival en masse feel more like a violent onslaught than a comforting support system. Instinctively, I cradle the device, thumbs poised for communication. A relentless problem-solver, I want to give them what they so desperately seek: an answer. Wise words to show some meaningful “big picture” progress amid the chaos.
But what do I say? Though genetically a third Black, I have never lived the Black experience. Especially not in the sense that George Floyd lived it. Still, as a publicly-praised “minority business owner,” will my words serve as a litmus test for the perspective of the Black community as a whole? Will they check the box for “woke” whites eager to view themselves as allies? Worse, will they be viewed by the Black community as shallow and empty? I struggle to pull from past experiences and distant snapshots of moments that defined, for me, what it might mean to be Black…