Who Are Your People?
I had a colleague some years ago, an African American woman, and in one of my first encounters with her, she treated me to an imitation of her husband’s Scottish brogue. We connected right away, with similar interests in the arts and compatible energies. I think about this now and I wonder why one of the first things she put forward was her marriage to a white guy. Was it to make me feel at ease or her? When we later collaborated on a project at the campus where I worked, she asked me to point out my husband since I told her he and I met working together. We were standing behind a row of seated adults, about 8 feet from the back of his head. I pointed him out and said, “That’s my husband.” She craned her neck and peered right over him.
“Where? I don’t see him.”
“Right there,” I answered, “with the close shaved hair.”
“Wait, he’s black?” She asked. And then laughed.
Despite her own interracial marriage, she confessed that she fully expected me to point out a white guy. She laughed, realizing she expected of me the same thing others expect of her: to be married to someone who looked like her. Probably a more accurate rationale for finding some way to insert her husband’s ethnicity into initial conversations -- to minimize the look of surprise on stranger’s or new friend’s faces. I get it. It’s a way we may both test the waters, so to speak, a way we gauge if we are in safe company. Or a way we feel included in certain spaces.
I imagine her experience of being an African American woman married to a white Scottish man is different than my experience as a white American married to a black man from New Orleans. I’m also guessing there are felt similarities. I felt the subtle brutality of genteel southern white culture perhaps most when I was at a baby shower for a high school friend right after I turned 30. I had just come back to Houston and was newly married, whereas she moved back to Houston just after college and got married at 25. She was a debutant in high school with wealthy roots in Memphis, went to Washington and Lee, and kept company with mostly upper middle-class families in various country club circles. She was by no means an unkind person. She spoke Spanish fluently and lived abroad. She was a teacher. But she, like most, tended to stick to her familiar. One of the hostesses of the baby shower, an older matron, squeezed my hand when I came in and asked, “What’s your name dear?” I told her my first and last name (I was newlywedded enough to still stumble over my acquired name). She then asked, “Is that your HUSband’s name?” Yes ma’am. She went through the Rolodex in her mind, knitted her brows, and inquired, “Who are his people?” I knew she was groping around for my pedigree, whether I had married a name she recognized and could place in one of her circles. Maybe she had a strong need to know and be known. Nevertheless, I calculated a lot of assumptions about her, that she probably wouldn’t know the first names of the Latinos who trimmed her azaleas weekly, much less be familiar with the last name of a black man from 7th Ward New Orleans by way of rural Raceland. (These same kind of older white ladies comb their fingers through my kids’ textured curly hair and sigh, “They’re so beYOOtiful.”) I squeezed her dry hand a little, smiled without showing teeth, and said, “I don’t think you know his people.”
A few years later this same friend and I were in a book group of 6 white women and one of Indian descent. When it came to my turn to select a book, I chose Incognegro by Mat Johnson. The discussion was brief, hesitant, and chock full of bewilderment that it was (and is) hard to be a man of color in the south. Mostly we drank wine and ate hunks of cheese. I think they felt vaguely sorry or at least uncomfortable for my husband and future children. The group eventually fizzled out. Or maybe I fizzled out of the group.
Marrying a black man doesn’t give me a pass; it doesn’t give me entrance into a culture or make me “down.” It didn’t give me permission to wear one of my fabrics brought from Malawi next to his dashiki when we went to see Marvel’s “Black Panther” or manufacture the short Afro I’ve always wished I could rock. I don’t get to act as if I haven’t benefitted from the trappings of a white, middle-class upbringing. Marrying this particular black man has, however, allowed us to create a safe zone where we can tease apart assumptions and experiences, explore curiosity and feel deep acceptance. It’s allowed me to actually understand and pinpoint the covert and thoughtless racism of many white people I know, including that of my own family.
We didn’t get married as a political experiment or latent rebellious act. We got married because we fell in love and decided we wanted to walk through this life together. We talked early on about raising bi-racial kids, whether we trusted each other to do that well. I confessed fears that our unborn kids might resent me someday, and he fears that he couldn’t keep them safe. When they were actually born, all of that tumbled away for a moment. Our kids weren’t black or white or both or neither. They were just these amazing small creatures who instantly commanded our hearts. The act of falling in love is genuinely color blind, a term I don’t advocate using. It’s just that the moment you realize you’re in love, you aren’t thinking about the different shades of your skin or the complexity of past and future experiences. You’re just aware of the warmth of someone’s body near yours and how safe it feels to be there. The color blindness of love is shattered by the world’s reminders in an instant or when your dad says, “Dating was one thing....I didn’t think you’d marry one.” Or when your mom says about your third, lighter skinned son, “You finally got a white baby.” Yep. Those are my people. The same ones who believe my husband is an exception to his race and that whiteness means being part of the lucky sperm club.
I imagine if I were married to a white guy or to an immigrant from one of the presidentially approved non-shithole countries, I would not have balked at my 8 year-old son’s IB world school ancestry project. It was another version of “Who are your people?” In what I assume was a well-intentioned, though mishandled effort to show that America is a country of many nationalities and stories, it missed an opportunity to talk about the shadow side of this truth, a truth kids seem to be much more adept at holding. Question #5 of the assignment asked: What mode of transportation did your ancestors take and what were their reasons for coming to America? Wait. Really y’all? My husband is 4th or 5th generation Louisianan. His 23&Me test deemed him 65% West African. You do the math. My son’s teacher confessed they did not consider being kidnapped, shackled in the bottom of a boat, transported across a stormy sea, and enslaved in another continent as a possible answer to Question #5. Heck, it’s likely my ancestors or someone who knew them walked freely on the boat’s upper decks while my husband’s were shackled below. I’ve been told my ancestors were keep-your-head-down Welsh, English, and German farming types who arrived as early as the third landing at Jamestown, nine years before the slave trade officially spread its tendrils to America. My and my husband’s overlapped history is a sickness of willful ignorance and passive participation I carry in my bones and a deep wound my husband carries in his. Our children carry traces of both realities in their bones. Biracial children are most definitely not the magical solution to modern America’s shadowy origins, but I have to believe they are an evolution toward something more hopeful. When my family of five stands in cream to brown ombré order, it’s clear we all belong to each other. Apart, we are unique individuals with different gifts and experiences. While it’s not my children’s responsibility to shoulder the burden of their white ancestry nor to carry the psychological and physical wounds of their black ancestry, both aspects of “their people” are part of them and impact how they will walk in this world whether they choose to wear the mantle consciously or not. We’ll do our best to knit together a truthful narrative and create space for their own unique narratives to take shape. The nature of my relationship, of our family makeup, is playing a small part in unraveling a damaging legacy and weaving a new one.
More and more people of color are shattering glass ceilings, proving there are far greater “exceptions” than the widely promoted narrative that those who “make it” are the rare gems. The “Black Panther” movie is the most current imagining of what Africans could be without the interference of white colonization. It shows a multiplicity of well-developed black characters, from villain to hero. At the same time, it offers commentary on how African Americans have been affected by white privilege and centuries of oppression. In the end, black Wakandans come to the empowering aid of black Americans. In the end, a few black kids on a basketball court see who they can become in the faces of a king, an inventor, and an activist. My kids were all born into a world where Obama was president but unarmed black teens and men were routinely getting shot by police. They were born into a world where the outspokenness of the oppressed is a norm, but mass incarceration is at an all-time high. They are old enough now to understand without my help that Trump says “really, really mean things,” but go grinning and squealing toward their GrandP. I believe all these incongruities, though messy and painful, are leading us to something greater than we can currently imagine, daring us to become better versions of ourselves and stronger than our histories would imply. My kids, I hope, will see themselves in my husband and me, embrace both, and forge a path where they are the masters of their own destinies.