Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Day I Found Out I Was Black and Then I Wasn't

When I was growing up, one of the games my family used to play was an imaginary game where we made up stories about our ancestry. Because my Dad was an orphan, we could change our heritage every day if we wanted to. One day we might be related to the Kennedy’s, and the next we might be Al Capone’s long lost grandchildren. Of course, all of our imaginary relatives were very wealthy, and we were certain that as soon as they discovered our whereabouts they would buy us lots of candy and toys. My Dad was particularly fond of telling us he was from Mars. We didn’t like that so much because Martians don’t have candy and toys.

I remember one specific day in 1974. Dr. King had been gone for six years and the race riots in the city next to ours were also several summers in the past. I was ten, so I didn’t think much about Dr. King or race riots anyway. It seemed like the rest of the world never really touched our mostly white little college town. Everything horrible and ugly happened in other places. If we wanted to avoid those things, all we had to do was stay home. We could read about things and people who were different without having to take any risks. On this particular day I was finishing a really cool book that I’d checked out from the Public Library. It was called Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis.

The novel tells the tale of a wounded World War II veteran, Neil Kingsblood, after he returned to his hometown. Neil’s life changed when he began to do research into his ancestry. At one point, his father told him that the Kingsbloods were descended from English royalty. After Neil’s genealogical research convinced him that the Kingsbloods had no royal ancestors, he decided to explore his mother’s side of the family. While tracing her family history, he came across Xavier Pic, who described himself in a letter as a "full-blooded Negro." From this research, Neil realized that he was 1/32 Negro.

When he first learned about his mixed racial ancestry, Neil faced many fears about how this truth would impact his life. He even considered suicide. But when he announced his race, first to some new black friends, then to his family, and finally to everyone in town, Neil began to understand true racial hatred. Friends disappeared, his in-laws disowned him, he and his wife received hate-mail, and he got fired from his job. The developer who sold him his house offered to buy it back, suggesting that if he didn’t take the offer, he might be sued for violating a housing covenant that restricted the residence of "undesirables" in their development. At the end of the story, a white mob surrounded the house. When the police responded to the riot, they arrested Neil, rather than his attackers.

I was completely mesmerized by this book. I was right there, living inside Neil Kingsblood in 1947. When he first learned of Xavier Pic, I was just as surprised as he was. As he battled with the decision to keep his secret forever, or be proud and true to himself, I was brave with him. I felt the betrayal and the horror of racisim, cried for all of the sacrifices, and struggled against the injustice. However, the most significant information that stuck to my ten-year old brain was that Neil looked white, he had red curly hair, and he had freckles. OH MY GOD!!! He was my Dad’s long-lost identical twin brother!!! What a fantastic discovery I had made.

As soon as I finished the book, I ran downstairs with joy to announce to my family that I had solved the mystery of our ancestry. My parents were having coffee in the kitchen with a neighbor, and my brother and sister were in the next room fighting over which Saturday morning cartoon they were going to watch. I was panting when I entered the kitchen, more from enthusiasm than the flight downstairs. I gave the precious book a squeeze and held it to my chest as I made my announcement.

"Hey, guess what? We’re Black!" I proclaimed with satisfaction.

My mother looked over at me, obviously seeing her blond, blue-eyed child standing in the doorway. She said, "What in God’s name are you talking about?"

I looked to my Dad for help, but by then he was looking down and chuckling a bit. He often did that when I made one of my astonishing announcements.

"Really Mom," I said earnestly "it’s right here in this book. There’s a guy just like Dad except he’s black. So that means we could be black too."

"We are not black." She said emphatically.

"But, why can’t we be black?" I argued. "You don’t know we’re not black. The book says you only have to have 1/32 black blood and then you get to be black."

"I don’t care what that book says. We are not black." She said again, only louder.

I could tell that she was getting angry, but I didn’t know why. This announcement wasn’t going at all like I had planned. Why weren’t they excited? Why didn’t they want to know more about it?

As I saw both my parents give the neighbor guy an exasperated look and whisper something to him, I realized that perhaps they didn’t want to be black. I decided that my discovery was a failure. Even if I was right, it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. I let out a heavy sigh and wandered back upstairs.

After that day, the imaginary ancestry game wasn’t fun for me. Every time someone brought it up, the only thought I had was that Neil Kingsblood was my Dad’s identical twin brother.

Sixteen years later my Dad finally found his birth mother. It turns out we’re 100% Norwegian on his side. There’s even a town in northern Norway with the same name as our last name. I guess the high cheekbones, fair complexion, and red/blond hair are a bit more consistent with Scandinavian than African ancestry. But in my heart, for a few short hours in 1974, I was black.

At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968)


At 9:24 AM, Blogger Goldfish Shoals said...

I have been infiltrated. Come visit my new world. Good luck with your race issues. You're how you feel on the inside. I'm so profound.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Jay said...

I read Kingsblood a few years later, probably about 1980 when I was 15. I came away being appalled at the absurdity of it all. First I didn't believe that such a thing could happen. I asked parents and teachers and the answer was yes, it could have and probably in some parts of the country it still could.

I was glad to be growing up in California, in the 1970's. Not somewhere else in an earlier time.

Flash forward to the story of Sally Hemmings and Jefferson. Again I was surprised. She was 3/4 white and the 1/2 sister of his (white) wife. And a slave? How could a person own their sister-in-law as a slave? If I were asked to fill out one of those "what race are you" forms on an application for her it would say "White".

Again, glad it's 2005 and not 1800.


At 11:54 AM, Blogger Ed said...

That's a great story, Theresa. I could picture the scene you described, almost as if it was a scene in a movie. Martin Luther King was a true hero.

I never took much interest in my ancestry until I found some old birth and marriage certificates which turned up several skeletons in the family closet. Including the fact that my parents are first cousins. Which is quite an intesting thing to discover when you're 43. And no, it's not illegal in the UK.

What makes it more interesting is that I don't think they were aware that they are first cousins until after they were married - and I don't think my mother knows it even to this day. It's kind of complicated....

Maybe I'll have to post about it some day - it's quite a story.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger theresa said...

Jay: I have 7 neices and nephews. Three of my nephews are bi-racial. Although things are better now than when you and I were kids, they aren't good enough. Those precious boys deserve nothing less than the very best. It makes me crazy to think that they live in a world where the color of their beautiful brown skin could lead to hurtful things.

Ed: You really must tell the tale of the cousins. It sounds very intriguing.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Jay said...

I just posted on another blog about how, even though I don't like crowds or pollution, I love my neighborhood in LA county.

Our block has pasty white folk, dark brown folk, light tan folk, and every color in between. From first generation immigrants to those whose families came on the Mayflower. We're in a great school district. The prejudice is certainly still there, but less than any place else I've ever been.

At 1:40 AM, Blogger Corey Michael Mayo said...

Great blog--I'm new to the blog world and I'm glad I happened by...


At 3:21 AM, Blogger Wynn Bexton said...

this was an excellent posting. I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more. wynn bexton

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Lu said...

Beautiful, T. You've told me this story before, and it's one of my favs of yours. You've done a lovely job of writing about it.

I did want to share a couple of things... I have a friend who considers herself African American even though her father was Irish (and very white). She is a beautiful woman with smooth olive skin, green eyes, and softly curled brown hair. Since she could actually pass for either race, I found it very surprising when she talks about growing up in inner city Chicago where she was discriminated against by both blacks and whites. What a strange society we are...

I grew up in Warren, Michigan, a suburb that's sandwiched between East Detroit and Sterling Heights (nicknamed Sterile Whites). As far as I know, there were no black people in our school system. Back in the 70's, there was an attempt to integrate, but "busing" never made it to my neighborhood.

When it came time to find a place to settle and raise my children, I was elated to find such a diverse place as Iowa City. Beginning with Rainbow Daycare Center, my kids have been exposed to people from cultures all over the world. Our differences have been celebrated and my children still enjoy having friends with varied backgrounds. When, at 16, my son moved to Nashville, he was shocked to find racism so prevalent. Still, because of his pure and open attitude, he was accepted by black as well as white students and made many friends of both races. Cool.


At 9:29 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Oh Lu, thank you sooo much! That story was really difficult to put down in words without sounding like a complete idiot. Perhaps I got some help from the holiday. There are few people I look up to as much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Chick said...

Great story...& very insightful on this day.

As a kid, I just KNEW I was adopted (I wasn't)...but my red hair & pale skin certainly didn't match my mother's Sicilian darkness or my father's ruddy skin & dark hair.

You must have been a great kid...& great kids...with that kind of imagination, always turn into interesting adults : )


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