Saturday, January 13, 2007

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 famous, 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 racial upheaval in the city next to ours was also several summers in the past. I was ten, so I didn’t think much about Dr. King or racial tension anyway. From my perspective, it seemed like the rest of the world never really touched our mostly white little college town. Everything upsetting 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 is about a wounded World War II veteran, Neil Kingsblood. After returning to his hometown, Neil’s entire life changed when he started poking around into his ancestry. His curiosity was peaked when 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 need 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 the way I’d 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, my only thought 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)

Story originally posted 1/16/2005 (tmk)


At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Julie (QoP) said...

Sometimes it's a huge slap in the face when you find out that you're not something you thought you were. Literally and figuratively.

Or you find out you're exactly what you never wanted to be.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Brooklyn Frank said...

being black for a few hours is better than never being black IMO.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Theresa, this is a sweet, delightful post. I enjoyed every word of it. Too bad your hunch didn't turn out true. You might have been the Josephine Baker of the 21st century ... or something!

There's a scene in "Bananas" where Woody Allen is telling a co-worker that he's going to college, majoring in Black Studies. He tells the guy that in four years he'll be black. :)

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very good read, sweet cheeks! Even if you were black, I'd lust for you, though I think you'd look a wee bit strange. But, as far as that goes, there is something strange in all interesting beauty.

ron southern

At 9:09 PM, Blogger theresa said...

Julie – At least we didn’t turn out to be mean, ugly and stupid.

Brooklyn – That’s an excellent point. I’m a very lucky girl.

Dan – I’m glad you enjoyed the story, sweetie. Thank you for saying so.
Oh Yes, Josephine Baker was absolute Hot Chik perfection, wasn’t she? You always have such great ideas. Just for fun, I may have to get out my feather boas and pretend for a while anyway...

...but, Woody Allen is not invited to my fantasy.

Ron – or there’s something interesting in all strange beauty.
I’m glad you liked the story, hon.

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Leandra said...

I love your stories. I think my favorite is when you saw a painting at the house of your friend and thinking it was her father... :D That one gave me a big chuckle. :)

At 10:47 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Leandra - Thank you. That story was last year's MLK Day post.
You know, there's nothing quite as funny as self-humiliation, especially when you're desperately trying to make a good impression.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger captain corky said...

I enjoyed reading this post a lot! I can also relate to it because I was adopted and I really don't know much of anything about my biological parents. I should get a dna finger print test done one of these days.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger Steven Novak said...

I tried telling people I was black in high school...

All it did was get my ass kicked. ;)


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Dan said...

Hon, if you're going to get out the boas, please get out the digital camera. Please? :)

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Unacknowledged Genius said...

I always feel like such a cheerleader when I comment on your posts but you do write so well and poignantly that there's no other choice but to praise your talent and your tender heart. Well done, Theresa.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger theresa said...

Capt.Corky - If you're adopted, maybe you're a Kennedy, or related to Al Capone, or HEY, wouldn't it be cool if you and I are related? I swear, I'm not a Martian ... probably not, anyway.

Steve - You should have said you were gay.

Dan - Sorry, Dollface. Live show only. No flash photography.

UGenius - I really like the cheerleader idea. I bet you have nice pom-poms ;-)
Seriously, thank you for such high praise. It means a lot to me.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Bougie Black Boy said...

absolutely love this!

At 8:35 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Stephen - Thanks, Sweetness! If I remember correctly, another gorgeous black man has a birthday this week.
Happy Birthday, Baby! *smooch*

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Nosjunkie said...

I loved this story well written and a nice message.
I have read some of your other stuff and I really enjoy your blog

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Purr said...

I really enjoyed this post I wish I could write as good as you do.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Nosjunkie - Thank you. That's a really nice compliment. I'm glad you left a comment to let me know.

Purr - Thanks. I wish I could write like a lot of other people too. I especially wish it wasn't so agonizing for me.
Thanks for stopping by.


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