It is his life and no mere abstraction in someone's head. He must live it and try consciously to grasp its complexity until he can change it; must live it as he changes it.
Shadow and Act
On a January day so achingly cold the streets of Manhattan were almost empty, Julian Taylor, a man the color of fresh-baked ginger cake, married Margaret Morris, a woman the color of eggnog. Emerging from the judge's chambers at City Hall, the bride nearly slipped on a sidewalk covered with black ice. Crystalline slivers were beginning to fall.
As they made their way carefully to the car, the groom checked his inside coat pocket several times to make certain the future he had planned was still there. Carefully folded in a small white envelope was the handwritten letter he had received days before.
Rev. Julian Taylor
In our regular church meeting, we the First Baptist Church of Stratford do hereby extend to you a call to serve beginning the first Sunday and lasting as long as satisfaction is given. We are yours in Christ.
Done by order of the Church.
In payment for his leadership, Rev. Taylor's weekly salary was set at twenty-five dollars. And so it came to pass that Julian took his mostly white bride, Margaret, to the poor white town of Stratford in the rich white state of Connecticut.
In 1933, Stratford was a sleepy coastal village that had once been known for its shipyards and oyster beds. It was not a place of rolling hills, large estates or English gardens like its sister towns, Southport and Greens Farms. Although there were a number of large, well-preserved homes, for the most part the houses were small and painted white or gray. A few adventurous souls chose yellow or barn red. Overall it was a nondescript town with a few colored residents. For them, there was one church, First Baptist, a tiny wooden house of worship with a little more than one hundred members.
The church's congregation lived mainly in the neighboring city of Bridgeport. As in many New England towns and cities during that era, it consisted of two groups. There were families whose relatives had been in the town since either colonial times or shortly after the Emancipation. Many had the cultured mannerisms of those who work around the very rich -- which, in fact, they did, in places like Westport, Fairfield, New Canaan and Darien. The other group was the majority, uneducated through no fault of their own, hard-working and respectable; they were the first trickle of the streams of Negroes who migrated from the South to find new jobs and new dreams.
The installation of a new minister is a time of celebration, renewal and optimism. Old quarrels are put aside and new ambitions are revealed. Julian's first order of business was a proper introduction to the church. His father, his four brothers and his stepmother journeyed from Washington in a shiny LaSalle. With their elegant attire and big city airs they dazzled the congregation. A few hours after the service, however, Julian's stepmother, Miss Alice, had a heart attack and was put to bed. The next day they managed to get her into the car for the return journey. Miss Alice would die a few weeks later.
For the new pastor and his wife, that first year in Connecticut included the expected weddings, funerals and christenings. Julian's diary also recorded "lawn fetes," garden parties, a baby contest, "smokers," chicken suppers, theater, chitterling dinners, bingo parties, a bus ride to Coney Island and "intertainments," as Julian called them, at various members' homes. In his spiritual ledger, the titles of his sermons that year suggested high drama or deep intrigue: "Influence," "Fatal Decision," "The Blood Taken," "Palace of Happiness," "The Rich Fool," "Contrary Winds," "Bitter Water Sweetened," "The Sublimest Theme."
It had been a full year and at its end, on an unusually warm November day, Margaret felt the first contractions of labor. She claims she was not unduly upset that her doctor would not give up the Yale-Princeton football game at Yale Bowl to be at her bedside. Margaret's "sister," Thelma Lazenberry, and a neighbor, Matiel Robinson, served as midwives. Once the real work was done, Julian took charge and named the infant Jewelle.
Two more Taylor children were born in the Stratford bungalow. First came Julian, Jr., in 1935. After his birth, homesick and frequently ill, Margaret was often depressed and showed little interest in the business of running a household. It was clear that she needed someone else in the house full-time to bolster her spirits and help with the two young babies. Through a minister's wife who was a social worker, Julian heard of a nine-year-old girl in an orphanage who needed a home. Memories of her own childhood gave Margaret a deep cushion of empathy for children who had no relatives to take them in. She was eager to meet the little girl. Her name was Margaret Jackson, the first in a long line of additional "daughters" in the family. "Little Margaret," as she would thereafter be known, quickly became a conscientious older sister to Jewelle, Julian and, later, me. On occasions when they were out with the family, the young minister and his wife introduced Little Margaret as their daughter. Because she was dark like Julian, people said she looked like him, a comparison she cherished.
My own birth was duly recorded by my father on September 3, 1937. Like many other mothers that year, my mother named me after the reigning child star, Shirley Temple. Margaret found no dissonance in giving to her infant Negro daughter the name of an apple-cheeked Hollywood princess. But when I reached high school I would drop the "y" and add an "e" to my name to distinguish it from all those other Shirley Temples. I took more solace that one of my middle names, Anne, was from my paternal great-grandmother, an Indian. Her Native American name was White Cloud, and in my own fanciful process of deduction, I figured I could claim it too.
The year I was born, five young men were freed from the Alabama prison where they had been incarcerated since 1931. They were part of the group that became known as the Scottsboro boys, the name given to nine young Negro men who had been falsely accused of raping two white girls while traveling in boxcars on a train in Alabama. In a series of trials starting in Scottsboro, Alabama, the boys were convicted, and some of them sentenced to death. Subsequently an Alabama judge set aside the verdict. Three more were freed in the 1940s, and in 1948 the fourth escaped from jail to Michigan, which refused to return him to Alabama. But I would not read that tale until 1950, when it would deepen my adolescent awareness of what it means to be black in America.
To help care for me, my father hired Mrs. Arrington, a widow from his church who needed a place to live. The expanded family remained for more than four years in the cozy house on Stratford Avenue. It had a lawn many times its size, with trees and a brook at one end that was inhabited by frogs and minnows. It was also said to be haunted by a child who at the turn of the century had drowned in the swollen stream after a week of steady rain. At night the moonlight's phosphorescence revealed an insubstantial childlike form running and jumping through the trees and along the water's edge. For my parents, the image held no fear. They were accustomed to ghosts.
In the new house a new tradition established itself. Julian's young teenage daughters by his first marriage, Mauryne and Doris, came from Washington to stay for the summers. Mauryne was only nine years younger than my mother, and the presence of two adolescents befuddled by divorce added to the strains on the growing household.
It was during those years that Mauryne and my father began to sing duets in concert. Mauryne had a well-developed singing voice and a mature stage presence. The handsome dark father and his beautiful egg shell-colored daughter performed the light classics and the popular love songs of the day, in churches and at the gingerbread bandshell in Seaside Park in Bridgeport. In addition to expanding his reputation, extra money from these concerts was a much needed supplement to Julian's meager income.
In those Depression years, collecting his full salary was a challenge. Each Sunday, beside the title of his sermon in his diary, he recorded what the church owed him. One such entry was typical: "Balance owed, $287.63. Received, $8.45." There was no way he could support his family on his church earnings alone and he constantly sought other sources of income.
When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, politics began to capture Julian's attention. From his father he had learned that having political power could help him change the laws of the country and the lives of his people and, equally important, would give him access and clout that he could translate into financial gain. Most of the members of the Stratford church were Republicans, but admiring Roosevelt and his New Deal, Stratford's new minister decided to throw his lot in with the Democrats. It was a break not only with the church's congregation, but with his father's Abe Lincoln Republicanism.
Julian also began to look for other flocks. His father, then a vice president of the New England Baptist Convention, wrote to Julian about a church in Providence that needed a minister and offered his support. But the light-complected congregation privately agreed he was too dark and, besides, he was divorced. The elder Taylor wrote to his son, cushioning the blow. "Funny about Providence," he mused. "Maybe they are not anxious about having a pastor." He offered to scout for another position.
Julian would not have his father's help for long. I was born the year my grandfather died. That same year my father got the "call" to lead Macedonia Baptist Church, the largest and by far the most influential of the three black churches in the small town of Ansonia, Connecticut.
Macedonia had been founded in 1888 by freedmen and former slaves. The church stood on the west side of town, at the head of the major bridge that joined the two sides of the city. The church did not, however, own a parsonage. The church's trustees and deacons made it known that they wanted their new minister to find a residence suitable to his position and encouraged him to look wherever such housing might be available. But housing discrimination was formidable, and Julian had almost given up looking when he found and rented a three-story furnished home in rural Shelton, a factory town two miles from Ansonia.
The town had two or three black families, who could trace their ancestors to the Civil War. Otherwise the population was white and poor, except for the Andersons, a family who claimed both Negro and white heritage. Not by chance, it was the Andersons who owned the house my father rented, an unpretentious, comfortable New England gray frame structure not far from the main street. It especially pleased my mother, who found it more like the homes she had known in Washington, with space for retreat and privacy. But unbeknownst to my parents, everyone in town considered the house to be inhabited by the spirit of the previous owner.
At first my mother was the only one who nightly heard footsteps on the stairs and felt strong, intimidating, nonhuman presences. They were everywhere and nowhere, the air of the rooms growing thick with restless inhabitants. Then my father and Mrs. Arrington and Little Margaret felt them too. They never saw a physical manifestation, but each night at two o'clock, everyone in the house, adults and finally the children, would be awakened simultaneously, jolted into an uneasy consciousness. The menace increased, and after only a year's tenancy, my parents decided to leave the house and to look again in Ansonia.
My mother's state of body and mind echoed the condition she'd been in after the birth of my brother. She suffered from a then indefinable malady for which there seemed to be no balm. "I weighed ninety-five pounds for months after you were born," she recalls. I believe it is likely that after the birth of each of her children, my mother experienced that special sadness known medically as post-partum disorder.
The sight of Ansonia did little to cheer her up. A town of few graces, Ansonia was -- and is -- a blue-collar valley community in southeastern Connecticut. Compared to the grandiose beauty of the District of Columbia and the Victorian primness of Stratford, it seemed dreary, bleak and unattractive. There were no tree-lined boulevards, no leafy parks, no elegant neighborhoods, no zoos, no department stores. There was little to please the eye, occupy the mind or nourish the soul.
In the days when entrepreneurs saw rivers and people first as sources of power, Anson Phelps had erected factories beside the railroad tracks that followed the curving Naugatuck River as it drifted down from the Berkshires. In Ansonia, at least, it was a dead river, which glittered with rainbow ribbons of oil and gave off a slightly metallic smell. As children we knew that if no creatures lived in the water, we couldn't either. No one was tempted to swim in the shallow stream.
As in Stratford and Shelton, a handful of black families had been in Ansonia as freedmen or runaway slaves, or arrived there shortly after the Emancipation, bearing names like Boone, Green, Tinney, Austin, Rogers and Mayo. Their small number had made them unthreatening, and good fortune and industry had allowed them to purchase homes away from the middle of the town. Most of them had a high school education.
Later, the mills attracted the bulk of Ansonia's Negroes, who came in family groups during the great migrations from the South to the North in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Most of them came from North and South Carolina hamlets with names like Society Hill, Bennettsville, Hartsville and Darlington. Fewer than half a dozen family names covered the entire population. You were either an Antrum, a Gatison, a Thomas, or a Douglas or a cousin thereof. For lack of opportunity, few of Ansonia's newest residents had more than a third-grade education -- the age when, in the South, they were required to leave school and play and take on adult-size jobs in the cotton or tobacco fields. They were clustered in small, poorly maintained, poorly heated wooden tenements in easy walking distance of the mills.
My father canvassed the town and located another large, rundown Victorian house on Locke Street on the east side of town, in a neighborhood of Irish, Italians and Polish. It was owned by a white family who were willing to rent to Julian and Margaret for one year. Next door lived an Irish family named Maher. For at least six months, the Mahers acted as if the Negroes who lived next to them did not exist.
The rambling Locke Street Victorian with its spacious sunny rooms and generous yard became my mother's enchanted castle. My parents repainted the outside, which brought a thaw in their relationship with their neighbors but left them little money to furnish the inside. But the sparseness enabled Margaret to dream of rooms filled with mahogany tables, velvet loveseats and silk-upholstered chairs. Twelve months after they had moved in, however, the owner sold the house. Margaret was heartbroken. She was also pregnant again, and still with no place that she and her husband could call their own. Julian was unsuccessful in finding another Ansonia residence and they moved to Waterbury, eighteen miles away.
One of Connecticut's largest, oldest cities, Waterbury is a town of steep streets and mean houses, most of them dating back to the turn of the century. As in Ansonia, the Naugatuck River runs through the center of town, shaping its history and defining its future. In 1940, it was a bustling industrial center. The schools were filled and the parks were empty. Hailed as the "brass capital of the world," its factories would soon be geared to supporting the efforts of World War II. Like Ansonia, Waterbury had attracted large numbers of European immigrants and Southern black emigrants, who worked side by side in the brass, steel and rubber mills.
My mother was beginning to feel like a nomad. There were days when she felt like packing up all the children and going back to Washington. For a short time, we stayed with Mack and Sarah Keyes, well-to-do Negro undertakers who had a taste for European furniture and expensive, conservative clothing. They had befriended my parents after meeting them at church functions. It was no small thing for the undertaker to be looked upon with favor by the minister, since the man of God was the first to know of a death. Hide-and-seek with my brother in the mortuary's basement showroom became a favorite game, and once the proprietors' nephew closed Jewelle in a coffin when she refused to play "doctor" with him.
It was in Waterbury that Little Margaret took me to see my first feature film, at the Palace, as a reward for surviving my first vaccination. I thought that the twenty-year-old edifice that seated over three thousand people really was a royal residence. We sat in the dark red-velvet balcony, equally mesmerized by our regal surroundings and the images on the screen. But when would the king make his appearance?
Several months later, on a bitter winter's night, I would return to the Palace, this time with my father. Fussing and grumbling, saying it was too cold, too late for the children and too expensive, he took my mother, my brother, my sister and me to see the Ink Spots. To me they were tall, dark, handsome men dressed in white who sang songs that made my mother act and smile in a strange way.
From the funeral home we moved to a snug, light-filled apartment on the second floor of a two-family house on Long Hill Road at the edge of the city, in an area just beginning to undergo development. The house was bordered by scrubby woodlands in a hilly neighborhood of Irish and Italians, with one other Negro family. The neighbors seemed to get along but it was in that community that I had my earliest sense of being the Other.
Our landlords were an elderly Italian immigrant couple named the Amatas. They called my father "Reventay" and treated him with the respect that the uneducated often have for the well educated. Of greater interest to them was my mother, whom they thought at first was Italian. They called her "Missatay" and said she looked like their eldest daughter, Connie. They invited Connie and her husband, Pat, a dark-haired sailor in a white uniform, to meet the look-alike.
Margaret did resemble their black-haired, pleasant daughter, although Margaret was far prettier. The two light-skinned young women with dark curly hair and prominent noses were drawn to each other and quickly became friends, trading recipes and visiting each other's homes. My mother, who began to cook only after she was married, learned Italian recipes and how to bake bread from the women downstairs.
From the Amatas I often heard the phrase "old country." Where was this place with only old people, old buildings, old cars, old dirt and old trees? It was a place, they told me, where every day they baked Italian breads and pastries, tended flourishing grape arbors in side yards, and made their own wine, which they told Missatay was good for her babies.
Most afternoons, my mother took us downstairs to visit. Little did my father know that his wife and children giddily sipped wine on the long, cold winter days. I can still taste the tablespoons of the strong, red liquid the landlady gave me. I can still smell the bread she baked and remember the way she held it under her arm against the side of her large bosom as she broke it up, piece by piece. Then, she was the only adult who fit my picture of a grandmother.
My younger sister, Patricia, first known as Patty, then Pattee, was born in Waterbury in 1942, when I was five. Much of my mother's time in Waterbury was consumed in caring for Pattee, a whiny, demanding baby with skin fairer than mine and curly, sandy brown hair. Mrs. Amata loved the chubby little baby with rosy cheeks, and liked to look after her when my mother had an errand to run. Each time my mother returned, Mrs. Amata would say, "Baby no looka like Reventay," rubbing her own cheek and pointing to her skin.
Family life in Waterbury revolved around my parents and sisters and brother, since we had no aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents nearby. My father often talked about his many family members who were in Washington, a place that at first seemed far away. Some of their pictures were on the console radio, others sat casually on shelves or end tables. Most were in a large, old tattered scrapbook that we liked to riffle through at least once a week.
Less frequently, my mother spoke of two Washington relatives, a "sister," Thelma, and an aunt named Mamie Smith. There was no photo gallery for her family. She had only a picture of Thelma, whom I knew she regarded as a sister, but I also knew Thelma was not her sister by blood. In my mind I equated Thelma's relationship to my mother with Little Margaret's relationship to me. Once in a while my mother talked about some cousins. I knew her own mother had been dead a long time, and that her father had "gone some-place." I put him and Amelia Earhart, who disappeared the year I was born, in the same category.
My mother doted and waited on my father. Around his needs and whims, she planned her schedule and the routine of the entire household. Dinner was served precisely at four, except on Sundays, when it was at one. Julian's tea water had to be boiling hot, and his eggs had to be scrambled to the exact soft consistency. Holding his cup with his small finger elegantly arched, at least twice a week he would say, "Margaret, this water is not hot." We could count each "t" in that sentence. My mother accepted or ignored his dictates with good humor and grace.
Later we sat in the living room and listened to The Lone Ranger, The Inner Sanctum and The Shadow on the radio, beneath which there was a large dark red leather hassock I always claimed. From my perch I could see the kitchen, and on the wall beside the slew-footed sink hung my father's chart of enemy airplanes and a large pair of black binoculars. In the vigilant spring of 1942, from four to six in the afternoon, he entered the world of military reconnaissance. He had been asked to be a chaplain, but he did not want to leave his family or his church and instead volunteered to be a plane spotter. I never knew exactly where he went to spot his planes but figured it was probably the top of Long Hill Road. Since he did not offer the information, I happily supposed it was a military secret.
Plane spotting was not his only military duty. His calm demeanor and authoritative manner made him an exemplary air raid warden, his delicate face dwarfed by the huge helmet he was required to wear during the alarms. We loved the blackouts; there couldn't be enough of them. We rushed to pull down all the green shades in the kitchen and the living room and then be very quiet. In our cinema world of fighter planes that lit up the night skies and carried heroes who would end the war, we had no real idea of the danger.
Often my father met with something he called a ration board. He explained it was not a piece of wood, but a group of men who because of the war decided how much of certain scarce items people could have. One of my earliest awarenesses of privilege was knowing that my father had extra ration sheets, freeing us from the worry of running out of the things we liked.
In the evenings, if he was not listening to a radio program, my father read or did crossword puzzles, a pastime he had taken up during the puzzle fad of the 1920s. My mother went back and forth among the children, mediating spats or helping with homework. Unless my father had an evening meeting or he and my mother were at the movies, we were always together.
It was in Waterbury where we all sat listening to the fights of Joe Louis and cheering his victories, even my father, who abhorred violence. It was in Waterbury that I remember seeing for the first time the Crisis (the national publication of the NAACP), the Negro Digest and Our World, a forerunner to Ebony. And it was in Waterbury that I began to trail my brother like a shadow, wanting to do everything he did.
"Brother," as Julian, Jr., was called, inherited my mother's temperament and my father's charm. He had round cheeks, slanty eyes and soft, light brown hair that in summer became the red some people called "rhiney." His elegant nose, his ready grin and a cleft in his chin were predictors of future handsomeness. Brother's best friend was a thirteen-year-old white boy whose stunted growth made him look six and resulted in his nickname, Little Man. He had a big head, wispy, pale blond hair, and round blue eyes that looked as if they never blinked. The three of us played with toy trucks and cars in the back of the house at the edge of the woods.
One day, Brother, who was six at the time, and Little Man invited me into the woods to see something special. It was Little Man's swollen penis. The pale, fat flesh held little interest for me. Disappointed, I returned to the yard. Little Man zipped up and we all went back to playing with the trucks and cars in our backyard dirt. I never told my parents about the incident, but I stayed away from Little Man after that.
My sister Jewelle was four years older than I, her skin tone slightly more olive. Heavy eyebrows gave her face immediate authority, while large, round dark eyes, a long nose that resembled our father's, full, sensually curved lips and deep dimples gave her an arresting, mature expression. She was chatty and inquisitive, and related easily to grown-ups. She carried the confidence and assurance of the firstborn lightly on her shoulders. In Waterbury her life revolved around school and violin lessons. Directing my behavior and activity became second nature to her, though generally I ignored her baton.
She was much the little lady, while I was a tomboy, preferring overalls and uncombed hair. Having combed hair was a major mark of respectability for colored people then. Unkempt hair represented slattern ways and deserved poverty. I was forbidden to go outside unless my hair was presentable. My way around that edict was to wear hats rather than face the comb's teeth, a solution I employ to this day.
My hair was soft and came to my shoulders. It was not quite "nappy," but it tangled, knotted easily, and required a light pressing with a hot comb. During my first summer away at camp I put on a hat and did not comb my hair for two weeks. When I came home, it was so matted that my mother had to cut it.
Because my mother did not have to press her own hair, she had little experience with hair that napped. And because I was tender-headed, and my mother let my hair dry completely before she pressed it, each hair-doing session was torture for both of us. There were no such things as conditioners or softeners then. The only hair dressing we had was a pomade called Dixie Peach, a scented step up from Vaseline.
When the appointed time came, I would sit in the kitchen beside the stove with a towel around my shoulders. Each time my mother tried to get the comb through my hair, I pulled away. The more I pulled, the more it hurt. I screamed. I yelled. I prayed. I pounded on my thighs. I stomped my feet. I bit my hand. I arched and humped my back. I held on to the edges of the chair. I slid out of the chair onto the floor. I told my mother she was killing me.
After what seemed like several hours, she was finished. Exhausted, she did not try to curl my hair, but braided it instead. My scalp felt as if it had been fastened to a clothesline by every strand. It was a milestone for us both when I was old enough to go to a beauty parlor.
By the age of two, children begin to notice differences between themselves and others. I learned the vocabulary of those variations shortly after I began to talk. I could see the heterogeneous skin colors around me, and their descriptions were part of my everyday life. In my immediate family, every color was good and had value. My mother was light, my father was dark. I am light but I always thought I was medium brown. I did not understand until I went away to college that I could be mistaken for anything other than colored. At seventeen, my perception of my color was skewed by the layers of brownness that had swaddled both my mother and me from birth.
In spite of the trauma and cost of being born with colored skin, we black people have always had a delicious way of describing ourselves. To a white person, a black person is simply black. Black people see an infinite range of hues. We call ourselves honey, caramel, ivory, peaches-and-cream, mahogany, coal blue, red, bronze, amber, tar, rhiney, snow, chocolate, coffee, ebony, clear, bright, light, dark, alabaster, tan, rosy, molasses, toffee, taffy, café-au-lait, nutmeg, leafy, high yellow, paper-bag-tan, and purple.
Color for blacks is intensely subjective. How we see it is affected both by our feelings toward the skin tone as an abstraction and by the reality of the person cased in that skin. If you ask a group of black people if a person they know is lighter or darker than another person they also know, you will get wildly divergent answers.
Long ago, someone told black people that their hair was "good," "nice" or "bad." The labels, which used "white" hair as their standard, stuck. In the "good" and "nice" categories were straight, wavy, curly, "Indian," heavy, coarse or soft. Nappy, kinky and short fell into the "bad" group. Long hair was favored over short, and long hair that had to be pressed with a hot comb fell somewhere in between. In the 1990s, despite the fashionability of dreadlocks, braids, corkscrew curls and a never-ending variety of geometric haircuts for men, hair dressers, black and white alike, make good money on chemically straightened, woven and otherwise ingeniously lengthened black hair. "Good" hair can be had, for a price.
In my family, we knew my mother and Pattee had "good" hair. My mother said the rest of us, even my father, had "soft hair" -- that is, it did not require a hot and heavy press. Privately, although he kept it short and manageable by wearing a nylon stocking cap each night, I would have called my father's hair "nappy," but not "bad." When he was in his seventies, he experienced a regrowth of his hair, and it came in straight, like an Indian's. It was as if some recessed Native American hair gene had escaped and overpowered its African-American brothers and sisters.
There are dozens of pictures of me in my mother's scrapbooks. From black-and-white snapshots to faded Polaroid portraits, I can, chart my physical progress from infancy to the present. Through those images I can see the fashions, the seasons and my interests change. Although we change imperceptibly every day and the reflection in the mirror can sometimes be a surprise, I am familiar with what I look like, but the who is another matter. There is no such tracking for my mother.
I have a need to see the aspects of my mother's face when she was a teenager. I remember the surprised joy of my own daughter when, in her twenties, she found a picture of me as a teenager. Although she is a rich, red, chocolaty brown, and I am shades lighter, she was fascinated with her close resemblance to my high school picture. "Cool," she said. So far, I have been denied the opportunity to compare myself to the girl who would become my mother. The few pictures of my mother as a girl that did exist burned in a fire the year she left her last home.
As far as I know, the one exception is a picture taken in 1916 when she was four. In the small candid, she is standing in the summer sun behind her younger brother, who has a small hump on his back. Someone dressed her in a white, angel-sleeved frock. Her hair sports an oversized bow, and the flyaway auburn strands look golden in the high sunlight. Her expression is one of delight and pleasure. The picture was taken around the time her family vanished.
They say that as early as infancy a child can read the expressions on its mother's face. Was I that young when I began to absorb her sadness? As a little girl, and later as an adolescent, I was convinced that big chunks of my life were missing. There were no gray-haired grandparents waiting to welcome and spoil me on holidays or vacations. There were no letters or presents or cards from the parents of my parents. There were no stories about my mother when she was a little girl.
Three of my grandparents died before I was born. The remaining one, my mother's father, William Morris, whom my mother called Willmorris (I heard it as one word), was inaccessible to me. As a "white" man who could not admit colored people into his world, he lived a distant life in a distant place. I knew he was alive, because whenever the subject of her father came up, my mother, with uncharacteristic venom, referred to him as "Willmorris that-bastard-in-Maryland." I never met him, but his absence was a presence in my life. His looks were an intriguing mystery; in those days, I never got to see a picture of him because my mother, in a fit of anger, destroyed the only one she had. I knew he did not want to see my mother, or me, or any of the rest of our family. But I could not understand why.
I was even more confused when my mother told me that she was not with her father, or her brothers and sister, because she was "too brown." My mother was not brown; she was light. I knew that this missing grandfather did not care that I liked to read and was a straight-A student. I knew that he did not know that my mother alternately loved and hated him, and wished she could visit with him. I knew that he did not know how she cried for and cursed him with equal passion.
No matter how beautiful the autumn, its onset signaled the beginning of a seasonal sadness for my mother. Her melancholy would deepen as Christmas approached. Poignantly she spoke of her feelings. I remember feeling helplessly protective of her as she talked of childhood holiday wishes unfulfilled.
For us there were luxurious, indulgent Christmases always at home. We received hundreds of Christmas cards from church members and scores of pies and cakes. Each year, my father would buy a tall Douglas fir tree that he hung with ornaments and lights. Our job was to hand him the icicles, strand by strand. When he finished, he would step back, ask one of us to turn on the lights, and admire his handiwork. Then, invariably, he would begin to hum the "Hallelujah Chorus."
During the succeeding nights, either he or Jewelle would play the piano and we'd all sing Christmas carols in the living room. Brother could not carry a tune, so his job was to pull my hair or breathe on Jewelle's neck. At the edge of the group, my mother sang shyly, holding Pattee on her hip or clinging to her hand. Sometimes my Uncle Percy came from New York. He and my father would sing "O Holy Night" and "Ave Maria" together as they had when they were boys. Then we all sang together, Percy directing with a thumping foot or a waving hand.
On Christmas morning, there was always a roomful of toys, clothes and books. After we opened the presents, my father would go out to visit the members of the church, to bring them his personal greetings and to accept their gifts. Every year we would ask my mother why he could not stay at home and enjoy the day like other fathers. We knew the answer, of course. When he came home, he was usually several hundred dollars richer.
Most of us have yearnings and longings for the holidays of times past. My mother never had anything for which to yearn.
My search for the missing part of my family has been with me consciously and unconsciously all my life. I inherited it, I absorbed it by osmosis. Thins need, this pain, of my mother's became mine. Her loss and rejection gave shape to my development. It touched me in ways I am yet unable to fathom. As my mother approached her eightieth birthday, I made a conscious decision to use whatever means possible to find her family. I knew that I would find them. Lawyers and census takers and city directories and utility companies and alumni offices prepare lists of names that I could scan.
Whenever I traveled, to Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my preoccupation with the vanished family came to the surface. I knew that somewhere out there the living ghosts went about their daily lives. I was ambivalent about my quest. I didn't know what I would do or say when l found my missing kin. Some were undoubtedly dead. Others had no knowledge of their black ancestry. Should I visit their parents' sins upon them? This was not a theoretical question for me, the daughter of a minister, with inherited bonds to the church.
Sometimes, in moments of reflection or frustration, my sisters and I talked about what was ethical and what type of responsibility we had to these relatives we didn't even know. Would my revelations of familial connections bring pain, shame, anger, horror, revulsion, suicide? It has meant all of those things to be black in America. There is strong evidence that light-skinned blacks still receive preferential treatment in white and black America. I wondered how many of my cousins who had been free, white and twenty-one would claim their colored relative and heritage.
If the division in my family has caused so much pain, why did I seek them out? Because my children and I need to know the rest of what has shaped us. Simply put, part of their genetic codes belong to us as well. But also, my mother's story mirrors the lives of tens of thousands of Americans who have racial schisms in their own families. Wherever I share the story, someone invariably tells a similar one.
My mother's history suggests that race and color in America are not interchangeable. From bitter experience, black people have always understood that color and race are exquisitely arbitrary. White people in America take their whiteness for granted. But if we adhere to traditional notions of race, many of them are not white. Nor are all black people black. The heritage of this country and all of its people is mixed. A subtext of this story is, What is white? What is black? What is race?
Those who can claim to be Americans of pure African descent are few and far between. No matter what we call ourselves, the ethnic range of America lives within us. Currently, one of the country's major black political figures is married to a woman whose sisters pass for white in Tennessee. In Buffalo, there is a man who lives as white, but frequently returns to his black high school reunions in Washington, D.C. In New Haven, a friend of my family who used to be black moved to neighboring Hamden and is now white. The D.C. police force was integrated by a black man taken for white in the 1920s. A woman I knew as black when I was young is now white and no longer speaks to me. Multiply these instances many times over and the footprints of those who have crossed the color line become infinite and untrackable.
Copyright © 1994 by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip