Friday, May 22, 2009

"Anyway, you kids aren't black. You're white."

I came across this quote while reading an excerpt from Bliss Broyard’s memoir, “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets.” Her father was Anatole Broyard, a well known book critic for the New York Times. The excerpt that I read was about Mr. Broyard trying to tell his children before he passed away of Cancer that he was actually a black man, not a white man as they had believed all their lives. He was unable to share the secret with them before he slipped into his last coma, so their Mother actually delivered the news. Well, partly anyway. She told them that Mr. Broyard was part black, the conversation ended with, “Anyway, you kids aren’t black. You’re white.”

Now, I read this excerpt many months ago, and expected it to go the way of many things that I read. A sort of in one ear - for consideration and to learn from- then out the other scenario. But it stuck with me. And I couldn’t really put my finger on why this man’s struggle struck such a chord with me. Like many Black folks in America, I grew up knowing about people’s ability to pass. So the concept of his struggle wasn’t new, even the fact that it stretched into the new millennium wasn’t so shocking. I finally realized that it was his wife’s summation to their children that didn’t sit well with me.

It was as though after all those years of being married to a man she knew was a black man, after all those years of loving him unconditionally and sticking by his side, seeing him prosper and excel financially and academically it was still important to assure her kids that they had somehow escaped the thing that was wrong with their father from the beginning. “Anyway, you kids aren’t black. You’re white.” Let me be clear in saying that I am not definitively attributing this motivation to Mrs. Broyard. I do not mean to say that she actually felt this way. I actually do not even presume to understand her family’s specific struggle. I’m only saying that I finally figured out what my subconscious took in after reading her statement. And the feeling that reading her statement left with me is what I really want to talk about.

I am deliberately avoiding using African American to describe American Black folks right now because for the point I’m going to make, the term is misleading. Especially today in America. Today, there are many African’s that voluntarily immigrated here and earned citizenship and are African Americans. But right now, I am specifically speaking of black folks that have been in America since the country was just forming. Not because there is any special virtue to it, just because that is the group I’m talking about. Those of us that have found ourselves in the US this way come from a diverse background of folks. Clearly at some point, there were Africans in our past that could have come from a number of countries and backgrounds on the continent, more often than not there were people of European ancestry in our past (the Italians, and English early settlers of America down to the Irish, Spaniards, French and others that make up the history of American white folks), additionally, there are Native American ancestors and even Asian ancestors that make up the past of American Blacks.

Sometimes this diversity of nationality was given a name: Creole, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon. The reasons for the names depended sometimes on the freshness of the mix, sometimes on the region that you were born in or the region that the individuals in your mix came from. The ray of skin colors that exist within the Black American community, in fact, within some black families, speaks volumes about this diverse history. But the common denominator for Black folks in America is that at some point in that history, one of those ancestors was African, and based on that ancestor, we were and in many instances, still are treated a certain way in the USA. That is what being black in the USA is. A social construct. The government decided to treat us a certain way based on the common denominator. The decision was so random that it was even difficult for the government to discern how the treatment would be doled out.

Were we enslaved, were we to be free? Were you still enslaved if you were your master’s child? Were you still enslaved if you were the child of your master’s wife? Were you enslaved if you looked like a white person? What if you looked like a white person, but still lived on the plantation or near the plantation where people knew your mother was black? Then could you be white? All ridiculous, all random, but all issues of black folks with lasting consequences that we see today. And consequently, all questions that today are moot. Because today, these distinctions are supposed to be irrelevant. Clearly there was nothing wrong with having that African Ancestor in the first place. But today, there are no lawful consequences to having the African Ancestor. We are not enslaved any longer because of it. We are not prohibited from getting an education because of it. We are not prohibited from prosperous employment because of it. We are not prohibited from getting married because of it.

Mr. Broyard was part of the Louisiana Creole community. The Black Creole community. (I make this distinction because there is a White Creole community in New Orleans also that traces their ancestors back to the French/Spanish settlers that lived there and they do not consider themselves part of the same community as the Black Creoles.) This means his mixture of Black American included African, French/Spanish and Native American and his family was from Louisiana. In fact, the term was once used to distinguish enslaved blacks that were born in Louisiana from those that were born in West Africa and transported there. But he was definitely a black man. He was part African, which made him a black man. Therefore, his children were black. They apparently could pass, but they were black. Just as his daughter from his first marriage was black. Again, the common denominator for Black Americans has always been the African Ancestor, not how much white or other. Hence, the name of Broyard’s memoir. Again, that is basically what being black in America is. Being a mixture of African with White, Native American or many other unknown factors to varying degrees.

So why did her mother feel the need to assure her that they were white? Why did she feel the need to basically assuring them that their father being black or “part African,” had nothing to do with who they were. I’m sure I’ll never really know Mrs. Broyard’s reasoning behind saying that to her children. In fact, I hope that what she was trying to say is that it was okay because even though they now knew that their father was black, they were still exactly the same individuals that they were before they knew. I hope she was trying to say that it didn’t matter. To find out for yourself, you can go to the African American literature section at your local Borders to find Broyard’s Memoir “One Drop.” I myself will be waiting, no hoping, for the day when passing is a non-issue and the comments to children with Africans in their past are “Anyway, you kids are black too, and that is just fine.”

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