Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit

Black Mother/Bi-Racial Child – No Imitation of Life

13 Comments

 
                                                                      
                                                                                                                    
 
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When my son was born, he was a remarkably lighter color than me – make that white – due, it was obvious, to his father, who is Irish-American.
 
But apparently, there was also a colorful mix of genetics in previous generations in my own light-skinned maternal family.           

His father and I were both, nevertheless, rather amazed, for we had envisioned one of those caramel-colored children who clearly mark the melding of two races – and here we had a child who looked like a 50’s Gerber baby.

Since I am an unmistakably Black woman, this was often the cause of crazy situations of which slapstick comedies or headlines are made. From the start, Hutzel Hospital nurses would not believe he was my child and for security’s sake requested armband checks at nursing time – years before this became common practice.                

joe-half-crop-small4  Later, bizarre faux pas and mixups were routine; strangers, accustomed to  “matching” families, tried to fathom our relationship, wondering if perhaps I were the child’s nursemaid. Often people would ask if I was  “babysitting” my own child.

Detroit is on the Canadian border, and once, on our way to a dinner there, border officials detained my car, for they suspected that I was kidnapping my toddler who sat next to me.

They would not believe I was his mother, and only a frantically produced birth certificate convinced them otherwise. Only those perceptive enough to look at people behind their colors, could see he looks like me – but a different hue.

As he grew older his Saxon looks darkened to a Semitic beige, but his baby curls turned straight – no closer at all to being “Black” in an obvious way. I began to worry over this – in a society in which racial identity is paramount, what would happen if he could not clearly identify himself as one race or the other? Preferably mine.

I had visions of the old move tearjerker “Imitation of life”, where the beautiful, “mixed” young woman rejects her Black mother and “passes for white”, until the death of her mother brings her crying to the funeral hearse, too late to claim her mother’s love. A morality play if there ever was one. Then there is old “tragic mulatto” theme of  the misery of “misengenation” and crossing the color-line; meant to strike fear into the mere thought of inter-racial unions.

When he became a teenager, I began to gingerly ask him about “passing”, but he had no idea of what the term even meant. He’d ask, in complete puzzlement, “now why would I want to do that?”, so different is our society now in some respects.

He felt no need at all to disappear into a permanent White life. I felt a little foolish; this is not the days of Sally Hemmings, watching some of her children with Thomas Jefferson escape into White existence forever, nor is it the times of segregation’s hide and seek – my son simply lives his life without demand for racial identification under most circumstances. He, likewise, felt no need to “prove” that is is “black”, despite looks to the contrary. 

It doesn’t occur to him I guess, to purposefully, permanently, give up being one or the other – or give up loving one parent or the other, which was, of course, my real fear.

I also wanted to protect him from the slings and arrows of racial hurts, in which he would be compelled to be “Black” by society, whether he looks like it or not. But as all parents try to shield their children from all number of hurts and harms, I can neither predict future wounds, nor protect him from life itself.

***

This is not to say that he has not had his challenges, for on the contrary, a life in racial ambiguousness is not easy. When it was decided that my son would live with his father for a while, there was only one problem – in my eyes at least – he would be living in an affluent, overwhelmingly white suburb. I feared that this could only give rise to conflicts that I wasn’t sure my preteen son could handle.

But over time he learned that friends are friends regardless; that peers can be jerks no matter the color of your mom or dad. I grew out of the need to make him “choose” what color he would be, for the love between mother and son cannot  be erased by color.

***

He tells me stories of his life as a “White” Black person: the open and ugly prejudice that is expressed right to his face from those not knowing his origins; the curious phenomenon that Whites can never guess what he is, naming a hilarious litany of ethnicities – Italian? Jewish? Indian? And even on occasion – Chinese!?!

Rarely, if ever, do they venture to say “Black”, for perhaps the very thought of this is too discomfiting. The idea that a Black person could be so firmly embedded in their midst, that there are Black” people who look so much like them – this is perhaps too much to fathom, for some.

There are many arguments made against the mixing of the races, including the fact that “the children are the ones who will suffer”. I know that he has had times when he has been wounded, but all children have been in one way or another, for there is pain in life.

He surely lives a different, more complex life than I will ever experience, but at times, I’m sure, it is a richer one too, betwixt and between races, enjoying the best – and witnessing the worst – of both.

I have long since given up debating with him on whether or not biracial folks should maintain identity/designation with Black people, on forms or census and such; for I do not live in his reality and accept that I cannot know the vagaries of race when experienced at his level.

I don’t use the old term “mulatto” which means “little mule” (the mix between a horse and a donkey), a part of the absurdist, demeaning racial designations of the old days, in favor of the term “bi-racial” or “multi-racial”, which is perhaps a more accurate reflection – though I’d argue that most Black people (and many Whites) are of mixed race, whether in the immediate, previous generation or not.

There is a current spate of bi-racial “relationships” such as seen on Jerry Springer and other talk shows, in all their dysfunctional, impoverished, fighting glory, that both exposes the sheer numbers of mixed unions while at the same time defames such relationships as underclass bi-racial insanity, which is not indicative of most bi-racial relationships.

Regardless of such talk show ugliness, society is perhaps ever more tolerant of the union of human beings across the “color line”. Halle Berry is not a star despite her heritage, but because of it. Barack Obama is regarded as an elegant amalgam of humanity itself.

***

My son has had some poignant moments. He is the namesake of my father, who was a Detroit record producer in the 50’s, and my son carries on our family name in the music business.

While working backstage with Aretha Franklin – my father produced her very first record – my son, not knowing of this family connection with her, was introduced to the Queen of Soul.

She mused aloud, “I used to know a man with the same name as you, many years ago…”, and her unspoken statement hung in the air “…but he was Black”.

How stunned and delighted she was to discover that this young “white” kid was the grandson of the first man to record her voice, a peculiar irony indeed.

And in one of his life’s more amusing episodes, as he got older he experienced the shock of realizing his Banana Republic pants no longer fit on his increasingly Fubu sized behind.

*** 

My son looks like me, or rather, a sort of white male version of me. It’s both unnerving and exhilarating to think that one has had emerge from one’s self a human being not of your race, so to speak, in a society when race really matters.

There are times when I feel I have contributed to an eventual caramelizing of the world, a blending of we racially separated humans into one color. Though truthfully, even now, in all of our divisions of colors and physical forms, I believe we are really only one human race.

I’m glad I’m his mother, and that I helped to create this intelligent, beautiful, racially indefinable young man. My son is not “White” yet I accede that he’s not “Black” either; he is both.

He in his 30’s now, smart as a whip and funny, works incessantly, treats airplanes like taxi’s, thinking nothing of jetting across the country or the world, unlike his aerophobic mother. He’s a loving young man with very good manners (from good schools and good families on both sides). He’s all the things a mother wants a son to be (except he likes to ride motorcycles. Scary.).

He works in both the White and Black music worlds and depending upon his environment, he just blends in. His speech and walk shift an almost imperceptible shade towards “Blackness” usually, but in general – even though it is not always easy – he moves confidently between the worlds of Black and White, at will.

Perhaps he got that naturally, for after all, he’s my kid – I’ve have always had a comfort with “humanity” in all of it’s colors; perhaps I passed this gift on through his heart, not merely his skin. 

I know he’s proud that Barack Obama, another who has experienced the challenges and gifts of bi-racial existence, has ascended to the Presidency of the United States, one who personifies the gifts and dilemmas of many bi-racial citizens.

I love my son with all my heart, and I’m grateful that he can move with ease “between” the races, living a life based on the content of his character, rather than the color of his skin. 

 Marsha Music copyright

 

Photo: Original photo of  Marsha and Son, by Harrison Smith Sr.

13 thoughts on “Black Mother/Bi-Racial Child – No Imitation of Life

  1. Thanks for writing so openly and honestly on this topic. I am a (biracial) black woman, raising two young daughters, one of whom is blond, has light coloured eyes, and a near white complexion. Strangers, family, friends regularly comment on how different she looks from me, how different she looks from her sister. People wonder if she is my child. Many people cannot see beyond the skin and hair colour and texture to see that we actually do look alike. These comments do get to me from time to time; I do not always know how to respond. I sometimes fear that because my youngest will be seen as white by the outside world, perhaps she will not feel as strong a connection to her black heritage as I would like. I hope and try to give my girls the tools and environment to have a healthy biracial identity and yet know that as they get older they will decide their own racial identities.

  2. Reply from Marsha:

    Bless Your Heart, missinpiece.

    It is said that what it written from the heart, touches the heart. You said one word that is operative in these situtations. “Fear”. Fear for them, fear for us, fear of others. Fear.

    I hope that you are able to “replace fear with Faith”, and that this small story of a few of my experiences might help you to know that many of the dramatic, wrenching choices of the past (and of movies and such) are not today’s realities in quite the same way.

    Perhaps your child will not have the connection that you want. Maybe her appearance will not allow her consciousness to conform with what you or I find comfortable. But you might be surprised at how deep the connection may be, nevertheless, as she grows up.

    I met a young woman this year, a very bright, interesting person of bi-racial heritage. Here’s her website, perhaps you’ll find it helpful.

    http://elizabethatkins.com/

    Again, Thank You.

    Marsha Music

  3. Marsha Music

    From time to time, we read each other’s writings and for someone who professes not to be able to write, this piece is wonderful. It seems that maybe I was right-you only need to choose the topic and it will flow like notes from a violin. I had to chose that instrumnet as I played the same. Difficult [read impossible for me] to master but the sound is exquisite.

    We have spoken on occasion about race and how it effects people; but let me share a story to explain that ‘Thank God’ your son does not have to make any choices.

    During the fifties a young woman moved from Mississippi to Detroit, Michigan in order to further her education. She attend DBI, although she had wanted to go into medicine. [another story] Each day after school she would walk up Woodward to the Kresge’s and order a vanilla milk shake from at the counter and sit and drink the same. She was such a regular that the ‘soda jerk’ knew her by name and the had many conversations.

    On this one day she made her regular sojourn to get a shake; but was accompanied by her friend. The very same ‘soda jerk’ indicated that he was happy to serve her; but that her friend would not be able to join her at the counter. Not really understanding, as she had become a regular-she started to comment and argue the situation, but was stopped by her friend [who had though her crazy in the first place]. Turning to look at her friend in “Why should’nt you be able to sit here” the girl realized her error. She had forgotten that Black were allow to order but not to sit. She had mistakenly believed that the amalgmated world where color did not matter existed; at least in that Kresge’s with that soda jerk. She was rudely reminded that it did not.

    The ‘soda jerk’ saw in her a very light skinned woman, not WASP but of course not black, with natural auburn, very fine coarsed hair, who spoke the ‘Queen’s English” without a southern accent [demanded by her parents] In her friend he saw a very dark skinned woman, who was somehow lesser than he.

    After, first apolozing to her friend for bringing her into that situation; they left with out their milk shakes. She lost the taste for the things, almost to this day.

    Like your son, and you; this girl [my mother] and I look excately alike. One a vanilla milk dud; the other chocloate. However, inside the same good things. The same wonderful and giving hearts.

    It is very obvious that all though you had ‘fears’ about how he would turn out; how he would preceive you–the one thing you did not account for was that regardless of the outside–you and his father put only good things inside him. The harvest of those good things is what you now reap.

    Knowing you I would have expected no less.

    JB

  4. Reply to JB from Marsha:

    Jb, when you say “for someone who professes not to be able to write” , I just KNOW you can’t be talking about me! That is NOT one of the things that I profess not to be able to do. LOLOL!!!!

    Though I certainly always protest that I don’t have enought TIME to write all that I want to write, for sure.

    Anyway, you’ve posted some excellent thoughts, and told a beautiful, though unfortunate, story. Yes, this “color thing” elicits confusion even among all “black” families, our innumerable shades of color being what they are.

    And yes, your resemblance to your mother is utterly striking, she light, you brown. Volumes could be written on the issues of color in parent-child relationships and the impact in a family and the reactions of outsiders to these differences.

    Lastly, Ms. Parker, it looks to me as if your writing deserves more exposure – maybe it’s time you started a blog yourself!

    Thanks for the great words!

    Marsha Music

  5. Apparently, you have done a good job in rearing your son. I’m sure there have been issues, but he appears well adjusted, from your comments. I believe his generation has moved away from some of the hang-ups of my generation, and of yours, as well. My granddaughter is bi-racial and I have learned a lot from her perspective. Congrats to you!!! Hilda

  6. What a wonderful revelation. So many stories like this are not, were not cannot be told. Race and color do intersect in so many different ways. My Dad was one of those so was Walter White and Ralph Bunche, and so many others. Each generation has an opportunity to tune in or drop out or really just be who they are. Thank God for the possibility to share in unrestricted ways in today’s age of communication.

    J2

  7. Reply from to Hilda, from Marsha Music:

    My son is a wonderful young man, and I would love to take all the credit. However, much credit is due his father, who also raised him and saw to his education; to certain values of both of our families, and to one great babysitter/“other mother” named Myrtis B., on the East Side of Detroit.

    And Thanks due to the Good Lord who has watched over my son, down through these years.

    He is well-adjusted, but it is not always easy, living a life of racial ambiguity. In fact, he has sometimes had very difficult experiences. He lives on the West Coast now, due in some respects, I’m sure, to our often unequivocally – even relentlessly – black/white culture of Metro Detroit.

    Nevertheless, as you have so nicely stated, things have changed in untold and previously unbelievable ways in the area of race, even here. Your granddaughter is living in different world, too.

    Thank you for your kind works, and taking the time to write.

    Marsha Music

  8. U R the G.O.K. !!!

  9. Hey ReeCee!

    Thanks for stopping by.

    For those who are curious, it’s an inside joke….but a nice one.

    Marsha

  10. I loved reading about your son. Some of the reactions you had when the two of you were together reminded me of some things I encountered with my late husband, Chris, who had a dark complexion, especially when compared with my very white blondness. When he became disabled and in a wheel chair, it was often told what a good nurse I was. Of course you can imagine how I loved responding, “Yes, I am that, and a whole lot more.”

    The isolation of the races was made very clear when my 5 yr old nephew stared at a photo of me and Chris that I had sent his parents. He finally turned to my sister in law and said, “Mommy, they don’t match!” We laughed at that one, but also knew just what it revealed about our society.

  11. In Brazilia, for example there is no such a problem-words branco and negro are not offensive to them.Like in films Tropa de Elite and City of God in their society identification is made by rich an poor.About 40% of brazilians are white 10%-black other 50% of mixed ancestry-with different combinations of colours of eyes, hair,skin etc.I think the same situation will be in US after 100-150 years or less.

  12. Thank you, Xander, for your comment. Yes, thinks are diffrent there indeed and are well on the way to beoming quite different here, as you note.

  13. Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and help others like you aided me.

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