Black Mother/Bi-Racial Child – No Imitation of Life
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.
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.
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.
Photo: Original photo of Marsha and Son, by Harrison Smith Sr.