As a biracial woman, it’s very important to me to include both sides of my family in every major event of my life. It allows my children an opportunity to see where their heritage lies and to see that, regardless of color, family is family.
That task has become harder to do in the last five years. My father, JW Blackwell, who was black, passed away in 2007. He had been my touchstone to my African American roots. His brown face was an
everyday presence in my life. Then one day that was gone. When he died, I felt like that part of my identity had passed away with him. But over time, I’ve realized that it has only grown stronger and deeper. And that shows up most in my determination to keep his memory and his perspective alive for me and my young children.
What strikes me as important about trying to include both sides of my heritage into my daily life in 2012 is that we seem to be at a yet another crossroads in this country regarding race relations. Recently, an Associated Press poll found that racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since President Obama was elected and that a “slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.” I find this stunning. Just four years ago the conversation was whether we have moved forward as a country. Now, it seems the conversation revolves around whether we have taken a step back. I know, for myself, celebrating those bonds of my black side is one of the most important choices I can make for my family.
For me, the conversation is a personal one. I share stories with my children about the many happy times I had with my dad as I grew up in small-town U.S.A., such as riding on his tractor as he was mowing the grass, or how he sat me on a five-gallon bucket in the front seat of his Pinto so I could see out the window. He was a man with strong family roots, and he had a positive outlook on life. He believed that you could become anything that you wanted to be. He believed that it was important to break color barriers to prove that you belonged in the same category as the white folks, which he did just by showing up everyday as the owner/operator of his own sanitation company.
It was his example and presence that led me to strive for education. And he was always proud of the examples of black family members who were doctors and lawyers, teachers and professionals. And that’s the group I wanted to belong to. He never met a stranger and was always kind to my friends. He could always make me feel better when I was down. Those were solid values that all Americans can relate to.
I come from a unique background. I grew up living in a trailer with my mom and part-time with my dad, who lived in a house that was about 300 yards away from us. I saw him on a daily basis. I would catch the bus to school at my mom’s and get off of the bus after school at my dad’s. It was confusing to my friends (even now), but it was my normal. My dad was a well-known and respected business person in the community. I didn’t know that there was a class distinction until many years later. My mom and I never went without the things that I needed. My life was good in Sandoval, Ill.
It wasn’t made known to me that I was the “black sheep” of both sides of my family until I was an adult. When my mom was pregnant with me, her brothers shunned her. I was spit on as an infant when her brother finally did come to see his sister’s new baby. So I know the prejudice found in the recent Associated Press poll for having “one drop” of African blood. When I walked into my black aunts and uncles homes, I was embraced, just one more member of the family.
But my father’s sons were just as negative surrounding the circumstances of my birth. My existence is the result of an extramarital affair. As many of my cousins have become parents and have gotten married to those of another race — both white and black and others in between — I no longer consider myself the “black sheep.” I like to think of myself as a trailblazer. I had to endure the pain of being called “[expletive] baby” by family members who I thought would protect me as a child. Now, however, they see it as acceptable to have biracial grandchildren in hopes that they grow up to act or even look like “Cousin Kim” — stable, college-educated, sane.
One of my first and most vivid memories of a racial barrier was when I was in the third grade. He and I attended a father-daughter banquet for my Girl Scout troop. I remember feeling uneasy and nervous about what the other girls would say because my dad didn’t look like theirs. But because he had a lot more experience with this kind of thing than an 8-year-old, he made me feel like the most special girl in the room. He patted the top of my hand and said, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, we are here together and that’s all that matters.” It provided me with a sense of pride and a steady comfort. It’s one of the things that I adored about him.
So, when someone brings up something as controversial as race, I could bury my head in the sand and divert the topic. But instead, I stand up for the 10-year-old girl who still lives beneath the surface of this very sensitive subject. I have since confronted every boy that called me vile names when I was in fifth grade and have received apologies from them all. But it’s still difficult to address a subject such as this with co-workers.
I would like our country, as this most polarizing election comes to an end, to consider my experience and that of those like me, who have been the recipient of racial prejudice. It’s time for us to all go through an effort to reach out to the sides of us that are different and embrace our collective heritage. That doesn’t mean we have to agree or vote for the same person for president, just that we can respect the humanity of each other and base our decisions on more than the stereotypes we have of one another.
These days when I mark the “All That Apply” on a race box form, I proudly check “white” and “African American.” By marking both race boxes, it reminds me that after many, many years of soul-searching, I’m never ashamed of my your parents are or were. They too have endured many years of pain to keep me safe, grounded and loved. It’s a conscious decision each time I’m approached with it. Any time I bring this subject up to my mom, who is now in her mid-70s, she approaches it with the same protective nature that she always has. She tells me the same thing every time: “What difference does it make?” This is the value that I try to instill in my young children.
One of my last memories with my dad was something that will stay with me the rest of my life. As he became more and more sick, I would rotate shifts with mom in order to give her a break. He and I were in his room watching some television program and we began talking about my future and the children that I didn’t yet have. He told me he was proud of the strong person he raised, and advised me not to take anything from anyone.
He taught me that it was okay to live my life how I wanted and it was okay to love who my heart told me to. As an African American man, he was proud of working on the railroad and the business venture that he started from the ground up. He took great pride in his grass-roots upbringing.
These same grass-roots, common-sense values have been passed onto me. As a 34-year-old wife and mother of two, I wish for my children to treat others with dignity and respect, and it’s my hope that they will be treated the same. I see my son play with other little boys in his class who are of different races and it makes my heart smile. He only sees his friends as people who share an interest in characters from the Transformers.
I am an MBA graduate. I work at a Fortune 100 company and enjoy my career in the health-care industry. If it weren’t for my dad’s love and strength, I wouldn’t have the courage to live my life so freely, so proudly black and white. I hope the country can learn that lesson, too.
Kim McCl aren-Hastings is a wife and working mother of two. She lives in St. Louis.
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