I have a 20-year-old white girl living in my basement. She happens to be my first cousin. I happen to be black.
Genetics is a funny thing. So are the politics of racial declaration.
My 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, calls her Cousin Kim. Kim's daddy calls my mother his baby sister. Kim's father is black. Her mother is white. And Kim calls herself white. At least that's what she checks off on all those forms with neat little boxes for such things.
She grew up in southern Illinois. Sandoval, population about 1,500. There were 33 people in her high school graduating class. Counting Cousin Kim, there was half a black. I used to think Kim lived in a trailer park. But one day she corrected me. We live in a trailer home, she said--"my mother owns the land."
The black side of Kim's family is professional. Lawyers, doctors, Fortune 500 company execs. We have an uncle who got a PhD in math at 21. The white side of Kim's family is blue collar. Less formally educated. Some recipients of government entitlement programs. Not to draw too fine a distinction, but color is not the only thing that separates us.
I brought Kim to Maryland to live with me after my second child, Savannah, was born. She is something of an au pair, if au pairs can hail from Sandoval.
Back home, Kim had run into some trouble. Bad grades, good beer. She came to D.C. to sort it all out. To find a way to get her life back on track. And she came to get in touch with the black side of her family--and possibly herself.
She may have gotten more than she bargained for.
This is a story about how a close family can split right down a color line without ever saying a word about it. The details belong to Cousin Kim and me, but the outline is familiar to anyone for whom race is a secret or a passion or an issue or a decision. The story is scary in places. Because to tell it, both Kim and I have to go there. Race Place, U.S.A. It is a primal stretch of land. It shares a psychic border with the place where we compete for the last video, parking space at the mall or kindergarten slot in that elite magnet school. Where we fight over soccer calls, and elbow each other to secure Tickle Me Elmos for our kids. It is the place where we grew up hearing black people smell like copper and white people smell like wet chickens. Where everybody knows that whites are pedophiles and gun nuts. And blacks smoke crack. Where interracial couples still bother us.
You've gotta pass through Race Place in order to make it to Can We All Get Along, but most everybody is looking for a shortcut.
For Kim and me, there are no shortcuts. We meet in the middle, from opposite sides of a racial divide. It is the DMZ and our shields are down. We may lose friends, black and white, for telling this truth so plainly. Still, alone together, we begin.
The First Time
Do you remember the first time somebody called you "nigger"?
I do. I was on vacation in Centralia, Ill., where both of my parents were born and raised. Five minutes from where Cousin Kim grew up. It was the early 1970s, and I was maybe 5 years old.
Two white girls walked up to me in a park. They were big. Impossibly big. Eleven at least. They smiled at me.
"Are you a nigger?" one of the girls asked.
On the segregated South Side of Chicago where I lived, it was possible for a black child to go a very long time and never hear the word "nigger" directed at her. But I wasn't on the South Side, and after five years, my time was up.
I stood very still. And my stomach grew icy. My spider senses were tingling. Where had I heard that word before? "I, I don't know," I told her, shrugging my shoulders high to my ears.
The first girl sighed, exasperated. Then the other repeated, more forcefully this time, "Are you a nigger? You know, a black person?" she asked.
I wanted to answer her. To say something. But fear made me confused. I had no words. I just stood there. And tried not to wet my panties.
Then I ran. I turned quickly to look over my shoulder just in time to hear a rock whiz past my ear and plop into a nearby creek.
"You better git, you little Ne-gro!" somebody else, a white boy, yelled at me from a few feet away. I kept running, and this time, I didn't look back.
For the rest of the day, I harbored a secret. I harbored the shame for longer. I knew I was black. I had found out the year before. I remember because I had confronted my father, demanding to know when my blond hair and blue eyes would kick in. Like the Miss Breck shampoo girl on television. Like the superheroes on "Superfriends."
Only white people have blond hair and blue eyes, my dad said. "And we're black."
The wicked witch, the headless horseman, the evil stepmother and all the bad guys on "The New Adventures of Scooby Doo" wore black. Black eye, black heart, Black Death. Black ass. Mine was a negative, visceral reaction to the word.
Five years old was old enough to know I was black. It was old enough for somebody to call me a nigger.
And it was certainly old enough to feel like one.
That would be the first time.
One Black Drop
It is early June, and Cousin Kim and I are about to watch "Roots," the landmark 1970s television miniseries about a slave family. Kim says she's heard of the movie but has never seen it. So I go to queue the video in the cassette player, but first I make a cup of tea. And straighten the pillows on my couch. Then I check my voice mail.
I am puttering. Procrastinating. Loath to begin. Because I don't know if our blood ties are strong enough to withstand slavery. And I am scared to watch "Roots" with a white girl. Scared of my anger. Scared of my pain. Scared that she won't get it. Scared of how much I want her to. Scared of the way race can make strangers out of family.
It has been nearly a year since Kim first came to live with me. She was a cousin I barely knew. She had visited my husband and me in the summer of 1994, when our daughter Sydney was a baby. The first time she had ever seen so many black people in her life, she would later say.
Before that, there were brief visits with my mom and quick kisses at my college graduation. Over the years, I heard much more than I ever saw of Cousin Kim. Kim's father had a black family. His kids were adults when Kim was born. Later, his wife died. And though they are now a public couple, my uncle and Kim's mom never married.
My girls adore Kim. And when she goes to get Sydney from school, the little black prekindergartners rush her at the door, greeting her with wide smiles and hugs and shouts of "Hi, Cousin Kim!"
This past year, we've laughed over sitcoms and shared private jokes. We've talked about old boyfriends, gone shopping and giggled over family gossip. Still, up to now, we've never been down that black-and-white brick road.
I was shocked to hear that Cousin Kim considered herself white. I found out only because she had to fill out some forms to get into community college. Because I asked her if they had a box for race. Then I asked her what she checked. I was ready to tease her pointedly for checking off "other." In between. Not quite either.
I was prepared to lobby--to drop science about the "one-drop rule." In slave days, that meant that if you had a drop of black blood, you were singing spirituals and working for somebody for free. Trying not to get beaten, and trying to keep your babies from being sold--even if the massa was their daddy. Color gradations were a legacy of the plantation system. And although light was favored, one drop gave us a common destiny. Shackled all of us darkies together.
Later, one drop meant that blacks were able to form a common cultural identity. To agitate for the common good. Because light mulattoes lynched as easily as dark Africans. But one drop also meant there have always been those who could pass. Who required writ, or testimony, or a declaration of intent to make them black. For whom race has always been a choice.
Cousin Kim would be one of these. Her eyes are bright blue-gray and her skin has only a suggestion of color. Generations of careful breeding have worked out all her kinks. To white folks, she looks white. And mostly, that is how they treat her. Like one of their own.
Still, I was ready to cast her lot with the sisters. You know half-black is black, I was ready to say. I was ready for "other." I wasn't ready for "white." Or that familiar sting of rejection.
I have The Sight. Like my mother before me. Like most black people I know. It is a gift. A special kind of extrasensory perception. We may not be clairvoyant enough to determine the location of the rebel base. Or have the telekinesis it takes to shatter a glass ceiling.
But we can spot some Negro on you from three generations away.
It reveals itself in a flash of expression. A momentary disposition of features in repose. The curl of a top lip that seems to say "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen."
We have The Sight because we are used to looking at black people. Used to loving them. We know the range of colors black comes in. Because there's always somebody at our family reunions who could go either way. And because we are a worldly people, and we know how these things go.
The Sight is a nod to solidarity. It is a reaction against dilution and division. It is the recognition that when people face overwhelming odds, you need to know who can be compelled to ante up and kick in.
We use it to put a black face on public triumphs that look lily white. And to "out" folks who might act against our interests without sharing in the consequences.
No matter how many times she thanked "the black community" for embracing her music, we knew Mariah Carey was part black. And long before he opened his mouth, we saw something in Rock Newman's eyes, even though they are blue.
When people wanted to call actresses Jennifer Beals or Troy Beyer beautiful, we were eager to point out their black roots. Eager to claim New York Yankee Derek Jeter and Channel 4 newscaster Barbara Harrison. Old folks swear Yul Brynner was black and that was why he kept his head shaved. And speculation persists, despite the fact that Georgia representative Bob Barr has affirmed his whiteness.
Understand. It's not that we don't respect Tiger Woods's right to call himself a Cablinasian. We just don't think it will help him get a cab in D.C.
My cousin calls herself white and I see a side of me just passing away. Swallowed up by the larger, more powerful fish in the mainstream. And I wonder if that will be the future for my family, some who look like Kim--others who look like me but have married white, or no doubt will. And I wonder, ultimately, if that will be the future for black people. Passing themselves right out of existence. Swearing it was an accident. Each generation trading up a shade and a grade until there is nothing left but old folks in fold-up lawn chairs on backyard decks who gather family members close around to tell nostalgic tales that begin "Once upon a time when we were colored . . ."
And I think to myself, I wish there were some things that we just wouldn't do for straight hair. And I think of the struggle and the history and the creativity lost. And I trust that the universe will register my lament.
When my cousin calls herself white, I see red. And I hear echoes. "Well, I don't really consider myself black . . ."
Or maybe it is laughter.
The Real World
Cousin Kim is having a hard time with "Roots." Not her own, the movie. I'm not having an easy time myself.
She isn't ready for the stuff they left out of her history books. I am unable to restrain my commentary. Or my imagination. Sometimes my tears.
Ever heard of Calvert County, I ask Kim bitterly when a teenage African girl is sold at an Annapolis auction as a bed wench to Robert Calvert. Kim didn't know that Maryland had ever been a slave state.
There is a scene where kidnapped African Kunte Kinte won't settle down in his chains. "Want me to give him a stripe or two, boss?" the old slave, Fiddler, asks his Master Reynolds.
"Do as I say, Fiddler," Reynolds answers. "That's all I expect from any of my niggers."
"Oh, I love you, Massa Reynolds," Fiddler tells him. And instantly, my mind draws political parallels. Ward Connerly, I think to myself. Armstrong Williams. Shelby Steele. Hyperbole, some might say. I say dead-on.
"Clarence Thomas," I say to Cousin Kim. And she just stares at me. She may be a little tender yet for racial metaphors. I see them everywhere.
Kim is 20 in the way of small-town 20-year-olds all over the country. Her best-best friends are Jenny and Nikki and Theresa. They send letters, e-mail one another and run up my phone bill. She takes classes, takes care of my children and passes time painting her nails and watching "The Real World," on MTV. I tease her about being Wal-Mart-obsessed.
Cousin Kim walked out of the movie "Glory" when she was in 11th grade. When Denzel Washington got lashed with a whip and cried silently. Couldn't handle it, she said. "I just didn't want to see it. I couldn't stand the idea of seeing someone literally beat." Avoidance and denial are twins in my family. In others as well.
When Kim was growing up in Sandoval, they didn't celebrate Black History Month, she says. "Not even Black History Week. We just had Martin Luther King Day."
The town was not integrated. Her father was the only black person she saw regularly. "And I don't consider him black," Kim says. My uncle is not one to disabuse her of that notion.
Kim's dad ran his own sanitation business. He was a hard-working, astute, sometimes charming businessman. A moneymaker. And my mother says people used to say if he had been white, he would have been mayor of Centralia. Of course, Kim has never heard this. In fact, "we've never had a conversation about race in my house," Kim says casually. And for a moment, I am staggered. But I am not surprised.
Making the Grade
My mama's people have always been color-struck. Daddy's, too, for that matter. Black folks know the term. It is part of an informal caste system that has always existed in the black community.
It is a form of mental colonialism. A shackle for the mind. A value system that assigns worth and power to those traits that most closely resemble the massa.
If you're light, you're all right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back, people used to say.
I am light; my husband is dark. When my daughter Sydney was born, everybody wanted to know who she looked like. They weren't asking about her eyes. They wanted to know what black folks always want to know when a baby who can go either way on the light-dark thing is born. Whose color is she? What kind of hair does she have?
The hair can be a tricky thing. Nothing for that but to wait a few months until the "grade" comes in good. But for color, we've got it down. We're a race of mad scientists, fervently checking the nail beds and ear tips of newborns to precisely determine where they'll fall over the rainbow.
My paternal grandmother was a very light woman with straight hair and black features. She had an inspection ritual she performed on all new babies in the family. A careful once-over to check for color and clarity before she pronounced judgment. I didn't know this until I introduced her to Sydney when she was about 6 months old.
She sat my baby on her lap. After a few minutes, she announced her findings. "Well, her color is good. And her hair ain't half bad considering how black that nigger is you married."
You know these days we try to stay away from divisive pronouncements on color, I wanted to tell her. We don't want to handicap our daughter with crippling hair issues.
But please. My grandmother might have hit me if I had tried to spout some nonsense like that. More to the point, particularly among the elders, there is a certain unassailable quality to the color caste logic. A tie-in with life chances. And my grandmother was nearly 80. So I took the only option available under the circumstances. I smiled sweetly and said thank you. Because, after all, this was high praise.
"Watch out for your children!" had been a favorite admonition passed down from my maternal grandmother. The one I shared with Cousin Kim. She wasn't talking about bad influences or oncoming traffic. She was talking about a kind of Breeders' Cup standard for black love. At least the kind that ended in marriage. Light skin, good-hair (a compound word), light eyes. That was the Triple Crown.
Early on, I learned there is a premium placed on my particular brand of mongrel.
I am Red, as in Red Bone. Or Yellow, for High Yellow. Or light, bright and damn near white.
I used to be able to break into a full genealogy incantation in an instant, with attention paid to the whites and Native Americans in my family tree. Because that white girl was still running around my head asking me if I was black. Because black and ugly always came in the same breath.
But I credit white folks with my slow evolution toward racial consciousness.
We moved to a suburb of Chicago when I was 9. And we arrived squarely in a middle-class dream.
I had always been shy. A good student. With long hair. Teachers loved me. And always, a few black girls hated me. "White dog," they called me--no, wait, that's what they called my sister. I was a "half-white bitch." Theirs was a reaction. A rage. A demonstration of the only power they had, the only power perhaps they thought they would ever have. The power to bully. But back then, I didn't know that. I had "A Foot in Each World" but couldn't get my head into either.
I don't remember my moment of political and aesthetic epiphany. It was more of a slow dawn, I think. An incremental understanding of the forces that were working around me. Certainly, watching white folks pack up and leave the neighborhood in herds made an imprint. And when a white boy spat on me at a park, I took that very personally. But it was the trickle of small slights that accumulated over the years that combined to make one point very clear.
High Yellow was just a lighter shade of black.
To be in Chicago in 1983 when Harold Washington, a big, dark, deep-black intellectual, was elected mayor was to see the face of racism. To watch the way that hate contorts the features and purples the skin. White folks were rabid. Foaming at the mouth. A few white newscasters could barely read their copy. A flier circulated through my high school featuring a big-lipped black caricature chowing down on watermelon. The city would have to be renamed Chicongo, it said. And I understood.
Ultimately, race is political. And I am a partisan.
Sometimes I still hear that white girl ask me if I am black. And now I have an answer.
Blacker than three midnights.
As black as the ace of spades.
I'm so black that when I get into my car, the oil light comes on.
I've decided that it is unhealthy for us to surrender to white sensibilities, including the ones that mock us from inside our own heads.
We have all been guilty of dumbing down our expectations of white humanity--like white folks can't process nappy hair--and it's time to help them raise the bar.
Playing the Race Card
Kim has a friend whose daddy was in the Ku Klux Klan. A poster-sized picture of a finger-pointing Klansman adorned her living room wall. "I felt like Clarice Starling in 'The Silence of the Lambs' whenever I went over there," Kim says. "Like the first time she went to the jail and saw Hannibal Lecter."
The father didn't ask if Kim was part black. Kim didn't tell. She just sat on the edge of the couch with her hands and legs folded. "I kept praying, oh God, he's going to see something on me and know that I am mixed." So she stared straight ahead. And she sucked her lips in a reverse pucker the whole time she was there. Trying not to make herself too obvious, she says. Trying not to look black.
When she was in fifth grade, Kim's dad took her to a basketball game. And the bleachers went silent. Then they got whispery. Some folks already knew her dad was black. After that, everybody did.
"They used to tease me," Kim says with a shrug. She is reluctant to talk. So I press her. "Let's see, it went something like this, "Nigger-lips, nigger-lips, nigger-lips." Kim won't look at me.
The grandparents of one of Kim's friends didn't like black people. They didn't know about Kim's daddy. When the girls visited these folks, they weren't allowed to watch "The Cosby Show" because the grandfather didn't want a black man in his living room.
"I hate the N-word," Kim says. It is late. We've finished another installment of "Roots," and Kim is unsettled. Ready to talk. Tripping over her pent-up thoughts. "Whenever somebody said 'nigger' in class, everyone would turn around and look at me. I hate that word. I hate that the first thing they associate with that word is me."
When she was a freshman at Sandoval High, Kim wore a T-shirt with Martin Luther King Jr. on the front and Malcolm X on the back. "They all looked at me as if to say 'Oh, my God, she really isn't white.' " She grins when she says this.
Around 1993, Kim says she started getting into the "movement." Started watching "Yo! MTV Raps" and "The Cosby Show." Started being hungry for black culture.
She gave a civil rights speech to her sophomore English class. Her teacher thought it was a little angry. That summer, when my daughter Sydney was a baby, Kim came to D.C. We toured the White House and saw the first lady. But it was the Father's Day tribute at a friend's house where a group of us read proclamations and praised all the things we loved best about black men that got her. That let her know there was a different world than where she came from.
Her mother said she seemed different when she returned. Kim says she's always been different. In a town where everybody knows everybody and the social hierarchy is simple and uncolored, Kim is an anomaly.
"I've never technically fit in Sandoval," Kim says. "I've never had the small-town mentality. Then, after I moved out here, I thought maybe I do. Maybe I'm just a little bit country."
"I'm really trying to figure out who I am."
Some of that goes with 20-year-old territory. It's a no woman's land. Biologically grown, legally not quite, emotionally uneven. But Cousin Kim's 20 is more complex than most. She's never tried to deny the fact that her dad was black. But she has never had the resources or the tools to embrace that side of herself. She is provincial. Unexposed. Underdressed as a black girl. Searching.
On the phone or when she goes home to visit, Kim is still white. But in my house, she is a real root sister. Neither are affectations. It's just the way her cards fall. Kim is, I suppose, the ultimate insider. Privy to our private jokes. The ways we laugh at white people. And at each other. A black spy in her world. A white fly on the wall in mine. A study in duality.
We have also had some growing pains in my house. And I am quick to assign blame. Quick to play the race card.
Cousin Kim smokes. I am hard pressed to name anybody else who smokes. Especially anybody young and black. I want her to stop, and I make the questionable leap. "You need to leave that nasty white girl [expletive] alone," I tell her. Initially when I said it, Kim just looked at me meekly. Now, she gives me the finger.
Ours is a jocularity. Aided by silent code. Reinforced by a power imbalance.
Reverse racism, I suppose some would call it. I don't think so. I believe white folks would know if blacks were ever to really reverse racism. We call them countermeasures. Cousin Kim, I ask her, if you hate me because I am black and I hate you because you killed my babies, is that the same?
It is a rhetorical question. Because in my house, we do not hate. We merely understand that there are those who do. So we strive for balance. We try not to resort to negative campaigning. Sometimes we succeed. Occasionally we fail. But we always make the effort. Because fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. We do not need Yoda to tell us this. It is something people on the dark side have always known.
Killing Me Softly
A couple of months ago, Katie Couric made me mad. I had to vent with Cousin Kim. For a week, the "Today" show devoted a segment to tracing family histories. And Couric's roots go back to Alabama. When cotton was king and the Courics were part of the ruling family.
You could buy fertile land cheap, the segment said. And the Courics did. The family prospered and included a Civil War governor and a member of Congress.
Couric toured the family cemetery and recounted the stories behind the headstones. Then she said, "Slaves lie in unmarked but well-tended graves nearby."
That was it. No acknowledgment that these "slaves" were people her family bought and sold. That some of them might be her kin. That no matter how smart or talented or hard-working she is, her privilege was codified, her head start generations long. That it came at the expense of somebody else's freedom. No mention of any attempt to trace those other lives to see how they fared. Maybe that would have been too much to hope for. But how about an expression of regret. A mea culpa. An "I'm sorry--wish you were here."
Genealogy is about "our simple stories, not forgotten," Couric said. Interesting choice of words. Black families have stories, too. Ones we don't forget. That get passed down to our kids.
My great-grandmother shot a white man who tried to rape her in Mississippi, and the family had to scatter. My grandmother's family, who hadn't been able to get in on that fertile-land-for-cheap deal, was dirt poor and although she was the only one of her people to finish high school, there was no money for college. At 17, my mother sat outside a Birmingham train station crying because they told her she was too colored for the white side and too white for the colored side. On a family vacation, we were turned away from an empty motel lot because the manager said there were no vacancies. In college, when I told a white journalism professor I wanted to work at The Washington Post, he said, "Doing what? Sweeping floors?"
Cousin Kim, I say. Which is better? The kindly massa or the sadistic overseer? And Kim doesn't answer. Neither, I tell her. They are the same. Two parts of a whole. Today, folks won't just walk up to you and call you "nigger lips." Well, they might, but mostly it is the benign racists who are killing me softly. They don't recognize themselves in the mirror. They didn't mean anything by it. They harbor no ill will. They just don't care enough to step outside their comfort zone.
I understand that proclivity. Often I share it. Most of us are too self-involved to dig up the psychic pain of others. But when your family has owned slaves, indifference is a self-indulgence you forfeit.
More than 300 years of chattel slavery. 129 years of terrorism and de jure Jim Crow. Thirty-four years--one generation--of full legal enfranchisement. I don't know, seems a little corrupt for white folks to cry colorblind now. We go to the Race Place because these days, I find privileged indifference as culpable as malice aforethought. When you step on my toes, I may not retaliate in kind, but you must know that I will say ouch. Loudly. Such that it disturbs your peace. Then you say, "I'm sorry." Then help me heal. After that, we can all get along nicely.
Cousin Kim nods her head yes. I believe she really gets it this time. But perhaps that's just wishful thinking.
Black for Me
Cousin Kim and I have watched all six parts of Alex Haley's "Roots." And three parts of "Queen." Then we did an hour of WHMM's "Black Women on the Light Dark Thing." We have talked and we have shared. And still she is white. And I am as black as ever.
"We're lucky," the biracial woman Alice said in "Queen." "We can choose. Who'd choose to be black? Black is hard. White is so much easier."
I want my cousin to be black for me. For the little girl who ran from a rock thrown at her head. For all the niggers I have been. I want her to be black because I'm still afraid of casual monsters in white-girl clothes. Not because they might hurt me, but they might hurt my children. Not because they hate. But because they teach 5-year-old black girls to hate themselves. And black people of all ages to suck in their lips.
Cousin Kim still chooses white not only because she looks white, she says, but "because I was raised white," and because most white folks don't know the difference. Probably it is easier. Maybe to some people she is selling out--but I also know that is an option a lot of black folks would like to have.
If I'm honest with myself, maybe I'm one of them. At least sometimes, if I think about my husband or brother getting stopped by the police for speeding. Or maybe at Tysons Corner, when tears burn my eyes as I watch a sales clerk wait on everybody but me. My anger is hot and righteous. But I'd give it up for a simple "May I help you?" any day.
Every day the world lets me know I'm black. And I wonder what it would feel like not to carry that, just for a while. Probably guilty. Probably relieved. Probably a lot like Cousin Kim.
There are no easy choices, but I think I understand my cousin's. Maybe I did all along. I just had to tell our story to realize it. But understanding and acceptance are not the same. Cousin Kim is white but conflicted, and I still sting with rejection. So alone together, we linger.
The Magic Kingdom
Race. The final frontier.
The Race Place isn't crossed in a day. You can't pass through it in the time it takes to watch a miniseries. We traverse the Race Place in fits and starts, inch by inch, over the course of a lifetime. Or maybe two. Sometimes our progress is steady. And sometimes we are dragged for miles back to the beginning, chained behind a pickup truck, and have to start all over.
The overarching reality is that realities overarch. And jockey for head space.
The extremes are easy to condemn, but the vast middle is where most of us live. Where we raise our families. And where we hope that life's lessons land a little softer on the behinds of our children than they did on our own.
A few days ago, Cousin Kim said she got into an argument with her ex-boyfriend over "The Wonderful World of Disney." The characters in the old cartoons are racists, Kim said. Look at the crows in "Dumbo." "I won the argument," she says. "He told me 'Kim, you think too much.' "
Cousin Kim smiled. And I smiled. Because this is what I want for her. To think. To challenge. To recognize. To get it. If she does that, then maybe she doesn't have to be black.
Still, I can't help giving her a silent "right on, little sister." You just take your time. We're family. And I'll be here to hip-you-up if you ever change your mind.