One day, two years ago, when my twin daughters were six, they were watching television. It was February, Black History Month. A commercial came on. It was more like a thirty-second history lesson, the commemoration of a pilot, a poet, or a politician—a First Black, as a writer I know used to call them. Them being the racial pioneers, the inaugural Negroes, the foremost African Americans to break through racial barriers in their chosen fields. By break through, of course, I mean secure the regard of white people.
“See, we’re black,” Giulia said to Isabella.
“No, we’re brown,” Isabella responded.
“Yeah, but they call it black,” Giulia explained.
Despite my efforts to shield them, it seemed, my daughters had somehow gotten wise to the absurd and illogical nature of American racial identity. Blackness, Giulia had figured out, had nothing to do with actual skin color. Blackness, she had come to understand, was an external identity, external to her anyway. Race was something other people identified, something they said but didn’t necessarily see. Blackness, she had intuited, was a social category—not a color, but a condition. And like it or not, she was informing her sister, it was time to get with the proverbial program. In spite of me, but also because of me, my brown daughters were becoming black.
My heart sank.
It was not blackness per se that caused my heart to sink. I am black. I enjoy being black. But it took me a long time to get here, to this place of racial pleasure. My earliest experiences of blackness were defined by an unpleasant and uncomfortable hyper-vigilance. Being black meant you had to be constantly aware; you could never really be at ease. Being black in a white place was not safe.
I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in the middle of the civil rights era. In my family, race was not a construction or a theory or an outdated consequence of history, but the active, living foundation of our reality. Race determined the contours of every choice we made; every mundane public act we performed was a project that had a name. When we moved into our house, it was called integration. When my brothers and I entered the public school system, it was called desegregation. The split between black and white was not metaphorical; railroad tracks divided black and white Nashville. We lived on the white side of town, South Nashville, where we played a role in a grand project of enormous proportions. But in North Nashville, we could be black in a way that was not possible in any other part of the city. In North Nashville, no one white was watching. We could relax. We were free.
North Nashville was where my father practiced medicine and where we attended events at Fisk University, my parents’ alma mater and one of this country’s oldest historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. North Nashville was where we attended church, in a small chapel established for the faculty and students of Meharry Medical College, from which both of my parents received their graduate degrees. Among the parishioners in the chapel were men and women I called “Aunt” and “Uncle” even though we had no biological relationship. We shared something bigger and more profound than blood: history. Inside the church, we celebrated our belief in God and indulged in a common pride in how we had all broken through. We were a community, a black community, built in spite of racism. And, because of it: if not for white supremacy, schools like Fisk and Meharry might never have existed.
But my daughters were not born under the shadow of this history. Giulia and Isabella were born in Ethiopia. When they were twelve months old, they assumed dual citizenship in both America and African America. Now they live in South Burlington, Vermont. Inside the small city is their neighborhood, which is, curiously, more integrated than the neighborhood I grew up in is, even today. Inside the neighborhood lives a family—my family—whose native language is color, not race.
• • •
A couple of weeks after I overheard my daughters’ conversation, my husband and I had dinner with a couple (a man and a woman, both white), and I told them the story. I tried to explain my reasons for wanting to protect my daughters from the language of race, but my explanations seemed only to make them impatient. “Don’t you want them to know their history?” the woman asked.
I knew what she meant. She meant American slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement; Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks; Martin, Malcolm, and other First Blacks. February stories that, as American stories, belong more to her, a white American woman, than they do to my daughters.
My daughters do know about their history. We flip through picture books of twelfth century Ethiopian underground churches carved out of rock. I show them websites that feature both centuries-old drawings and modern photographs of Ethiopian kings and queens. “Yours was the only African country to fight off the colonizer,” I remind them often. Every mother thinks her daughters look like angels, but my daughters actually do resemble the doe-eyed, haloed brown cherubs of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian iconography.
“Why did white people make black people slaves?” Isabella asked one afternoon, later that same February.
“There’s been slavery all over the world,” I told her. “Even in Ethiopia.”
I am proud that my daughters were born in a world where not only slaves but also angels and aristocrats look just like them.
In the world in which I grew up, Jesus was blond and blue-eyed. I almost got into a fight in high school when I informed a white classmate that Jesus probably had brown skin and definitely had hair like lambs’ wool. He was just as baffled as he was enraged. He was as blond and blue-eyed as, well, Jesus—or Megyn Kelly, the Fox News host who told her viewers in December 2013 that Jesus was as white as Santa Claus. How could my revision not shake him to the core?
• • •
It’s more than pride.
I envy my daughters’ history, as African Americans have—since the time when we were Negroes—envied those with a clear and direct relationship to Africa.
“To know where the Negro is going one must know where the Negro comes from,” wrote Trinidadian writer and activist C. L. R. James in his 1939 essay “The Destiny of the Negro.” He castigates capitalist pseudo-scientists for attempting to “deprive the Negro of any share in the famous civilizations of Egypt and Ethiopia.”
Before him, W. E. B. Du Bois—author, activist, social scientist, statesman, and arguably the preeminent First Black in American history—composed The Star of Ethiopia, an American historical pageant, which opened in New York in 1913. The play, which in one of its productions used almost one thousand actors, attempts to capture African American history in its entirety.
Du Bois described the drama in “The Star of Ethiopia: A Pageant”:
[It] begins with the prehistoric black men who gave to the world the gift of the welding of iron. Ethiopia, Mother of Men, then leads the mystic procession of historic events past the glory of ancient Egypt, the splendid kingdoms of the Sudan and Zymbabwe down to the tragedy of the American slave trade. Up from slavery slowly . . . the black race writhes back to life and hope and . . . builds a new and mighty Tower of Light on which the Star of Freedom gleams forever.
My daughters’ connection to Africa does not have to be fashioned or dramatized, invented or recuperated. It is a concrete reality to which many African Americans aspire; that aspiration is represented in the term African American itself. So much of the complexity of being African American inheres in the fact that we are, in fact, African Americans, products of this soil yet rooted in something somewhere else.
“One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder,” wrote Du Bois in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.
I am black, but not wholly African American. My father was born in Trinidad, and I grew up among his nieces and nephews. Some of my West Indian cousins found the unreconciled strivings of African Americans tiresome and confusing. Educated in the States at HBCUs, they exasperated their classmates by insisting black alienation was self-imposed. Why couldn’t black Americans embrace a national identity? asked my cousin Anita. She claimed she couldn’t understand it. I was not surprised when she returned to Trinidad after college. A country that had been promoted by her elders, including my father, as a land of professional opportunity proved to her to be an intolerable ideological straitjacket.
During a trip I made to the island with my family as a teenager, a couple of years after Anita had left the States, I nudged her as she waved to a friend from our car.
“What is he?” I asked, trying to get her to identify one of her friends in the clumsy, ill-fitting American racial terminology she had come to detest (it was, after all, the only terminology I had).
She refused to acknowledge the implication of my question. “He’s Trinidadian,” she said.
My father did not have this struggle. Unlike his nieces and nephews, he embraced blackness, threw himself into it with a kind of romantic fervor. He landed on American shores, from Trinidad, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, and his passion for blackness intensified with the rise of the Black Power movement. Black, he remembers, was a term coined by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, who was my father’s contemporary in age and a fellow Trinidadian.
“When did you become black?” I asked my father as I began to write this essay. As he reminisced, I considered the parallels between him and Carmichael: both graduates of HBCUs (Carmichael went to Howard), both christened with undeniably British names (my father’s first and middle names are Harold Oswald), and both, as children, subjects of the Crown.
My father took to blackness quickly, but not so much to Americanness. I remember joking around at the dinner table with my brothers, my father staring at us as if we were from outer space. “Where did I get these American children?” he wondered out loud. For my father, blackness was something organic and natural, but Americanness was a consequence of chance and opportunity. He might have wound up in England if it hadn’t been for his uncle, another graduate of Meharry, who offered him the opportunity to study in America, where he wound up with children who would not only grow up on the other side of what appeared to him—at least that night at the dinner table—to be an unbridgeable, ineffable divide, but who would also continually frustrate him by mispronouncing words like advertisement.
February has proven to be a tricky month for the brown girls in my house.
In the fall of her kindergarten year, Isabella found herself in the middle of a romance. Ever since she was a toddler, I have felt prescient pity for the boys who will fall in love with Isabella. Once they have fallen, I am certain they will not be able to find their way back out. Colin was the name of the first boy who tumbled. He was an affable child, exceptionally tall for his age, pale and blue-eyed, with white whiskery eyelashes and a long, thin face. At their after-school program, Colin always seemed to be standing around with his hands in his pockets—except for the time I saw him standing behind Isabella, who was busy at a craft table and unaware of Colin as he lightly gathered her braids and let them fall, over and over, gather and drop, his eyes full of wonder, as if he was playing with a magical beaded curtain.
In October, Colin invited Isabella to his birthday party. The girls and I had a conflicting engagement, so Isabella told him she would be unable to attend. Colin’s mother called; her son was beside himself, she said. He admired Isabella, in part because she had never been sentenced to a stint in “the blue chair,” the punishment chair, where he himself spent a fair amount of time. Her smile made him happy, he told his mother. In lieu of the birthday party, she asked if Isabella could ride the bus home from school with Colin the next afternoon and play. Moved by Colin’s plight, I agreed. I thought Isabella would at least be amused when I informed her of the degree of Colin’s fondness, but she only shrugged.
When I went to pick up Isabella, Colin’s mother and I chatted while our children said goodbye. Isabella gave Colin one of her signature bear hugs. His arms dropped to his sides, and a stunned, glassy look spread over his face. It was the look of love, pure and true.
After the play date, Colin stepped up his game. He asked Isabella on a date. (“What did you say?” I asked. “Well, I told him I couldn’t cut school,” she told me.) And then, in early February, he told her he was going to draw a Valentine’s Day card with a picture of them kissing on the lips. He wrote her a note I found in her backpack. Your hair is pretty, read his five-year-old scrawl. He signed it with a drawing of a heart.
But a week before Valentine’s Day, Colin told Isabella he was only going to give “the light people” cards that year. She would get her card the following year, he promised.
I didn’t hear about this until bedtime, when so many revelations come to light. My first—and last—instinct was that Colin had not meant the comment maliciously. She told me that what he said had hurt her feelings. I e-mailed their teacher. It was important, I believed, that she knew race—racial difference—had reared its head in her classroom in a potentially destructive way.
The next day, the teacher arranged a sit-down between the kids. Colin offered an apology, which Isabella accepted, and—according to both Isabella and the teacher—the two of them spent the rest of the day playing happily together.
What changed in Colin? I may never know, but I suspect his older brother may have had something to do with it. Surely someone, something, got to him and made him look at Isabella differently. In general, Colin was aware of Isabella in a way that she was not aware of him. She was used to seeing white people; he was not used to seeing brown people. I believe he was trying to make sense of what it meant for him to care for a girl whose skin was so different from his. Years from now, he will be embarrassed at having said such a thing—or, at least, that’s what I like to imagine.
That’s what happened to my friend’s grandfather, an immigrant from the Netherlands. One of the first people he met when he arrived in the States was a black man. They shook hands, and my friend’s grandfather looked down at his palm, expecting the black man’s brownness to have rubbed off on his own hand. The best part of the story, my friend told me, was that whenever his grandfather repeated this anecdote, he always said, “Somewhere, right now, there is a black man telling a story to his family about that fresh-off-the-boat Dutch guy who thought the color of his skin was some kind of hoax.” Every time I am reminded of this story, I think of the exchange that took place between Malcolm X and Alex Haley in a US airport. Haley was admiring the children of an arriving family of immigrants. They are about to learn their first word of English, Malcolm predicted: nigger.
A Regrettable Choice
I have heard it said that a rite of passage in every black parent’s life is the moment when his or her child comes home and asks, “What does nigger mean?”
I don’t remember bringing the question to my parents, but I’m sure I must have, because I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I did not know what it meant. For as long as I can remember, I knew nigger meant “to be different,” “to be outside,” “to be less.” The first time I heard it directed at me, it had a cataclysmic effect. It took me twenty years and a long essay to confront and dismantle the pain, rage, and shame of that moment.
The first time my daughters heard “the N-word,” I was the one who said it. I had given a talk at a book festival in Woodstock, Vermont, about my work on the white author and archivist Carl Van Vechten and his personal and professional involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. My daughters wanted to come, and I consented on the condition that they sit quietly and pay attention. Not five minutes into my talk, they made their way up to the podium and began tussling over who would control the pointer.
Later, I accused Isabella of going back on our contract and not paying attention. “I was paying playtention,” she explained. “Playing and paying attention.”
“OK, then, what was the talk about?” I asked her.
“It was about a white man who made a regrettable choice in the title of his book.”
“Do you remember the title?”
“No. What was it?”
“Forget it. It had a bad word in it,” I said.
“Was it the F-word? The H-word? The S-word?”
No, no, and no.
• • •
I managed to distract her from the subject until later that evening, when she introduced the mystery to Giulia, who ran down the same list of consonants. Finally, I relented. The title was Nigger Heaven, I said. The word was nigger. What did it mean? they wanted to know. I hesitated. It was a big moment, a moment I had been dreading since before I became a parent, and still I was not prepared. “It’s a bad word white people sometimes use to put black people down,” I finally told them. Well, that’s it, I thought. Their childhood is over. They were quiet for a moment. Then Giulia put her hand on her hip. “Well, that’s rude,” she said. It was like a revelation. It is rude, I thought, and maybe that’s all it will be for them.
About a week later, Giulia came home from spending time with a neighborhood girl—eleven years old and white—who had told her that you could get arrested for using the “M-word.”
“It’s the N-word,” I said. “It’s the word we talked about a while ago.”
“No, it’s the M-word,” Giulia corrected me. “Two lumps.”
Donna is the name of the neighborhood girl. In the summer, she drops her bike in the front yard and thunders through our house in her dirty bare feet, on the hunt for my daughters. She runs up to the girls’ room, and they insist she piggyback them around the house. Then the three of them tromp up and down the streets of our neighborhood, hopping from pool to pool, outfitted in slick, wet bathing suits and mismatched flip-flops, tight towels girdling their hips. I watch them from my window. This is what childhood should look like, I think. These are the stories they will tell.
Outside of this frame, the world’s “race stories”—as my seminar students and I call them—are dispiriting. But inside of the frame is a world I could never have imagined when I was growing up.
But the South of my childhood has changed, too. Shortly after the historic 2008 presidential election, I took a trip to Nashville and saw a bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck that read, “Rednecks for Obama: Workin’ for the man who’ll do more for the workin’ man.” There was a good ole boy at the wheel and a gun rack in the back. Suddenly, my story about growing up in Nashville had a new chapter.
• • •
My daughters will have their own stories, and the stories I tell may or may not describe them, or even interest them at all. In fact, while watching television with Giulia last February, I asked her if she remembered the exchange she had with her sister while they were watching television during Black History Month two years ago. She didn’t.
I prodded. “You know, the thing you said about being black.”
“I’m not black,” Giulia said. “I’m brown like you.”
“I’m brown and black,” I told her, realizing this truth for the first time.
It is inside and outside, my racial identity; it is something I have both lived and learned. My racial sense of self is made of rage and faith, pain and joy; it’s a sensory cocktail I remember experiencing every time I heard my church aunts and uncles tell the tales—black tales—about how they made it over and broke through. By black, I mean “black,” not “African American”; I was born in the same era in which my father was re-born, in the wake of Civil Rights and during the first stirrings of Black Power and all of the attendant pageants of glorious struggle and triumph. It goes deep, beyond the skin, the organic racial romance that informs everything I do and everything I write. I am black—and brown, too.
“Two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,” Du Bois wrote. For me, what once looked like warring ideals are currently in perfect symmetry. Brown is the body I was born into. Black is the body of the stories I tell.