I have a deep, dark secret. I don’t tell many people about this. I’m not sure how others will respond. But I’m willing to share it here in the privacy of my own blog. (This is where I would insert a smiley face or a wink,wink.) Okay, brace yourselves. Here it is: I think I’m part black.
My mom is white. My dad is white. My brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, all white. But somewhere along the road, I think there was some sort of African American bloodline in this family.
I often wonder if I am a descendent of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemings. I don’t know what’s true about that story. I’ve read that someone or other has proven it with DNA blah, blah, blah, and I could even make a link to one of the descendants being from Wisconsin, where my dad’s family lives, too. But, my “blackness” is not at all scientific. It’s something I feel in my gut, and well… something I see when I look in the mirror, particularly at my hair.
For instance, when I was in 7th grade, my family took a trip to New Orleans. I had tried to blow dry my curly hair so it would lay flat. The problem was it was as humid as any day in the south can be and that straight hair was nothing more than a large brillo pad. My brothers and I were walking through the French Quarter one afternoon, and I kid you not, two black men stopped walking across the street and yelled over to me. “Look at the white girl’s hair. Is that for real?” It wasn’t the most ego-boosting moment of my life. My brothers, who by the way, had real white boy afros themselves, laughed until they almost wet themselves. To make matters worse, I have a picture of myself that day. I keep it because my hair is so unbelievably big I just can’t believe my family let me leave the hotel room.
Then, one day as I was driving our cleaning lady, Rose, back to her house, we were talking about something and I said, “You know Rose, people joke about my hair. They think my father must have been black, even though clearly he’s white.” Rose burst out laughing and said, “Girl, I’ve always wondered!” Then she added this nice touch: “But your bootie is too small!” Another confirmation that Mr. Jefferson’s slave might be my grandfather’s grandfather’s mother’s child. Does that even make sense? Anyway, my point is that I am proud to have afro hair even if I’m white. But the hair is only half of it.
The gut part is something totally different. Here’s where I get serious. Something in my soul gravitates towards the stories of American black men and women. I am baffled that just a few short years before I was born, I would not have been able to drink from the same water fountain, ride the same bus, eat in the same restaurants as my black brothers and sisters. If it weren’t for the stories made alive by brave men and women, boys and girls, these facts may have become something that faded into the walls of history. So I read stories about what it’s like to be a black man in a white man’s world. Books such as Makes Me Wanna Holler, Black Like Me, Kaffir Boy, which was actually about a South African tennis player who makes it to the U.S.
(On a related note: In high school I fell in love with South Africa, often feeling deep sadness for what apartheid was doing to the African people in that country. As God would see to it, my college roommate turned out to be South African. Although she was white, her father pastored a church that often served in the townships (ghettos) outside of their hometown of Durban.)
In addition to the books, I have fallen in love with the poetry of Langston Hughes. I wish I could lay them all out here, my favorites. But I would be breaking the law, and then no more blog and bye-bye to my therapy. Instead I’ll link you to some of his poems. http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/langston_hughes/poems
My all-time favorite is “dream deferred.” It’s sad but it asks the right questions. What happens to a dream deferred? And I love “Let America be America Again” and “Dream Variation” and of course, one I have recently discovered, “Mother to Son.” Hughes can write poetry that makes an emotional impact with few words, with such depth and heartache. He doesn’t force his words to come together in neatness. His poems aren’t framed in gold or beauty. In fact, I would say they tend to feel more like a dilapidated house with the shutters falling off rather than a masterpiece painting with an antique filigree frame. When you look at an old house, though, you know there’s a story. You have to imagine its beauty and its history. You have to envision what it may have looked like, what surrounded it, its character. That’s how I feel about Langston Hughes and his writing. If we write what we know, then we can assume that Langston Hughes knew pain. Maybe that is what draws me in. I have known pain, too, and I have had many dreams deferred. I’m not sure what will happen with these particular dreams. I honestly hope they won’t explode. Sounds too scary. Too messy. And of course, too harmful.
This is why I write. If I have a dream deferred, or if I want America to be America again, I can at least unpack some of it here, lay it all out and if nothing else, leave it on the table until I can deal with its contents later. I have a feeling that’s why Langston Hughes was a poet. He was a poet because those thoughts had to go somewhere. His ideas had to have a place to land.
I’m a writer because I am. I have dreams that vanish. I have stories to tell. I have longings for things to be different – and lest I become too depressing here – I have victories I need to celebrate. The words for all of the above situations need a place to go… and I need to do what I was made to do. It’s who I am, white or black. It’s just who I am.