My parents met in the mid-1950s during the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t believe either one intended to get into an interracial relationship—they met over the phone—but they did. They fell in love, bucked the system and got married.
All sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Two people from different worlds following their hearts and not listening to “reason.”
Actually their relationship was anything but idyllic. My father’s father—you will see from the following why I cannot bring myself to call him “grandfather”—was born and raised in Germany, and came to the states when he was a young twenty-something at the turn of the previous century. He’d always hoped Adolf Hitler would have succeeded in his racially motivated mission to cleanse the world of Jews. His hatred for Black people was worse.
When my father was just eighteen years old, my father’s father prevented my father—a very strong swimmer—from saving the life of a drowning Black boy who had been swimming in a nearby lake. He pinned my father to a fence a few hundred feet away and made him watch as this child struggled to get air, went under and eventually became lifeless.
“No nigger life is worth saving,” he told my father.
This man was so filled with hate, there was no question he would ever accept the woman my father had fallen in love with and wanted to marry.
And he never did accept my mother. Indeed he disowned my father for marrying her. My maternal grandmother never really had a choice. Although she loved my mother, my father’s father wouldn’t allow her to see my parents unless she divorced him—which meant leaving her with nothing.
(I go into much more detail about my parents’ marriage, their move to Nigeria shortly after they got married, the Black Panther party and how I came to self-identify as Black in my essay Criminal Mistakes in our book.)
Although it was legal for my parents to marry in New York in 1960, many states still practiced anti-miscegenation laws. They wouldn’t be repealed until June 12, 1967 and today many interracial couples and their Biracial offspring celebrate that day—which has come to be known as Loving Day—in honor of Richard (White) and Mildred (Black) Loving who fought the state of Virginia and won their right to legally marry.
Given the circumstances surrounding their union and the racial climate in the U.S., my parents were adamant that society would view their children as Black, not White and not Biracial.
In fact, this term—Biracial—didn’t really exist back then. When my parents married in 1960, Blacks hadn’t even celebrated 100 years since the abolishment of slavery in the U.S. Between 1865 (when slavery officially ended) and when they were raising kids (my brothers were born in 1963 and 1962, and I was born in 1966), my parents not only dealt with his father, but historically Blacks had lived through the one-drop rule, the systematic and legal lynching of African Americans (which is why the NAACP was founded in 1909), anti-miscegenation laws—also referred to as Jim Crow laws—(Alabama only repealed theirs in 2000!), the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), The Black Panther Party, backlash from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s desire to create a level playing field in hiring practices by instituting Affirmative Action and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
So regardless that my father’s race actually dominated my mother’s (she was half Black and half Japanese), because of the way that society would view my brothers and me, my parents drilled into our heads from an early age that we were Black.
At home we could celebrate the differences that made us special, but before we left our home, we suited up in armor, hardened our expressions and prepared for the ugly.
My brothers and I were not unique. This was how interracial couples had to raise their kids. While New York City wasn’t as racist as, say, the Deep South, the mid-West and other pockets where Blacks had migrated for work but were not regarded highly, New York wasn’t utopia either.
I wouldn’t reach my fifth birthday before I was called a nigger for the first time. That my brothers would be referred to as such wasn’t surprising; both were much darker than I was. These instances weren’t the norm in New York City, but they happened. And so the armor was necessary.
Believe me when I tell you it was a huge surprise to me when I moved to the nation’s capital in 1995 and lived with a brown complected Black woman who scoffed at the notion that I was Black. The “You ain’t really Black” theme would continue to play itself out numerous times in my adulthood.
Times They Had Been A-Changin’!
Perhaps that or the fact that for the first time I was living in a more southern state where the divide between light complected and dark complected Blacks was more obvious.
As I look back twenty years, I am not sure which played a more dominant role: that the U.S. was starting to see a shift away from the one-drop rule or the divide caused by the preferential treatment shown to lighter complected Blacks during slavery was still playing itself out 100+ years later.
Either way, I was beginning to realize what I’d been raised to believe was becoming less relevant. I felt both unsettled and hopeful at the same time.
I began to meet people who self-identified as Biracial and when they described the feeling of being everyone and no one at the same time, I honestly couldn’t relate. For me, self-identifying as Black—despite being light, bright and obviously half White—gave me a sense of belonging and meant I didn’t question my allegiance and sense of belonging.
When I met Paul in 1996, it was like meeting my other half in so many respects. Paul was a brown complected Black man who described feelings of not fully belonging to the Black race. Often accused of trying to “talk White,” “act White” and “be different” because he was interested in geology, astronomy, math, engineering, rock music (as well as hip hop, jazz and funk) and not getting into organized sports, going to church and on top of all that, having seemingly radical political views, despite our differences in complexion, we found we were two peas in a pod.
Not having to explain why we saw the world differently from others, we could move swiftly from attraction to friendship into partnership. We married in 2001.
I honestly didn’t think much about how I self-identify until I met my co-author Bryony. She was the first person I met in an interracial marriage who said she and her husband were raising their kids to be Biracial. I was like, “What? Are you crazy? Society will brand them Black. You must tell them about the realities of how racist this world is.”
Bryony insisted things were different in England. Although I am not 100% convinced her experience is the norm (I am a pessimist that way), one thing I began to notice is that the conversation was also changing in the U.S.
Through my experience collaborating with Bryony writing our book, I met more Biracial people and members of interracial relationships. It seemed folks were beginning to embrace and celebrate the notion of being Biracial. As I read the essays written by our contributors, I noticed this trend playing itself out multiple times over.
None appeared to be disillusioned about the fact that racism is still an ever-present problem in the world, but rather than see race and racism through the myopic lens I had been raised to see them, they were discussing it from both angles.
Huh, I thought. What planet had I landed on?
I started paying closer attention to the sentiments being expressed by those who occupied the multiracial space as well as those who are monoracial: in particular those who are Black or White.
It seemed to me that many who are Black or White and without exposure to multiracial people were—if you’ll forgive me—stuck in viewing things as being very black and white—pun intended.
I found myself re-examining my previous reactions to current events from a whole new perspective. For the first time in years—perhaps forty-seven or forty-eight—I found myself moving between the Black, White and Biracial worlds with the same fluidity I’d read about others doing. I even, on occasion, self-identify as White, although usually with the caveat of having a Black and Japanese mother.
When Bryony pointed out an article written by a woman who self-identifies as Biracial about her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, a light bulb actually went off. Later on we would get to know the author, Shannon Luders-Manuel, and when she told us her age, I realized, huh! Here’s someone who’s just ten years younger than I am who self-identifies as Biracial—except when the shit hits the fan and Blacks are being attacked again and then she’s Black, which is completely understandable.
Around the same time we met and got to know a comedian named Alex Barnett. He is White and Jewish and his wife is Black. They too are raising their son to be Biracial. As the host of the Multiracial Family Man podcast, each week he interviews people in the multiracial community.
When Alex interviewed Bryony and me for our book, I was pretty deep into my metamorphosis—learning to see things as not being so polarized. Most of the questions he asked us pertained to the book and so it was easy for me to self-identify as Black, especially as I discussed my views on racism and its impact on both monoracial and multiracial people.
So I wasn’t really Out yet.
Times They Are A-Changin’
Things happen and sometimes it might seem as though they’re happening too slowly or not at all. What I used to see as an unrealistic move on the part of interracial couples to raise their children as Biracial and further for Biracial people to self-identify as being Biracial, I am now seeing it as a trend to establish a whole new race of people and ultimately unify the races.
I will close this blog with a small note. I was late to weigh in on the non-controversy over Taye Diggs and his ex-wife Idina Menzel’s decision to raise their son Walker as Biracial and not Black. I say non-controversy because a) it’s none of our business and b) there really are much bigger issues going on in the world. We don’t really need to be tripping over this.
However, that they have made this declaration and that he has written a book called Mixed Me, about and for his son, Walker, tells me that we are moving in a positive direction. That people criticize him is actually understandable. They aren’t allowing themselves to see how much progress we’ve made.
Despite the ugliness that prevails (thus necessitating the Black Lives Matter movement), the very fact that we are able to move away from the one-drop rule, overturn anti-miscegenation laws, witness this trend of self-identifying as Biracial and multiracial says a lot about progression.
Although there will still be those who feel it’s unrealistic and at times I have to fight my urge to join that conversation, we are seeing the changing face of America and other countries, and I for one am proud to call myself Biracial.