The White Issue: Mama’s White
May 18, 1993
Just another rainbow baby on the IRT, that’s me, handing out flyers modeled after Adrian Piper’s seminal art piece, “My Calling (Card) #1” (1986):
Dear Fellow Straphanger:
My mother is white. And I, as you may or may not have figured out, am black. This is how I choose to define myself and this is how America chooses to define me. I have no regrets about my racial classification other than to lament, off and on, that classifications exist period.
Actually, the mystery of my background is really not much of a mystery at all, despite those taboo-love-child stories you read in People or Jet. If you boned up on your world history, you’d know that unions between people of different racial classifications, such as my (white) mother and my (black) father, are not a recent phenomenon. Entire countries in South America are peopled by the offspring of such relationships. Even our own country is more of a creole outpost than we are ready to acknowledge.
Are you still staring? Let me guess. My white mother presents a different set of enigmas to you based on your own racial classification. Those of you who are black might find “evidence” of my white parent reason to question my racial allegiance. For those of you who are white, evidence of my white lineage might move you to voice deep-seated feelings of racial superiority. You might wonder why I would choose to identify as “fully” black when I have the “saving grace” of a white parent. I have no time for this sort of provinciality either. I realize both sets of responses display an ignorance of our shared cultural and racial history as Americans.
I’m sorry you’re still staring. If you care to, I’ll gladly engage you in a lengthy conversation about this subject at another time. But right now I’m having just another “attitudinous”-black-girl day on the IRT, and if you keep staring, I’ll just stare right back. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you. Just as I’m sure you regret the discomfort your ignorance is causing me.
Yours (More Truly Than You Think),
This is the story of Emily Sohmer Tai, and Hettie Jones, two women who don’t know each other and whose only connection is the melanin count of their skin.
Recently, Emily Sohmer Tai, who describes herself as the “white female half of an interracial marriage,” wrote a letter The Village Voice. The letter is worth returning to as an example of the closeted superiority trip mentioned. And what I mean by superiority trip is the type of thinking that assigns whiteness highest value (and upholds white people as the only viable arbiters of experience), though this thinking may at times be draped in the gauze of liberalism.
I had written a sentimental tribute to my 65-year-old Aunt Cora for a series the paper ran for black history month. In one section I recount my aunt’s visit to Minneapolis, where I was living at the time, her brushes with racism there, and her reaction to the large number of white female–black male couples that coexist there alongside this racism. I sized up these couples as “Debbies curled up with Sam” — to allude to the lady-stud legend that burdens them and, at the same time, to pry it apart. I was sure to note, in the same breath, that if one Debbie hadn’t curled up with one Sam, I wouldn’t be around. Clearly I was saying that these duos tangle up my emotions; I look at them as a child of an interracial marriage, but also as a black woman who has witnessed the market value put on white femininity.
Tai seems to have got stuck on one word, “Debbie,” and looked no further. Her letter responds to my entire article as if it were merely a personal attack on her and other white women in interracial relationships. Tai never once mentions my aunt. In effect, she completely erases Cora’s story. What I got form this is that there is nothing I could say about my aunt, her amazing life, and our feelings as black women about interracial relationships — some shared, some not — that could be as important as Tai’s outrage as a white woman measuring herself against a stereotype. Nothing, simply, was as worthy of readers’ consideration as Tai’s story, Tai’s version of history.
There’s a shrillness to Tai’s letter, and it seems to come from the fact that I don’t accept her view of what interracial identity means. To her, it’s a haven from a racialized society; to me, it’s not. Tai rather smugly assumes that this safe house is indeed something I have a political or aesthetic interest in embracing. I’ve been called “nigger bitch” more than once in my life, and I wonder if Tai would advise that I handle it by shouting back, “Actually, guys, my mom’s white, so call me half-white bitch, or how about mongrel bitch, since it’s better rhythmically.”
Left unsaid, but lurking in the margins of Tai’s letter, is this amazement that I, as a woman, would claim black over interracial or white. The implication being that choosing black was somehow a settlement, a compromise following a personal identity crisis (another assumption whites often make), and not a much larger cultural-historical calling or even just sheer love, romance, and respect for blackness (in all its permutations), for better or for worse, amen. Would Tai’s mouth hang open if I told her my story? That, among others, it was my (white) mother who raised me to think politically about being a black woman.
Could Tai picture this complexity as well? — That I’m a black writer whose work is dedicated to exploring the hybridity of African American culture and of American culture in general. That I don’t deny my white forebears, but I call myself African American, which means, to me, a person of African and Native American, Latin, or European descent. That I feel comfortable and historically grounded in this identity. That I find family there, whereas no white people have embraced me with their culture, have said to me, take this gift, it’s yours and we are yours, no problem. And that, by claiming African American and black, I also inherit a right to ask questions about what this identity means. And that, chances are, this identity will never be static, which is fine by me.
Tai’s reaction to this “racial persona” of mine is nothing I haven’t come across before. White women in particular have trouble seeing my black identity as anything other than a rebuff of my mother. Deep down I wonder if what they have difficulty picturing is this: not that I could reject, in their minds, my own mother, but that I have no desire to be them.
Friends of mine who are also rainbow babies have had similar run-ins, and sometimes we sit around and compare notes. We’re not disinterested in our white “heritage,” even though most of us don’t know our white relatives (apart from the parent who raised us), or we were given up for adoption by a white biological parent and have never had white family. In my own case, my mother’s parents, first-generation American Jews, disowned her for marrying black. When she announced she was pregnant, they begged her to have an abortion. On hearing that in her third year of marriage my mother was pregnant with a second child, they again begged her to abort.
We of the rainbow persuasion joke about whites’ inability to imagine why we would want to see ourselves as people of color and as African Americans; how connected this makes us feel. What could they possibly think is “in it” for us to be white people? Would it extend refuge or protection, provide moral directive? If it helped us get better jobs and higher salaries, would it offer spiritual community? Would it bring us family?
Forget everything that the Emily Sohmer Tai example tells you about race, and meet Hettie Jones, author, poet, teacher, and my mother. Her memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, revisits her life as a woman among the Beats as the starched-collar 1950s gave way to the guns-and-roses 1960s. It also tells of her marriage to my father, writer Amiri Baraka, and her own coming of age as a writer. If you want to know more, the book is in paperback. I will share this: The most dreadfully cute fact about my mother is that she has taken to checking “Other” on her census form. In the line slotted for explanation she writes, in her flowery longhand, “Semitic American mother of black children.”
My mother is my mother, and I’m very protective of her and of our relationship. I find myself in this amusing little bind at times, which reminds me over and over that what I am, I guess, for lack of a more sexy and historically complex word, is a humanist. This is the bind of explaining that my mother is white, though I am black, then getting pissed when people reduce dear Mom to the calling card of “your white mother.” Negotiating all this continues to be one of the challenges of my intellectual life. I’ll crib from Greg Tate on this one: “The world isn’t black and white, it just feels that way sometimes.”
I owe Mom a couple of solids. One for being strong enough in her own self to let me be who I was gonna be: Being the sister/girlfriend/black woman individual that I take so much pride in being actually brings me closer to my (white) mom. This identity gives me a stronger sense of history and self, and I can come to my mother as what the New Age folks might call a “fully realized person.” If I called myself “interracial” (in my mind, and I do know others see this differently), I would need her presence, her “whiteness,” to somehow validate my “half-whiteness.”
Another solid. Mom’s a bohemian from way back. The journey she’s made as a woman, as an artist, making herself up in America, has been useful to me as a black woman living outside of society’s usual paradigms of femininity. Mom knew that we — my sister and I — needed black female relatives and role models, and she made sure these ties were in place. She never tried to substitute for these; what she gave instead was her own DNA, her own boho Mama in the black stockings self, and she trusted that this would be enough.
Solid number three. My mother, more than anyone I know, has taught me difference as pleasure. Not as something feared or exotic, but difference as one of the rich facts of one’s life, a truism that gives you more data, more power, and more flavor. These are the sort of things you needed to get by: a black South Carolinian grandfather who did the Moon Walk before Michael Jackson (though he called it the Camel Walk), a mother who speaks Yiddish and jazz, a Caribbean boyfriend to make you rice and peas, and a sister who’s a Latin American art scholar so you won’t lapse into thinking you’re God’s gift to all knowledge as an American Negro.
Today my mother is in town from Wyoming, where she’s teaching for a stint. We hug, I cook her tofu and collard greens, we swap clothes, watch TV evangelism for a goof. We talk about race as the world places it on us. We argue sometimes, but we don’t stumble on it. When our generational differences make themselves felt in how we see the world and race, it doesn’t butt against our love, our trust.
I’ve got my pad and pen out and she’s laughing at my officialness. So, Mom, not how, but why did you become Hettie Jones?
“After the breakup of my marriage,” she explains, “people asked me why I didn’t change my name, why I didn’t, quote, ‘go back to the Jews.’ There was no going back to something that denied you.”
And why was it important to you that we be black and not “biracial”?
“I was not about to delude you guys into thinking you could be anything different in this country. And, frankly, I didn’t think that being anything other than black would be any more desirable.”
Mom, what you say in the book about black people’s anger in the ’60s being necessary to America, how did you come to this?
“Some people think that I’m dishonest and that I’m a martyr for saying that, but there’s a certain time in your life if you’re a white person and you have black children that you have to see that the world is ready to take them on. I love my children and I just sensed that the world had to go through this period in order for it to be a better place for them.”
Motherhood has always been more than a domestic chore or emotional bond for my mother. It’s a political vocation — one she’s taken seriously enough to go up against the world for. And she’s always been ready to testify about how her children and blackness have broadened her own life. In the music — the jazz, blues, language — she found her own.
Mom’s headed back to Wyoming. The cab driver offers to put her backpack in the trunk. “May I take your parachute?” he asks. People of all ages and backgrounds say fetching things like this to my mother. She’s led, as she wrote once, a “charmed life in the middle of other people’s wars,” and it comes through in her smile. When Mom sends the mojo his way, the cab driver lights up like New Year’s Eve on Forty-Deuce. I’m reminded, right then, that there is no place that I’m ever gonna go (by way of geography or ideology) where I can’t bring my mother, and where I can’t bring myself, which she has in large part made possible. And, as Adrian Piper would have me ask, what are all you — black and white — gonna do about that? ■