Sunday, December 03, 2006

Act Two - Journey Pt. 4

When my parents returned to America with me and my two sisters in tow, we lived for a short time in East Elmhurst, Queens. My mother had grown up there during its heyday as a middle class black neighborhood. Along with Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays, Tommie Agee, Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X, my Bahamian grandmother and Virginian grandfather made a home for themselves there in the postwar period.

My father's star rose in the corporate world, and he moved us out of New York City and "to the country" - known as Connecticut to tri-state dwellers. The neighborhoods in Stamford where I would live until age 15 were completely devoid of blacks. Being a classic over-achiever I was assigned to "power cog" classes, also completely devoid of blacks. The only black people I would see in my school were students in the average to remedial classes, and none of them looked like me nor did their families resemble mine. They were all darker than my father who was the darkest of my family members, and among their family whom I would see at parent teacher conferences or school events there was virtually no variation in skin color.

I knew we were all supposed to be black, but I also knew we were different. They knew it, too, and made it very clear that they did. I was regularly teased for being white, accused of being uppity, being a traitor and thinking I was superior because I was whiter. White kids treated me far, far better, but when it suited them they let me know that I didn't belong to their group either. Although I wouldn't have been able to explain it in these terms back then, I realize now that I thought of myself as a white ethnic. Like the white kids of Jewish, Irish or Italian ancestry in my classes, I thought of myself as a white person with African ancestry. My "blackness" didn't feel so fixed, encompassing and racial; it was more fluid, ethereal and ethnic. Needless to say I was lonely.

My sister and I transfered to another district and I started junior high school. It was then that we met and made fast friends with another black girl who was in a similar boat to ours. The band U2 was all the rage back then, and the three of us fantasized about starting an all-girl rock band just like theirs. We became obsessed with all things Irish, and when I discovered that my last name actually was an Irish name I immersed myself in Irish history and culture. I even went as far as identifying the family crest associated with my name.

I suspected that given the way I looked there must have been some Irish ancestry in my background. I was so much lighter and whiter looking than all the other black people I knew, even my siblings. Other black people around were so different from me. What about the name for goodness sake? I started to inquire from family members about our history and when I brought up the possibility of European ancestry I was returned with blank stares. The whispering campaign quietly began about my identity crisis, and my mother was implored to nip it in the bud.

Finally one evening my mother sat me down and asked me about my interest in all this Irish stuff. I recounted my speculation about my coloring, how other black kids didn't like me and I didn't understand them, and then I brought up our Irish surname and the family crest. Before I could say anymore my mother cut me off and said, "Your father is black, I am black and that means you are black, nothing else."

I was stunned. Fully expecting my mother to confirm my thinking, she instead decimated it. Her words cut through me and lodged in the pit of my stomach. I was having an identity crisis, after all. I suddenly felt embarassed that I didn't know who I was. Then the shame set in. All those black kids who criticized me my entire childhood were right! I was a traitor for thinking that I was anything other than black - a traitor to them and a traitor to my own family. Ashamed, I left the room and never brought up the Irish name or crest again. It would take another 18 years before I began to think of myself as a biracial person, and ironically it would be sparked by a man who looked exactly like my mother.

- These series of posts are dedicated to the ‘finest woman in East Elmhurst’ of her day, my mother Kathlean Elizabeth Barnes. I am bold because she could not be.

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