This meditation on race was originally published in Breathe magazine in 2005, but it seems to fit with at least one stream of post-election dialogue.
I have a white mother and a black father. In most contexts, the white part announces itself to the world first. But I am never seen as blacker than when I visit my father’s hometown, in rural Georgia.
I’ve been going to my dad’s farm in Monticello a lot recently, escorting him down from Philadelphia whenever he’s well enough, between the inconveniences and incapacitations of his metastasized prostate cancer. The farm is the place he loves most to be. It turns out that it’s a place I love to be, too, and this is why: All of our close friends and relations in Monticello are black.
In Dad’s town, my pale skin and straight hair-elsewhere in my life a source of white privilege (cabs that stop, sales clerks who help rather than hound, jobs) and black distrust (presumption, exclusion)-no longer form the axis on which my racial relationship to the world turns. Instead, bloodlines and lifetimes of connectedness thrust me into a black world, where I am absorbed without question into its particular stew of customs, outlooks, and food.
Because I’m a child of the urban North, I may be confusing these pleasures I call blackness with standard-issue small-town southern living; I couldn’t tell you where one ends and the other begins. In Georgia, ancient uncles call me “Child,” dropping the last consonant with tenderness, and the heron doesn’t holler, he har. We never say an outright “no” to people who want to fish in Dad’s pond because we may need their cousin to fix a gate or repair a tractor or bury a relative. Collard greens are most prized after the first frost and friends never imagined the day would come when they actually had to pay for a pecan or a peach. I go to churches or homes and unless I come across a mirror, I almost forget my surface aberration. In discourse and daily life, the subject of race flaps about in the open air, no pulling punches or circumnavigation in deference to a mixed crowd. In more integrated climes, interracial slights and tensions would lurk around every corner, across every counter. But in this oasis of Afro-homogeneity, it is only the generic, pigmentless human foibles that remain.
Most of our Monticello circle is from my father’s childhood-people now in their 70s and 80s. And so this blackness is also defined by generation. I don’t bear the battle scars they sustained from outliving Jim Crow, from avoiding the wrath of the Klan, from enduring lessons in sewing and outhouse-building that masqueraded as public school education, but still I am a member of the pride. The ties that bind are inherited as well as experienced, and I drink in the welcome they offer; lap it up with increasing urgency, the evidence of its impermanence in my father’s faulty gait.
Am I romanticizing a nefarious past for the membership it affords me? Possibly. But to be identified with a family from Colored Folks’ Hill-for my full background to be public knowledge-means that, for a change, it falls on others’ shoulders to take or leave who I am, to take or leave me. Up north being half black is a private experience unless I announce it. Down in Georgia the company I keep, my name, and my resemblance to my father and his parents constitute a public identity far more accurate than the one I know in every other part of my world.
Sooner rather than later there will come a time when I stop going to that rural Georgia town, when no one is left to teach me how to make crackling bread, or to receive the catfish I’ll catch but won’t clean, or tell stories from a time when life was something you had to scratch and carve and eke out from nothing and against all odds. When that time comes, I imagine my sense of belonging will live on, no longer public but no less central to how I pass through this life.