The following is an excerpt from White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Identity.
In 1995 when I discovered my mother’s black heritage, she made me promise never to tell her secret until she died. I kept her secret for 17 years. Nine months after her death in 2015, I appeared on PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow and revealed to 1.5 million people that my mother had passed for white. Three days later the family she never knew found me. “Secrets and Lies” recounts the stories my mother told me about her life in New Orleans before she came north to marry my father. After I uncovered her racial secret, I realized her stories held clues to her racial identity and the hardships she endured as a mixed race woman in Jim Crow south.
When I was a young girl my mother would tell me about her life in New Orleans before she came north to Ohio to marry my father. Each story so carefully fashioned, so artfully told I never questioned their validity. It was one of the rare times I’d be allowed to sit on my parents’ double bed in the cramped downstairs bedroom that faced the street, its north window inches from the neighbor’s driveway where a dog barked sometimes into the night.
The room was pristine with its satiny floral bedspread, crisscrossed white lacy curtains and fringed shades. Area rugs surrounded the bed like islands of color over the amber shag carpet. A large dresser held my mother’s perfumes neatly arranged on a mirrored tray. An assortment of tiny prayer books rested on a side table beside a rosary. Over the bed was a painting of a street scene that could be Paris or New Orleans, colorful and dreamy. A similar painting hung in the living room.
It wasn’t until I married and left home that my father was banished to the other first floor smaller bedroom, even then he was an interloper in this feminine domain. His clothes were exiled to the front hall closet where he kept his rifle. On story days the room was a mother-daughter cove of confidences where my mother came as close as she ever would to telling me who she was, dropping clues like breadcrumbs that would take me decades to decipher. As I grew older, she confided intimacies of her marital life best shared with a mother or a sister. I was the substitute for the family left behind in New Orleans.
In its orderliness, the bedroom was a microcosm of the entire 1,800 square foot suburban tract house where I grew up. A house she cleaned every day as if it were a jewel that would quickly tarnish if not polished and treasured. Her housekeeping so meticulous, to this day I can see her kneeling in the kitchen like a raven-haired Cinderella, her head bowed as she pinched dirt from the green linoleum floor, dirt even the broom couldn’t pick up. That only she could remove. In this small house, my mother finally found what she imagined was her haven, her safe place—small and tidy as the life she desired and sacrificed so much to have.
To me her stories were magical and transformative. They’d begin with the white jasmine flowers she wore in her black hair as a young woman, illustrated in the black and white studio portrait photograph she kept in our living room on a faux marble-topped table as a reminder of that exotic southern belle she once was. “This was who I used to be in New Orleans before I married your father and came north,” the photograph seemed to say.
Sometimes her story would veer and we’d be in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carre, she called it, the French words as exotic as she was. She’d describe the iron lacework and the old brick buildings that she said were French. If she felt adventuresome that day, she’d tell the story of the Vieux Carre painter, a story that as a child made me uncomfortable.
“I answered a newspaper ad for a live model. I was nineteen.”
I didn’t know it then but later I’d understand the circumstances of her decision. She was a young woman with meager skills, poor and adrift with no one to advise her, looking for work, using the gift of her beauty.
“He told me to take off my clothes.” She laughed as if she were searching for the humor in her story. “I told him I didn’t do that.”
“‘That’s what live model means,’ he said, looking me over, studying my face. I started to leave. But he stopped me and said, ‘If you want to sit for portraits, I’ll give you the name of another painter.’ He must have taken pity on me.”
“Did you sit for that other painter?” I asked, heat rushing through me at the thought of my mother, posing nude for a strange man.
“Oh, yes. You know what the other painter said? He told me he saw these colors in my skin, greens and yellows and peach.”
I studied her face the way that painter must have, trying to see what he saw. I couldn’t see those colors. Only her warm olive skin, dark brown eyes, her deep dimples and Roman nose. And though all children think their mothers are beautiful, mine was. She never took a bad photo.
Sometimes she’d open the tall dark dresser with the ribbed edges that I liked to run my fingers up and down, and take out her long white gloves with the pearl buttons, carefully wrapped in thin tissue paper, followed by my favorite—the tiny white beaded evening bag with the tarnished clasp and a matchbook inside as if waiting for her to resume her glamorous single life in New Orleans or across the river in Algiers.
Each story contained a lesson at its core. The long white gloves and beaded evening bag were about chastity and being a lady at all times no matter the temptation, no matter the man’s promises or his handsomeness. “Gail, men only want one thing. That’s just how they are.”
The nude modeling story was about maintaining moral standards, knowing your worth, not selling yourself for money, no matter how poor you were.
Sometimes the stories of supper clubs and jazz music, Lake Pontchartrain and The Safari Club would shift as if she were moving closer to the real story that beat under her skin like another self. There would be the way the rain fell only on one side of the street while on the other the sun would beat down relentlessly, a confusion of weather. If I didn’t respond with enough awe, she’d tell it again. It was a story she never tired of telling me about a place where the weather was as unpredictable and quixotic as her childhood.
On other days when I sensed a sadness in her, she’d tell me about the old black woman on Canal Street, limping home from her job as a domestic, burdened with groceries, the deep lines of a hard life etched into her dark face.
My mother called the sidewalk a banquette. “Banquette,” she repeated the word so I would know the language of the city where she was born and raised, so I would understand how she left that language behind to make a new life in Ohio, and yet it lingered with her like a favorite song she couldn’t quite get out of her head, its lilting melody a relic of home. My ear keen to catch traces of her New Orleans accent that sometimes slipped out despite her vigilance. The soft drawl she couldn’t totally erase, always there.
“I remember this old black woman walking on Canal Street carrying all these packages. She looked so tired and worn out. This white man was walking toward her and when she didn’t move off the banquette, he shoved her off, shouting at her in a nasty voice. ‘Get out of my way,’ my mother paused, and then added. “He called her a terrible word. You know what I mean.”
I did know.
I never forgot that story or the way she sat on the bed her hands folded in her lap, her voice full of indignation tinged with sadness, her dark eyes fierce.
“That wasn’t right,” she said. “But that’s how it was in New Orleans back then.” She shook her head as if she needed to dislodge the image of the old black woman shoved off the banquette to make way for a white man who called her that word.
“That poor old black woman fell down, her packages everywhere, and that white man kept walking,” she said.
It wouldn’t be until after I appeared on Genealogy Roadshow that I understood the full significance of that story and why she told it to me.
But even as a child, I knew the story held a special meaning for her and a message for me. This is what it’s like to be a black person in the south. Who would want to endure that?
Only later, much later would I understand she was seeding my life with these clues, hinting at her hidden self or maybe preparing me to accept that part of her she’d left behind in New Orleans and her reason for doing that. Or maybe she was only telling me a story about prejudice and cruelty, teaching me right from wrong as any mother would do.
Once I asked her, “Why don’t you have a picture of your father Azemar?”
“I just don’t.” Her abruptness was a signal to me that the subject was not to be pursued.
She had a scattering of photos of her mother Camille, her sister Shirley and a few cousins. But in the family photo department, she was bereft. It was as if when she left New Orleans, she left all her family archives, if she had any, behind—a clean start free of family and memories.
“Why don’t we visit New Orleans,” I’d sometimes ask, wanting to see for myself where she grew up, see the scrolled ironwork of the Vieux Carre, walk the banquettes, hear the jazz music of her city and meet her relatives.
“Because it depresses me to go home.”
There was no way to bridge the finality of my mother’s reason, a woman prone to fits of depression so acute that for a time she saw a Cleveland psychiatrist. I didn’t want to make her sadder and so I stopped asking.
But I didn’t stop wondering. There was something about the unknown that I couldn’t let rest.
Looking back on her stories of her life growing up in New Orleans, I realize now that she wove a past for me that left out the most important part—her black heritage and what she’d done to hide it.
Photo courtesy of supercereal on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons 3.0