black, white, race, identity, important lessons, be who you are

Most important lesson my white mother taught me about being black

Next month will be two years since my mother passed away.

Maybe that is why she’s been so vividly alive in my dreams lately. A few weeks ago, I dreamt we were together in her home of 30+ years going through old boxes in the attic containing family photos and keepsakes. In her usual way, she was pointing out things for me to remember: “Don’t forget this one” and “Look over there Mar, make sure to get that box.” Essentially, she was directing me where to find the things that meant something to us.

The important things.

Since I live in another country and can’t easily go home to ‘get’ these important ‘things,’ at first I was a bit sad. But the dream reminded me that I have something more valuable. I have a life time of treasured memories.  This one, I started writing over a year ago, but was not able to complete until today…thanks, to my mother’s prodding!

In January 1995, my mother came to visit me in Queens, New York a month after graduating college (university), which was also the time of my second wedding anniversary. It was her first time traveling any great distance alone. More significantly, however, it was one year after my mother’s debilitating car accident while driving to her dying mother’s house. Within a week, my mother not only became permanently disabled, but we also lost the matriarch of our family to cancer.

It was an emotional time for both of us.

We spent the day in the City (Manhattan) site seeing and visiting friends. Reflecting on that day now, I realize that it was one of those rare moments where I’d spent the whole day alone with my mother.  At the time, I was happy that she was physically able to manage the arduous journey crisscrossing the city—a commuter ride on the Long Island Railroad, subways, and buses—as her capabilities would greatly diminish in the following years.

I felt something else.

I can honestly say that I felt proud to be a New Yorker. People quickly gave up their seats for my mom and gently walked around her despite the hustle and bustle of city life. My mother often was unable to cross streets before the traffic lights changed. On one occasion a homeless man held back traffic at a busy intersection with hands wide open, shielding her as she crossed, while at the same time scolding drivers until she made it safely to the curb. People always say ‘New Yorkers got heart’ and on that day I got to see just how big it was. My heart was bursting with joy seeing the compassion others had toward my disabled mother.

Happiness, pride, joy, and compassion: a shift occurred.

Maybe it was because of this backdrop of ‘good’ feelings, that I forgot about the mixed bag of worries continually swirling in my head. I wasn’t feeling vulnerable without my grandmother not there.  I wasn’t worried about my professional future having completing college. And, I wasn’t feeling sad about my mom’s new disability, after seeing her fragility in a new light. I can’t say why this shift occurred.  Something made me realize that I really didn’t know my mom.  It was as if I was seeing her as a real person for the first time through my adult lens and not ‘just’ my mom.

I was intrigued and wanted to know more about this fragile, broken woman.

As a married woman myself, thinking of having children and planning for a career, I wanted to better understand my mom. I knew what she’d experienced to have me. But I was missing the Why’s: why had she made the decisions she had. Sitting on the empty subway car, I asked my mom for the first time, why hadn’t she married a white guy and have white children?  Didn’t she think her life would have been easier?  Was she happy with the life she’d chosen?

In my naïve mind, I could not imagine choosing to make my life harder.  To me it was clear: she would have not suffered as much, if she hadn’t had me.  She may have had more help in raising me, if she’d married a white guy and had white children. Perhaps a white father would not have rejected me as mine had? Perhaps many of her family would not have turned away from her?  Perhaps she would not have had to face the hatred of others not ready to accept mixed race children in 1969?

Who knows?

Growing up I’d heard the heroic stories my mother and grandmother faced to have me. But I took them for granted.  They didn’t seem real. They were the sorts of things you only ever saw on television. And so I had become immune to them. 

Like the story of how neighbors burned a cross on my grandparent’s front lawn when they found out my mother was having a black baby. Or, how the high school teachers called her nigger-lover everyday, spewing their hate-filled comments whenever she was alone.  And, how she was kicked out of that same school because she’d ‘set a bad example for other white girls.’ 

Nor could I imagine this broken, frail woman sleeping on the steps of the welfare office 7 months pregnant for several days, as she and my grandmother had done, until the welfare office finally granted her medical coverage to receive prenatal care and deliver me.

It was only then seeing her in this new light, that I realized how amazingly powerful my mother was.

I recalled how loved I felt growing up within a tribe of Black, White, mixed, and international friends and families.  I was reminded how she idolized Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe filled with adopted children from other countries. It brought back memories attending Chinese New Year’s celebrations and cooking with Vietnamese friends. 

Lastly, I remembered the high school newspaper article from her jewellery box.  One that she’d saved to read to me and did so every few years. It was a pros and cons piece written in 1968 debating whether or not blacks and whites should mix. The pro article was written by a white student.  He believed people should be allowed to marry and have children with anyone they like, regardless of race. The con article was written by a mixed race student.  He hated being half black and wished he were white. After reading the articles, my mother and I would talk about their reasons and how I felt about them. I remember feeling sad for the mixed race student; it must have been hard for him hating who he was.

Looking at this beautiful, strong woman, I sat there waiting for her final answer.

Her Why.

Why had she chosen this life for herself (and me)?

Her answer was profoundly simple, but nonetheless has guided my views about my own race.

She said, “I really don’t know, Mar, it just wasn’t me.  I just had to be me.”