Around the time of my birthday every year, my mother would tell me how happy she had become once I came into her life.
“Tell me how you found me,” I would say.
“It’s a sad story,” she would respond. “But it has a happy ending.” This was a ritual between us, because I knew how much my mother loved me and I knew the story by heart.
“We came to Richmond, Indiana because your grandparents lived there. I had finished my master’s work at Earlham College which is located there a few years earlier. It was a small town then. People had trouble dealing with skin color in those days. Your birth parents were high school students in Richmond. You were put up for adoption as soon as you were born, but you were too dark-skinned to be adopted by a white family. And you were too light-skinned to be adopted by a black family. You were perfect for us, though, as soon as we saw you.”
I felt the radiance of my mother’s love when she told me that story. But the message wasn’t lost on me either: no one could deal with me. Light and dark. Black and white. It was early 1958, one of the pinnacle years of the civil rights movement. I was actually born thirty miles from Richmond in Dayton, Ohio, a city that twenty years earlier had been the temporary home of a young Ralph Ellison who found inspiration there to begin his writing career that would eventually lead to the novel Invisible Man. I always figured my birth mother had me in Dayton in order to escape the humiliation and shame she would have faced in her small home town. No one would know her in Dayton. She would have been invisible.
Through the last weeks of the winter of 1958 I was shuttled from one Richmond foster home to another while my social worker sought a family who could accept the implications of my skin color. There’s no telling how I was treated during my first month and a half. March has always been a tough time for me if I’m not careful. I imagine my round face and big, dark eyes staring at different ceilings, very quickly coming to expect a sense of being alone in a small room at the back of houses that all smelled different: camphor, old newspapers, garlic, cat urine, rubber tires, old lumber, fried food, fresh paint. How many inquisitive seven-year-olds peered over the railings of my many cribs and spit on me? How many gentle sixteen-year-old daughters stroked my cheek and sang the songs of the day to me? How long did it take for the realization to set in that I was very likely the product of a mixed race union? How long before a new home had to be found for me, a new ceiling, new smells, new people who might or might not have the time to hold and comfort me? How might I sense that life would ever be otherwise, that normal babies are doted over by their mommies and daddies, that there is only one house to wake up to every morning, that no matter what the smells and sights and sounds, it all comes to equal warmth and love and security to a baby in the end?
Back then there were those who believed in equal rights for African Americans and those who did not. But I wasn’t an objective legal principle, I was the end result of it. In a hypothetical world, if all couplings between men and women could be mixed, the question of “the Negro in America” would fade away–so would the question of Caucasians. In the late fifties, those of mixed descent must have confounded everyone. The riddle of white versus black was so big and so volatile and carried such emotional valence–even hysteria–that the gray areas and the nuances of real life were too much for people to handle. Even today in the year 2003, the majority of mixed race children feel the need to choose sides.
My skin was the color of raw teak or breakfast coffee half full of heavy cream and sugar. My nose and lips were nondescript Anglo, though my hair was nearly black and my eyes were the color of baker’s chocolate. I was, and still am today, a dark-featured blend of something.
There are many versions of mix in this country. Although there are no useful statistics, it is very likely that ours is a country dominated by mixed heritage citizens. Certainly, most African Americans and Hispanics are mixed race. And the number of so-called white people who are actually combinations of multiple ethnic groups with hints–or more–of African, Native, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, and Mediterranean genes in their histories, is untold. But no one could tell me anything about my story. In one sense I was whatever you wanted to imagine I was. You could make up just about anything and it probably would have worked.