Reprinted with permission from 4Culture - 1989
“Is he white or colored?” Aunt Hattie’s weak eye strayed speculatively upward, as if to emphasize the importance of her question. She always asked such questions. As did everyone in the family. What did it matter, anyway?
You see, I come from a caste of people who often escape mention in U.S. history. We are Creole, offspring of the city-bred Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and his strong-willed African slave, Marie Thereze Coincoin. Wifeless for several years, Claude Thomas kept Marie Thereze as his sole concubine, breeding scandal as proliferously as he did their sixteen children. By 1787, town gossip had reached such burdensome proportions that Claude Thomas succumbed to taking a wife: lily-white, legal and legitimate.
But it wasn’t long before Claude Thomas, missing his beloved Marie Thereze, re-established their intimate relationship. The refueling of residual rumor did not deter him from purchasing the freedom of Marie Thereze and their children, buying for them a plot of land from which they tilled forth a profitable tobacco industry—and the first line of Creole progeny in postbellum America.
Six generations later, my family wears the distinct marking of its mulatto ancestry. Our colors stretch from my grandmother’s peach-white to her grandmother’s taut ebony; my own translucent yellow to my mother’s soft cinnamon. And my grandfather! The beauty of his bronze skin speaks reverently of his Native American blood.
“What difference does it make?” I asked out loud, indignant. But the question has always left me hanging—on a thread of confusion and guilt that wraps around my neck as if to choke forth the answer “colored” or “black”.
The deeper tones of blackness have been a long-held honor in my family, one towards which we were taught always to aspire. The idea has needed little active proselytizing, since the evidence of light skin subliminally invokes within us the preference of marrying into darker hues. This value system evolved out of my father’s generation: all of his siblings save one married dark-skinned mates, the purpose being to gradually yield a bloodline in which family members could no longer pass for white—an age-old, shameful practice in which Southern relatives still shamelessly engaged.
“Difference?!” spouted my aunt. Her eye bulged threateningly.
I glared back, exasperated and nearing defeat. Despite the fact that Caucasian blood runs thicker than the Negro in my family, we were supposed to remember that our Anglo ties are accepted only to the extent that we could not control our past. This meant each of us was responsible for ensuring that whatever African lineage remains would be buttressed, not diffused.
Shrinking beneath her descending judgment, I conceded what I knew she’d abhor.
Aunt Hattie glowered at me, emphatically and genuinely perplexed. “Girl, don’t you evah go out wit’ colored boys?”
I felt the need to defend myself, to assure her that I hadn’t abandoned my Afro-American heritage by courting an Italian boy. Suddenly recalling a family fact, I pointed out that Uncle Tony had married Trudy, who everyone knows is white.
“White?!” perked my aunt. Her bewilderment now bordered on complete confusion; her weak eye swam wildly in its socket.
I went in for the kill. “Yes,” I stressed, happy to exploit her ignorance of recent family events. “And Kathy’s about ready to marry Mark Brown, who’s also white. In fact, Uncle Mike’s kids all go out with white people—”
“Wha …?” Aunt Hattie instinctively retreated, sensing two generations ahead of her own that posing such questions betrayed within her an obsolete and dated tradition: blood purity.
I was grateful for the effect, except that it didn’t get me completely off the hook. My aunt’s desire to encourage racial homogeneity was no more dated than Steve’s mother struggling to “preserve her family’s strong Italian bloodline”, as she told my father once, by sabotaging our relationship. She had tried everything—growing more desperate as our courtship survived—from pulling the telephone out of the wall during one conversation, to lying about Steve’s whereabouts during another, to ostracizing him from the family’s good graces by phoning all of their East Coast relatives to disgustedly tell them that, guess what?—Steve is seeing a BLACK girl.
Nor were my own family and friends too pleased. My father confessed that he’d rather seem me date a black boy. My mother called Steve a “wop,” a slur my father had to define for me. Some of my black girlfriends openly ridiculed me. Even strangers had something to say about it. One day while I sat with Steve in a local restaurant, two little black girls slowed to a stop in front of our table. One of them cupped a hand sideways over her mouth and loudly whispered to the other (making sure I could hear): “I can’t believe she’s going out with a white boy!” The remark stunned me. I couldn’t believe that two children who should’ve been preoccupied with teasing one another were instead dead-set against judging me. Once outside, they walked up to our window and spat soda at us through straws. They made nasty faces. They despised me.
“Ah jus’ don’t know ‘bout you kids,” scolded Aunt Hattie. “Goin’ out wit’ white folks! Down in Oklahoma, dey didn’t ‘llow none o’ dat. And Ah don’t see why you cain’t find ya-se’f a nice colored boy in da firs’ place!”
* * *
Aunt Nannie leaned forward in the barber’s chair from her sister’s closed hair salon. “Maxine done found her a good man!” White puffs of hair hovered near her scalp as she licked the sagging, dry lips of her toothless mouth, anticipating the effect of her gossip. “Yes, girl! Owns a whole string a’ dem candamimiums. Well, ya know he’s got ta be white. But he’s a good fella. Treats Maxine real good. You know she nevah had nuttin’ but dem no-good, low-down fools, rippin’ and runnin’ dem streets and takin’ all dat po’ chile’s money.”
The news shocked me. For my yellow skin I had been envied and scorned by this darker half of my family. On this side, nobody tried to “pass.” Instead, they joyfully lived as storybook Southern black folk do, playing dominoes with ivory blocks, frying up chicken and slow cooking collard greens, knocking out chitlins and ribbing one another over whose fish head soup was best. They partied all hours of the day and night, drinking good whiskey, slapping down raucous games of Bid Whist, and grooving along to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, James Brown and The Supremes.
“What ‘bout you, girl?” Aunt Nannie wondered. “Have ya found ya-se’f a boyfriend?”
I leaned forward, eager to share my life with this adroit elder. “I have been seeing this one guy,” I began. “We met at a party. He’s really funny! Last—”
“Dat’s real nice, girl,” she crooned, sending a mischievous smile my way. “Woman’s got ta have a man.” She peered at me, her eyes narrowing. “Is he white or colored?”