When my dad proposed to my mom, she didn’t say Yes. Instead, she uttered the words no suitor wants to hear, “I’ll think about it.” It was 1962 in Colorado Springs. My dad was stationed at Fort Carson and my mom had fled to the Springs looking for succor and a fresh start after a failed relationship. They met, dated, and fell in love. The reason for my mom’s ambivalence had everything to do with color: she is white, and my dad, now deceased, was Black. She had grown up in small town Pennsylvania, where Black folks lived on one side of the tracks and whites on the other. Yet her mother had always taught her that racism was ridiculous, that it made no sense. And so, my mom made Black friends in her integrated schools and then sat with them in the balcony of the segregated movie theater: her first but certainly not her last act of resistance against a racist culture.
Nevertheless, she was fully aware that falling in love with a Black man was forbidden by most, and that nearly half of the country stubbornly held onto anti-miscegenation laws. Interracial marriage was incredibly rare, and my parent’s lives would not be easy. It would take another five years before the Supreme Court overturned the last of these laws. But in that moment, the dominant question in my mother’s mind was, “What about the children?”
My parents spent a lot of their dates at the Black Elks Club. One night, they enjoyed drinks with a friend who happened to be biracial, and my mom asked him what it was like: how did he fair being mixed race? He replied that he was loved by both his parents, and that’s what mattered the most. “If your kids are loved,” he said, “they will be alright.” My mom knew that love would not be an issue, and so she finally said Yes.
Looking back, my mother admits that she was naïve. My sister and I were certainly loved, but we both stumbled and struggled alone on the rocky, confusing, treacherous path of finding racial identity. Neither of my parents possessed the tools to help, or even to recognize our struggle.
Ironically, though mixed-race marriage was rare, mixed-race children were not. The fear of Black men taking our women, raping our women, has haunted white men for centuries. That was always the fear: We must keep Black men controlled, subdued, in chains or else they will ruin white women. This was the chief motivation for segregation. If the races lived too closely together, friendships, like that between my parents, may grow, and then romance and then marriage and then kids. Weak white women would willingly give themselves to lecherous Black men or be taken by them and before you know it, pure whiteness would be a thing the past, and that could not be allowed.
If only those men who harbored those fears had kept their hands off Black women. In truth, those who dreaded the amalgamation of the races had only themselves to blame.
I have often wondered what it must have been like for a white wife on a slave plantation. One day, she notices a lighter skinned toddler following in the fields after his slave mother. And then she notices in that toddler her husband’s features. She knows he had been with the slave, and there is nothing she could do about it. White men had undeterred freedom to rape their slaves as often as they wanted. It was the perfect way to increase the labor force and assert domination over the women as well as over their fathers, brothers and husbands who could do nothing to stop it.
The Black women were voiceless, the Black men were voiceless, and the white wives were nearly voiceless. A white wife may not have had the power to stop her husband’s nocturnal exploits, but she did have the power to unleash her resentment on the slaves. She could target and torment the slave child and his mother. She could suggest the sale of one or both if money were short, or if she just couldn’t stand having them around. Her voice was revenge.
The white wife could also use this voice against Black men. If one failed to be deferential enough, or interested enough, or anything that she desired enough, she could leverage that myth that Black men harbored an almost uncontrollable sexual appetite for white women and merely suggest that he exhibited too much interest. That would be enough for him to be mutilated, sold, or killed, even as late as 1955, even if he was only fourteen years old, like Emmet Till.
Some white women still choose to wield this power - the Amy Coopers of the world, the small-minded women who have been raised to fear Black men, the women who have been termed “the Karen” – they still use their power by weaponizing the Dangerous Black Man myth and dialing 911.
Anyway, the light skinned offspring of the plantation were called mulattos, that is, mules: half horse, and half donkey. Today biracial people rightly reject this label and choose to be called biracial or mixed race instead.
There was a time when plantations teamed with these tan children and as they grew, despite the ire of the white wives, they often received special treatment from their fathers. They were emancipated from the hard, sweltering field life and given easier tasks inside: cooking, cleaning, and caring for the master’s white children, their half-siblings.
This gave birth to colorism: lighter skinned slaves received better treatment and special privileges that darker slaves could not access. As a result, the darker slaves often resented their lighter skinned co-laborers and rejected them from their community. Today, the “lighter is better” mindset can be found in the four corners of the earth; it has been absorbed into almost every culture. Lighter skinned Blacks still today often receive preferential treatment from whites, even though they are not fully accepted by whites, and then resentment from darker skinned Blacks. This was my story.
It has taken me decades to feel comfortable in my own skin. In effort to fit somewhere, first I rejected one part of my heritage, and then the other. And then I finally came to rest in both.
* This is an excerpt from Ms. Doyley’s book, What about the Children? The date of publication is to be announced. The excerpt was recently published as a blog on Aria Strategies LLC.