Half my life ago, when I was twenty-one and in my first year out of college, my father brought his new girlfriend back home to Baltimore to visit. It had been over four years since I had last seen him, yet after a lifetime as an alcoholic, he was far from pleasant. We met for dinner at the house of a couple in whose basement he’d lived in before leaving town (I more accurately should say before he had to leave town, because of his then illegal activities). His friends and girlfriend doted on me almost parentally even though we’d just met: the wife, in fact, insisted on giving me four rolls of quarters for my laundry—all three of them engaging in the kind of codependency in which they tried to make up for the frequent offensive statements that my father was dishing out.
The drunker he became, the more personal these statements got, and the more vitriol he loaded into them. He was bragging about things about which anyone else would feel guilty or ashamed, in order to fluff himself up—some things that even now I would never repeat to my mother, for how deeply they pushed the knife. He was enacting the typical bully, typical alcoholic blaming-and-judging behavior: making himself feel better by putting others down. In front of his friends and girlfriend, he criticized my mother for divorcing him and called her, multiple times, “a whore”; then he called her mother—my grandmother—”a nigger.” To prove his point, he slurred, with a knowing tone, as if he were somehow enlightening me, “Your grandmother had nigger lips.”
I had previously only identified my grandmother by the particular sensory impressions I had of her: for the leg brace she wore after her stroke with the special shoe attached, for the hand she couldn’t use that curled inward, for the bright pink or orange lipstick smeared across her mouth, for her perfumed smell of Estée Lauder, for the doll babies in her nursing home room that she spoke to as if they were children, and for her blue eyes that, unlike my mother, I inherited. To me, she was the whitest person in our family, her hair a stark, silky white, her skin always powdered.
As a child I had certain assumptions. Cats were female and dogs were male. People with white hair had been blonde in the past; those with grey hair had been brunettes. These were, of course, errors—a child’s way of figuring out what wasn’t yet understandable, what wasn’t yet divulged.
I felt torn up after seeing my father, but in the next few days I looked at family photos I had and realized it was obvious: my grandmother was racially mixed. Her hair had been wirier than I remembered: when she was first in the nursing home, it was mostly white, but speckled with black at the edges. Her nose was wide, her lips fuller than anyone else’s in our family, except for my older aunts’. She was yellowy-brown in color in some of the photos, almost an ashen grey in others.
The year before, in the small Virginia town where I’d attended college, at a school which only two years ago removed the Confederate flags from its chapel, I took an African American Literature class from a visiting professor in which I read examples of what’s termed “passing narratives”: James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line. Though I had heard of the “one drop” rule of the Jim Crow era and of the phrase “high yellow,” though I knew that rape was a frequent form of slave-master viciousness and that ownership of a slave’s body declared this a right, I had no awareness that my own ancestry may have contained elements of passing, as in the stories I was reading. And then just a year later, looking at my grandmother’s photos—and wondering what my mother may have known, if anything—those stories came back to me: especially that of the adopted Clara in Chestnutt’s “Her Virginia Mammy,” who is so preoccupied with whether she comes from a distinguished family that she doesn’t recognize her own features in the darker-skinned woman she is speaking to. She assumes she has just met her childhood mammy at a dance class that she teaches, and yet the woman is really her mother, whom she has longed for her whole life.
Last February, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As can be common, her symptoms fluctuate. She confuses time and date, day and place, present and past, self and other. She searches for words to complete her thoughts. She gives answers to questions that I haven’t asked, confused at what I’m wanting. She’s been quicker to cry and to anger.
Of her many symptoms, the one that feels the most poignant, the most heartbreaking to me in relation to her diagnosis, is how frequently she repeats details about herself to both family members who know these things and to strangers who don’t. She is trying to hold onto her identity. She wants people who don’t even know her to know something about who she is.
One of these details that over the past year she has been repeating without filter is that we are part Native American. She has said it to my nephew and nieces, who have been told since they were children; she has said it to family friends. On a plane to Tampa last March, when we flew with my Aunt Joan to say goodbye to their younger brother, who’d been moved into hospice, she repeated it to a woman sitting next to her.
The woman was in the armed forces. My aunt leaned across my mother to thank the woman for her service, and they began to talk further. The woman would be changing planes in Philadelphia to one headed out west, where she would be visiting with her family. Something had been triggered for my mother. “I’m part Cherokee,” my mother said, “which is why my husband says I’m so beautiful.”
When I was young, she would tell me we were part Navajo.
A few months after going to Tampa:
I am in the car with my brother. We are on our way to take my mother out for breakfast. It’s been more than a year since he’s seen her, and so I tell him about her symptoms so that he knows what to expect. When I tell him about what she said on the plane—which she also brought up to the woman checking our bags, to a person at hospice, to the desk clerk at the hotel—a smile slips across his face. It’s something he’s proud of also.
This is, of course, a family lie, spun to convince others; like her parents, my mother has been propagating it faithfully, perhaps for her whole life. And yet it wasn’t her mother’s side of the family that she’d told us was Cherokee, Navajo, or the tribe du jour, or one she sometimes couldn’t remember: it was her father’s.
Passing is both a social and political act: a form of revolt against slave owners and slavery, outlawed and feared by segregationists and white supremacists, yielding a breath of freedom and yet systemically injurious to those still oppressed. Because of this latter fact, it’s hard for me to work through how to perceive it morally, how to weigh all of its effects. As Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy writes in his 2001 essay, “Racial Passing,” passing, when a choice, “requires that a person be self-consciously engaged in concealment.” But it is not just a concealment of the self—my grandmother erasing who she may have been at one time, keeping her skin powdered. It’s a concealment of history—a concealment and erasure of others: we have no photographs of my grandmother’s parents, and none of their parents either—not even a photo of her brother.
It didn’t occur to me in the conversation with my father that my mother would have been the only one he could have heard it from that she—our family—may have been part black—that it was a secret she must have known, but somehow had forgotten or denied. It took me nearly three years after my father’s visit to even ask her, mainly because I was ashamed by how scathing my father had been when he used the word he did, by how easy it was for me to feel knocked down by him.
I could be scathing, as well, though—especially toward my mother. I sat on the floor of my apartment arguing into the phone. My mother had kept from me something else that was important, and when I confronted her about not being honest, she insisted that she had been. I was furious with her for keeping things hidden, for putting me in the position where I could be stunned—by my father or by anyone.
Although I know how I felt then, how angry I was, and the point I wanted to make, searching through my memory, the words I used escape me, tucked deep among the images and sounds of my past. Whether I said Oh, really? or Mom, you always lie to me, or That’s not true and you know it, they are words I am glad to forget, tinged with sarcasm and anger. In a way, I wish I also could forget how harshly I drilled my mother: accusing her of hiding it from me that my grandmother wasn’t all white; boasting about how easy it was for me to see it from looking at pictures of her.
I remember my mother deflecting—saying something like, What are you talking about, Ashlie?—before I backed her into a corner and revealed that my father had told me.
To my surprise, my mother’s voice softened. She began to tell me a story: of how at the movie theater where she worked as a teenager, selling tickets in the booth outside the entrance, a group of boys her age, who were black, started teasing her by calling her “cousin.” She was upset by it, bothered enough that after she got off work for the night, she went home and asked her father what they’d meant.
I have imagined this scene over the years, of her sitting at the table with her father, him perhaps wearing a white undershirt like I’ve seen him wear in photos, having just gotten home from his second job. I only met him when I was an infant, and so in my head what he says is soundless, but I hear my mother’s voice, tentative and nervous, asking is it true what the boys said to her, asking is she really their cousin. Maybe they weren’t that far off in skin tone from my grandmother, and there was something else they had said, something my mother didn’t repeat to her father, or, decades later, to me. Perhaps this wasn’t the first time this had happened, and she had been teased like this in school, or as a child, but it was the first time she had the courage to ask; perhaps another of her siblings already had asked something similar of her father, and he had a story prepared, one he fell back on then—or maybe, as seems likely, he simply latched onto the word “cousin” when he answered my mother and told her a distant cousin of theirs had married someone black.
I was and still am astounded she believed him. When I asked why, she seemed perplexed: she always believed her father. And yet his answer made no sense. How would the group of boys have known about something like that, a marriage in the family, if my mother never had? Had she never really looked at her mother? Was this a story she’d told my father, confiding her doubt? Or, had my father asked about my grandmother’s race, as an outsider who was not first told what to think, not first told how to see her?
I have always been what my mother called “olive,” her telling her friends, her coworkers, “Ashlie has olive skin,” as if it were bestowed by a fairy godmother. Because of that, and because of my hair being long and dark, my lips tanned, the Native American story on my grandfather’s side seemed feasible—true, even desired—though I more strikingly resemble my half-cousins who also have these features, who I am related to through my grandmother.
The year after my father’s visit, I moved from Baltimore to New York, from what felt like a still highly segregated city to the mythic American melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. And then, in a place of every shade—a place of every variation—where people knew what those from other parts of the world look like, were people suddenly and frequently asking me about my heritage: the cooks at the restaurant in my building and the laundromat workers next door asking if I were Chinese, construction workers and taxi drivers constantly wanting to know if I spoke Spanish, if I was Mexican, if I was Filipino, Italian, where I was from, if I was Jewish, or Egyptian, could I speak English. I found myself buckling, my answers over the years shifting from “mostly German and some Native American,” to “the last names in my family are German,” to “no, I have blue eyes,” to “my parents are from Pennsylvania,” to “German mutt,” to “there are probably some family secrets.”
Two summers ago:
My patience with this family secret has worn very, very thin. This is the summer before we finally take my mother in for a diagnosis. She starts rapidly losing weight. She can only drive places where she’s been driving for years, routes where she can recognize various landmarks, because she can no longer follow unfamiliar directions. I meet her in Pennsylvania to see an aunt who is in the hospital, her sister-in-law, who was married to my Uncle Ron, one of my mother’s half-brothers. My mother still keeps a letter he sent her from Korea from when he served during the war in one of the drawers of her jewelry box, the letters GMLTTF—give my love to the family—written across the envelope’s back seal. This letter from my uncle is one of her treasured memories.
In my aunt’s hospital room, someone on her side of the family tells a story about how thirty, forty years ago, someone called my uncle “black,” how he got in a fistfight over it.
“Daddy wasn’t black,” one of my cousins insists, like it’s something to be ashamed of, like it must somehow make us better if we’re not.
My other cousin agrees. “We’re not black.”
His guffaw when he says it is striking.
My mother is completely silent. This seems the wrong time to have this conversation, the wrong time for me to respond, but I only just realize the impact of keeping this secret. I only just realize that by sitting silent as well, regardless of the circumstance, I’m enabling a behavior and a set of beliefs that I don’t want to promote. My cousins don’t know how bad this looks to me, how racist their statements appear, but I’m not giving them an opportunity to know or do any differently. They must assume, because I don’t say otherwise, that I agree: that it matters that we’re white, that there would be something flawed in us if we were part black, something that would need hiding.
The youngest of my cousins moves closer to the bed again and picks up her mother’s hand, brushing it with her fingers. I’ve been doing this gesture more as well, now: the frailer my mother becomes, and the closer I am to losing her, the more attention I pay to her body. The family connection between my cousin and me is obvious, and has been since we were girls. We each have the shape of our grandmother’s face; we each have her skin color. So does her brother. I can almost hear, in the words they’ve used, what they must have been told since they were children, an echo of something perhaps my grandmother said at one time to my aunts and uncles, something she may at one time have insisted on them believing.
Hearing them defending their whiteness like this—the way they’ve said it—I feel like I did when my father visited—like I did as a child at family gatherings when the room would grow silent, and the tallest of my uncles would rant about how we should “send all the niggers back to Africa”—spouting about it at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, in front of his mother—where at the end of the table of the two dozen or more of us where she was sitting in her wheelchair, she either didn’t hear or didn’t speak up.
As my mother loses her knowledge of herself, her memory, she wants to know more about the past. We can’t remember how many children my Aunt Leota gave birth to (one of my aunts thought twelve, my mother has for decades said seventeen), and so we write down their names, my mother fixing the list to the refrigerator. When we help my Aunt Shirley pack up her belongings from the senior home so that she can move in with her oldest son, I take some photographs of her mementos: the hat and corsage she wore when she and her husband were married; the bride and groom figurine from their cake; and their wedding photograph—where she is wearing a skirt and jacket she later gave me—the white roses and lily of the same dried corsage fresh and fully bloomed on the left side of her chest. “He was so handsome,” my mother says of my uncle, who passed away over seven years ago now, as we’re looking at the picture. She doesn’t mention what else is clear even in the photo’s sepia tinge, or maybe she doesn’t see it: how beautiful my aunt was when she was young—how in her eyes, her nose, her lips, her skin tone, her curled and coarse hair, that was dark then, she nearly looks Puerto Rican, or like a light-skinned black woman.
“Will you send me those photographs?” my mother asks. This is what she wants all the time now, always asking for me to document things for her, to write down information, to write down her memories.
I finally decide that I’m going to test my DNA, with a mail-in genetic testing kit from 23andMe.com. This will give me my raw genetic data as well as an analysis of my ancestry. I have been thinking about this for years, but now that my mother has an illness, and I have a reason besides just calling out my family for obvious mistruths, I can more easily explain to them why I want the information. On the Alzheimer’s Association website, I find articles about different genes that can make you more susceptible, and this helps cement my decision, because I believe strongly in prevention: in not triggering the turn-on switch for these gene markers, in not having my memory go awry because I was too afraid to know something. Though to be honest, my biggest mental concern at this point is that I feel like I’m going nuts hearing my mother telling everyone and their fourth cousin we’re part Cherokee.
When I get the box with the testing kit, I mail my sample from a post office in DC, spitting into the vial as I sit in the parking lot. A few days later I open an email from the company stating they’ve received my sample. Now it’s just a six- to eight-week wait for the results.
Just having the data, however—knowing the different percentages of DNA sequences that denote where my ancestors are from—is far from what I want. I want to know my grandmother’s story, more than from my impressions of her and more than from what my father might say. And I want my mother to know who she herself is, before she is no longer able. I want to know her, to talk about these things before she’s gone from me.
We meet my Aunt Joan at her house one morning and drive an hour to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the town where they grew up, where my grandmother moved with her first five children once she met my grandfather. Here, my mother can reminisce, as she’s so much clearer now about what happened in the past than in her daily activities. She is drawn to this remembering, though I can see the advancement of her disease when she mixes up past events, when she tells about an event that happened to someone else as if it’s a part of her life, her past.
A friend has mentioned that I can find out my family history—race included—from census records, and so I talk to my mother and my aunt about going to the Cumberland County Historical Society, on Pitt Street, as a part of this trip. I’ve told my aunt my reasons for going, and though I haven’t been explicit yet with my mother—only hinting, Mom, we don’t know that, when she’s said in front of others that she’s part Cherokee—she’s never known the names of her grandparents and wants to find out, to write down the dates of their births and deaths, and so acknowledge them in our family history. The Historical Society also stores attendance records from the Carlisle Indian School, started in 1879 as the first of the US boarding schools that took Native American children from their tribes in an attempt to Americanize them. If one of our ancestors is Native American, it’s likely that they’d be listed in these records, as well. At the intersection before we turn into the parking lot, I can see the booth to the movie theater, where my mother worked, not even a block away, down High Street. It occurs to me that in 1960, when she worked there, the theater was still segregated: the boys my mother sold the tickets to would have had to sit in the balcony once they’d walked inside the theater.
I don’t know what to expect by looking at the census, or whether I’ll even be able to find out what I want. I’m mindful that, like two of my grandmother’s children who had fathers they didn’t know, and who didn’t discover this until much later, perhaps my grandmother wasn’t even her father’s daughter. Perhaps the census will not mention race, or any evidence of where we come from will just be buried or undetectable, lost further back in a generation I have no access to.
And yet, it is shockingly easy for me to locate the information. Instead of showing us the microfiche records that I thought we’d have to comb through, the librarian says it’s easier if we just access their subscription to Ancestry.com, and so leads us past the exhibits to the room with the large wooden desks and logs us in on one of the computer stations. And there, we see that in 1940—the first and most recent census in the list—before my mother was born and when my grandmother was a widow by her first husband, my grandmother and her first five children, ages 13, 10, 8, 6, and 1, are all classified as “C” for “colored.” When we click on the 1930 census, she and her first two children are designated as “Neg”: “negro.”
I lean closer to my mother and explain the listings to her. “What does it say?” she asks, another minute later. I repeat it to her again, not knowing whether she’ll be able to remember, or if she really understands.
My Aunt Joan shakes her head, and in a low, measured voice, somewhat amazed, but also deferential, says, “Maybe I shouldn’t have put down ‘white’ on the census we just did.” Of all of her siblings, she is the one who looks the most Irish—a pale-skinned and blue-eyed version of my mother, though with features that are softer. In my aunt, I can see how DNA and lineage isn’t always clear, how melanin isn’t the only indicator of ancestry.
Months later, at my mother’s house, I find a photograph that my mother has from the seventies with her and my Aunt Joan and six of their other siblings, and can see a whole spectrum in their skin colors, their features.
Before we leave Carlisle, we stop to have lunch at my uncle’s house, the only one of my mother’s four brothers still living. Though it’s been years since I’ve heard him say anything like what he did when I was a child, I’m hesitant about going, about how he and his wife will respond if I tell them why I came up.
We eat chicken and peaches and sliced tomatoes, and my mother tells a story about when I was born, but gets the facts mixed up, and tells us she was in a coma. My uncle’s wife—my aunt who gave me books and read me stories when I was a child, who let me stay with them for a week one summer—goes along with her, even though she knows that wasn’t what happened. “For how long?” she asks.
“Weeks,” my mother answers.
My aunt pulls out a photo album from a cross-country trip that she, my uncle, and my Aunt Joan took in the mid seventies to California with my grandmother, not long before my grandmother’s stroke. In one photo, my grandmother stands next to a wooden Indian statue at what looks like a log cabin general store. She looks like she does in the photos I have of her as well, her hair not as silver white as I remember, but thick, with a layer of black underneath, her lipstick bright orange.
A repairman comes and my uncle excuses himself to talk to him in the garage. That’s when I bring up us having gone to the historical society.
“I wanted to find out information about Grammy,” I begin. “We were looking through the census records.”
“Uh-huh.” My aunt’s voice sounds like she’s forming a question, drawing out the vowels, and for a moment I think she’s interested in knowing what we found out.
“It lists everyone’s race.” At this point I’m nervous, not as sure that I even want to say anything. “It had her listed as black.”
“Oh, we know.” My aunt is short about it. “We had a friend of ours do some family research.”
“Oh, really?” Aunt Joan asks. “When was that?”
“A few years ago.”
I’m astounded that of anyone in the family, my aunt and uncle already know. There are so many questions going through my head, that I now want to ask them: if my uncle remembers my grandmother’s parents; if there are photos I don’t know about, something they’ve heard or recall that will tell me about my grandmother. They must have seen the listing for my uncle, only a year old when he appears in the records.
I go to ask my aunt a question—I want to know what my uncle thinks of this—but she interrupts before I can and shuts down the conversation, definitively—no usual lilt in her voice, no inquisitiveness.
“Your uncle doesn’t want to talk about it,” she says.
I’m taken aback by how firm she is—how clear she’s making it that I’m not supposed to mention it to my uncle—that I’m actually being told to not speak to him about it—even though he’s well aware, and there would be no reason for us to pretend something different to each other. I’m slightly shaken, actually, at what it might mean about how she and my uncle feel about it, what their reasons would be to not acknowledge it to me.
I turn and look at my mother, who is gazing downward at her hands. Seeing her quiet like this reminds me of my grandmother, of one of the Christmases at Aunt Joan’s house, after dinner, when everyone had dispersed into the family room to watch television or into the kitchen to clean up, but I couldn’t find where my mother had gone to, and so walked back through the other rooms looking for her. Through the entryway to the living room, I saw my grandmother sitting in her wheelchair still, with her head lowered, at the end of the long table where we’d all just eaten dinner. I could tell something was wrong, but then I realized that my mother was there, as well, kneeling down beside her. She reached her hand up and touched my grandmother’s face. I had never seen a tender moment between them like that, one where they both seemed vulnerable. “Mom, why are you crying?” I heard her ask.
I feel tears in my eyes unexpectedly, thinking of all of the distance in their relationship. I look at my aunt and press the point. I know it won’t be discussed any further, and certainly not when my uncle returns, but I want her to know why it’s important. “It just makes me think about what she went through,” I say.
On the ride home, my Aunt Joan tells us that my Aunt Shirley had said she remembered my grandmother crying herself to sleep at night for months after her first husband died. He was twenty-eight, and died in the hospital from appendicitis. My grandmother had four children at the time, Shirley the second youngest, not quite four years old. Hearing this it finally hits me that my Aunt Shirley must have known what race she was—what mixture—both then and in 1940, when she was eight, as would her older sister and brother—even her younger brother, my Uncle Ron. We can’t see the census records for 1950—the first one that would document my mother—for another six years because of a 72-year public record restriction, but I wonder, even when my mother was born, had my family already changed their race? How had my grandmother explained it to my aunts, my uncles, who were old enough to know? How did they go about forgetting, hiding? Did they do it when they left Mechanicsburg for Carlisle, when my grandmother married my grandfather? Or, in 1950, was my mother “colored” also?
I still have doubt in the back of my mind as I wait for my test results, even when I open the email and access them online, several weeks earlier than promised. In some ways, my results are what I expect, but it feels both strange and startling: I am 90.1% European and 9.4% African. Of my European ancestry, I am not anywhere near as German as I thought, having only 18% of combined French and German lineage (which may mean 18% German, as the groups are non-distinguished). I am also 15% British and Irish. I essentially am nearly as African as what I may be from each of these separate nationalities, and yet culturally—if we have a culture beyond that of being white suburban middle class—my mother’s family sees itself as the type of Germans known as Pennsylvania Dutch, though my German DNA may come mainly from my father.
My DNA that’s African is predominantly from West Africa, 8.9% of me. It’s hard to not be struck by that—West Africans were the majority of those enslaved in the Middle Passage—and so for weeks after realizing it, I feel a kind of weight. In honesty, I feel sad. The twenty-one years from the time my father first planted this in my head has given me a long time to mull it over, and I want to be grateful for whatever circumstances made me, but thinking about the grotesqueness of things that must have happened in my family’s past, to some of the people I descended from, hits me strongly, and I feel it physically, in my body. Whichever of them were taken from their homes brutally and brought by slave ship to this country, chained in the hull, raped, beaten, separated from their families, it would be wrong to not remember them, wrong to pretend it happened otherwise, especially when my body carries their legacy.
In her kitchen, I tell my mother what my results say. I ask if she remembers what we found out from looking at the census, and though her answer is a question, I’m relieved she gets it right: “Yes,” she answers. “Did it say Mom was black?”
Rumpus original art by Wendi Chen.