The Men Who Left Were White
There are three things you should know.
First: I'm not biracial.
"What are you?" people ask, and they expect me to say something thrilling and tribal. I answer, but still they press. "Where are your ancestors from?" people ask, and they want answers that aren't San Antonio and Wheeling, West Virginia. But that's all I got. My story is both simple and untold.
The bones of it, of me: I'm black, despite the skin that goes virtually translucent in the winter. Despite the thin unpredictable curls. My mom and dad are black, as are my grandparents. That's all she wrote. That's all there is, even as I write this sentence. My parents, usually liberal employers of nuance, have always been militant-clear about drawing that line. We aren't biracial.
When I tell people I'm black, they find it unsatisfying. "That's no fun," one girl joked to me recently. "I thought you were going to have a story."
Second: I'm 44% European, 49% African. Not exactly an equal split, but pretty damn close.
I hear the same sentence twice.
The first time from my mother. It's Christmas in Georgia. Outside the clouds are unloading cold sleet, icy and malicious and familiar. "It's gonna read my genes," I tell her. She's rifling through our miscellaneous drawer, filled with nails and old pictures and pens long dried-up.
She's skeptical. "Why?"
"Why what?" I ask.
"Why are you doing this test?"
I shrug. "Why not?" I'm eating freezer burned ice cream out of the container; no one has touched it since I was last home.
"Because. It's irrelevant." She closes the drawer and looks in her purse again. "They break you down into slices, you know." She looks up. "Do you have my keys?"
"No." I pat my pockets, find them. "Yes. See? Maybe I'll find out I have the losing things gene."
She laughs. "I could tell you that right now."
"You spent all that time researching our family tree," I point out.
She thinks for a second. "That's different."
I know what she means. My parents – faithful worshippers of the AUC, who went to black colleges, worked for black companies, took us to black doctors, sent us to black schools. There were no blond Barbies in our house; Rapunzel had long braids in our fairytales. You could point a shotgun barrel to my mother's head and she still would not utter the phrase good hair. My father wouldn't refer to us as light-skinned, not for love nor money. To them, the technical was irrelevant. The technical had no context. It was the history that mattered.
Still, I ask her. "Don't you just want to know?"
"Not really. What do I need to know that for? Some people want to know all that stuff." She's headed out the door. "Some don't."
Second time it's February in Brooklyn and it's night and through the window you can just make out a sliver of the water. He and I are eating tacos, each on our laptops murmuring half-formed ideas. I show him the e-mail. "Hooray! Your sample is at our lab!"
"The sheer potential of information is overwhelming," I say.
"Who would choose the word hooray?" he asks.
"One test that can tell me what I have brewing and what I might be passing onto my kids. Like, it could say I have schizophrenia."
"You'd probably know by now," he says.
"Or brittle-bone syndrome."
"You'd know that too." He looks at me. "I don't think you know how genes work."
"Or if my sons will have male-pattern baldness."
"What if you find out you're white during Black History Month?" He grins, but I don't.
"Maybe I don't want to know," I say, and he shrugs.
"Cancel it, then," he says. "You don't have to find out. Some people want to know about themselves and some don't."
But I do want to know. That's how I am. I always want to know.
And when the email comes it's in the middle of the night, and I scramble to wake up and open it. There's a map. Western Africa is shaded dark, but Ireland and England are shaded too, with a hint of highlight over South Asia, and another tiny note indicating Native American blood. I stare at it, trace the outline of my history with my finger.
Third: In my family, the men who left were white.
Let's go back.
They had land the size of which a city brain like mine can't fathom. Southern men with pale skin, the kind of men whose job it was to oversee the overseer.
These women – my ancestors – were the opposite. Not boss of a solitary fly. Exhausted from all the work they'd done and the years of work that laid ahead. Cleaned and cooked and picked, squinted and bent over and limping, working, working so hard for so long that they must have been sore in places they didn't know they could be sore— their bone marrow, their blood. Nothing to show for it but the injuries. Not a hint of a thing resembling victory.
The women must have known rape was coming. Dread has a taste, you know. It must have crawled up their throats. But by all accounts there was no fight. What would be the point? The sharp cut of a whip across your back? What a man like that wanted, he got. No one could save the women. If he wanted it, then eventually his pale hands would be forcing open her thighs. Eventually he'd force himself inside.
And afterwards just empty air space, him pulling up his pants, clinical. Before he retreated to his bed with his wife, did he instruct the slave to go back outside to where she slept? And where she slept – was that a thin layer of straw or grass? Or was she one of the unlucky ones, stuck with just a plank of wood?
"How much longer until I can die?" these women, my ancestors, must have wondered. "How many ways can one person own me?"
Even after Emancipation, slow as molasses in January, finished crawling across the finish line– even then it didn't end. Shit, maybe then it was worse. I bet once the man doesn't own you, he might have to scare you. He might have to beat you up a little more.
I don't know. I can only guess, because the only knowledge we have is in the missing spaces. Men who are missing from birth certificates, who never laid eyes on their child.
There's no love there, no romance, no babies made with care and devotion. My history tells the story of white men who raped, white men who coerced, white men who had black children, and then white men who disappeared.
I'm thinking about these men the night I watch Obama introduce My Brother's Keeper. It's the last day of Black History Month. Obama speaking about black men always gets me squirming in my chair, bloated with admiration and also disappointment. He's balancing on the same flimsy tightrope he's been walking forever. I'm grateful for a president that considers the plight of black men in America. But the condescension still tastes sour.
"We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds," he says.
"Who's our?" I say to no one.
He talks about initiative, about ensuring that black men become "better husbands and fathers and well-educated hard-working good citizens." He says that we have got to "encourage responsible fatherhood."
I get tired of hearing about the epidemic of missing black fathers. It's always the same story, that old, tired, persistent-as-hell narrative, a troupe of vagabonds and thugs. It exists without context, without history.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want to dismiss the very real pain of children raised without fathers, including black fathers. It is undeniable that too many kids have been left behind by the men that created them. I see the aftermath in many of the men I've loved, black men who never knew their fathers.
But I want to remind America of how criminally short its memory can be. In theory, the good thing about this country is that we all have our own story to tell, and there exist a whole host of stories, both parallel and perpendicular to mine. Countless fragile intricacies that are sometimes unimaginable to me, other times too familiar.
But in practice, some of these stories go missing. And I wonder - where's my story?
White supremacy remains the most powerful force in America's history, the trump card of socialization. The narrative of abandonment has been hijacked to only include black men. If you google "white men abandon children" you get this:
But there's a history of abandonment in America, a history of leaving black women and black children, and it did not start with black men.
I want to tell America: you can't escape my story. After all, mine is a storyline threaded through all of humanity, the price women have been overpaying since the beginning of time and sex. As long as men have been fucking, they've been disappearing. Because women carry life we are also forced to harbor fear; history is saturated with the stories of babies born of coercion, of aggression, of deceit, of abandonment, and the stories of those babies turned full-grown.
When we talk about what slavery meant we talk about the ephemeral – what was and what ended. The details: plantation hierarchy, middle passage. We think That's it.
But what it meant – what it means – is worse than all of the details. What it means is a legacy of genetic material that courses through my own veins.
This is not a story about skin color. This is not a story about how race is a social construction.
I'd reckon such a story would be boring for you. If it's not, let me tell you – it would be boring to me. I'm not interested in narrating the tribulations of being, surefire bet, the lightest black person in the room. Nor am I informed enough to tell you of the triumphs. In America, skin color is the x in virtually every social equation. It is predictive. I am quite positive that being lighter has meant privileges that were not afforded to people with browner skin, many privileges that I have not even identified.
This is a story about history, about identity.
The way we've come to fetishize white features on black bodies is not only dangerous because of the way it reinforces the idea of white as better. For someone like me, it's complicated for an additional reason. The part of me that created those white features came from men who would deny me if given the chance. Indiscreet men who took advantage of women and left. Men who not only abandoned their children but, in some cases, sold them. Had their own children bent over in fields for no pay.
I'm a living remnant of that sexual assault. I'm a living remnant of that pain.
I can see it in my thinner hair, my lighter skin, my freckles.
I think of those children, also my blood, and what it means to grow up marred by that abandonment and shame. I think of those children the same way I think of children with no fathers today.
Surely we are all both prey and predator, snake and mouse. Surely our genetic material runs rife with strands of the conquered and the conqueror.
And maybe there's a fourth thing you should know: part of identity is choice. My identity is defined in part by rejection, including my own. I am black. The people who made me are the ones who never left.
Josie Duffy Rice is a journalist and lawyer whose work is primarily focused on prosecutors, prisons, and other criminal justice issues. Currently, she is President of The Appeal, a news publication that publishes original journalism about the criminal justice system.
[Image by Jim Cooke]