I always said I grew up without much racism. My childhood was relatively free of the name calling and put downs other African American kids seemed to have gone through. I don’t know if it was the hand of God, time and chance , or by design, but although I knew I was Colored or Negro (we’re talking the 1950s and 60s), I never had reason to feel inferior or less than or that my blackness was bad. That was until I was about nine years old and an incident happened in my neighborhood.
One of my playmates was Lisa Millet. She lived down the street and I knew her through our parents. Lisa’s father had died but her stepfather and my dad were in real estate together and had an office on 23rd Avenue in Oakland in the late 50s. Lisa lived with her mother, stepfather, brother and grandmother and I spent many days over her house eating her grandmother’s gumbo. Their roots were in New Orleans, where her parents and grandparents were born. As I have written before, our neighborhood was quite diverse. There were Negroes, White, Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans. What I knew about Lisa’s family was they were Negroes but her grandmother talked funny talk--- and they were very fair-skinned. Lisa had long, light brown hair that hung to her waist and her ponytail swayed when she walked. Didn’t mean much to me. My mother is very fair and some of her family members looked like Lisa’s family.
A new family moved in the neighborhood and they had a daughter around our age—I think I was about nine and Lisa was eleven. Somehow, soon after she moved in, we were in this new family’s front yard. At some point, the suggestion was made about going into her house. The girl, which I have forgotten her name, then turned to me and said,
“Lisa can come in but you can’t because colored people steal.”
I stood there with my mouth open. I had never heard such a thing in my life. I gathered myself together and said confidently.
“Lisa is Negro too.” I looked over at Lisa, knowing I had an ally. We would show this stupid girl.
But was I in for a surprise. “I’m not Negro, I’m Creole.”
What???? Creole? “What is that? All of these questions were in my head but all I could do is stare, turn around and run home. I was in tears by the time I got in the house. I immediately told my mother what happened and then I asked, “Momma, isn’t Lisa Negro?” I remember my mother speaking in her soft voice, full of wisdom.”
“Yes, she is, but you have to let people be what they want to be.” She then went on to explain what Creole was. That funny talk Lisa’s grandmother spoke was Creole, a derivative of French and the food they ate was indicative of that culture. I do not know if I understood but though I was hurt and felt betrayed, those word my mother spoke has always stayed with me.
Race, identity, culture of the African Diaspora has always fascinated me. The many ways of being black is the basis of much of my reading, research and some of my writings. As a genealogist, I respect that most of us are an amalgam of many ethnicities and nationalities but my identity is and always will be black, first, foremost and forever.
Lisa and I made up. Her grandmother called and said that Lisa was upset that she had upset me and my mother told her to send her over. She came over bearing gifts. We never spoke of the incident or of that girl. She ceased to exist as she was not in our play circle. I thought about Lisa, the Creole girl recently when a blogger wrote an essay for a book I wrote a review for two years ago. One Drop by Bliss Broyard is the author’s memoir of discovering her ancestry and the rich Creole background that was denied by her father, writer Anatole Broyard’s passing for white and fear of being labeled a black writer.
This book did a great job on discussing the issue of identity and culture and is destined to be a classic.
My review of: One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets