Redefining 'black'

From my physical features and peanut-butter color, people are comfortable categorizing me as black. That label does not begin to define what produced me, and so I have decided to redefine what America cannot.

I'm black, but I'm also more than black.

My maternal grandmother was part native American and one of the strongest, most amazing women I ever met. She mothered 13 children, 45 grandchildren, 63 great-grandchildren, and three great-great little ones before her death a few years ago. Her stories pertaining to my "Indian" heritage and that side of the family went with her to the grave well before I was interested enough to ask. As for the other side, I am now getting information on a paternal grandfather who was half black, the spitting image of his handsome white daddy.

That would make me an African-native American-European without a descriptive box to check. Colored rules of engagement state that if you look black, you are black. In Louisiana, where I grew up, there is still an ancient law on the books that any citizen, no matter how white he or she appears, with "a single drop of black blood," be classified asblack. Were he alive today, W.E.B. DuBois might agree that the "color line" in America keeps shifting.

Last year, when Essie Mae Washington-Williams acknowledged the late Sen. Strom Thurmond as her father, her embarrassed kinfolk were mostly mum. Today her name has been added to a South Carolina monument that lists Senator Thurmond's children. She certainly belongs there, not for validation, but for something I often lecture about: hope, healing, and racial reconciliation. Now Ms. Washington-Williams is determined to take her open parentage to the next level and pursue membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization of descendants of those who fought for the South in the Civil War. Like her "legitimate" white sisters, the 78-year-old retired schoolteacher is eligible to participate, as are her children.

Some people brave enough to redefine themselves and heal wounds born of hatred and hypocrisy find it necessary to defend why they seek to connect all the cultural dots. I have certainly had heated debates with black friends who think I crave authenticity to prove the existence of white blood in the family tree, as if being black alone isn't good enough. But this story belongs to thousands of African-Americans who have long claimed only the African part of the skin they are in. Ugly discussions with people who don't condone what I'm doing are becoming fewer - as are my real friends, those who know the pride in my heart of being a woman of color. But I am also a curious native Southerner who wants to leave more truth than blame for the next generation born to the "New South."

With strength and integrity, Washington-Williams and others like her have inspired me to find the white cousins who inherited my portion of a legacy - a legacy of inheritance encompassing not just monetary value but ancestral information.

I don't know whether our prominent great-grandfather left money from the land, oil, and cattle we know he was involved in. My mission doesn't include the inheritance of material possessions, because this kind of truth can't be bought or sold. I intend to claim something of greater value - the respect that was denied a grandfather who lived at a time when he was barred from knocking at the front door of his father's house to claim his birthright. It is part of my cultural makeup and I wish to fully understand the past before trying to confront whatever the future may hold.

As a child, I didn't know all the details of grandfather's parentage; I just heard it whispered that he was a white man's son. About a year ago, I learned my white great-grandfather's real name and found out he had fathered three other children with my black great-grandmother. A couple of people have suggested I sue this man's once sizable Louisiana estate instead of waiting for the argument over reparations to produce my 40 acres and a mule. I have no intention of filing such a lawsuit. Acknowledgment of the pain and suffering will be enough of a substitute to start.

My paternal grandfather was tormented that he, as a rightful heir, was not entitled to the same education, property, affection, and comfort afforded his white siblings by the father they shared. Living witnesses agree that my grandfather and his white daddy certainly loved each other, but it was behind closed doors. Grandfather over the years grew so bitter that he daily espoused his hatred for white people, telling us grandkids "never trust a cracker." Now I desire to know more about his English-born father, which may account for my curiosity with all things British. I don't know.

One thing I do know: My grandfather's name will never be on a plaque listing him as the son of a white man who secretly gave his mother money to help raise their children. Even so, I claim that part of my heritage anyway.

I am an American.

Joyce King wrote the book, 'Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas'

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