It was an e-mail message that made me chuckle: "This past Sunday, I learned you are a black lady," wrote an "82-year-old white male" reader, who had just discerned my heritage from a column I'd written about "mocha girls" and blurring racial boundaries. "Suddenly," he wrote, "I realized that all this time, I had assumed you are Caucasian."
There are always a few responses like that among my mail whenever I write about race. Even when my photo ran alongside this column, I'd hear from readers who were surprised by something I'd said--something that indicated that I am African American. They had looked at my picture and through it; had seen an image of their own, drawn by experiences and feelings that I'd shared--perspectives that had matched their own and obscured our differences. And I would answer indulgently, convinced that their presumption implied a sort of arrogance that blinded them to my identity.
Then last week I had a chance for a long chat with a reader I'd spoken with briefly through the years--a woman I'd always presumed to be white because she was raised in Nebraska and lived in Fontana and she never called to talk about racial issues. And, well, she just didn't sound black to me.
But halfway through our conversation, she made a reference that shook the smugness from me. Her father, she said, had once been a newspaper columnist in Kentucky, for the Louisville Defender. Now, I know enough about history to realize that any paper with "Defender" in its name was probably written by and for black folks. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Either her father was a mighty progressive white man, or Connie Horton was black like me.
I suppose it is not surprising. Race is, after all, a social construct, with little intrinsic meaning except as a way to classify and categorize. Often we make assumptions about race based on our own expectations and history. We are unprepared for those who turn up where they are not supposed to be, or don't act or sound or look in ways that fit our preconceived categories.
Another reader, David Sherr, recalls being the only white musician traveling through the South with a rhythm and blues band in the 1960s. White audiences never quite knew what to make of him. "In the entire time I was with the band, not one white person ever spoke to me," he said, though several asked his fellow musicians "What is he, anyway?" puzzled by the notion that this black band might include a white man, in an era and place where that just wasn't done.
Horton, at 69, is more familiar than most with the ambiguity of racial classification. Her mother was black, Irish and Blackfoot Indian; her father black, Cherokee and German Jew. Her fair skin and light eyes allowed her to pass for white at a time when race determined what jobs you could have, where you could sit on a train, what university you could attend. But her father was a "race man" who instilled in her a sense of pride in her history.
Still, she wasn't above slipping into the "whites only" car of a railroad train when she was desperate for a meal and a comfortable seat, or sidestepping questions about race when she applied for a job at a company that didn't hire blacks. She married a white man, and they had two sons--one with blond hair and blue eyes, who married a black woman from Africa, and one with curly brown hair who married a Canadian of French and Scottish heritage. Their two children are blue-eyed blonds.
"What would you call us? I'm not sure," she says. "It seems like we take our identity based on who we're with."
And I recall the months I spent believing an acquaintance was black, because he had a black wife, two brown-skinned daughters and spoke the urban slang of the streets. Never mind his cream-colored skin and curly brown hair ... just another light-skinned brother, I presumed. Then one day he mentioned a family bar mitzvah, and I learned that he was a Polish Jew who had grown up in Chicago in a black neighborhood. I had constructed his identity based on my expectations and history.
I did much the same with Connie Horton; then wound up stumbling through our conversation, trying to figure out who she was and how I'd gotten it wrong. "And, what was your childhood like? How do you see yourself? What were your parents' backgrounds?" The questions were little more than clumsy attempts to force her to reveal herself, without the indignity of asking outright: "So, what are you anyway?" And without risking the possibility of this response: "Why does it matter?"
But it does matter, and Horton knows that better than most. She has burned with anger at the racial slurs uttered by whites who do not realize there's a black person among them. And she has felt the sting of shame when she avails herself of a choice not open to her darker brethren.
Today, she looks at her grandchildren and marvels at the freedom they face. "They don't have the sort of historical framework we did," she says. "They take everything as fresh and new, without all the baggage." But with that freedom, comes responsibilities.
"Some things are easier for the younger generation, but some are harder," she says. "They've lost a little bit of who they are. We all need to be connected to something."
It heartens her when her granddaughters haul out the history books her father wrote and carry them to school to share with classmates. The girls are fascinated, but also puzzled, by their African American ancestry. Blond and blue-eyed, they look in the mirror and see little in common with the dark-skinned children their great-grandfather wrote about.
"They ask me, 'Grandma, what percent black am I and what percent white?"' Horton says, chuckling. "And I tell them, 'You'll figure that out for yourself.' I never was very good at math."