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hen I was a kid growing up in Chicago, I used to do anything I could to put off going to bed. One of my favorite delaying tactics was to engage my mother in a discussion about the important questions of the day, questions my friends and I had debated in the backyards of our neighborhood that afternoon -- like Who did God root for, the Cubs or the White Sox? (The correct answer was, and still is, the White Sox.)
Then one night I remember asking my mother something I had been wondering for a long time. "Mom," I asked, "What am I?"
"You're my darling Donny," she said.
"I know. But what else am I?"
"You're a precious little boy who someday will grow up to be a wonderful, handsome man."
"What I mean is, you're white and Dad's black, so what does that make me?"
"Oh, I see," she said. "Well, you're half-black and you're half-white, so you're the best of both worlds."
The next day, I told my friends that I was neither black nor white. "I'm the best of both worlds," I announced proudly.
"Man, you're crazy," one of the backyard boys said. "You're not even the best of your family. Your sister is. That girl is fine."
For much of my life, I've tried to believe my mother. Having grown up in a family of blacks and whites, I'd long thought I saw race more clearly than most people. I appreciated being able to get close to both worlds, something few ever do. It was like having a secret knowledge.
And yet I've also known from an early age that things were more complicated than my mother made them out to be. Our country, from its very beginnings, has been obsessed with determining who is white and who is black. Our history has been shaped by that disheartening question. To be both black and white, then, is to do nothing less than confound national consciousness.
My mother denies it, but it has also sometimes confounded our family. For as my mother was answering my bedtime question, my brothers, David and Robert, her children from an earlier marriage, were going to sleep in a house 15 miles away. My father was black. David and Robert's was white. They lived with my grandmother in an all-white neighborhood. I lived with my mother and my younger sister, Diane, in Hyde Park, a mixed neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. We shared a loving parent, but we lived in separate Americas. We have spent most of our lives trying to come together.
My father, Bill Terry, was born in Covington, Ky., in 1921, the grandson of slaves. In his youth, he was a professional boxer. Later, he went to work as a bodyguard for the unions in Chicago, cracking scab heads. He was one black man who was not at all shy about standing up to authority. In his late 30's, he became an actor. He was good at it, too. My mother told me years later that when my father walked onto a stage to deliver his lines in "The Death of Bessie Smith," the audience gasped. "He had presence," my mother said. "Incredible presence."
He was a lifelong integrationist, but the nonviolent civil rights movement was not for him. He could not understand how protesters could allow themselves to be roughed up and spat on at sit-ins and not defend themselves. Bill Terry didn't turn the other cheek; he threw the other fist.
My mother, Jeanne Katherine Ober, was born in 1918 and was reared on a dairy farm outside the village of Greenwood, Ill. She was sent to high school in Chicago and then, at 25, she returned home to marry the son of a wealthy farmer. It was a rocky union: her husband drank too much, and after eight years of marriage, my mother left, taking her two sons to Chicago -- David was 8, Robert was 2. There, she opened a nursery school and became involved in civil rights work through her Unitarian church. Until then, she had never personally known a black person.
Michelle V. Agins/ The New York Times
Jeanne Terry, center, Don
Terry's mom, at a 25th anniversary reunion of CORE,
members (Congress of Racial Equality), in a Chicago
I was 6 months old when my father decided he wanted to sell the house and move to California. When my mother's mother heard about the plan, she had a fit. My grandmother said the boys needed stability and insisted they live with her and her second husband, Gerhard Raven.
My staying with Grandpa Raven was not an option. On the day Grandpa Raven found out my mother was carrying a black man's baby, he got uncharacteristically drunk. My grandmother told him about the pregnancy at a restaurant because she felt that perhaps if she explained it in a public place, he might not explode. When they got home, Gerhard poured himself a drink and took it outside to the front porch. He sat on the cement steps muttering about the "goddamn niggers."
When we left for California, the plan was for my parents to send for my brothers once we got settled. But "instead of getting settled," my mother said, "we got poor." We quickly ran out of money. My father lost his landscaping job and stopped looking for work. Less than a year after arriving in L.A., he hopped into our car and disappeared without saying goodbye.
My mother was desperate. She used her last few dollars to buy a plane ticket to get the two of us back to Chicago, where she knew my father was headed. We arrived around Christmas with nowhere to go. My grandmother made it clear that we were not welcome at her house. We spent the holiday sleeping in the home of a black friend of my mother's. "I was disowned," my mother said recently, when I asked her about those days.
"Was it because of me?" I asked, sounding to myself like a little boy again. "Was it because I was black?"
"No." my mother said. "No, it had nothing to do with you. My mother was mad at me for going through the money."
I was surprised at how relieved I felt. I wasn't sure that I believed her, though I desperately wanted to. One of the nightmares of race is that it's sometimes hard to distinguish between cruelties -- hard to know what is racism and what is the simple human infliction of pain.
A white friend of my mother's from the civil rights movement allowed us to move into his roach-infested tenement on the edge of Hyde Park. A few weeks after we got settled, my father reappeared and my parents reconciled. We were a family again -- except that my brothers continued to live with my grandmother and Gerhard.
A year later, in 1959, my parents had a daughter, Diane. I remember how happy I was that we were all together. It was especially great to have my father around. If I bugged him enough, he would put down his paper and, like his hero, Paul Robeson, sing "Ol' Man River" for me. On hot summer evenings, when it seemed the whole neighborhood was out, my father would scoop me up in his arms and run with me through the warm evening air. I was home. My dad was with me; it was heaven.
Hyde Park itself played a major role in my happiness. The neighborhood, which is home to the University of Chicago, had been integrated since the late 1940's, despite the early resistance of the university. By the time I came along, having a black father and a white mother was common in Hyde Park. In fact, there were so many biracial children running around the neighborhood when I was a kid that it was almost hip to be "mixed," as we called ourselves then. It was so hip that some people who weren't pretended that they were. Sophia, for example, was white, but she told everyone that her father, who was from the Soviet Union, was a "black Russian" -- You know, like the drink," she said. Since she was only trying to fit in, we forgave her her lies.
Most of the mixed kids in Hyde Park were pure-blooded mulattos, so to speak. There were Bob, Michael, Rebecca, Cindy, the Twins and many others. All of them had black fathers and white mothers. With so many kids who looked like me and with so many parents who looked like mine, it was easy to feel completely comfortable saying I was simply half and half. My memory is one of togetherness.
That's not to say that even in this utopia the power of race was entirely absent from our lives. When I was a boy, my father would perform a ritual. He'd plop his long brown arm down on a table top and ask me if I could see the red tint in his skin. "See there," he'd say. "That's the Indian blood in me. You have it, too. All the Terrys do. We're a quarter Cherokee."
I'd carefully inspect his arm, turning it over in the light, but all I could ever see was the brown skin of a black man. I thought it was a strange game. He did not look like an Indian. His skin was brown. There was nothing red about him.
There was nothing red about me either. My complexion is the color of sand. The texture of my hair is somewhere between kinky and curly. I have my father's full lips, and my nose and thick eyebrows come from my mother. When I look in the mirror, it is easy for me to see Europe and Africa dancing across my face like lovers.
Other people, however, aren't sure what they see. When they ask, "What's your nationality?" I often suspect that they really mean: are you on our side or their side? Can we trust you, brother? Are you dangerous, nigger? I'm not sure my answer can ever really change the interaction. These questions, these loyalty oaths, have followed me most of my life.
In 1962, our world changed. My parents got into a vicious argument. My father had been out carousing and my mother was fed up with him drinking up what little money we had. In a flash, my father had his big hands wrapped around my mother's throat, squeezing as hard as he could, banging her head against the wall. It sounded like a thunderstorm. I was terrified. I had heard my father yell before, but he had never picked my mother up by her throat and screamed into her face, "Bitch!"
I had no idea what to do, so I threw myself at his tree trunk of a leg and tried to bite him. Whenever I think of that night, my father transforms, in my child's memory, into one of those scary talking trees in "The Wizard of Oz." "Daddy!" I screamed. "Please stop hurting Mama. Please, Daddy. Please."
He would not stop. I bit him again. He banged her head some more. My cousin Junior, who was a grown man, but not nearly as grown as my father, somehow persuaded him to stop, and my mother slumped to the floor, holding her throat and looking almost as scared as I was.
In a few minutes, the police seemed to fill up the apartment with their rough voices and the sound of their clubs slapping against their leather gun belts and holsters. They yelled at my father to turn around and to put his hands behind his back so they could put the handcuffs on. I was confused. I didn't know what was happening. After all, the only time I really saw my father with his hands behind his back was when he brought me candy from the corner store. He would make me guess which hand held the sweets.
Then the police took him down the stairs, and I remember being scared all over again. I begged them not to take my father away, but they never turned back.
After that, my parents separated for good. My father moved to New York City to pursue his acting career. My mother was left with two children in a crumbling apartment. Sometimes my mother had to choose between buying food for us or paying the utility bills. Once, when the electricity was cut off, my sister and I snaked an extension cord under our front door and plugged it into a socket in the building's hall so we could have a lamp to do homework. We went on public assistance.
The only salvation was that, bit by bit, we started to see my grandmother and brothers again. Of course, we could only visit my grandmother's yellow brick bungalow on the far North Side of Chicago when Grandpa Raven was at work or out of town on one of his fishing trips. Grandpa Raven had a bad heart. My grandmother was afraid that the stress of seeing his stepdaughter and her black children would kill him. So we made sneak visits.
To me, my brothers seemed rich. There was a push-button television console in the living room, a new Dodge in the garage and a freezer stuffed with ice cream bars in the basement. My grandmother, whom we called Nana, would also sneak my brothers down to Hyde Park, reminding them, "Don't tell Grandpa Raven."
Gerhard Raven died when I was 8. His heart finally gave out. But I can sleep easy that the sight of a black child in his family was not what killed him. He died never having laid eyes on me.
As far I was concerned, Grandpa Raven was an unrepentant racist; to my brothers, however, the man who took them fishing couldn't have been a better surrogate grandfather. "He was better than a father," David said. "He was a great guy. He was not a man motivated by prejudice." My brother even had an explanation for the drunken rantings on the steps that day: "Rather than blame Mother," he said, "he blamed 'the niggers.' "
Michelle V. Agins/ The New York Times
Don Terry's mother Jeanne
Terry as a young child, right, circa 1920, with his
grandmother Lenora Raven. Below, Terry sits on his
mother's lap during a Christmas dinner with family
friends in Chicago in 1958.
After Gerhard's death, we visited my grandmother every other weekend, making up for lost years. One night, I stayed over at Nana's. When it came time for my bath, I hopped into the tub, pretending to recreate the moon landing, which had just taken place. I had one foot in when Nana called from the living room, "Remember, Donny, just because your skin is darker doesn't mean I can't see the dirt, so scrub hard."
Nana didn't mean to hurt my feelings, but she did. Yet I never thought of her as prejudiced. She was an elderly white woman, trying to make her way in a changing world. She never said "nigger." She said "Negro." She tried to treat everyone fairly. She called me "darling" and "honey bunch." She made sure there were always plenty of big chocolate chips in the pantry. I loved her dearly and she loved me. Without her, we would have sunk completely into poverty.
Biracial though I was, my first real memory of being called "nigger" was the same cruel rite of passage it has been for black children the country over. I was 7, and I was playing football with a group of white kids in a suburb 25 long miles from Hyde Park. A boy, about my age, saw me in a neighbor's yard and started jumping up and down. He pointed at me excitedly as he chanted: "Nigger. Nigger. Nigger."
I was shocked. I wasn't a nigger. My mother was white. Couldn't he see her standing there, a few feet away? He had heard me call her mom at least a half-dozen times: "Mom, I'm having too much fun. Mom, please can we stay a little longer so I can play with my new friends?" Couldn't he tell I was only half-black? He could have easily called me whitey, honky or cracker. Why didn't he do that? I had just as much white blood in me as black. And even if I was all black, why was he calling me names?
I tried to go after the boy, but my mother pulled me back. Then she did something that shocked me -- and filled me with joy. From 10 feet away, she threw a plastic cup at the kid, hitting him in the head and sending him running down the street, calling for his mother.
A few years after the football game, I was walking down the street with a white friend. A well-dressed member of the Nation of Islam asked me if I wanted to buy a copy of Muhammad Speaks, the group's newspaper. "No thanks," I said.
"Come on, brother, help your people out."
'Man, you just want to be with Europeans," the Muslim said bitterly, pointing his paper at my friend.
"My mother is a European," I said.
"Brother, I'm sorry for you," the Muslim shot back.
Other moments also made it clear that a mixed family seemed foreign to the eyes of America. In the summer of 1972, when I was 15, my brother David, who collects old Packards, took me to Nebraska to pick up a 1956 Patrician. I was excited -- it was my first out-of-town trip with one of my brothers. At the car owner's house, David introduced me to a white man in white shoes. He leaned against a white picket fence.
"This is my little brother, Donny," he said. The man and I shook hands. Then he stared at me. I had a huge Afro; David's straight brown hair was cut Young Republican short. The man winked at David. "You mean you work together?" he asked.
"No," David said. "I mean this is my brother."
"Oh, I get what you're saying," the man said. "The Bible says we are all brothers under the skin. It's good to see people taking the word of God to heart."
What a fool, I thought to myself then. Today I know: as a person of mixed race, it's the norm to have your closest relationships questioned at every turn.
Until I went to college, racial difference stood out for me precisely because it was the exception to the rule. In college, it became a defining force in my life.
It didn't start that way. In 1975, when I discovered Oberlin College, I was confident I had found a place where I could be my mixed-race self. As a stop on the underground railroad, Oberlin had a special reputation for enlightened race relations. It was the school's brochure that sold me, though. Featured prominently was a picture of two baseball players conferring on the mound. One player was white with a long ponytail, the other black with an Afro. It looked like home.
But at the start of freshman year, I was startled to see a very different picture. When I walked into the dining room, black students were sitting together at a group of tables in the middle of the room; white students were eating together at tables along the windows. At football and basketball games, black fans usually sat with blacks, whites with whites. The intramural sports teams were rarely mixed.
For a while, I tried to recreate Hyde Park at Oberlin. I hung out with a mixed group of friends and my intramural teams always included white guys and black guys -- and slow guys of every color. I decided not to join the African Heritage dorm. But even on this supposedly liberal campus, trying to live integrated was an uphill battle.
A black student asked me once, "My man, where's the mail room?"
"See that brother over there?" I said, pointing across the nearly empty room.
"That one," I said. "That blond dude."
"Man, that's no brother," he said. "That's a white boy. What's wrong with you?"
What was wrong with me? I wasn't split in two -- the world was. And yet I was the one expected to adjust. Being away from Hyde Park was a shock to my racial system. I felt even more out of step with most white students. For the first time, I was exposed to white people who had not known black people as friends, neighbors or even classmates.
One night, I was visiting a white girl and her white roommate in their dorm. The door was open and we were just talking. Another black student was also there, flirting with the roommate. I was just about to leave when a white girl walking down the hall passed the open door and stuck her head in. She looked disgusted. "What's this," she asked, "a soul-brother session?" I was stunned. What did race have to do with anything? We were just two guys rapping to two girls and not getting anywhere. The girl I was visiting looked embarrassed. I wasn't sure if she was embarrassed about her rude neighbor -- or that her rude neighbor had "caught" a couple of brothers in her room.
Fed up, I embraced blackness -- as a shield and a cause. I signed up for a course on black nationalism. The decision was one of the most important developments of my life. Black studies saved me. It gave me a sense of discovery both academically and personally. Black studies helped me find an identity. As important, it helped me for the first time to understand my father's anger.
The more I learned the more I began to realize the struggles a black person born in 1921 had to go through just to survive. Once, after reading about the brutality of the race riots following the First World War, I had to walk around the library to cool off. That was my father's welcome to life. I didn't want to run into any of my white friends that afternoon. I didn't know what I might say to them.
At last, I felt in touch with my rage that race, even at my "progressive" college, mattered so much; that I could not completely be who I was, Don Terry, an integrated man, with a white mother and a black father; that I would repeatedly be lumped in a broad racial category -- black -- and treated like a caricature instead of the complicated individual I knew myself to be.
It was exhausting and maddening, being constantly judged by people who thought they knew so much about me solely because of the color of my skin when in fact they knew nothing at all. I seemed to be the only one to understand that the Don Terry who went to campus rallies to protest the school's investments in South Africa could, at the end of the day, relax to the Rolling Stones. Disgusted by the world's refusal to see me as mixed and individual, I chose "blackness."
My decision, I've come to believe, had as much to do with anger as anything else. I started using the term "white boy," something I had never done in my life. It felt liberating at first, like standing up to a bully. But I felt guilt when I went home to Hyde Park and spent time with my family and old friends. I was afraid I was becoming a racist.
One afternoon, I was driving my mother's tiny Volkswagen. She was sitting in the passenger seat. One of my best friends, Danny Gnatz, a white guy with hair down past his shoulders, was in back. We were talking and laughing when a fat white man, driving a big American car, suddenly cut in front of me. We nearly collided. I slammed on the brakes, glared out the window and shouted, "You stupid white son of a bitch."
As soon as I said it, I felt like jumping out of the car and running away in shame. At first, my mother and Danny pretended that they had not heard. What was going on with me? What did race have to do with it? "I'm sorry, you guys," I said. "That's O.K., Donny," my mother said, patting my arm. Danny slapped me on the back of the head, signaling that everything was all right. But we drove a long way in silence.
The incident in the car caused me to question my behavior, but not my identity. When I returned to Oberlin, I enrolled in more black studies courses and became even more involved in the anti-apartheid movement. I left Oberlin a thoroughly black man.
Michelle V. Agins/ The New York Times
Don Terry hugs his niece,
Wakara Terry, at her graduation from Oberlin College in
May this year. top. Below, in her dorm room, left to
right: Deana Greenfield, Wakara's friend, Wakara, and
Julie Wesson, Wakara's cousin.
In just about every one of these jobs, my reputation was built as much around my race as my journalism; I was the black man with a big mouth, ready to get loud at the slightest racial slight -- the brother with a boulder on his shoulder. An editor at The Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, called me the most contentious young reporter he'd ever met.
Once, at The Times, as I was finishing a crime piece, an editor came up to me and asked whether the arrested man, whom the police had roughed up, had a criminal record. I put it right back to him: how come you're not asking me if the cop has a record of brutality complaints? In short, I was the one who could always be counted on to ask the editors why our stories on welfare seemed to focus on black people when more whites received public assistance.
And yet. And yet even as a "black man," I remained confusing to the world around me, including the black world. One weekend, after I had joined The Times, I brought home a girlfriend -- a talented black woman, a poet and fellow journalist. I took her to meet my brother David. His young daughter, Julie, was wild that afternoon, running around the house, jumping on the furniture and singing "Heartbreak Hotel" over and over.
Afterward my girlfriend, rubbing her temples with both hands, told me, "That Julie is a white brat." I was startled by how much those words hurt. Why couldn't Julie just be a brat? She was a little kid. I used to shoot arrows down the hall of our apartment; my brother Robert loved to run barefoot through the snow. In my family the kids, black and white, are wild. Not long after that, my girlfriend and I broke up. Julie may have been a brat, but not a white brat.
I like to joke that my mother had four children, if you don't count any of the men in her life. David is a successful stockbroker. Robert is an artist and boat captain. My sister, Diane, has spent the past 22 years battling schizophrenia. Diane has a daughter, Wakara, who was reared mostly by my mother and me and who graduated from Oberlin in May. When she accepted her diploma, David was there, just as he has been been for every one of her graduations -- and every one of mine.
Still, though we are adults now in a more enlightened time, race can appear like a ghost, disrupting the life of our family. A few years ago, I was at David's house. It was a cold Chicago night, yet inside, with flames crackling, we felt wonderfully warm. David was mixing drinks. Julie, then 12, announced to us that she had received an A on her seventh-grade social studies assignment. "Would you like to see my project, Uncle Donny?" she asked me.
Using old photographs, Julie had laid out 100 years of the family's history, culminating in the well-kept suburb where she and her family now lived. She handed me the three-ring notebook. Under a photograph of my mother on a pony, the caption read, "This is a picture of my Grandma Jeanne when she was 12 years old on the family farm in Greenwood, Illinois." A few pages and decades later the text reported: "This is a picture of my Uncle Robert in the 60's. As you can see, he was a hippie." There were pictures and words about almost everyone in the family, including Julie's dog, Buddy, and her cat, Clipper. There were pictures of everyone, except for Aunt Diane, Cousin Wakara and Uncle Donny, the black members of the family.
I could not believe that we had been left out. Then I figured I must have gone through the pictures too fast. Or maybe, I thought, putting down my glass, it was the drink. So I went through the book a second time, searching for our pictures, or at least a few words about us. "I'm not in this," I said, closing the book and handing it back to Julie. "What's up with that?" There was only awkward silence.
Though I tried to let the incident go, I found myself one day raising it with David's son, Noah, who had just returned from the Navy. Noah listened to the story, and then told me one of his own. He was showing his photo album to a black shipmate. When the sailor turned to pictures of Wakara and me, Noah said: "The guy was happy. He patted me on the back. He said, 'We don't have to worry about Noah. He's part black.' "
My nephew paused. "I told him I'm not part black," he said. "It didn't matter to him. He was still happy." And so was I.
Robert does not think he harbors any ill will toward black people because of Bill Terry's role in dividing our family. But I'm not so sure. "You could say," Robert said, "that a black person came in and tore up the family." He didn't say, "You could say another man came in and. . . . "
"You could blame Bill for destroying the family," he went on, negotiating the road's curves. "But I don't think that has rubbed off on me as being a racist. I don't think it's affected me in a negative way. You can see it affecting someone like Grandpa Raven, though," he continued. "He had a little bit about him that was kind of Aryan. People build up these barriers and it's hard for them to climb over them."
We headed toward the town's waterfront, and the more Robert talked, the more I worked to hide my anger and my hurt -- and to remember his. "Mother," he said, "seemed to develop a propensity for black men."
I simmered. What did it matter that Mom had black boyfriends? She lived on the South Side of Chicago and was involved in the civil rights movement. There were a lot of black men around. If she had white boyfriends instead, would Robert say that she had developed a propensity for white men?
It began to rain and we passed a couple of young Latino men standing on a corner. Robert glanced at them and said his town wasn't the same anymore. More and more people who looked like gang members seemed to be showing up, many of them Latino. "I get upset with the country changing so much," he said.
Jesus, I thought to myself. What the hell does that mean? If Robert had been any other white man talking about the "good ol' days" and the changing country, if I had been interviewing Robert as a reporter on assignment, I would have been convinced I'd found a racist. But even in the midst of my anger, I kept forcing myself to try to believe that Robert was not a racist. He was my big brother, a star athlete, the guy I wanted to impress when I was a kid.
No matter what, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, something I realized I do not often do for most white people. "I don't think I'm a racist," Robert said, making me think he had read my mind. "But maybe I am. I hope not."
If Robert and I were struggling with race -- after all, in heavy traffic, I occasionally mumble about bad-driving white boys -- his 8-year-old son, Henry, was not. One day, Robert, Henry and I drove up to Vancouver, Canada. We spent a wonderful afternoon going to museums and eating fish and chips. In the evening, we headed home, with Robert driving and Henry and me sitting in the back. At the border, Robert pulled into the line of cars waiting to go into the United States. From the back seat, I could see the American border guard, a young black man, wave several cars through with hardly a word. When it was our turn, however, he walked slowly around our car, peering into the windows. Something was suspicious about us. "Where are you going?" he asked Robert.
"We're going home," Robert said.
"Who's that in the back seat?" the guard asked, pointing at me.
"That's my brother."
"Yeah," Robert said. "We're half brothers." I cringed at the word "half." The guard looked at me again. He was on the verge of asking another question, when Henry leaned across my lap and, poking his head out the window, said, "He's my Uncle Donny and we love him."
The young American still looked suspicious, but he stepped aside and waved us on our way home.
Perhaps, I thought, that's the best we can hope to do -- to insist upon our allegiance to one another, our brotherhood across the divide -- and try to go home.
And my parents? My mother went back to college when she was in her 40's and has been a schoolteacher ever since. At 82, she teaches history and conflict resolution at an alternative school, Sullivan House, on the South Side of Chicago.
Not long ago, I tried to ask her why she didn't bring David and Robert with us to California. It was a gentle summer day and we were in a small Catholic cemetery near her hometown. My mother sat in the grass next to her mother's grave. She was hugging her knees to her chest. Her back was turned to me. She was crying.
We had been to the cemetery many times over the years, but I could not remember my mother crying before. The tears were my fault. I was asking her questions. The child in me wanted to know what she was thinking when she left my brothers behind. Didn't she see the harm it would do to us all? But all she answered was: "I was at my wits' end in those days. Everything was falling apart."
She paused. "We had no money. I guess I just thought the boys were living with Nana and Gerhard and they were better off."
Leave her be, I told myself, as I looked out over the graves of my ancestors. What good can come from dredging up painful memories?
My father died of cancer in 1998 in New York City at age 76. I hadn't seen him for two years, though I had kept track of his acting career, which included a role in "Forrest Gump." A group of my father's friends arranged a memorial to be held in his apartment building -- though I finally could not bear to go to the service, all those years late. My grief and anger over his abandonment was still strong. A friend brought me a videotape of the service.
I was pleased to see a parade of mourners of all colors walk to the front of the room and say kind things about my father. They said he had stopped drinking, that he had found peace with God, that he had become like a grandfather to some of the children in the building. It was the kind of integrated gathering he had fought for and loved.
One speaker was a stylishly dressed white man in his late 60's. He said he and my father had spent a lot of time talking about my father's childhood. The man started choking up and walked away.
The man, it turned out, was a psychologist my father had started seeing when he was 70. A few months after watching the tape, I called him. We talked about the fact that Bill had fathered seven children with four different women -- three white, one black. With the obvious exception of my sister, I barely know any of them. "He was repeatedly touching on the issue of white women as if he were trying to make rational in somebody else's eyes how he had lived his life," the therapist said. "He couldn't see it as accidental that he had a succession of nonblack women in his life who gave birth to his children."
The therapist said that my father wanted to have racially mixed children in part to prove himself to his mother. As a boy he had been passed from relative to relative and was never really sure of who his father was. Bill also told the therapist that his mother had been disappointed that his skin was a dark shade. By having lighter, mixed-race children, he was saying, the therapist concluded: " 'Look at these beautiful children I've produced.' It was a search for approval."
I believe that chasing white women was more than that for my father. It was about fighting back against pre-civil rights America. One thing that my father liked about white women, he told his therapist, was the fact that seeing them on his thick brown arm drove white men crazy. It reminded me of something my father had told me once: "I took my wife anywhere I wanted to go. I'm a man."
The day after my father died, I wandered through his apartment. I ran my hands over his books, his saxophone and the photograph on the wall of his hero, Paul Robeson, dressed as Othello. My father's love for Robeson was one of the few uncomplicated joys we shared. After my father died, all I wanted was that picture.
I took the picture down and hugged it. Then I peeked into my father's closet and slipped on his too-big-for-me leather jacket, knotting the belt tightly like a little boy playing Daddy. I took a series of deep breaths and inhaled the aroma of his pipes, lifting them to my nose from the carousel on the coffee table.
Then, from under his bed, I pulled a small strongbox with a broken lock. It was full of documents. One was a copy of my birth certificate. I was surprised and touched that he had it. Then I noticed what he had done to it. On lines 8 and 13 of the document, the clerk's office for Cook County, Ill., had recorded that my father was "Negro" and my mother "Caucasian." My father, however, had a different idea. Using dark blue ink, he had crossed out the references to race on my birth certificate, leaving just "father" and "mother."
On paper, at least, he tried to give me a gift that could not be fully realized in his life: the gift of family that transcends divisions of race.
On paper, it was that simple.