Out of the Mulatto Closet

By Lise Funderburg

February 4, 1996

LIFE ON THE COLOR LINE: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Howard Williams.

DREAMS FROM MY FATHER: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama.

DIVIDED TO THE VEIN: A Journey Into Race and Family by Scott Minerbrook.

THE COLOR OF WATER: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride.

For those of us in America with one white and one black parent, our 15 minutes of fame have arrived. To many, we’re the last hope for a tolerant society, a tonic for those who see resolution in the browning of America: We’re walking Benetton ads. And, thank goodness, we’re finally more than fodder for ratings-hungry talk shows.

OK, those television fiascos still happen (especially during sweeps weeks). We still confront stares when we’re out with our parents, or arguments when we resist the available check-off options on census and school forms. No matter how we identify ourselves, people still come across our family configuration and see it as a challenge, a reason to suspect our racial loyalties. And yes, we still encounter disbelief if we don’t ”look” mixed — it’s Lisa Bonet or bust — and suffer those insults intended as consolation: “At least you have good hair,” or, “Don’t worry, no one can tell.”

But an important sea change is reflected in who gets to tell our stories. As four recently published memoirs demonstrate — finally, it’s us.

The first in this coincidental series is “Life on the Color Line” by Gregory Howard Williams. Published last February and just released in paperback, this is a strikingly honest portrayal of flawed families and heroic strangers. Williams, a lawyer and teacher, speaks plainly about his early years in Virginia, when his pale father, Buster, passed as white, and Williams himself played with black children but saw “segregation of the races as part of the natural order of life.”

Buster, a dreamer who’d been the pride of his Muncie, Ind., neighborhood when he’d gone off to Howard University (only to fail them all when he dropped out after a year), was an entrepreneur. His undertakings — selling surplus gas masks, running a septic-tank service — were initially successful but inevitably wrecked by his alcoholism and bitterness. Williams’ mother, Mary, suffered under the temperament and hand of her husband until she finally traded two of her four children — Gregory and his brother, Mike — for her freedom.

It was after, this abandonment, on the bus ride back to Muncie, that Gregory and his brother were informed they weren’t going to live like white children anymore. In the telling, Williams doesn’t mask his anger and resentment at this news, or his disgust at the plumbingless shacks in which his black relatives lived. Williams and his brother hoped to be rescued by their white grandparents, but that never came to pass.

With the resilience that is the prerogative of childhood, Williams not only survived this new situation, he excelled in it, despite the conundrum of his white features. He and his brother met with extraordinary good fortune when a widowed neighbor, Dora Terry, saw the dangerous inattention of Buster and his equally alcoholic mother and intervened, taking the boys into her bare-bones but stable, loving care.

Williams, at 51 the oldest of our four memoirists, ends his tale at college, adding postscripts about each of the book’s main characters and his marriage to a white high-school classmate.

Half a year passed before Barack Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father” was published. Obama, 34, also a lawyer and teacher, is both the youngest and the most international of the four. His black Kenyan father met his white Midwestern mother at college in Hawaii. While Obama was just a toddler, his father left to study at Harvard, then returned to Kenya and a job in its government. Early on, the marriage succumbed to distance and broke apart. Obama’s mother remarried an Indonesian man, and the newly formed family moved to Djakarta, where Obama stayed until age 10, when he bounced back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents and attend Oahu’s prestigious Punahou Academy.

Obama’s memoir moves most swiftly at its beginning, where he makes careful observations about his grandparents and his worldly experiences. The middle section, ” Chicago,” drags as it recounts Obama’s post-college, pre-law school stint as a community organizer in the Windy City. Chicago was clearly significant — a time in which Obama tested both his personal sense of racial identity and abstract theories about race and community. But his actual organizing successes and failures are too modest to support such extensive scrutiny, and one wishes he would turn his attention back to his family. For instance, the life of his father — recently killed in an auto accident — is shrouded in mystery. The book’s final section, ” Kenya,” does return to family; it chronicles Obama’s extended trip to Kenya where myriad well-described relatives help him discover a rich family history and a clearer view of the man his father was.

The two most recent memoirs are written by journalists: “Divided to the Vein” by Scott Minerbrook and “The Color of Water” by James McBride.

Minerbrook, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report, sets up his book as a quest. He is looking for his white mother’s family, all estranged, in the hope that meeting them will help heal old wounds. But these wounds are deep: To describe Minerbrook as coming from a broken home would be generous — that suggests something neatly severed in two. Instead, Minerbrook’s family was shattered into countless jagged rasps, increasingly violent and dismal with every year his parents stayed together. His father, whom the book characterizes as a part-time junkie, is a vivid bruise on the page. Perhaps to protect his mother from our scrutiny, Minerbrook seems to purposely leave her as a rough sketch. We catch one glimpse of her from Minerbrook’s aunt, who tells revealing tales of her sister’s youthful, spirited rebelliousness. As he describes the fighting between his parents, Minerbrook concedes: “They were enacting every stereotype of a tormented interracial couple, and I hated it.” His parents increasingly pulled race into their battles, but clearly their miseries stemmed from more fundamental frictions.

Much of Minerbrook’s memoir, however, is less clear. Told with the kind of timelessness we experience in dreams, the story progresses in fits and starts. His quest is central to the book’s beginning, but is then abandoned until its very end. Rage and anger, never tidy, bleed into much of Minerbrook’s remembrance, putting the reader so close to the family’s pain that there is a blur where the bigger picture should be.

The greatest disappointments in “Divided to the Vein” come when Minerbrook attempts to talk directly about race. Those of us born into the still-peculiar inheritance of mixed parentage share some fundamental experiences that most people on one or the other side of the color line do not. We’re likely to have family bonds on both sides — a fact that typically demystifies and complicates our views of difference and otherness. To see, so closely, people from these purportedly separate groups in all their gloriously flawed humanity is a deceptively simple and absolutely profound lesson in what separates and unites us.

It would seem, as a result, that we should be able to step outside of monoracial myopia and offer fresh perspectives. Minerbrook does a little of this, as when he sees his own class biases kick in — as virulent as any racial bias — on meeting his uneducated, working-class white uncle. But mostly, Minerbrook relies on a useless, shorthand vocabulary about race. Across one two-page spread, he refers to “the racial war . . . the racial wall. . . racial apartheid … racial chasm . . . racial boundaries . . . racial prism . . . racial divisions …” Minerbrook presumes that these phrases clearly communicate his emotions and experience; but in a book so closely focused on the meaning of race, such terms become ever more meaningless.

In “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” writer and musician James McBride has indeed created a tribute. The book alternates between McBride’s account of his childhood in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects, where his mother raised 12 children mostly without help, and sections in which his mother, née Rachel Shilsky, tells the story of her life in her own voice.

McBride tells us at the start that his mother — who has largely avoided acknowledging that she is white since marrying his father (who died when the author was in utero) — is reluctant to talk about her past. But for her son, she will break the decades-long silence, and readers will be thankful she did. She is a spunky, natural storyteller (two favorite lines: “You don’t know anything about kosher. You think it’s a halvah candy bar,” and “That man could make a dog laugh”). McBride wisely transcribes her and gets out of the way.

In his own sections, McBride describes moments of joy, chaos and great sorrow, all with honesty and affection. In a significant break from the other three memoirs, where fathers are mythic in their absence (Obama) or dysfunctional in their presence (Williams and Minerbrook), McBride and his mother draw portraits of two profoundly heroic, stable, stand-up, everyday men: McBride’s father and stepfather.

As the publication of these memoirs suggests, our society may just be edging toward a more nuanced — less black and white, if you will — understanding of race. But this welcome spate of books is not without its limitations. Consider, for example, that all four memoirs are written by men. (A curious occurrence, since it’s a pretty good bet that just as many mixed-race women are out there with stories to tell. Only Lisa Jones’ 1994 book, “Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex and Hair,” addresses this experience from a female perspective, but briefly and less centrally.) All four men identify as black; Williams says he does so despite his appearance, because it was the black community that accepted him, though his children check both black and white on forms. All four men had white mothers and black fathers, which was true for about 85 percent of such marriages in the 1990 census, but the numbers are shifting. Due to death or divorce, none of the men experienced intact families, a much-overlooked but increasing reality for mixed-race people.