Red, White, and Black: A Personal Essay on Interracial Marriage
Rand, Jacki Thompson, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies
About a month before my father died, a long-held question spilled out of my ten-year-old mouth. "Daddy, why do you hate colored people so much and love Mama?" The silence that filled the kitchen where my mother was cooking blocked out the evening news blaring from the television. It was another nightly report about the blacks' grim battle for freedom from racial segregation. The March on Washington and rise of black power had energized their struggle, making for significant advances, but the struggle continued. My father's routine rants against the "coloreds" had unexpectedly pulled the native question from my throat where it had been lodged for some time. My mother began to cry. I looked up into his usually loving face and saw cold silent anger. Somehow, I had intuited that it would be this way. For the first time in my life I was sent to bed without supper and told to stay upstairs until morning. My parents never brought up our exchange and several weeks later my father died of a heart attack in front of me. Some forty years later I asked my mother if she recalled that event and she looked at me levelly, "Why, yes, I certainly do." The cold indignation in her eyes and my silence formed an unspoken agreement that we would not revisit the incident that took place in the kitchen in early 1967. In the intervening decades, however, I had given it much thought, peeling away the layers of my confusion about my experiences in a racially mixed household where black, white, and red shaped our familial relations, individual identities, and confused interpretations of how race had come to define us.
In retrospect it seems that both race and color were at the center of our family relations. My mother's darkness was the basis of a terrible insecurity that played out in her comments about her children and about other dark-skinned people. Simultaneously, my father's open racism against blacks contradicted his seeming blindness to my mother's insecurity-inducing darkness. I recall my father's special song for my mother. "Portrait of my love," a syrupy popular tune suggesting that extraordinary beauty cannot be captured by the artist's brush. Their romanticized fraught defiance of convention became swept up in the growing momentum of the civil rights movement. Historically invisible dark people filled television screens, as well as white-sheeted Klansmen, water cannons, billy clubs, and jeering white crowds. Under the circumstances, my mother's insecurity about her darkness intensified. Events taking place outside our family charged the dynamics among us. We all became actors on her stage, which she directed relentlessly to buffer herself against a pervasive racism that could easily and frequently did sweep her up in the net of all denigrated colored peoples.
My parents' relationship married my mother's ever-present awareness of her dark skin to my father's insecurities about his origins and driven desire to escape them. He sought membership in the American middle class and spent his life accumulating what he believed were the essential requirements: comportment, a steady job, children, a home, and car. My father's near-obsession with "good manners" and appropriate appearances was most evident in our relationship. My little brother and ally was a mute, invisible actor throughout our time with both parents, while I received the bounty of attention due a Southern princess. My parents insisted on tightly controlling how I wore my hair and how I was clothed. Trained as an excellent, creative seamstress, my mother made many of my clothes. My occasional effort to follow a fashion trend--one year it was empire waist summer dresses--was usually quashed by my father. ("Jean, that thing makes her look pregnant. Take it back." I was probably all of eight or nine.) White anklets and some version of Mary Janes rounded out my outfits. As the only girl in the family with two brothers I seemed an inescapable target of monitoring and molding into Southern perfection. My mother was uncharacteristically unquestioning and compliant in these matters.
My parents were a striking, charismatic pair. My mother is the daughter of two Choctaw parents, one Oklahoma, the other Mississippi. My father came from a tenant farming family outside of Birmingham. Their meeting and subsequent marriage followed my mother's graduation from Chilocco Indian School and her escape, as she saw it, from Oklahoma to San Antonio, Texas. There she met my father, who had added a couple of years to his true age on his Air Force application. Mother's jet black hair and eyes and her dark Indian skin contrasted with my father's wavy ash-brown hair, hazel eyes, and white complexion. They were unquestionably proud of each other and liked to be seen together, although in my whole ten years before my father died we visited my grandmother in Birmingham only once.
Their partnership was part love and part combustion, making for an emotional intensity that could explode into hellish arguments. They always made up, collecting thrown pots and broken plates together, laughing at their audacity. They had plenty of chemistry. My father gave my mother a sense of permanency that she had lost at age four, upon her mother's death. He buffered her from the insecurities about her dark skin that name-calling at Chilocco and racism in the outside world had produced in her mind. My mother shared the lessons of middle-class comportment she learned at Chilocco with my father, the attentive student. She was the civilizer in their relationship, and he always credited her with his "progress."
My brother and I felt the long arm of Chilocco's civilizing mission in all aspects of our lives. When it was appropriate to wear white shoes, which colors you could mix and match, the prohibition against mixing stripes, flowers, and plaids. My brother and I learned at a young age the complicated rules for shaking hands. A man shook hands with a woman only if she offered her hand first. Children shook hands with adults only after the adult offered a hand. Adults and children waited until and elderly person held out his hand before the hand-shaking took place. It was all about hierarchy and deference, We had lots of rules about cleanliness, too.
But nowhere were the lessons of Chilocco more evident than at the dinner table. My little brother held my chair for me. The meal commenced only after my mother had joined us at the table. No elbows on the table, tapping on the table, singing or reading at the table, scraping your teeth across the fork, or playing with silverware. Appropriate dinner conversation was a great mystery, easily violated and harshly noted. Sometimes an unintentional straying into the inappropriate realm could bring dinner abruptly to an end. My offended mother excused herself from the table offering no explanation, but we all knew the movable mysterious line that marked unacceptable dinner talk had been breached. As a result my brother and I remained quiet, speaking only to answer a question from our parents. We learned to break off a small piece of bread before we buttered it and put it in our mouths. We tasted our food before salting it, and cut and ate one piece of meat at a time. Dinner table talk was usually a drone of small corrections.
My mother passed her Chilocco lessons on to my father and my father enforced them with a vengeance. Early in their relationship they had formed a pact. My father asked my mother to be his teacher in the social graces he lacked and desired. According to my mother he made his request to her early in their relationship. He invited her to note his faux pas and correct him in private. He was self-conscious about the poverty in which he had been raised by his mother. Following the death of his father, his mother single-handedly brought up nine children, all boys except one daughter. My father believed hard work and personal improvement would boost him out of the tenant-farming class to which he had been born. By the time he died, he exemplified the qualities of a gentleman, having gone so far as to erase the Southern accent he believed belied his ignoigno rance. My mother was a principal creator of his image.
My parents might not have been conscious of the abundance of ironies in their shared lives, but there were plenty in plain view. My father liked to tease my mother in all sorts of ways. Sometimes when introducing her to his colleagues or friends he explained that she could not speak English. My mother warned him that he would pay a price for joking at her expense. She bided her time until the right circumstances arose and turned the tables. They encountered a senior officer at the base Commissary and my father made the mistake of repeating his joke about my mother and her English. My mother looked at my father's senior officer and said, "Ugh," reducing my father to a stammering insistence that she really could speak English, pleading with his eyes and nervous laugh that my mother let the officer know that she was kidding. My mother had her moment. She did not rescue my father from his mortification and he abandoned his little joke permanently. My father's teasing of my mother was inappropriate, but he never intended to be cruel or hateful. Rather, it subtly affirmed the racial hierarchy that my mother's strong demeanor challenged in daily life. But I never once heard my parents refer to each other's race in their arguments. As far as I could tell, my parents loved each other, if in a drama-producing manner.
My allegiance to my mother and her identity crystallized at a very early age. My parents had taken my little brother and me to some kind of "Indian Village" for tourists in Arizona. Riding in the car after the staged Indian Dance, I babbled about "the dirty little Indian girl" and asked why her mama let her go barefooted and be so dirty. My father stopped the car, turned to the back seat and said, "Sister, be quiet, Don't you know your mother is an Indian?" I remember feeling simultaneously ashamed at my terrible mistake and struck by this news. Despite my awareness of my relatives in Oklahoma and the countless stories my mother told to me and my brother about her life in Oklahoma, I had never thought of them as Indian stories. I thought of her stories as an extension of her large personality, which often overtook the stories themselves. She always saw the humor in everything, the inconsistencies, incongruities, contradictions, and human foibles, even her own. I learned about rural Choctaw life and culture through the lens of my mother's humor. Some of her funniest stories involved the Choctaw Baptist churches her family attended. But that day in the hot car, hiding shamefully in the back seat, my mother's dark skin and Indian face registered in my consciousness for the first time as something distinct and fraught. As I grew older and accumulated an awareness of the race hatred and mislabeling my mother experienced, my allegiance to her and to the "dirty little Indian girl" took shape.
The lines between my family life and events taking place outside were blurring, calling into painful question the meaning of black, white, and red. My confusion centered on my father's belief in the inferiority of black Americans. There was no doubt that my father was a Southern racist. He supported George Wallace and even had my mother place a call to his office one night in 1966 to demand something be done about the coloreds. My father's use of the "N" word flew freely until at some point in my early childhood my mother censored him because I had taken to crying when I heard him speak the epithet. One school day my father was home and watched me walk to out house with a black boy from my first grade class. He reportedly yelled for my mother and demanded what she intended to do about this unacceptable behavior. But when I came in the door he only asked me, "Who is your friend, Dolly?" And I said, "He's just a little colored boy at school and we're friends." The matter rested there.
My father's racism was typical. He hated the coloreds but was capable of friendship with an individual. His one black friend was a Sergeant Smith. He and Smitty used to go fishing together, but Smitty never came into our house. The civil rights movement had ratcheted up my father's hatred of the coloreds. Each night the news covered the burning of the South and Vietnam. Although my older brother, a Marine, was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, it was not the nightly body count that drove my father to distraction. It was the audacity of the coloreds. He railed against President Johnson, calling him Basket-Ears Johnson until my mother asked him to stop. She was always admonishing my father to remember that, "Little pitchers have big ears." Every night was the same ritual: Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley, supper, and my father frothing at the mouth about the revolutionary challenge to his world.
My mother and father were completely in sync on race. my mother felt it a great injury to be called a "nigger," which happened on many occasions, once in front of me. I remember her saying to the man, "Please, not in front of my children." To be mistaken for a black was a great humiliation for my mother, even greater than being mistaken for a Mexican, for whom she also had little regard. It brought attention to her own darkness, which made her feel ashamed. I suspect her racism was complicated by the unspoken possibility, and likelihood, of miscegenation between African American slaves and Southeastern Indians. Mothers, like many Native people, had internalized racism against "colored people" and expressed it as clearly as did my father. She had hated her darkness since she was a child, and her self-hatred grew as she matured, perhaps because it invited the mistaken identity with a group she herself looked down upon. She, however, was less disturbed than my father about the civil rights movement. The night she called George Wallace's office for my father, I watched from the dark hallway as she dialed, laughing and asking my father, "What would you like me to say to the governor?"
My mother's obsession with color engulfed me, and by extension my little brother. Her commentary on the "peaches-and-cream" color of my skin began before my first memories and continued into my adulthood. She never failed to mention the color of my skin when introducing me to adults. Her relentless attention to my color was frequently accompanied by self-deprecation. "When she was just a baby I would walk with her in her stroller and people thought I was the maid." The peaches-and-cream skin was a gift. "This child can wear any color beautifully." As for my wavy hair, "She takes after her father." She took extra steps with my hair, rinsing it in lemon water and making me sit out in the Oklahoma sun to bring out the highlights. All precautions against the usual bumps and bruises children acquire were taken in my case. My mother repeatedly admonished me to avoid skinning my legs, because the scars would mar my beautiful complexion. She was heavily invested in my peaches-and-cream color as evidence of a whitened daughter, who in turn whitened her. The color of my skin blunted the pain of racial epithets and mistaken identities my mother encountered throughout her life. She could always point to me, as she often did, and say, "This is my daughter. Isn't she lovely?" Mother's indisputable possession of a white husband and her acquaintance with white manners cornered people into affirming her unspoken assertion of legitimacy.
Simultaneously, my mother insisted on her pride in being Choctaw, a "full blood," or a "real Indian" as she liked to remind me later in life. She had fully internalized the colonial blood quantum system. She could be proprietary about her Indian identity, dismissing the sudden popularity in being "Native American." Following the 1960s peace movement, when Indians became fashionable, she expressed relief in not having to bear the load of being Cherokee. She schooled me early on about Indian princesses and the sudden suspicious surge in Cherokee population. Soon after one of our conversations I came home from first grade to report that a classmate had shared that she was an Indian princess. I had left school feeling wanting for my lack of royal status. My mother rolled her eyes and said, "See, what'd I tell you? There are no princesses. What is her tribe?" She seized upon the girl's omission of a tribe to dismiss the questionable claims to Indian identity. Mother enjoyed her unique status as an Indian in the social life of noncommissioned officers and their wives, sometimes wielding it like a weapon.
Unknown to me at the time, my mother's insistence on constructing my identity in the service of her story planted the seeds of a political critique about race, hierarchies, and constructedness. At an early age I rejected the racism that permeated my world, while we, my mother's children, were being bred for whiteness. My mother was undeniably dark, even darker than her sisters and brothers. I loved all of these good and caring people. How could the color of their skin make them bad or ugly? How could I be asked to distance myself from the relatives? I didn't want to be mistaken for something other than Indian. My emerging black and white thinking led me to embrace my relatives' darkness with pride and a defiant desire to be called a "nigger," to be a "dirty Indian." It was only a matter of a few years before a white guy driving a beater pulled along side me and screamed "nigger!" through his rolled down window. I remember taking a drag of my cigarette and smiling in satisfaction.
My father's sudden death at age thirty-six from a hidden congenital disease left a jagged rip in the family fabric. My quiet little brother's childhood had been limited to constant corrections and punishment for small transgressions, without attention to the minutiae of his life and praise for his achievements. Being my father's son felt only negative and uncaring. The relief he experienced with my father's death was physically evident in the overnight disappearance of a stammer and nervous tic in his eye. I had noticed it some two weeks after my father's death and told my mother. She did not react, but I realized that somehow my little brother had been suffering and his suffering had abated.
Now we were just Indians, or at least my mother was, and her quick downward spiral confirmed her reliance on my father's presence for stability and for self-esteem. The burden shifted to me as the next whitest person in the family, but being only eleven by that time, I could not bear the load of her complex insecurities and needs the way my father had. Nor did I want to. Her continued practice of objectifying me and placing me on exhibit for her friends and strangers alike fueled my growing resentment and insecurities. The mother I had loved I grew to hate for hating herself, for her manipulations around my identity, and for her exploitation of me for her own sad purposes.
My travels through Native communities and in Native circles have led me to believe that our family was not unusual. Families headed by former boarding school students provide some of the most compelling evidence of the destructive outcomes of colonialism for Native people. Those children, often placed in schools at quite young ages (age six for my mother), did not learn how to become their own persons, to be family members, to parent. They learned to mimic and recreate the culture of institutional life: to maintain control, to adhere to unbreakable rules, to stick with the program. Indian schools blended the civilizing mission and race-hatred element, nurturing latent self-loathing and a relentless pursuit of "improvement" combined with the students' destructive methods for alleviating emotional pain.
My mother entered Wheelock in 1928 or 1929 and went to Chilocco sometime in the early 1930s. Although her time in Chilocco fell within the period of John Collier's New Deal, the school environment was tough and filled with conflicting messages. For example, my mother beads not in the style of Choctaw stickball sashes, but rather in a generic Plains style, for what purpose I have never understood. Her memories of Chilocco were painful, because she was separated from her family and because she resented the authority of the teachers and administrators. If my mother and her siblings reflect the "boarding school experience," they illustrate that each student came away from it with an individual perspective. In contrast to my mother and one of her brothers, other siblings described the students at Chilocco as family. The annual Chilocco reunion is a testament to the close ties formed among alumnae during their years at the school. But my mother and her siblings would all agree that being separated from their family was unbearable and filled them with a profound sadness that never left them.
The offspring of the boarding school generations have had to find their way in the wake of this historical trauma. They struggle in unique circumstances where the civilizing program and shifting identities have passed down through their parents. The peace some have found has come as a result of long and daunting disentangling of their beliefs from their parents' damaged thinking. But many members of the two generations remained unable to relax their vigilance, watching for signs of stigma, rejection, and the rules of the game known to everyone but them. Those who have remained lost in the intersections of race, identity, destruction, and the civilizing mission endure silent suffering in abusive relationships and profound self-doubt.
My mother's marriage to my father was a racial love story and a strategy for resolving the internal conflict she carried through her life. Having compared what she felt inside to what she saw of everyone else's outside and found herself always wanting, always inferior, she sought an external solution in him, and then in her children. His whiteness, and the whitening of her children, was her salvation. His racism against black Americans raised her off the floor of the racial hierarchy to a higher rung on the ladder. Her darkness was her Achilles heel, putting her in a tenuous position. She allowed my father's death, which left her bereft of the cover by which she had navigated life for fifteen years, to send her into a free fall. What came next in our lives was colored by my mother's withdrawal from her children, a relentless drive toward self-destruction, and forty years of my and my little brother's respective long searches for peace.
The author expresses her appreciation to Amelia Rand, LeAnne Howe, Sharon Imo-tichey, and Martha Skeeters for reading this essay and offering helpful insights and critiques.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Red, White, and Black: A Personal Essay on Interracial Marriage. Contributors: Rand, Jacki Thompson - Author. Journal title: Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies. Volume: 29. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: June-September 2008. Page number: 51+. © 2009 University of Nebraska Press. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.