… fourth grade, when I discovered to my great surprise, that my mom was black.
No alteration of my worldview accompanied this discovery — grass wasn’t blue and 6:30 a.m. still rolled around. But, an event one cold winter day in Stamford, Connecticut, put lots of things into perspective. After that, it made sense that she majored in African American studies, belonged to the only black church in Greenwich and was a member of the Links, Inc., a black women’s service group. I had never put these large, large pieces of the puzzle together.
Another large piece of the puzzle that I somehow didn’t connect was her business. She and two other moms started Black Books Galore! a small not-for-profit organization. They organized black and multicultural children’s book-fairs all over the country, and wrote guides to black children’s books. Later, after my mom became the head of BBG!, she also wrote children’s books that featured black kids, a very underrepresented demographic.
One rainy day near Easter, I was at home — school was closed. School closings meant one glorious thing — a day to get ahead on my work! (Such excitement!) I was ten years old, sitting in the kitchen, working diligently when my mom walked in with something in her hand. I greeted her, but quickly went back to work. My eldest sister Christine was getting O.J. out of the fridge as my mom showed her a slip of paper. They promptly started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked them.
“Everyone thinks I’m white,” she said while she and my sister laughed and laughed.
Earlier that day, she had been speeding down Clapboard Ridge in Greenwich, though not excessively fast. She never took big risks, but she definitely had a wild streak in her, which I proudly inherited. Apparently, the police officer who pulled her over wrote down information he deduced from her appearance: “Female, 50s, Caucasian” he wrote on the ticket.
I didn’t understand why she and my sister found this amusing. She was white — had been her whole life. Yes, mom. Everyone thinks you’re white because you ARE white. Why is this funny? Needless to say, I was utterly confused. But then it dawned on me … this could only mean one thing: “Wait, you’re not white?”
So, there you have it. I thought my own mother was white.
“No indeed!” she replied. Wow, this is weird, I thought. I was shell-shocked, but also kind of embarrassed. Yes, her appearance made things a little unclear, but really, Jennifer? The Links, Inc. ? BLACK BOOKS GALORE!???? Boy, was I dense.
She wasn’t offended at all, but rather amused that her own child, her flesh and blood, whom she brought into the world, also thought she was white. White people had no idea what her ethnicity was, but usually black people knew she was black. Well … except for me.
She was pretty ethnically ambiguous. My mom had dark, curly hair that was extraordinarily thin — a single bobby pin held all her hair up, like a hair elastic does for most other people. Her skin was extremely fair, too. Many people assumed she was mixed, which is understandable — both of her parents are fair-skinned, too.
“What are you?” “Are you mixed?” “Have we met before?” “You look exactly like my friend from (fill in a country here).” I field these questions weekly. Here is what I’ve learned about myself and people:
I am black, but apparently I am also ethnically ambiguous. No one knows “what” I am. The “What are you?” question can sometimes get a little tiring, so naturally, I mess with peoples’ heads. “Oh, I’m half Hawaiian and half Moroccan,” I deadpan. Or Puerto Rican, or Egyptian, or Samoan or (fill in race/ethnicity/country). Actually, everyone in Tanzania thought I was Korean, so I often pulled out my Blasian (Black + Asian) card.
Even though I couldn’t figure out that Black Books Galore! was created, in part, because I had very few books to read featuring black children, and even though my mother was part of an all-black women’s group, I failed to see that she was black. From my incredible case of mistaken identity, I’ve learned first-hand that race is confusing — it’s not static or objective. But thank goodness we have Tyler Perry’s “Madea Eats Soul Food” to set us all straight.