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The kingdom of Dahomey, at its peak, dominated the sliver of West Africa known as the Slave Coast. From around 1724 until the eighteen-sixties, when the last slave ships heading for the Americas set out from these shores, the kings of Dahomey used terror and brutality to supply human chattel to the triangular trade. During months-long campaigns, their army, which featured a corps of women warriors who served as shock troops, overran towns and villages, horrifically murdering some people as a tactic to get others to submit. Anyone not Dahomean was either a vassal, a victim, or a captive to be sold to European trading companies, which had established barracoons by the sea.
Though Dahomey was smaller than New Jersey, with a population of three hundred and fifty thousand by some estimates, three-quarters that of Staten Island’s today, it is believed that about fifteen per cent of all the slaves sent to the Americas departed from this stretch of coast—nearly two million women, men, and children. Those sold off resisted the spiritual death that could accompany enslavement, striving to retain some tie to their past. Aspects of African American culture emerged from West African traditions—music and dance, culinary practices and religious beliefs, notably vodun, what we call voodoo in the United States.
Until I was sixteen, I believed that, on my father’s side, I was descended from the enslaved people who had crossed the Atlantic in chains, perhaps forced onto ships in Dahomean waters.
My mother was a white woman. Right up to her death, six years ago, at the age of eighty-five, she sustained an improbable sort of idealism—a wholehearted aspiration for equality, regardless of race, gender, or class, which was underpinned by a near-providential belief in basic human goodness, despite her own experiences. The eldest of three children of French Jewish parents, in her youth she had survived the Nazi occupation of Paris. She immigrated to the U.S. in the fifties as the G.I. bride of an African American soldier, and, in the years before Loving v. Virginia, gave birth to two biracial kids, my older sister, Myriam, and me. Her first husband, Jack Wright, was a drinker, unreliable in the way that drinkers can be, and she divorced him in 1967, when I was two, raising Myriam and me on her own, working menial jobs to pay the bills.
Mom was tough, much larger than her five-foot-one-inch frame. Still, she felt that I needed a Black male presence in my life. She met my stepdad, Ed Wheeler, who had escaped Jim Crow South Carolina by joining the Army, which deployed him to Vietnam. He was decorated for his service, and, when he returned, we followed him to Yuma, Arizona, then to Lawton, Oklahoma, then, on his retirement from the military, in 1976, to Amarillo, Texas, where he’d taken a job working security at Texas State Technical Institute. We were now a family of five—my younger sister, Chantal, was two years old when we moved to the Panhandle.
In choosing a difficult path for herself, Mom necessarily set us, her children, on one, too. “Biracial” is the term of use today. When I was growing up, we were referred to as “mulatto” or, when the speaker was being considerate, as “mixed race” or “mixed.” To white society, though, either expression meant Black, full stop. Mixed-race people went largely unseen, made nonexistent by the one-drop rule.
Myriam and I were two of four Black students in our middle school in Amarillo. I was the only Black male. She and I sat in the cafeteria one day as a boy described to the rapt kids at our table the thrill of watching the movie exploits of “that great big nigger Mandingo.” Not long afterward, the same boy and a group of others set upon me on the playground—they held me down and ripped open my shirt and gave me a “red belly” until I cried, and even after.
A schoolyard prank or an age-old ritual about my proper place? I understood their message to be the latter, even if the school dismissed it as the former.
I’d seen “Roots.” The five of us watched together on the couch, Chantal on my mother’s lap. Alongside the triumph of seeing Chicken George lead his family onto land in Tennessee that they themselves owned, indignation simmered within me, a rising fury at the sweep and scope of the horrors that we African Americans had borne since our very beginnings here. Lurking just beyond was something more, something troubling, a feeling that was not new but that “Roots” had made discernible. Even at that young age, I recognized it to be the tinges of shame—shame at being part of a people who, no matter how brave, how noble, or how cunning, seemed to always end up debased.
Identity is rooted in place as well as in parentage. In the Texas Panhandle, the red-brown fissures of the Caprock Escarpment abruptly become the grassy Great Plains, the stark beauty a study in contrasts. Like the geology of my new home, I was formed in a space where differences converged.
A few months after my schoolyard hazing, we moved fifty miles northeast, to Borger, population fifteen thousand, where my stepdad joined the Hutchinson County Sheriff’s Department, its first Black deputy. Borger was less than four per cent African American, and most other Blacks lived across town, in the Flats. But my stepdad had moved us into Keeler Heights, a white neighborhood. Ours was one of the only mixed-race families in town, and for certain the most public one, given my stepdad’s new position. Mixed-race couples could still meet with looks of disdain and sometimes with nasty remarks from white Borgans, young and old. Despite this, to me Borger was a relief. People honked and waved when they passed by even though we didn’t know them. I joined the football team and made friends, Black, white, and brown, and soon I found my way.
America, historically, has understood the mulatto to be a tragic figure, the product of two different worlds, belonging to neither. For me, the opposite was true. I learned to code-switch and became a sort of insider-outsider in both. I was as readily at home in my advanced-biology class, where I was the only Black person, as I was in the football locker room with the brothers. When with white friends, I never pretended to be white. But I blended in. I was liked, as was my stepdad, who had become popular around town.
Borger was the epitome of the late-seventies Bible Belt—socially conservative, Christian symbolism everywhere, proselytizing. From time to time, I went to the church across the alley behind our house, Keeler Baptist, with my friend (white, necessarily) from down the street. Our football coach taught Sunday school. One morning when I’d stayed in bed, I heard my name being hollered from outside, at a distance. Coach Henderson had raised the second-story window of his classroom and was summoning me. I dressed and ran over.
I didn’t consider myself committed to church so much as curious. Yet one Sunday I found myself responding to the call of the pastor, Reverend Scott, ambling down the aisle toward him, and receiving Jesus as my personal Lord and Saviour. Coach Henderson looked particularly proud, more than he ever did watching me on the football field. I lingered with the other kids afterward, talking and laughing, sipping on the grape juice used for Communion from tiny Dixie cups. I took the long way home, around on the street rather than through the alley, and felt . . . something. Fulfillment, maybe. A sense of accomplishment. Whatever it was, I imagined it to be an outgrowth of my spiritual redemption.
Turning the corner, our house coming into view, I saw my mom standing in the yard, puffed up, arms crossed over her chest. How long she’d been there I could not know, but the tongue lashing began before I was even within hearing distance.
Didn’t I know that I was Jewish? she asked. Did that not matter to me?
Before I could answer, she followed with a question that, I would learn from Myriam, she had also asked the Reverend Scott when he’d stopped by to congratulate my family on my having accepted Christ. To me, she said, “Do you think those crackers will still love you when you want to date one of their daughters?”
Growing up, Judaism meant everything and nothing in my family. Mom always wore a Star of David pendant on a necklace, and the fact that we were Jewish was never a question in my mind. But we didn’t acknowledge, much less observe, Jewish holidays or celebrations. I wouldn’t have recognized the names—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur—had someone spoken them aloud.
No one did. We lived in a part of the U.S. where Jews were even less common than Blacks.
I was introduced to the Holocaust in school, in a unit in world-history class. I knew that, as a child, Mom had lived something of the horrors being described to us, and I asked her about it one evening. She answered—not evasively, but not fully, either. She’d been young, she told me. All that remained in her from that time were bits and pieces, more feeling than detail. Though she had been nine when the Nazis occupied Paris and thirteen when they were finally expelled, she seemed unwilling to attempt to form a coherent picture of her experiences.
For all that learning about the Holocaust had moved me, I didn’t feel any more—or any less, for that matter—Jewish as a result. Jewishness, while certainly a part of who I knew myself to be, was less immediate, less intimate, more abstract than being Black. It held no stakes. No one in my Texas town, after all, understood me to be a Jew. Seeing Afro’d, football-player me as Jewish was like trying to make sense of a pangolin or a duck-billed platypus without the benefit of a picture. Who could imagine such a thing?
In this world of complicated identities, where navigating my way through potentially hostile environments was becoming second nature, sometimes the animus came from close to home. Though in the eyes of society at large I did not exist as a biracial person, only as Black, Black friends sometimes referred to Myriam and me as “mixeded.” In so doing, they weren’t saying we were not Black. They were, however, making a distinction, one that seemed to confer a certain privilege. The distinction could also lead to conflict, should Myriam or I, however inadvertently, seem to act as though our light skin made us better. I understood that I was an insider-outsider among Blacks, too, despite claiming Blackness as my identity.
The line between keeping on to keep on keeping on and being an Uncle Tom was exceedingly thin. I learned this, too, through the example of my stepdad. I had to join him one Friday at a happy hour at the furniture-and-appliance store of his best friend, Stonie Ferguson. We were the only Black people present, and I, largely invisible in a chair off to the side, was the sole minor. Several local businessmen drank whiskey-and-Cokes or whiskey-and-sodas and told tall tales and laughed. One told a “nigger joke,” never pausing, not seeming to notice that among them was a so-called nigger—two including me, on the periphery. I watched as my stepdad laughed along with the rest of the guests.
In Amarillo, when the boy had boomed, “That great big nigger Mandingo” in the lunchroom, I’d sat there silently, recognizing the danger of speaking up. So I understood the tough spot that my stepdad was in. Few African Americans owned businesses in Borger or were city leaders. He’d worked hard and was striving to make a mark in town. But where my diminutive mom would have roared in outrage on the spot and later offered me a lesson about standing up for oneself, he never even discussed the incident. It was hard to keep from resenting him.
Not that Jack Wright was a better model—of Blackness or of maleness or just of dependability. Mom always described him as a man who, if you asked, would give you the shirt off his back; for his family in Kansas City, he was an anchor, someone to turn to. But he’d rarely sent child support for Myriam and me, and had disappeared from our lives altogether when she was nine, and I seven. When Myriam turned fourteen, she reconnected with him, and we began visiting Kansas City for a few weeks during the summer. She and I would ride with him in his yellow cab, sitting beside him on the long bench seat. We’d pick up dinner from Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips or Shakey’s Pizza and bring it back to his one-bedroom apartment. Sometimes our cousin Brenda and her boyfriend Al would take us to the movies or bowling.
The trips were difficult for both of us, but, where Myriam was charming and funny, I was brooding, a bit of a mama’s boy. I wanted to impress Jack Wright—as an athlete or a brainiac, or as something—but never much felt like I did.
The spring I turned sixteen, my mother and stepdad were fighting constantly and were heading toward divorce. Early in their marriage, she had confided in him a secret that she had otherwise shared only with her mother, her sister, and her two dearest childhood friends in France. Now he threatened to inform me, wanting to discredit her in my eyes. So Mom beat him to the punch. She told me about a man named Max Faladé—my “real father,” she called him, in a sheepish way that was unlike her. He was an architect, she said, and had spent his career working for the United Nations in Africa. She told me that he was from Benin, although it had been called Dahomey when she first met him.
After the initial jolt of surprise, I laughed—a deep belly laugh. I hadn’t been looking for another father. If anything, my two were too many. And here was a new one, out there somewhere in the homeland of Kunta Kinte.
I didn’t feel shame on learning that I was of the lesser so-called Third World or that I was a bastard. In fact, the joy Mom expressed while telling me about Max, her eagerness at the possibility of he and I connecting, made connecting seem important. I didn’t know French, so I wrote him in English, a warm letter, introducing myself. His reply arrived a month or so later. It was gracious, if formal, though not especially informative. He finished with: “You need to know that there is nothing for you.”
This seemed particularly insulting, as I’d asked nothing of him. I was merely saying “Hello” and “I know now.” Yet he made it clear that I was an inconvenience to him, maybe even a source of embarrassment. His response also seemed to insinuate something demeaning about my mother, and this disturbed me even more. He hadn’t expressed anything untoward, had hardly mentioned her, actually. But his rejection of me read as a slight of her.
Part of my agitation stemmed from the fact that she so obviously still loved him. She hadn’t seen him since he’d visited the hospital after my birth, and the family resemblance confirmed what my mom had claimed—that I was indeed his child. He’d offered to assume responsibility for me, as Mom told it, if she left Jack Wright. Max refused to take care of Myriam, though, which he must have known my mom would never accept. Even so, despite this obvious pettiness and manipulation, she still referred to him, all these years later, as her one true love, confiding that she had overcome an early ambivalence about Ed Wheeler because he had Max’s deep, resonant voice.
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