Tragicmulattoes's Blog

June 24, 2010

The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White

Filed under: Uncategorized — tragicmulattos @ 7:32 pm

The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White Cover

This is a good book (and a really easy read). I found Shirlee Hazlip’s interpretation of her family history to be honest yet without judgment. While working on an upcoming post I immediately thought of this book. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the socio-political motives of an embittered few, but Hazlip’s book reminds us that people’s lives are complex. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

…I was even more confused when my mother told me that she was not with her father, or her brothers and sister, because she was “too brown.” My mother was not brown; she was light. I knew that this missing grandfather did not care that I liked to read and was a straight-A student. I knew that he did not know that my mother alternately loved and hated him, and wished she could visit with him. I knew that he did not know how she cried for and cursed him with equal passion.

No matter how beautiful the autumn, its onset signaled the beginning of a seasonal sadness for my mother. Her melancholy would deepen as Christmas approached. Poignantly she spoke of her feelings. I remember feeling helplessly protective of her as she talked of childhood holiday wishes unfulfilled.

For us there were luxurious, indulgent Christmases always at home. We received hundreds of Christmas cards from church members and scores of pies and cakes. Each year, my father would buy a tall Douglas fir tree that he hung with ornaments and lights. Our job was to hand him the icicles, strand by strand. When he finished, he would step back, ask one of us to turn on the lights, and admire his handiwork. Then, invariably, he would begin to hum the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

During the succeeding nights, either he or Jewelle would play the piano and we’d all sing Christmas carols in the living room. Brother could not carry a tune, so his job was to pull my hair or breathe on Jewelle’s neck. At the edge of the group, my mother sang shyly, holding Pattee on her hip or clinging to her hand. Sometimes my Uncle Percy came from New York. He and my father would sing “O Holy Night” and “Ave Maria” together as they had when they were boys. Then we all sang together, Percy directing with a thumping foot or a waving hand.

On Christmas morning, there was always a roomful of toys, clothes and books. After we opened the presents, my father would go out to visit the members of the church, to bring them his personal greetings and to accept their gifts. Every year we would ask my mother why he could not stay at home and enjoy the day like other fathers. We knew the answer, of course. When he came home, he was usually several hundred dollars richer.

Most of us have yearnings and longings for the holidays of times past. My mother never had anything for which to yearn.

My search for the missing part of my family has been with me consciously and unconsciously all my life. I inherited it, I absorbed it by osmosis. Thins need, this pain, of my mother’s became mine. Her loss and rejection gave shape to my development. It touched me in ways I am yet unable to fathom. As my mother approached her eightieth birthday, I made a conscious decision to use whatever means possible to find her family. I knew that I would find them. Lawyers and census takers and city directories and utility companies and alumni offices prepare lists of names that I could scan.

Whenever I traveled, to Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my preoccupation with the vanished family came to the surface. I knew that somewhere out there the living ghosts went about their daily lives. I was ambivalent about my quest. I didn’t know what I would do or say when l found my missing kin. Some were undoubtedly dead. Others had no knowledge of their black ancestry. Should I visit their parents’ sins upon them? This was not a theoretical question for me, the daughter of a minister, with inherited bonds to the church.

Sometimes, in moments of reflection or frustration, my sisters and I talked about what was ethical and what type of responsibility we had to these relatives we didn’t even know. Would my revelations of familial connections bring pain, shame, anger, horror, revulsion, suicide? It has meant all of those things to be black in America. There is strong evidence that light-skinned blacks still receive preferential treatment in white and black America. I wondered how many of my cousins who had been free, white and twenty-one would claim their colored relative and heritage.

If the division in my family has caused so much pain, why did I seek them out? Because my children and I need to know the rest of what has shaped us. Simply put, part of their genetic codes belong to us as well. But also, my mother’s story mirrors the lives of tens of thousands of Americans who have racial schisms in their own families. Wherever I share the story, someone invariably tells a similar one.

My mother’s history suggests that race and color in America are not interchangeable. From bitter experience, black people have always understood that color and race are exquisitely arbitrary. White people in America take their whiteness for granted. But if we adhere to traditional notions of race, many of them are not white. Nor are all black people black. The heritage of this country and all of its people is mixed. A subtext of this story is, What is white? What is black? What is race?

Those who can claim to be Americans of pure African descent are few and far between. No matter what we call ourselves, the ethnic range of America lives within us. Currently, one of the country’s major black political figures is married to a woman whose sisters pass for white in Tennessee. In Buffalo, there is a man who lives as white, but frequently returns to his black high school reunions in Washington, D.C. In New Haven, a friend of my family who used to be black moved to neighboring Hamden and is now white. The D.C. police force was integrated by a black man taken for white in the 1920s. A woman I knew as black when I was young is now white and no longer speaks to me. Multiply these instances many times over and the footprints of those who have crossed the color line become infinite and untrackable.

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