Eunice grew up with all types of visitors in her living room, overheard and been a part of discussions well beyond her years.
“Angela and Reginald are coming for dinner,” Curtis said, “Best we be get for an education!” Eunice thought it was hysterical when he used that line. It always meant there would be lots of swearing or discussions of sex and violence. He meant she would be educated on what not to do.
“Fabulous! I’ll get Aunt Angela’s opinion on my composition! Or maybe she’ll do it for me!” Eunice said.
“She’ll like have an opinion or two for sure!” Curtis said.
Aunt Angela felt like blood kin. The way she and Daddy carried on teasing or arguing she might as well have been his sister. Eunice thought it was beautiful that long time friendships could turn into family. Maybe one day that would happen for her.
Eunice probably learned her kinship to the dark horse from Angela. Often those struggling to fit in would look at her confused wondering how she recognized them. They came in all shapes and forms so she believed she was exempt from prejudice.
When she saw someone in need her protective side was stronger which made her less of an isolated loner. Fueled by the camaraderie she could became charming and even exude sparkling wit. She also liked when the one in need thought highly of her.
Aunt Angela had opinions about everything race related as it was part of her profession. She was a famous public speaker but Eunice saw her as a lifelong freedom fighter. Angela said the biracial movement in the last decade was designed to target and undermine the black community. It fuelled anti-blackness sentiment resulting in racism internalized by black teenagers. “I’m not putting the onus on the mixed race but simply stating facts. It’s important for you to always recognize the status quo uses mixed people to their advantage. No amount of sugar-coating can ward off the fact that lighter skinned people often feel better than those who aren’t,” Angela said. Eunice loved how opinionated she was. No woman could compare to her education and distinctly velvet voice.
“You mean light or dark skin makes a difference in civil rights?” Eunice asked.
“Are you kidding me darlin, it set us four steps back to plantation mentality. It was called colorism then. That’s one great thing about California, the West Coast is newer, the old ways aren’t set in as deep but many intellectuals I’ve worked with in Oakland, happily turn a blind eye,” Aunt Angela said.
She was always aglow when she got fired up, almost as if her superpowers were activated.
“What I’m saying in some sense is you are part of the hope and change,” Angela said.
Eunice blinked at her, probably looking clueless.
“For the love of God, don’t fall into victim mentality. I know you won’t babydoll,” Angela said, hugging her.
“Some see race diluting as wrong but in terms of evolution it’s harder to argue,” Eunice said.
“Don’t you see it every day? Society treats the light skinned under a guise of inclusion. The status quo throws a bone to us so we’re supposed to forgive and forget. Look at movies and music. Actors and models succeed when they are light. Can you name me one dark one?” Angela asked.
“Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone,” Eunice said, nervously.
“Genius musicians. I’ll give you that for sure. God has granted us to break the barrier with musical talent,” Angela said.
Eunice got inspired with brand new ideas when Angela was over. She would literally need note paper to jot down things she wanted to look up later.
Angela thought the hope of equality was coming as if evolution was about to be turned on its head after centuries of sameness. It had more silent victims for mixed race kids who couldn’t find a place in society but, you are the race Eunice. Just as every human originated from Africa, we will end up a unified oneness in the end,” Angela said with authority.
“I remember my older cousin Ellen, who was mixed from back in slavery times which was rarely consensual, was very active in the campus at her University. In her senior year, she was elected president of the African American Student Union. I remember celebrating the news with her mother and mine in their kitchen. My mother congratulated Ellen with a big hug and offered a wry smile, ‘Ellen, just don’t tell anyone you’re only one quarter black,’ my mother said,’ do you see?” Angela asked, taking a sip of her tea checking to see if Eunice understood.
Eunice waited patiently through her effective pauses.
“At this we all burst out laughing, laughter that expressed as much relief as it did humor because mother had exposed an open secret by pointing out the irony we’d all been thinking. How was it ironic that a woman who was of only partial African descent could be a leader? Angela said.
“Why?” Eunice asked.
“Multiracial in the black community was something to be tolerated, not celebrated. It left us vulnerable to accusations of divided allegiance. We knew that although people could be tolerant of a biracial in the black community, we weren’t about to celebrate one fourth black,” Angela said.
“When whites know I’m half black they apply a stereotype. You’re saying the same is true if you don’t have enough black like your cousin Ellen?” Eunice asked.
“I know. Eunice I’ve spent a lifetime in this stuff. Don’t let me bring you down. It won’t help us now but there’ll come a generation where the world will be mixed enough for biases to melt away. I believe that is where the Promised Land is. No race or religion wars. Until then we’ve got to walk our walk. We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Angela said.
It was true, American culture gave carte blanche to those considered appealing and sexy. Beauty Queen Vanessa Williams was living proof. Amid her pageant controversy circa 1982 no one seemed to give two shits about what color she was. The public was more interested in the scandalous nature of nude photos and the morality of a slutty sex kitten. The big story only underlined how friggin’ beautiful she was. Voila her racial identity was eclipsed. Ever since then there’s been countless beauties accepted on looks alone.
“But for regular brothers and sisters skin shades completely make a difference. Just like shade levels on window blinds. I just got new ones in my apartment. You can choose between level 1 which lets in the most light and level 10 which lets in the least. Level 1 revealing what’s inside while level 10 hides you and makes you less likely to let people in,” Angela said.
To be less ashamed or more ashamed based on the level of light and dark was a terrible thing. Eunice decided that day her ambition in life was to fight for freedom and social justice.
In grade 10 Sociology with Mrs. Gates they learned racism from an intellectual perspective removing some of the fiery emotion they experienced on the street.
Gates lectured in an old fashioned professor’s style, “Experts saw racism as socially constructed, which meant they knew race wasn’t real biologically. They couldn’t simply change what they wanted race to mean or ignore it,” she said, referring to a binder bursting with articles which she passed around.
“Take a look at the classic stereotype of mulatto where a deeply troubled characters stumbled through life in racially tortured turmoil. Were they black? Were they white? Why weren’t they accepted?” she asked the class.
Hands went up.
“Maybe they weren’t trusted.”
“There minority was visibly obvious.”
“They had no self-esteem becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Or okay, punching bags!”
“They were martyrs all because Mommy and Daddy didn’t stick to their own kind.”
“Although these characters lived tragic lives, they were praised as an exotic mix and somehow revered as being better than plain ole black,” Mrs. Gates said, knowledgably modern which contradicted her eccentric old time cat glasses with neck chain.
Eunice put her hand up.
“You know I read somewhere there were labels for the levels of concentration of African blood! Is that true?” Eunice asked.
“It must have been a slow news day when scholars and scientists spent time on nomenclature. The words mixed and biracial were remixed versions of terms like: mulatto, quadroon, quadricepts, octoroon, meameloucs. All words to classify amounts of blackness,” Gates said.
Drops of blood! Eunice boiled at the fact there were labels for the number of drops of blackness in her body.
“Okay folks I need you to brace yourself for the origin of the word mulatto. It was derived from the mating of a donkey and a horse, which created a mule and mules were sterile,” Mrs. Gates said.
This dropped a bomb on the class who burst into uproarious side discussions.
Mrs. Gates liked to get the class active, “You all will get sick of my voice and I need a rest for talking!” she assigned a weekly oral presentation. The boys thought she was lazy and cruel but Eunice didn’t mind after the first one. The first one was personal!
Eunice had to think about what she would discuss for the presentation. She spent her early school years hiding her white mother. She carried guilt in her heart for being often relieved when Martha was hidden away with symptoms of her illness so she didn’t need to make excuses for her. The truth was she didn’t want her friends reminded or focused on her white roots.
Eunice had prepared her first high school oral speech with care, “My father is black American and my mother, a white Canadian. I never identified as biracial, which is a term that didn’t exist when I was born. Even today, biracial is not a legal racial identity; it’s a pop-culture identification. It’s a way for people to separate themselves from African Americans, a way of saying, ’I’m better than that,” Eunice said.
“Thank you Eunice. Class I want to point out that Eunice’s life experience has given her a natural expertise from a blended race perspective. It’s important that we keep connected to our experiences to see where we can use them positively.
A few weeks later Eunice wanted Angela’s opinion on her next assignment, “Auntie, here’s a fabulous excerpt from my essay for Sociology class,” Eunice read her latest work.
I’m Eunice Johnston, My father is black and my mother is white. I identify as African American. I have experienced being biracial in Montgomery. As someone who has endured persistent racism via name calling, threatening and even spitting.
I don’t believe I have ever been considered half white. I personally do not think about my lineage and have never had racial-identity issues myself. It is only placed on me in social situations, school, the mall, restaurants.
Historically, there was tragedy in the lives of light skinned black women as well as dark skinned black women. The tragedy was not that they were black or had “Negro blood,” although whites saw that as a tragedy. Rather, the way race was used to limit their opportunities. There is more tolerance of interracial marriage pop culture but here on the frontlines in Montgomery, as a mixed daughter, I see people’s reactions nearly every day, positive and negative.
And that’s where I got to. What do you think?” Eunice asked.
“You’re one helluva girl you know that? I swear in my day we had to fight for all that you wrote there. It makes me feel good knowing that fighting for the right thing is always worth it,” Angela said, her eyes welled up. “It gives me chills to hear you’ve captured an aspect of race that was also true when I was a girl.”
“Thank you. I feel like asking them if they think I woke up saying, ‘do I want to be black or white today?’” Eunice said.
Eunice could sometimes pass whiter without trying to. Purposely pass if she changed her speech affectations using a quasi-brit accent. She turned it into a game.
“I wonder what white privileged kids my age think about?” Eunice laughed.
Eunice thought of how she could use this knowledge with her parent’s friends. She could turn up the dial on urban black detection by matching a visitor’s linguistic style. When she failed at matching their style, she could tell by the look on their face they was perturbed. Then they would ask the prying questions Eunice was tired of answering. If Martha was present all bets were off because they would figure her out. They smiled with a twinkle in the eye, oh I get it, relieved they could classify her as mixed.
“Just like in To Sir with Love we all bleed red child. It’s the idea that the self is not a possession of the actor but what the audience places upon the actor. Angela said.
“I can see that,” Eunice said.
“It’s impression management,” looking at her over reading glasses. “From the colored actor’s perspective ethnicity is both a physical and mental state. Thus mixed-race folks can think they are black racially but depending on how they were raised, might not fit in socially anywhere.
“You have learned this young Eunice. Not like me. I was naïve at first; I thought it couldn’t possibly be like this given my Frankfurt education. But I see what all the protesting was for. I had purpose and faith and I still do,” Angela said.
With racial fatigue, Eunice wondered when Mrs. Gates would cover topics about love, marriage and sex education.
Eunice’s beliefs were challenged by film history and how movies reflected a society’s perspective at a specific time. Miss Jones was young, hip and one of the most beloved teachers at school. She was avant garde, artsy and activist-minded plus she herself was intrigued by the subject matter. She gave passionate critiques of race films like Within our Gates. Eunice was surprised a black produced silent movie existed from 1920.
They learned how the burning cross imagery wasn’t actually an original idea of those sheet wearing fools’ but a product of Hollywood. It was life imitating art.
“The first epic movie Birth of a Nation in 1915,” Miss Jones said, “it was arguably the most racist movie ever produced in the United States. Originally called The Clansmen it’s a 3-hour plus Civil War epic that glorifies the klan and promotes every black stereotype as caricatured mammies, sambos, darkies and brutes. The villain is a black power hungry sex-obsessed criminal who lusts after white women,” Miss Jones’ arms waved passionately as she spoke.
With mainly black classmates, Eunice feared jumping into discussions, self-conscious others saw her lightness countering her opinion and dismiss her.
She might catch someone jerking their eyes away or glaring, Puleeeeze, you’re the sorriest looking black girl I ever saw! She wanted to blurt out, “My daddy’s 100% African American. I’m not stealing your experience! Besides, she thought stating her race, religion or orientation was ludicrous.
Perhaps they didn’t know if it was safe to make fun of whites in front of her. While she knew complexion made it unlikely she’d be unjustly targeted by police, who’s to say her Georgia cousins weren’t? The day to day race experience probably made her commitment to injustice even stronger.
“Miss Jones, why didn’t the government pull the movie?” Eunice asked.
“Great question Eunice. The stock answer is we live in a country and world that perceives dark skin as evil, threatening, foreign, exotified, and objectified. With so many answers I could tell you, I’ll boil it down to just one. The film was screened at the White House by the sitting president so you can draw your own conclusions,” Miss Jones said.
Whites would welcome her with trepidation as they’d be afraid they’d need to filter themselves. All in all it made her feel as if she lived in a plastic world.
At least violence had truth in it.