Off-White Like Me
On a cross-country trip in the summer of 1957, my family stopped in Oklahoma City. There, my father asked a policeman for directions to the state capitol. The officer began to offer them, when I leaned forward from the back seat. Suddenly the policeman’s demeanor changed. A scowl crossed his face as he asked my parents what they were doing in town and how long they planned to stay. Not immediately sensing his hostility, they volunteered that they were tourists and were stopping overnight. He then brusquely ordered them to “move on!” without directing them to the capitol. My parents were flabbergasted. They had no idea what had inspired his shift in attitude. But I did. All 10 years of me had just discovered what it was like to have pure racism staring you in the face.
My father was white. My mother, half-black. She wore makeup to cover her light, rather blotchy complexion, so her race wasn’t always apparent. I was darker-hued, and, therefore, as I leaned up into the light of the car that day, unmistakable.
Race was rarely discussed in my family. Growing up in the New York suburb of Flushing, Queens, I had the luck to live in an integrated neighborhood. People of different religions and ethnicities co-existed all around me. My favorite movie was The Thief of Bagdad,whose star, Sabu, looked, I thought, quite a bit like me. And wasn’t that terrific? He rode a magic carpet. All the neighborhood kids liked him, and practically all of them liked me too. Should the N word be uttered by some pintsize lout, it was treated as evidence of “bad parents.” The cop in Oklahoma was a different story. His face, a threat and a promise of “more where that came from,” were attitudes held outside my becalmed suburban bubble. America does judge a book by its cover. “Biracial”? Tell it to that cop. I’m black.
Consequently, I wasn’t surprised when, 33 years later here in Los Angeles, a pair of police officers who had “mistaken” me for a much shorter, darker man handcuffed me and pulled me off a bus, threw me to the ground and placed a revolver against my head.
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I mentioned the bus incident in a 2004 article for this publication, subtitled “Confessions of a post-Negro.” In it, I referenced “a brilliant young Democrat named Barack Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya.” Off-white like me, he had just given the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Last year, in Obama’s early run for the presidency, there was talk that he wasn’t black enough for African-American voters. Now, of course, with the endless cable-news replays of the incendiary remarks by Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the Senator’s suavely defensive response, we’ve seen an onslaught of editorial bloviation that often centers on the annoyance some whites feel at being reminded of slavery. Biracial? Tell it to the hosts of Fox and Friends. Obama is black.
And in our never-to-be-postracial America, being black is no advantage, regardless of what Geraldine Ferraro says. Even our latest literary fraud Margaret Seltzer knows this. While there has been much pearl-clutching over Seltzer’s fake memoir, in which the white Sherman Oaks–raised author claims she grew up in a black South L.A. foster family and became a gang drug runner, scant attention has been paid to the most interesting aspect of the con — that she elected to pass herself off as Native American rather than African-American. For those familiar with mixed-race peoples, particularly African-Americans of “high yellow” complexion, she might well have tried that ruse. Maybe she disdained the “tragic mulatto” persona — Julie LaVerne in Show Boat or Sarah Jane in Imitation of Life — because she thought it out of date. If her lies hadn’t been uncovered, Seltzer was surely destined for Oprah — Winfrey herself a prime example of cultural “passing” in that she began life as a lower-class black woman who has become not only a success but the very embodiment of white, middle-class-female aspirations.
But the figure who haunts cultural gambling dens, where the race card is played most tellingly, hails from a half-century ago.
Anatole Broyard, book critic for The New York Times and one of the most-talked-about intellectuals of the post–World War II period, was born in 1920 and died in 1990. Upon his death, the long-whispered rumor that he was a black man passing for white burst forth as fact. The light-skinned issue of light-skinned parents, Broyard hid his lineage and became what black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called“a virtuoso of ambiguity and equivocation.”
In a piece he wrote for Commentary in 1950 titled “Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro,” Broyard said his subject “is not only estranged from whites, he is also estranged from his own group and from himself. Since his companions are a mirror in which he sees himself as ugly, he must reject them; and since his own self is mainly a tension between an accusation and a denial, he can hardly find it, much less live in it. . . He is adrift without a role in a world predicated on roles.”
Broyard was of course talking about himself. Many were fooled. Some were not, including jazz legend Charlie Parker, who reportedly told a friend, “He’s one of us, but he doesn’t want to admit he’s one of us.”
Others wanted to be one of him: Suave, erudite, an inveterate ladies’ man, Broyard became such a legendary Greenwich Village figure that novelists Chandler Brossard — in Who Walk in Darkness — and William Gaddis — in The Recognitions — created characters inspired by him.
Broyard himself longed to be a novelist. But according to Gates, for Broyard “race loomed larger in his life because it was unacknowledged... he couldn’t put it behind him because he had put it beneath him.” Moreover, “he wanted to be appreciated not for being black but for being a writer, even though his pretending not to be black was stopping him from writing.” In short, Broyard was the male intellectual version of the tragic mulatto. But he didn’t merely “pass.” He attacked James Baldwin, befriended segregation-apologist Ernest van den Haag, and even had a plaster “Negro jockey” on the front lawn of his Connecticut home.
Broyard’s story reminds me of the “Frank Joins the Club” episode of the great, short-lived ’80s TV series Frank’s Place, created by Hugh Wilson and starring Tim Reid as an upper-middle-class black man who discovers he’s inherited a restaurant in New Orleans. Filled with sharp writing, smart direction and a brilliant cast, one of the best episodes was written by noted playwright Samm-Art Williams. In it, Frank is approached to join a local men’s organization called the Capital C Club. The “C,” he learns, stands for Creole, and the members are light-skinned blacks. As Frank’s deliciously feisty waitress Anna-May explains, the test for entrance is a brown paper bag. Anyone darker than the bag doesn’t get in — surely Frank wouldn’t pass. But the club member sponsoring Frank is seeking to change the club’s ways. This doesn’t impress Frank. After a life in which he was “the only black” chosen for one thing or another, Frank explains, “I’m not going to be the only black member of an all-black club.”
Would Anatole Broyard have become a member of the Capital C Club? Certainly not — it would have given him away. Barack Obama could have passed. Me? Never.
In Sunday’s New York Times, journalist Peggy Orenstein wrote, “Obama, as the first biracial candidate, symbolizes something else too: the future of race in this country, the paradigm and paradox of its simultaneous intransigence and disappearance.”
I get the “intransigence” part, Peggy. “Disappearance”? No way.
That’s why I’m voting for Sabu.