Hiding In Plain Sight

It took Baltimore native and author David Matthews a long time to accept the race his face denied

March 01, 2007|By Philana Patterson | Philana Patterson,Special to The Sun

NEW YORK — NEW YORK-- --David Matthews holds court before 70-or-so onlookers in the dimly lit side room of a Manhattan pub. It's standing room only.

Matthews is the main attraction at the Half King's bar and restaurant authors' series and has just finished reading a selection from his new memoir, Ace of Spades, a telling personal journey of what it is like to be black and Jewish in Baltimore.

He fields a litany of questions from the audience. Just as he thinks he's wrapping up, a woman asks how he identifies racially today.

Matthews looks up with an easy smile and says he identifies as black because "the brothers need me more."

With a white Jewish mother and a light-skinned African-American father, Matthews' complexion was just fair enough and his dark brown curls were just loose enough that he could pass for white. At 9 years old, he made the decision to do just that.

In Ace of Spades (Henry Holt), which was released last month, Matthews reveals the pain of his mother departing when he was just an infant and the compounded sense of loss when his father's girlfriend, Jan -- a nurturing figure -- who was also white, left. His father hooked up with another white woman, "Karen" -- some names were changed -- who abused Matthews. To his relief, she eventually left.

Later, Matthews paints an anxious picture of his first day at Mount Royal Middle School, where he enrolled after he and his father left Adelphi to move to Baltimore's Bolton Hill neighborhood. He was surrounded by a throng of students and confronted with the question: "What are you?"

His childhood and adolescence in Baltimore is punctuated by observations of white children being forced off their bikes by thieving black kids; of his being mugged by a group of black girls; and of a near-miss of a potentially violent outcome when the brother of a white girl with whom he was involved questioned his racial makeup.

On the surface, it's difficult to understand how Matthews would deny being black. His grandmother, Mae Jones Townsend, the daughter of a black woman raped by a white man, moved from Newport, R.I., to Baltimore and took a room with a respected black couple. One of their sons went on to become a doctor; the other, Thurgood Marshall, became a Supreme Court justice.

Townsend got a job at The Sun as a society reporter in the 1920s, but promptly quit when she discovered the paper didn't employ blacks. She, like her grandson, could pass for white, but she elected not to.

Townsend went on to work at the black-owned Afro American where she met Ralph Matthews Sr., who eventually became managing editor for most of the newspaper's East Coast operations. They married, and their son, Ralph Matthews Jr., David Matthews' father, followed in his parents' footsteps working as a journalist, in time taking the managing editor job at Baltimore's Afro American in 1977. His father's friends included jazz great Miles Davis and civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Still, David Matthews rejected his black roots and got lost in shiny, tree-lined television sitcoms that presented a stark contrast to crumbling Bolton Hill.

His ideas of being black were shaped by his school experience and at the side of his grandmother, with whom he spent hours watching TV. During the news, when a black person was being led away in shackles, he recalls her saying, "Look at that one, as black as the ace of spades," or, "Oh no. It's one of us."

Navigating childhood

He made one friend, R. Stefan Templeton, who was biracial but more identifiably black, and split his time between Templeton and white peers.

He took part in a cross-burning experiment in a friend's backyard, seemingly to prove his hate for black people, and spent enough time with his white friends to hear the things they said when they didn't think black people were present. "It was all conscious," Matthews says. "It was like preparing for a role every single day."

Like Matthews, Templeton had a white mother and black father. But Templeton's mother was Norwegian, and he benefited from summers in Europe with her as well as from his father's efforts to help him navigate the world as a biracial male. Whereas Matthews was an introspective loner, Templeton was a tough kid whose father taught him not to take any flak.

"We discussed these issues," says Templeton, 39, who now works as a security consultant for humanitarian organizations and is married with a 14-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

"David's dad wasn't as involved with him on that level. I remember [my father] teaching me the black power handshake when I was 5."

Matthews is currently working on a proposal for his second book, which is based on the life and work of Templeton.

Matthews' father, now 80 and living in College Park, says he was somewhat aware that his son was navigating two worlds. He is elated about his son's success.

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