To live in one world or two

Biracial adults recall their childhood struggle for sense of identity


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

Madi Jackson's father didn't encourage her to explore her black identity.

David Matthews hid behind his looks in an attempt to live life as a Jew.

And Rain Pryor's Jewish mom went so far as to don a blond afro wig to help her daughter love her big, kinky hair.

These are stories that locally have sparked a discussion about what it's like to grow up biracial.

Jackson, a dancer with Full Circle Dance Company, recently choreographed and performed with other dancers a piece titled "Borders Uncrossed," which drew upon her experience of growing up as a biracial child (black father, white mother) without much exposure to black people.

The dance's movements - performed by black and white dancers in February at the Baltimore Museum of Art - confronted issues of black self-hatred, the divisive attitudes of blacks and whites, and the identity struggle of biracial children.

Jackson's parents divorced when she was 5, and she and her brother lived with their father, who, in an effort to put them in the best possible schools, isolated them from the black community and didn't take them around black relatives.

"I never got the history of what it was like to be African-American," says Jackson, now 33. "He removed us from an important part of what we were growing up."

While she thought of herself as black, Jackson says she related better to white people, and her friends were white.

And there were few, if any, discussions at home about what it meant to be biracial or black, she says.

In February, Matthews, 39, released the book Ace of Spades, which is a memoir of his life as a biracial child growing up in Baltimore.

His African-American father and grandfather were editors at the Baltimore Afro American newspaper. His mother, who left the family when Matthews was an infant, was Jewish.

Matthews says in his book that he decided to pass for white at age 9 because his light complexion and dark hair made him look, he thought, like a Jewish boy - and that being black presented challenges he didn't want to face.

As children, Jackson and Matthews were never encouraged to learn about their black heritage, but Pryor says she was.

Her mother's donning one day of a blond afro was part of a bigger lesson.

"She did it to prove a point - that black was beautiful and that my hair was beautiful," says Pryor of that day in her childhood. Her mother also taught her about early black filmmakers such as Oscar Michaud and insisted she read about Malcolm X.

In 2004 and 2005, Pryor staged a one-woman show, "Fried Chicken and Latkes," about her experience growing up as the black and Jewish daughter of comedian Richard Pryor. Last year, she also published a memoir, Jokes My Father Never Told Me.

Helping biracial children learn about their heritage and navigate two worlds is a continuing process, says Janie Ward, a professor of education and Africana studies at Simmons College in Boston and author of The Skin We're In: Teaching Our Teens to be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart, and Spiritually Connected (The Free Press).

"It has to be a conscious and deliberate effort," Ward says. "You can't just sort of do it `when I get around to it' or `when I feel good about it' or `when I have the perfect words' - it has to be an ongoing conversation."

When Matthews' family moved from Adelphi to Baltimore, he was assaulted with the question "What are you?" by his new classmates - both black and white.

The question of race and identity hadn't been addressed in a meaningful way at Matthews' home, and when he compared the lives of whites on TV to those of the blacks in his poor Baltimore neighborhood, the message was that "white is better," he says.

His appearance allowed him to pass as white - and for years he went that route. But during the process of writing his book, he decided to claim his black heritage.

However, for some biracial children, defining oneself isn't a choice but something that is imposed on them.

Offspring of black and white unions often have problems with the way society identifies them. They are assigned a specific color based on the way they look, says John Youngblood, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam who studies marginalized identities and race relations.

He is biracial - his mother is white and his father is black.

"When I walk into a room, people see a black man, not a biracial man," says Youngblood, 30.

Youngblood's parents didn't address the identity issues, leaving him confused.

He took baths in milk, hoping it would lighten his skin.

"I was going to shave my head so you couldn't see the kinks and curls," he said.

For years, he only dated whites. "Biracial children usually choose one identity or another, and it's usually based on where you are accepted," says Youngblood, who grew up in a tiny, mostly white East Texas town.

He only embraced his black identity after spending time in California with a diverse group of people.

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