In Honor of Father’s Day: Re-Post of “Is Poppy A Black American?”

18 Jun

Okay, today is two-for-one day–two posts for the price of one!  When I heard of Rodney King’s passing, I had to acknowledge this loss with a post.  I had alreadyplanned on posting the below piece in honor of Father’s Day, so I hope some newer readers enjoy it.

This piece was first written when my older daughter, Leni, was seven years younger than she is now.  She now has a more formed opinion about her mother’s obsession with race relations that I’m sure will appear in a future

“Mommy, I have a secret to tell you,” my then, five-year old daughter Leni exclaimed, as we sat eating lunch in a Pennsylvania pub-style restaurant.

We were on a summer road trip, traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma where we had lived for several years, to my home state of Connecticut. Leni and her little sister Darla were going to visit their grandpa, their “Poppy.”

Cupping her hand over my ear, Leni whispered…

“Is Poppy a Black American?”

Leni’s secrets were often questions, like, “Mommy, is oh yeah a bad word?”

“Why do you think that about Poppy?” I laughed, but not too hard so she wouldn’t think I was laughing at her. “Is it because of his hair?”

My father has short, curly brown, and now graying, hair. In the 1970’s he was known for his large, moppish Jewfro.

“No, his skin,” Leni answered, with conviction.

My father is white. He has dark hair and brown eyes, but I never thought of his skin as dark and swarthy.

“Well, Leni, Poppy is white, like me. He’s my father,” I answered, holding her hands in mine.

While I sat there mystified by her question, Leni had already lost interest in the topic and ran back to her seat to take another bite of hot dog. But I wasn’t done thinking about our little conversation. Could it be Leni would develop the same interest, or what recently feels is more like an obsession, that I have with connecting with black people?

Leni was at an age where she noticed that people had different skin colors. Her public school had a student body that was over 50% black. Aside from her direct experiences with diversity, I wanted to know if Leni wondered why there were so many black people or references to black culture in her Mommy’s life.

She’d ask questions like, “What color is she?” if I talked about a new friend I’d met.

“Is she brown-skinned or white?” she’d ask.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” she answered, as if I could expect my five-year old to articulate exactly why she wanted to know, and how she processed race.

When driving in my car, Leni liked to sing along to the Black-Eyed Peas, Prince, and Alicia Keys Cd’s that revolved in my car stereo. There was a phase when she’d request to hear the Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross duet, You’re a Special Part of Me, over and over again. When I volunteered in Tulsa at a local library’s African American Resource Center, Leni would sometimes come with me.

During Black History month that same year, Leni’s pre-kindergarten teacher talked to her class about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s when I heard her start to use the term, “Black American.”

“I need to bring in a picture of a Black American to school,” Leni said.

And not like I was trying to influence her as a parent or anything, but I remembered when I was a young girl, I had read a biography on the singer, Marian Anderson. I had been enchanted with her and her struggle to overcome the racist attitudes toward blacks during her time. That she persevered and succeeded by becoming a famous singer who got to perform at the White House made my heart melt.

I brought up her name to Leni, while I also thought of some contemporary “Black Americans” that she might find inspiring. But Leni wasn’t interested in Russell Simmons like I was—not as gushy about this role model for me—a true entrepreneur, a fashion and music mogul, a philanthropist. She didn’t care that Russell was often called the godfather of hip-hop music for introducing the world to the groundbreaking sound of rap music with artists like Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys. She couldn’t get into who Madame C.J. Walker was, the early 20th century entrepreneur of black hair care products, who was also a philanthropist. And, she didn’t seem impressed when I mentioned Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for United States President. Once I started sounding like a history lesson, she became disinterested.

So, Marian Anderson it was. Leni and I found a biography and photo of her on the Internet. Leni pasted the photo onto pink construction paper and decorated it with a colorful crayon border of squiggles and hearts. Then we lucked out. There were postage stamps of Marian Anderson out for Black History Month, which Leni brought in with her framed photo. I think that Marian Anderson made an impression on Leni too, because, a year later, she still had a place taped on our refrigerator.

Yet, the next day when we brought Leni’s project to school, I felt humiliated when I walked down the hallway and saw at least four other posters of Marian Anderson, along with the perennially popular George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., and Harriet Tubman. There were a few contemporary athletes and a few Oprah’s sprinkled in for good measure. Aha, I thought. Here are the few, acceptable recycled images of Black Americans we were fed in History class, while so many other valuable African-American contributors to our history and culture are passed over in lieu of sports, entertainment and hip-hop figures, as if they were the only faces of black America, the only black people that mattered.

As for Leni, she had already found her own truth.

As we pulled into the driveway of my father’s house in Winsted, Connecticut on that summer road trip that started with Leni’s secret question, I asked her, “Well, Leni, are you going to ask Poppy if he’s a Black American?”

“No,” answered back my weary little road warrior.

“Why not?” I begged to know.

“Because, I already know” she said, matter-of-factly. “He is.”

 

2 Responses to “In Honor of Father’s Day: Re-Post of “Is Poppy A Black American?””

  1. Sherry Gordon October 13, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, Wendy Jane! What a fantabulous blog post article this is of yours, as well as your other brilliant, inspiring, and stupendous ones! What a wonderful and adorable story, Wendy Jane! I love how Leni thought her grandfather is a Black American! She was so adorable! This is so adorable of being and such an adorable story! I think it makes perfect sense how Leni had questions about her grandfather’s race. As a black woman I have wondered about my own family, in particular my late mother. My maternal grandmother was light-complexioned. Sometimes I wondered about all of her ancestry like how Leni wondered about her grandfather. I don’t know who my biological maternal grandfather is due to my late grandmother’s problematic behavior with many men. Mother was so ashamed over all of this-not knowing who her biological father was for sure and all of the rumors about different men as possibilities, and she had such shame and rage over how my grandmother acted. Mother also was light-complexioned. I look like Mother but I am darker-skinned like my father. My eldest brother, Joe, is medium-complexioned. He is a cross between our father and our mother. Next oldest brother, Tony, is dark-complexioned like our father. Often when my maternal grandmother and Mother would wear short, black haired wigs, some people would think that they were Chinese. Sometimes people wondered what race they were, A couple of kids in school growing up thought that Mother was white. Mother would sometimes say and then refuse to discuss further that we had white ancestors in our family but not to tell anyone. When I was in seventh grade I thought I overheard her tell my father that her father was white, but she would absolutely refuse to talk about it. I wonder if my late mother was a closet biracial person?

    When I was growing up I would look at Mother and I wondered what was all of her ancestry as well, just like darling Leni wondered about her grandfather. Recently, I submitted my DNA sample to http://www.23andme.com. The results said that I am 12% white European. This makes me wonder even more about the gossip I’d barely hear, and then Mother would suddenly get very tight-lipped about. My paternal great-grandfather was Native American from the Blackfeet tribe and he was partnered with my black/African-American great-grandmother. Often as a toddler, I wondered why my paternal grandfather’s hair was so straight and not like an afro but I was harshly told not to keep asking about his hair. My father and father’s relatives have provided very little information about Great-Grandfather. They were very secretive. We received our last name Gordon from Native American Blackfeet Great-Grandfather. I think this surname was given to him and that he might have been in a residential school but I wish I knew more for certain.

    Wendy Jane, I so loved this adorable story about darling Leni and how she thought her grandfather was a Black American. This fantastic and fabulous story sparked and inspired my thinking about the mysterious racial history and heritages of my own family. Wendy Jane, you are such a brilliant wordsmith! I love your brilliant and magnificent blog post articles and other writings a whole bunch! You provide me such great joy and blessings, and your cool and fantabulous writings! You seem like such a spiritual woman, and you help me to grow as a spiritual person who loves our Good God! Please have a very nice, special, and a very blessed rest of your day, my sweet white and Jewish friend and sister, Wendy Jane! I am so eternally blessed to have you as my friend and sister, and to have found you and your wonderful website, Wendy Jane!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely Always,

    Your lesbian black sister in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane October 25, 2014 at 11:50 am #

      Hi Sherry,

      I’m sorry it took a while for me to respond to this comment. I’m glad you liked the post–I’ll admit it’s one of my favorites.:)

      It was really fascinating for me to read about your heritage, and the questioning of your mother’s race. I loved how you described in detail the skin tones of your siblings, and your parents and grandparents, and especially how when your mother and grandmother wore short, black wigs, that sometimes people thought they were Chinese. And, it sounds like it was a mystery that you were/are searching for answers for, and wow, that you looked up your ancestry and it said you were 12% white European, It goes to show that race is just skin tone that really should have no significance in defining or categorizing us, and we are all so mixed in terms of heritage, race and ethnicity, and as time goes on, we will continue to blend even more, and perhaps those systems that white people created to categorize race, and set up systems of oppression and discrimination based on that can be chipped away at, knocked down, and done away with. But, of course, we need to be taking action right now in other ways to knock those systems down.

      Thanks so much for sharing all of this with me and WJSS readers.

      Warmly,
      Wendy Jane

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