Monday, August 1, 2011

Leaving Mulatto Heaven

As a family, we were having a stellar evening.  We’d finished dinner by 6 p.m., and had walked to a new neighborhood café for gelato, fulfilling to Riley our promise of an ice cream night.  Finding every table occupied, we decided to enjoy our confections at a nearby park.  It was super cute to see Aria practically shove her face in the cup of tiramisu and vanilla gelato she and I shared, and to see Riley try to keep from spilling his melted “soup.” After we had finished, we decided to let the kids run off their sugar at the Murray School playground. 

After about ten minutes, however, Riley quickly became tired of his favorite seesaw and wanted to go to the playground across the street from our house.  Once we’d decided to leave, John and Riley ran up ahead to look at a mosaic of the cosmos above the school entrance.  I carried Aria to the same spot, and there she was.

My heart sank.

She was an African-American girl of about fourteen with obvious learning issues.  She had demonstrated her mental shortcomings on more than one occasion by asking obvious questions, like was the stroller I had just been pushing mine and why wasn’t I bringing it down the flight of steps leading to the daycare entrance (my words not hers). She lived near the in-home daycare the kids attended, and I saw her every now and then in the afternoon at pick-up time.  I had never seen her with a parent or guardian figure, only with friends.  Tonight, at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, she was alone, unless you counted the phone she kept checking.  She had grown up, and out, quite a bit since the last time I'd seen her.  Puberty was in full force! She wore a pair of not quite Daisy Dukes and a v-neck t-shirt that gave everyone an eyeful of her décolletage. 

"That yo' baby?" she asked.

I knew just what she was getting at.  "Yes."

"Um, how come I ain't neva seen you wid her, only wid him?" She gestured over at Riley, sitting in the stroller, John holding the handle.

"Well, she's my baby."  I don't know what was keeping me from saying "Gotta go, see you later."  I didn't know why I was letting this pain-in-the-ass girl make me uncomfortable.  Was it that I didn't want to be rude to a child with a glaring learning disability?  Or was it because I knew she was asking me something I'd be dealing with often enough as the mother of mixed race kids, and I needed to train myself how to give matter-of-fact answers without becoming flustered or enraged? 

"But, how come I see you wid him, but not wid her?" she repeated.  

I didn't know what she wanted me to say.  Maybe I should have pulled her aside and confided in her that I liked to kidnap light skinned babies.  I walked away toward John and Riley. 

"Who da Daddy?" she asked.  Was this girl truly an idiot, was she messing with me, or did she think I let random white men hold on to my kid’s stroller?

I pointed at John, who looked a combination of bored and annoyed, as well as unsure of why I couldn't put the kibosh to this whole exchange.

She followed me.  "I like her hair. She mixed?" she asked.

"Yes." I said, pointing at John, hoping this would end this ludicrous interrogation.  

It did not.

"Who his daddy?" she asked, presumably referring to Riley, sitting unusually calmly in the stroller. 

Oh so now I'm some baby mama who gets knocked up by every white man in town? This had become the most ridiculous and maddening conversation I had ever had. I would’ve been less irritated trying to teach chess to a kitten.  I pointed at John again.  "Okay, bye." I said, and our family walked away.

"What was that all about?" John asked.

"Some stupid girl who lives around the corner from Lucy's." I answered.  "Look at her, with her ass and boobs all hanging out, alone on a Saturday night. That fool'll probably be pregnant in about six minutes."

I was muttering and sputtering like some character on Sanford and Son.

"Whoa," John said, once again taken aback by an after-the-fact caustic rant about someone who had pissed me off.  

As we walked to Butternut playground, John and I discussed what had just happened. I gave John the gist of our "conversation" from the beginning, trying to make sense of where she was coming from.  In her world it was not uncommon for women to have babies with several different men.  Also, she probably didn't know any white people on a personal level, so the idea of someone like me married to someone like John had to be a foreign concept. We discussed the poor schooling and poor parenting that she was a victim of, and how brazen she had been to question an adult that way.   

As annoyed as I was by the girl's ignorance, and as indignant as I was at being lumped in with the baby-mama set, I couldn't help feeling sorry for her.  Just from the little bit I'd knew of her, her home life and social life were severely lacking.  I was sure the evening's attire was not an anomaly, and it did seem possible, if not likely, that she'd be pregnant in a few years.  What would her prospects for success be, let alone those of any child she might have? Was any kind of intervention possible?

I began to realize that the run-in had me so out of sorts because it shook me from my illusion that here in Hyde Park, our family blended in, that no one found us odd, or a curiosity.  Hyde Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country: multi-million dollar homes stand within blocks of Section 8 housing, people with multiple advanced degrees live in close proximity to folks who have barely finished high school, and the neighborhood is home to every race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and creed.  In addition, Hyde Park is ground zero for mixed race families.  We know at least 10 families where one parent is white and the other is African-American, to say nothing of transracial adoptions, gay parents and other racial or ethnic combinations.  I had begun to think of Hyde Park as Mulatto Heaven, a term coined by a friend of a friend at a picnic last summer, a picnic with quite a few mixed-race families in attendance.  (Note: the original speaker of this term is himself half black and half white.) Mulatto Heaven is a perfect description of our ‘hood.  When our children become more aware of race, as is inevitable, the fact that they are Hyde Park residents will have provided them with an upbringing rich with human diversity.  They will be well acquainted with dozens of families who don't conform to the norm - where the parents aren't racially matched.  They might realize how different they are when they are in other parts of Chicago, and of course, in other parts of the country, but Hyde Park will feel like home, like their caramel tower.

Furthermore, it was infuriating to have had my legitimacy as a parent questioned.  Your children, related by blood or adopted, are literally a part of you; to have a line drawn between you and your child is hurtful.  I know it happens not only to parents of mixed race children, but also to the dark-haired/dark-eyed parents of blonde-haired/blue-eyed children (or vice-versa).  I'm sure some people are merely curious, but they have no idea of the pain they create with statements like "S/he doesn't look like you at all."  When I'm at the receiving end of such a statement, I want to go off.  But with my children present, I can't go there.  I don't ever want them to think there is something wrong - that there's a reason to be angry about our different complexions.  So like our dear friend from Seinfeld (pardon the second TV reference), George Costanza, I go home and stew about what I coulda, woulda and shoulda said, and what I'll say next time.  

I've choreographed my response like this.  The next time someone asks, "Is she yours?" I'll pause and give a withering stare. During this pause I'll imagine slapping his/her face and then giving a good shove, think Alexis and Krystle on Dynasty (Damn those TV references again!).  "Do you want to see her birth certificate?" I'll ask.  Then I'll turn on my heel and we'll walk away.  


  1. this post hits very close to home for me. you and i and uncle robby share the nelson skin tone and erik (my partner) is a redhead. our boys are both clearly phenotypically biracial, though in different ways. one is very fair of skin, but with kinky hair, the other darker of skin but with curly "good" hair. we live in san francisco, which is maybe not quite as diverse as hyde park, but pretty close. we live in a neighborhood where no one looks askance at our family and their school is full of kids from families both like and unlike ours and overall it's pretty darn good. then we leave the bubble to visit erik's family out in the hinterlands of northern california and the mierda hits the fan. those folks don't know what to do with me -- dreadlocs down to my waist, east coast no-nonsense accent and attitude -- much less erik and the kids. the funny thing is that the kids speak their reality with no shame, while i weigh the potential consequences in my head. i've heard our youngest tell people who asked who he was there with, "my dads, over there," without batting an eyelash. his being so matter-of-fact about it made the adult asking the question respond in kind. i think that if we can teach our kids that there's nothing weird or "non-traditional" about their family, eventually everyone else will have no choice but to come around. from the sound of it your wee ones are exactly where they should be and you're doing exactly what you should be doing for them to acquire that unshakeable sense of self-rightness that they're going to need in a world that frankly, doesn't yet know what to make of them. eventually it will, but it's going to take uncomfortable moments like the one you had with the mentally challenged teen before it all changes.

  2. Keesha,
    Though there is no comparison to what you are dealing with, I'll share with you my experience in dealing with a divided world. Joe (the hubs) is Jewish & I am Catholic. When Joe & I were dating & engaged, it was tough. I got a lot of crap from my family for marrying outside my faith... and a Jewish guy, that was even worse. Joe got a lot of flack from his family for the same reason. I just didn't understand why this was such a big deal in America in the 21st century. Nonetheless, I was the little shiksa that was ruining their Jewish family, and Joe was basically a sign that I was turning my back on Jesus. Mercifully, things have improved over time. Especially after experiencing this, I knew that I wanted to raise my boys, not just to be "tolerant" of other people's races or religion (mixed as they may be), but to embrace it. I feel that Joe & I are better people because we are in an interfaith marriage. To me, seeing an interfaith family or mixed race family is a sign that the world may not be such a divided place & that there's hope that the future may embrace different races & faiths in a way that we've never known before.
    xoxo, A


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