I'd never seen my mother so afraid.
"Promise me," she pleaded, "you won't tell anyone until after I die. How will I hold my head up with my friends?"
For two years, I'd waited for the right moment to confront my mother with the shocking discovery I made in 1995 while scrolling through the 1900 Louisiana census records. In the records, my mother's father, Azemar Frederic of New Orleans, and his entire family were designated black.
The discovery had left me reeling, confused and in need of answers. My sense of white identity had been shattered.
My mother's visit to my home in Illinois seemed like the right moment. This was not a conversation I wanted to have on the phone.
But my mother's fearful plea for secrecy only added to my confusion about my racial identity. As did her birth certificate that I obtained from the state of Louisiana, which listed her race as "col" (coloured), and a 1940 Louisiana census record, which listed my mother, Alvera Frederic, as Neg/Negro, working in a tea shop in New Orleans. Four years later, she moved north and married my white father.
Reluctantly, I agreed to keep my mother's secret. For 17 years I told no one, except my husband, my two children and two close friends that my mother was passing as white. It was the longest and most difficult secret I'd ever held.
My mother's pale, olive skin and European features appeared to belie the government documents defining her as African American, allowing her to escape that public designation for most of her adult life.
In the silence of those 17 years, I tried to break through my mother's wall of silence. But every time I tried, she politely but firmly changed the subject. Her refusal to talk about her mixed race only fuelled my curiosity. How had she deceived my racist white father? Why was she so fearful and ashamed of her black heritage?
Using my skills as a seasoned mystery author, I started sifting through the details of her life, looking for clues that would help me understand her. But this real-life mystery only intensified as I tried to sort truth from fiction.
Search for answers yields more questions
My mother had always told me that she was reluctant to visit her family of origin in New Orleans because she hadn't been raised by either parent and there were just too many sad memories. Now I wondered if she was really just afraid that if we visited we'd meet family members who were not passably white? On several occasions her mother and her sister visited us in Ohio. But they appeared white and no one hinted otherwise. Did her brother never visit us because he didn't appear white?
I wondered now why she'd never been able to show me photographs of my grandfather growing up. Was it because he was visibly black? And could my mother's avoidance of the sun be attributed to her fear that her skin would darken too much? Then there was her obsession with makeup, even wearing makeup to bed.
Piecing her life together, I marvelled at how she endured the racism of living in the predominantly white suburb of Parma, Ohio, with a racist husband. My father's racism was a reflection of his upbringing in a close-knit Cleveland ethnic neighbourhood. Though he never used the N-word, he was still vocal about his bigotry, referring to African-Americans using other racial slurs, deriding blacks for what he perceived as their lack of ambition and criminality. Unknowingly deriding his wife, my mother.
My mother reprimanded him with little vigour. Was she afraid of bringing too much attention to the race issue? Did his racist remarks beat on her like a hard, cold rain? Or had she convinced herself that she deserved it for the lie that sat at the heart of their marriage?
In escaping the Jim Crow south, coming north and marrying my white father, she must have thought gaining white privilege was worth the price of losing family ties and her authentic self. The irony was that in gaining white privilege, in passing for white, the onslaught of racism was splayed open to her. Its ugly face could now be shared with her, a "white" woman who would understand and possibly agree.
Every day she had to live with the paradox of what W.E.B. Du Bois called "two-ness," the ambivalence of people of mixed European and African ancestry. If a mixed-race person is white enough to pass, how does that person deal with the trappings of a racist culture where you're forced to choose a side?
As if in self-defence or maybe retaliation for my father's racism, she imbued me with a moral imperative to respect all people regardless of their color. A gifted storyteller, she related stories of New Orleans and the bigotry she witnessed. As a child I listened with rapt attention to the story of the old black woman on Canal Street burdened with packages who didn't move off the sidewalk for a white man. He shoved her aside like so much trash and called her the n-word.
"That wasn't right," my mother told me. "But that's how it was in New Orleans back then."
Now I understood the clues concealed in that story. That she was hinting at her hidden self or maybe preparing me to accept the part of her she'd left behind in New Orleans and her reason for doing that.
The mystery, solved
After my mother's death in 2014 I was freed of my vow. In what can only be called serendipity, I was presented with an opportunity to solve the uncertainly of my racial heritage. PBS's Genealogy Roadshow was looking for family mysteries related to New Orleans. I appeared on the show in January 2015.
Three days later, my mother's family found me. My "new" Frederic family welcomed me with generosity and love, neither judging my mother nor rejecting me. At the welcome home party in New Orleans, I met my new uncle, two aunts, and slews of cousins. We were every shade of skin from darkest ebony to whitest white and all the shades in between. Suddenly, I was part of a multiracial family.
Armed with Genealogy Roadshow's confirmation of my racial heritage and wanting to understand that heritage, I traced the Frederic family back to 18th-century Louisiana. I discovered slave owners, enslaved women, and free people of color. Through the centuries I saw how shifting racial laws had affected my family, boxing them into racial categories that hindered them. My redemptive journey became the basis for my book, White Like Her: My Family's Story of Race and Racial Passing.
I suspect there are many white Americans who are unaware of their own mixed-race heritage. Our country's hidden history of racial mixing is embedded in many Americans' DNA whether they know it or not, belying the notion of racial certainty. It's embedded in my DNA, which is 9 per cent African. But although I could check "other" or "multiracial" when asked my race on a form, I still identify as a white woman. At this late point, it would be disingenuous of me to claim any other identity. I've enjoyed white privilege my entire life.
I will never forget my mother's haunted look as she said, "How will I hold my head up with my friends?" I bear no rancour toward her for not telling me of her mixed-race heritage. I feel only sorrow that, even after I knew, she was unable to share with me her feelings about who she really was and the life she had lived. Even so, I find solace and pride in finally knowing the truth of my own heritage and the mixed-race family of which I am a part.
Gail Lukasik is the author of White Like Her: My Family's Story of Race and Racial Passing, four mystery novels and more. She lives in Illinois with her husband.