“When you gonna start having some brown babies, girl?” the old woman asked my friend, a black woman married to a white man. It was the first time I’d heard that expression used in reference to biracial children. The old woman was the wife of black civil rights leader John Perkins. We met her while on a church bus trip that retraced the route taken by the Freedom Riders. They were encouraging words — to me as a biracial person who’d experienced disdain towards all things interracial from both camps — and to my friend, who once confided that she initially resisted her husband’s flirtations, believing it demonstrated a loyalty expected by the black community.
I always thought I’d have a brown baby. I prepared emotionally for Hazel’s birth as if she would be. I considered the racism she might face one day, fretted over the ignorant, intrusive questions she would be asked, like “What are you?” or “Are you adopted?” I thought, “As a fellow mixed race person, I have endured such inquiries so I will know how to coach her through if it happens to her.” I searched for children’s books with biracial protagonists and dolls with brown faces; both had been scarce when I was a kid. I would teach her about Black history. She would know about those who came before her and feel proud. I’d been isolated from a lot of that knowledge growing up, which often left me feeling like an outsider. I wanted Hazel to “see herself” in the world around her.
I of course was projecting many of my own experiences onto the poor kid before she even got here. When she finally did arrive, it was 3:45 on a Tuesday morning. My girl, coaxed by expertly maneuvered forceps and one last push from mom, came out honey colored, not brown like me. She was beautiful and alert and mesmerizing but she looked nothing like me. Everyone who saw her commented on how she favored her father, a rosy complected Englishman.
And for some reason, I was a tiny bit unsettled by this. In truth, tucked deep down in the small left over little girl part of me I wanted her to be a brown baby. I craved one of my own kind, within my family — someone to walk the middle road with me, a companion in that racial space so many in the world want to rigidly define. I felt insecure and I wanted to parent what I already knew. But you parent a child, not experiences.
The next several days after leaving the hospital left no room for contemplating the complexities of racial identity. We were just trying to keep the small, honey colored human now living with us alive! When a month had passed Hazel and I went to the zoo in Lincoln Park. I strolled along with her sleeping in my Boba wrap. Thinking back now, I don’t remember driving there, getting her out of the car seat, or even situating her in the wrap. I can only see myself coming down an incline on the nature path that winds along the smaller petting zoo with its array of farm animals. Some man asked me how old she was. “Four weeks old,” I said shyly, wondering silently, “Does he think she’s too young for me to have her outside already? Well I had to get out. I just had to! “ An unnecessary defense against an imaginary attack. I was paranoid, exhausted, and freaked out. I was a mother, having trouble believing she was a mother.
And those first few steps back towards the world outside 1439 W. 18th Street in Pilsen — into an environment I’d been in so many times before — were surreal and dream like because of the little peanut snoozing on my chest. Who was this person that had suddenly made the zoo feel like the Twilight Zone? I know now that the answer to that question will have to wait; she has only just started becoming. But every day there are hints, small things: like that she has a preference for bananas over mangoes, or how she lights up when I sing show tunes, Adele’s hit song “Hello,” or the Sesame Street song for her, or the way she studies new people intently before sometimes treating them to a smile. These are sweet revelations and I value them. But what of our shared racial and cultural identity? I can’t help wondering how deeply she will internalize it. To what extent will it shape her? The fact that my skin color is so different from Hazel’s is a potential source of insecurity for me. Will it be for her too?
This fear unfortunately has deep roots. Years ago, after meeting my parents for the first time, a black actress I did a show with asked me if I was adopted. Granted, my mom and biological father had split when I was only two and my mom remarried a white man who adopted me. So, the woman was looking at a biracial person with two white parents. However, I’d always looked a lot like my mom, so I was devastated when she didn’t match me up with her. Then there was the time an older white lady, introduced to me at a family function, could not get past my brown skin in a “sea” of family members much lighter than me. “You just don’t look like anyone else here,” she kept saying.
Recently, history seemed to be repeating itself. While visiting the Sod Room, an indoor play facility in the city, a woman asked me if Hazel was mine. She thought I might be the nanny. And there it was: our identities appeared to be ambiguous for a moment. I watched Hazel reach for a wooden block and shove it happily in her mouth. Her drool glistened in the sun. She was friggin adorable. The woman’s question hung over me like some tacky pinata that I wanted to smack the shit out of. And that familiar feeling of displacement started to naw at my insides. But in the end, all I saw was my girl — my girl, and so I answered the question, and what do ya know? Life went on. And somehow, the comment didn’t sting as did those in the previously mentioned incidents. I’m not sure why it was different this time. Maybe its one of the benefits of being an older mom: I am learning to care a little less every day about what people think. Maybe its because I’m so sleep deprived most of the time I have trouble remembering things people say to me from one moment to the next. Or maybe its because the entire experience of bringing Hazel forth and caring for her has been so visceral, so physically and emotionally consuming, I have been imprinted for life and no insensitive inquiry about identity or race can alter that. And really, I guess It is the same with me and my family of origin — or at least it ought to be. The truth is, I am theirs and they are mine. The reality of the connection does not cease to be just because someone else does not see it. It’s very simple. But even simple things can sometimes take a whole lifetime to sink in. Or at least until you have a child.