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It Begins Like This
“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean, where are you from from?”
As a child growing up in the seventies and early eighties in New York, Wisconsin, and Northern Virginia, there was something about my skin color and hair texture that snagged the attention of white children and adults. Their need to make sense of me—to make something of sense out of nonsensical me—was pressing. My existence was a ripple in an otherwise smooth sheet. They needed to iron it down.
[The truth is, I’m not really from here.]
[The truth is, that’s not what they were asking.]
The truth is, they were asking, “Why are you so different from what I know? So unclassifiable?”
There’s love at first sight. There’s American at first sight. And from dozens of “where are you from” interactions with Americans over the years, I’ve learned that American at first sight is about looks—primarily skin color and hair texture—not nationality.
I am the wooly-haired, medium-brown-skinned offspring typical when Blacks and whites have sex, which was considered illegal activity in seventeen of the fifty “united” states in 1966.
Nineteen sixty-six was the year before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Loving v. Virginia that the laws preventing interracial marriage were unconstitutional, and 1966 was the year in which my Black father and white mother, an African American doctor and a British teacher who met in West Africa, chose to go ahead and get married anyway. They married in Accra, Ghana. I was born to them in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1967.
I come from people who broke the rules. Chose to live lives outside the box. Chose hope over hate as the arc of history was forced to bend a bit more toward justice. I am the goo in the melting pot.
In places hated.
In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election a persona stepped to the forefront of public consciousness, that of the “Real American.”
More than an individual you want to have a beer with, more than the everyman “Joe the Plumber,” the “Real American” is code for an entire era when men like Andy Griffith ran Mayberry or John Wayne swaggered through a western town. When white men cloaked in clothes of real or perceived authority could take what they believed was rightfully theirs with an air of ownership to the opportunity, to the land, to the people, and of belonging at the center of the situation, whatever it was. A time when the word “he” meant all genders. When “normal” and “regular” meant “white.”
This fictional character—the Real American—became a talisman, a lifeline to a more halcyon past for some white men and women bewildered by capitalism’s demand for low-paid laborers and by the rising tide of legal and regulatory equality that dared to lift others’ boats. They looked around at us the others knocking at the door of the hiring manager, the landlord, the admissions dean, the local restaurant. Looked frantically around and began to see fewer—less—of themselves.
Nursed by a milk of white supremacy fed to them as what was natural, right, and good for them, these whites believed the rest of us were interlopers, thieves at the door, threatening to take what was not ours. They grew incensed at the growing number of us others who refused to accept our place at the bottom of America’s ladder underneath even the most lowly of whites.
These “Real Americans” found a voice in their candidates, grew in number, became a mob who raised slogans, signs, fists, and arms. Who long to make America great—
These newly emboldened “Real Americans” issue angry orders to the rest of us: “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.”
There is no back to where I came from.
You stole my homeland from me.
Me from my homeland, I mean.
I don’t even know where it is.
I came from Silvey.
I am the untallied, unpaid, unrepented damages of one of America’s founding crimes. I come from people who endured the psycho-cultural genocide of slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Who began to find a place here really only quite recently amid strides toward effecting a more perfect union, of liberty and justice for all.
I am Silvey’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter. She was a slave who worked on a plantation in the late 1700s in Charleston, South Carolina, the harbor town through which close to one in two African slaves entered America over the centuries. Silvey bore three children by her master, Joshua Eden, by which I mean he raped her; there is no consent in slavery. Silvey’s daughter Silvia was born in 1785, and Joshua freed Silvey, Silvia, and their other children some years later. Silvia gave birth to a son named Joshua in 1810. Joshua had a son named Joshua Jr., born in 1845. His daughter, Evelyn, was born in 1896. Evelyn bore my father, George, in 1918. And I was born to him in 1967.
The original Americans are the natives whose land was invaded then stolen by the Europeans. Those descended from the Europeans, the ones who came on ships to the New World, like to think they are the original Americans. But I’m from a third set—from those brought here on different ships over different waters, those whose sweat and muscle were the engine of the American economy for over two hundred years, whose blood and tears watered America’s ground. I come from them.
I come from people who survived what America did to them.
Ain’t I a Real American?
When the amorphous mob harrumphs about the needs and rights of “Real Americans,” they don’t picture me. People like me. But is anyone more a product of America than those of us formed by America in an angry war with herself?
This is rhetorical. Theoretical. Of course we are not more than. We’re less than, not even equal to. The remainder of an imperfect equation. The child who wasn’t supposed to exist. The undesired other. The bastard child of illegitimate rules who dares even to be.
The contradiction of being “less than” in a nation whose forming documents speak of liberty and justice for all plagued me for much of my young adult life.
I’m so American it hurts.
An American Childhood
As a child growing up in the 1970s, I adored my country, as I imagine most American children do.
When I was three we moved from our Manhattan apartment to a rickety eighteenth-century house my parents rented in an old hamlet known as Snedens Landing in the town of Palisades, New York. Snedens is tucked into the western bank of the Hudson River across from Manhattan and farther north. Its homes nestle along the main road, Washington Spring Road, which meanders through town, then makes a steep, winding descent to the Hudson River below. Alongside the main road and through the backyards of some of the houses runs a stream—the spring said to have provided respite to General George Washington and his troops in 1780, while the nearby woods gave cover to the traitor Benedict Arnold. When the Revolutionary War ended at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the British warship HMS Perseverance sailed across the Hudson over to Snedens Landing and fired a seventeen-gun salute in recognition of the brand-new country, the United States of America. Our tiny rented house dated back to these times and, clinging to the hillside, rather looked like an old man, groaning, with an aching back, weathered by weather and time.
By the time I was five my parents had scrounged together enough money to buy a house, this one further up the street on Washington Spring Road, of 1950s modern design, with large living-room windows that looked out at the creek below and onto the thick woods beyond. As a small child I played in that creek with my friend Conrad, a little white boy whose name I mispronounced as “Comrade.” Conrad and I would launch leaf and stick boats into the creek, which couldn’t have been more than two feet across and three or four inches deep, and then we’d watch delighted and wide-eyed as the current took our little creations down and away and ultimately beyond our sight. I recall feeling a strong pang of worry and hope over whether my little boats would be all right. If they’d get caught up in an eddy or a beaver’s dam, get sidetracked and end up on the muddy brown creek bank, or maybe make it to an enormous freedom in the famous river below. That backyard stream was a wonderful laboratory for me and Conrad. One afternoon I lowered my underpants and squatted over the gently flowing water, then stood back with tremendous satisfaction at proving Conrad wrong: poop sinks.
I marched in a Fourth of July parade in Palisades when I was six, my large Afro distinctive among my group of straight-haired peers and adults. I was sporting my Brownie jumper and sash, with its little “Girl Scouts U.S.A.” patch stitched in white letters at the top. I drew up my spine and straightened my neck at the honor of wearing that uniform to march with my troop past our town’s tiny post office, while our neighbors held ice-cream cones and applauded from the side of the road.
Palisades was where I memorized my first phone numbers, my first address and zip code. As a student at Palisades Elementary School, I jumped to my feet for the Pledge of Allegiance and sang all of the patriotic songs with gusto. My favorites were “This Land Is Your Land,” because it contained the name of my state, New York, and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for its unabashedly triumphant violence. On field day at the end of second grade, I ran the fifty-yard dash, and even though I ran diagonally across the field instead of straight ahead I came in third out of twenty and got a lovely little bronze medal the size of a quarter.
When I was seven, my father’s growing prominence in the field of public health and academic medicine spurred his departure from the faculty of Columbia University. He moved us to Madison, Wisconsin; he would be Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Services at the University there. It was 1975. Third-grade math was taught by a stern woman named Mrs. Bernard, my first African American teacher, and I took to memorizing my multiplication tables like it was a game I had to win, and did. The following summer I recall the hard work of weaving red, white, and blue streamers through the back and front wheels of my ten-speed bicycle in honor of our nation’s Bicentennial. Riding that bicycle in the parade wending through my tree-lined neighborhood, Arbor Hills, in Madison, I felt important, giddy, alive.
A year later we moved to Reston, Virginia, a planned community located just outside of Washington, D.C., boasting a sort of utopian commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity. President Jimmy Carter had appointed Daddy to be his Assistant Surgeon General with responsibility for running the Health Services Administration in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. It was 1977.
On a school field trip to our nation’s capital with my fifth-grade classmates, I felt a swell of admiration for America and a surge of pride to be American as I stared up at the gleaming white Washington Monument, heard my voice echo as I walked around Lincoln in his chair, traced my fingers over the bronze plaques. We walked back to our bus in a gaggle and for a few moments were caught in the jumble of people in their gray trench coats trying to hurry down sidewalks to and from their jobs. I stepped to the side so they could pass. Important people worked in this city. I knew my Daddy was one of them.
Back at home in Reston, I had Black friends, Indian friends, and Jewish friends, as well as white friends. There was even another Black family on my street for the very first time in my life, with a daughter named Amanda. Amanda was a few years younger than me, but we could both sense that it was very important to our parents that we become friends. And we did become friends, genuinely, telling each other our secrets, playing board games, and sequestering ourselves behind locked doors to review the girlie magazines our fathers thought they kept well hidden. I felt a mix of wonder and awe as we pawed through page spreads of creamy white skin.
Over the years I did extremely well in school, was a student government representative, sold Girl Scout cookies, and tied a thick yellow ribbon to the strong tree that stood at our curb in honor of the American hostages in Iran.
I adored Daddy. He was fifty when I was born and my childhood coincided with the heyday of his career, which began against all odds amidst the racial hatred of the segregated Jim Crow South. I was his last child of five—the product of his second marriage to my mother—and I knew from the way his eyes twinkled whenever he looked at me that he loved me no matter what. He gave me a variety of nicknames—Old Sport, Knuckle Head—which sounds crude to my grown ears but then, spoken in the butter of his baritone, it felt like melted love. He never had to call for me twice. I came running every single time.
When I was little and skinned my knee, he’d pull me up onto his tall lap, kiss me, and ask with all seriousness how I was going to become Miss America with that scar. I didn’t know then that no Black woman had yet been crowned Miss America and that no Black woman would be crowned Miss America until 1983. Instead I heard in Daddy’s words that I was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
We all called him “Daddy,” even my mother. He was formidable, commanding, gruff, loving, and funny. I hung on to his every word, whether it was “Baby, bring me my cigarettes,” or a well-placed retort to the news recited by the anchorman on TV.
Daddy was the protagonist, the lead.
Daddy was the sun.
Beauty pageants weren’t my thing, though. I wanted to be something more like President.
By the end of my junior year in high school (by which time we were back in Wisconsin), I’d been elected vice president of my class for the third year in a row, and in the fall of my senior year, the student council elected me president of that governing body. I was selected for “Badger Girls State”—a statewide program for kids interested in policy and politics held the summer after high school graduation, and was elected senator there. I went on to be one of four presidents of my class at Stanford University, and one of four elected class leaders of my graduating class at Harvard Law School.
I was on track to live the American Dream—through hard work, big dreams, and a bit of luck, to become whoever I wanted.
Mine was in many ways a very American childhood. And, with the buttress of money and influence that came from my father’s professional success, it was also a childhood of material comfort that set me up for a privileged life.
Becoming the Other
Daddy never liked the Fourth of July.
I couldn’t understand it, because I adored the parades, songs, and flags, the neighborhood barbecues, the explosion of firecrackers, and the smart looks on everyone’s faces that revealed the innate understanding that our country was better—and by extension we the people were better—than the rest of the world.
My mother was the one to inform me of Daddy’s opinion about the Fourth, and she did so in a whispered-sideways-glance kind of way with no explanation as to why he felt it. I understood from the way she said it that it had something to do with Daddy’s past, his experiences, his Blackness. Her silent “why” bespoke pain too painful to discuss, so I never asked. Didn’t think it related to the America I was inhabiting anyway. Didn’t think I was Black in the ways he was. Thought America was beyond all that.
I was wrong.
Looking back over the years of even my earliest childhood, the clues were everywhere.
Copyright © 2017 by Julie Lythcott-Haims.