Black History Month

Black History Month To Be Young, Biracial And Absolutely Not A Tragic Mulatta

To Be Young, Biracial And Absolutely Not A Tragic Mulatta

By Kirsten Imani Kasai
Posted Feb 25th 2011 10:19AM
Imitation of Life

"Do you even have a black identity?" asked my husband, a black man, and my friend, a white woman, when they heard I was writing an article for

It was my question, too. Certainly as a light-skinned, biracial woman with hazel eyes, my skintone has not afforded me much opportunity to be viewed by society as a black woman.

But my black identity is a uniquely American one, crafted of connection, empathy, triumph and struggle for acceptance. My story is just one thread of a historical tapestry of secrecy, defiance, shame and pride.I was raised in Denver, Colorado and grew up straddling two cultures. Summers were spent with my African-American, paternal grandparents in Alabama, where my grandfather was a Methodist minister.

Though those long drives have assumed an idyllic childhood sheen, I know now that my many memories of stargazing through the car's rear window had another purpose. In 1977, just a decade after Loving vs. Virginia was overturned and anti-miscegenation laws were struck from the books, my parents--a white woman and black man--drove through the Deep South at night to avoid harassment by police and locals.

My father says, "We traveled nonstop on our long journeys, much to your mother's chagrin, because I could not risk exposing my family to harm or harassment by stopping to eat or sleep in public places that remained inhospitable to families like ours."

During the '60s, he worked for civil rights in the South and nationally. An old-fashioned portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. held a place of prominence on our piano top, and I loved to see photos of my father in action, one of many faces surrounding the civil rights leader.

My mother marched for civil rights and heard Dr. King speak in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1963. My grandmother's lovely cousin, Arthurine Lucy, was the first black student to attend the University of Alabama in 1956.

Her expulsion--three days later--was finally overturned in 1980 and in 1992, Arthurine completed her Masters degree and was written about in the book, 'I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women who Changed America.'

In my twenties, I actively explored the myth of the tragic mulatta, read Nella Larsen's novels 'Passing' and 'Quicksand,' William Wells Brown's 'Clotel' and Fannie Hurst's famous 'Imitation of Life,' which was turned into a movie.

Was I meant to be an unhappy accessory, weighed down by tainted stereotypes, both fetishized and victimized for my skin color or "good hair?"

What a disastrous legacy to come into! I responded by issuing an empowering call to other biracial people.

When we gathered for our first brunch, we all expressed the same sense of wonder--"I've never been in a room with so many other people like me before!" After years of invisibility, we felt seen.

The world is different now. Biracial families have shed their cloaks of secrecy.

Prejudice still exists in many forms, but I need only look to Barack Obama in the White House to recognize how very far we've come. It always delights me to see mixed couples holding hands, taking their children on outings and enjoying the rights and freedoms denied my parents and so many others.

After years of being "Other," there's finally a box for me to check on the U.S. Census form ("Two or more races"), however vague its designation.

When I think of my paternal grandfather as a little boy, having to cross the street to avoid walking on the same side of the street as a white person, it is almost beyond my comprehension.

My son skips to public school, where he sits in class with white, black, Asian and Latino children. He's growing up in a world where no one questions his right to attend school, or travel with family members whose skin or eye color is different.

His future is being shaped by a president who looks like him (literally, put my boy in a jacket and tie and you've got a mini-Obama), thanks to the untiring efforts of my family and countless others, who fought for equality in education, love and life.

Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author of the fantasy novels Ice Song and Tattoo, about a gender-fluctuate single mother and the half-human inhabitants of the frozen Sigue. She lives in San Diego with her husband and children. Read her blog on Red Room.
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