*Feature* Somewhere Between Black and White
by Sarah A. Ongiri

When my parents married in 1965, interracial marriage was illegal in my mom's home state of Indiana. My parents moved to Chicago, where interracial marriage was legal, and there, a Justice of Peace performed a ceremony without either of my parents families in attendance. My dad's family was too far away, back in Kenya where he had emigrated from a year or so prior. My mother's family "disowned" her shortly after my parents announced their plans to marry and she never saw any of them again.

Biracial, mixed, mulatto. These are some of the words other people used to describe us kids. My parents never talked much about our racial identity, probably because they weren't really sure what to say. For the most part, we were told we were black because that is how the majority of America saw us. My ten siblings are a wide range of hues from high yellow to dark brown but we are all Black.

I remember clearly the day that my youngest brother asked my mom if she was Black, too. For us, Black was less what you looked like and more who you were.

My mom tried to instill in us that everyone is equal but unfortunately, much of our suburban White community hadn't gotten that message. Because race wasn't discussed much in our home, we learned a lot from our peers, both black and white. In high school, I met another girl who was also biracial like me and I learned even more. I remember hearing something Halle Berry said about having to decide if she would choose mainstream (read-White) roles or "Black" roles. This is something I think every person with a mixed race background contends with. However, much of the decision is made by the way society sees us. If you look Black, you're Black and if you look white, well then it's a little more complicated. You may identify with the community you live in or your peer group or the parent you're closest to.

When I gave birth to my son ten years ago, the issue of race took a new importance to me. As many new parents, I felt that the way I taught my son would shape the future. I wanted him to be clear about where he came from and who he is. My husband is just as White as my mother and his level of comfort with issues of race is similar to my mom's. Everyone is the same even if they aren't always treated that way.

I started out telling my son that he is Brown, a mixture of my husband and I. He's not quite Black but definitely not White either. He is truly a mixture of my husband and I although as he gets older his features look more like mine. This Brown idea seemed to work okay until my daughter was born almost three years ago. Unlike my son, she is not Brown. She is a blue-eyed, fair skin little girl. Her hair is Shirley Temple curly and very nearly blonde. Dirty Blonde, people call it. I put SPF 50 on her, she is that pale. I have no idea what to call her. My little sister says she looks just like me but colored in wrong.

If my daughter or son has children with a White partner, it is likely that their children would be consider White. This scares me. I worry that I will be forgotten. I worry that my dad, who worked so hard to be accepted as an academic scholar in the middle of the Civil Rights movement will be brushed under the rug and in a few generations, my ancestors won't even know that they came from a strong line of Africans. I worry that the memories of Aunt Eunice, who runs an orphanage back in my dad's hometown of Mombassa and Aunt Pamela, who fled Uganda to keep her family safe and upon her deathbed, requested her body be returned to African soil will be lost to the dominant genes of others. It would be as if none of us ever existed.

When I share this thought with my husband, he points out something my battling ego hadn't let me consider.

"You know, Ray might marry an Asian girl. Or maybe Olivia will marry a Mexican guy. Or an Indian guy or maybe a Samoan dude, or what if she's gay or can't have kids?"

When Olivia was almost four, I gave birth to Jack.

Jack was born sick.

For five long days we could not hold or barely even touch him for fear we would raise his breath count even higher than the 100 breath per minute it already was. I was a mess of the crazy post pregnancy hormones. The hellish situation we were in didn't help matters. Jack laid stretched out naked except for a tiny diaper in his little bed wires coming out of his belly button, a breathing tube in his mouth. The NICU is full of alarms and crying from parents and babies, an awful place to be. Jack was sedated in an effort to prevent him from dislodging his breathing tube so for five days he never opened his eyes. The only time he moved at all was when one of his cellmates would cry. Then he would squirm fitfully until his nurse would inject him with another dose to settle him.

I cried to my husband that our baby was five days old and I didn't know what color his eyes were. I didn't even know if he was heavy to hold or liked to be swaddled. I didn't even know him at all. Was he a happy baby, easily contented like his big brother or a fussy guy, more like his sister? Would I get a chance to know him or would he pass away in the night while I was at home pumping milk for him?

My husband told me that if Jack made it we couldn't try again, he'd be our last baby. I prayed to a God that I wasn't sure existed that I would never bitch about being a mother again if He would just let me keep Jack.

Six days after Jack was born the doctors decided that he could be weaned down to oxygen via nasal cannula. The nurses thought it would be best to surprise us so they they trialed him off the ventilator early in the morning and he was switched to nasal cannula by the time we came to visit. Because he was stable off the ventilator we were able to try holding him for a few minutes, again ever mindful of his breaths per minute which continued in the high 80s. Finally I knew what he felt like in my arms. It took another day until I could try nursing him but when I did I will never forget his little eyes popping open to look up in wonder at my breast that was at least two times the size of his head. And the answer to my question? His eyes were the bluest eyes in the world. Not murky newborn grey blue. They were stunning cloudless sky blue.

Now I have 2 blue eyed little ones and a big brown eyed one. Does it matter? Sometimes I think about it. But the future is really just a breath from now. Watching and counting Jack's breaths obsessively in the NICU. Peeking into Olivia's room at night to make sure she is still breathing when she's slept for ten hours. Watching Ray huff and puff up the soccer field. Just breathe I whisper. Just breathe.

Sarah Ongiri lives and writes in the Lehigh Valley, Pa. Her work has appeared in Hip Mama, Utne Reader and local venues. This essay was previously published in Hip Mama.

feature added on 2009-01-31 :: ::

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