"In Charlotte in 1950 family secrets unravel when a 13-year-old white girl (Kate) and a 14-year-old light-skinned black girl (Lillie) discover that they have the same great-grandfather."
That is the pitch of my Work In Progress (WIP). Although I'm a little younger than Kate and I wasn't raised in the South, it's not too much of a stretch for me to conjure up her character. But Lillie is another matter. The more I thought about her the more I realized that I had no idea what her life was like. My quest to discover how she would have felt about herself, her family, and her community, began in the research section of the Morrison branch of the Charlotte library. My next few blogs will be about the books that have informed my research.
Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line by Catherine Slaney is an autobiographical account of how she discovered her black ancestors and relatives. Raised white, she began uncovering her genealogy in her forties. She uncovered the fact that her great-grandfather was Dr. Anderson Abbott, the first Canadian-born Black to graduate from medical school in Toronto in 1861. In the process of delving into her history, she investigated why (and how) several family members decided to "pass" as white, while their siblings did not.
One key theme I found in this book as well as in others, is that race is not just about the color of one's skin. As Slaney writes, "...this race business seemed to me not so much a matter about colour (sic), but rather one of racial identity and cultural representation." (p. 147)
When Slaney received photographs of her cousins she discovered great variations in appearances. "Some of the cousins were very 'black,' some were 'dark,' and others quite 'fair.' However, what really amazed me was that their skin colour did not necessarily reflect their choice of racial identity. In one case, I received a photo from a 'Black' cousin who strongly resembled my 'white' uncle they could pass as brothers." (p.147)
One of her light-skinned Black cousins wrote to her and said, "Americans tend very much to classify people by race. I think this probably goes back to the first segregation laws. Not that it was absent before but people were forcefully separated by their physical appearance. The Black's facilities, from schools to washrooms, were always inferior to the white's, during segregation, which perpetuated the notion that they were an inferior race." (p. 148)
This led Slaney to question, "If life could be so difficult as Black and one could pass as white, then why not do so? Moreover if one looked white, would it not prove awkward to claim a Black identity? Perhaps the purpose of identifying oneself with a particular race had more to do with the colour of one's state of mind rather than one's color of skin. Did identifying as Black then automatically imply that one could not identify as white? As one white cousin asked, 'When one is of mixed race, where does passing end and identity as white begin? Is it simply based on how you look?'" (p. 150)
These questions run through my mind as I wonder, how would Lillie have seen herself? How did others react to her? What experiences shaped and molded her? Stay tuned. With help from Slaney and others, Lillie is coming to life.
multi-racial, historical ficiton, Charlotte, passing, Family Secrets: Crossing the Color Line, Catherine Slaney
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