As my loyal blog readers know, I am researching and writing my first young adult novel, Half-Truths. Since the story involves a light-skinned African American girl, I have read several multi-racial books. I recently completed The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White (Simon and Schuster, 1995), by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, a contemporary author who reflects on the effects of her mother's light skin on herself, her family of origin, as well as on Ms. Haizlip's own upbringing.
The book opens with a family tree that I consulted frequently. I thought the best way I could do justice to this exhaustively researched and well-written book, is to share some passages here. So, without further ado, here is Ms. Haizlip:
Chapter Two opens with this poem by Langston Hughes, giving the reader a glimpse of what this autobiography will entail:
My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
The English word mulatto is derived from the Latin mulus, for "mule," traveling down through Portugese and Spanish. Its original meaning was much the same: a mixed breed. But mules are sterile, while mulattoes were not. And historically, "mulatto" was a prejorative term that blacks used with ambivalence. Those who bore it had no choice in how they came to be born into what one observer called "a society long quietly familiar with illicit sex based on ownership." Their straight, wavy, curly, kinky or nappy hair was blond, brown, auburn, red and black. Their eyes were hazel, green blue, gray, brown, black and even lavender. My family has all of these colors and textures. p. 39
To the white community, some lighter blacks were more acceptable than their darker kinfolk. "They" were like "us." Some even had good manners, knew how to read and played musical instruments. In the end, a fair skin emitted mixed signals. It became a badge of prestige or a mark of disdain. p. 56
I wonder if "real" white people understand the terrors that "pretend white" people have of being exposed as black....To say that a black person "looks white" is assumed to be a compliment, but the converse is not true. p. 71
By the time she was ten, she [the author's mother] would take the up up the tree-lined Massachusetts Avenue. Usually she rode in the back of the bus reserved for colored patrons, but when she was feeling defiant, she would ride up front. It pleased her that she could fool people who put so much stock in skin color. p. 93.
Because she had been abandoned by her white family, she [the author's mother] perceived herself to be darker than she was. p. 94.
I began the search for my mother's family believing that I was looking for black people "passing for white." And they did indeed pass. But what I ultimatly found, I realized, were black people who had become white. p. 266
As I wrestle with the meaning of skin color and how my characters see themselves and how the world interacts with them, The Sweeter the Juice provided me with a greater insights into the world I am carefully--oh so carefully--attempting to portray.
Thank you, Ms. Haizlip, for sharing your personal journey with me and the rest of the world.
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