2014: 23andMe reports that 70% of my genome is of European origin, and 30% is of African origin. My ancestors were slaves and their owners.
1993: I give the keynote address for a conference on racial identity at Yale University. I quote a passage from W.E.B. DuBois that begins, “What is it like to be a problem?”
1685: Robert Pearl, known to his contemporaries as Mulatto Robin, is born in eastern Maryland. He gains his freedom at the age of 35 and goes on to become a wealthy slave owner. Some of his descendants remain in Maryland, while others migrate west and adopt white identities.
1963: I am in preschool at the age of four. My best friend David comes up with a big smile and says, “I’m black and you’re white!” He puts his hand next to mine. “See!” I am much lighter than David. For the first time, I notice that I am much lighter than all of my classmates. I know about black people and white people. I do not want to lose David’s friendship, but I am different.
1835: My grandfather’s grandfather, an eighteen-year-old slave named Herbert Harris, is brought to the District of Columbia. His master dies, and Herbert is able to obtain his freedom through the courts. He builds a prosperous real estate business and marries a great granddaughter of Robert Pearl. Their son William becomes an educator for the Freedman’s Bureau and teaches former slaves to read.
2013: Peering over wire-rimmed glasses, the Vice President looks directly at me for the first time since my job interview began and says, “I was expecting a black guy.” We regard each other warily. Each displays the flat affect of a seasoned poker player. I decide to go all-in and say, “I am a black guy.” “Really,” he says, striking a tone halfway between “Really?” and “Really!”
1968: “Nigger,” the boy mutters. My fist lands on a pudgy arm with an unsatisfying thud. I swing again with better results. There is hitting, grabbing, kicking, ripping shirts, and popping buttons. Somebody has a bloody nose. Teachers appear out of nowhere. The Headmaster is summoned. Angry parents are called in.
1878: Former slave Charles Wilder addresses a black audience on behalf of his political patron, confederate general Wade Hampton. Hampton is elected governor of South Carolina and Wilder’s career flourishes despite the dismantling of the Reconstruction.
1887: Wilder’s daughter, Caroline, marries William Harris. The couple devotes themselves to education and philanthropy in the black community of Washington.
1965: I fidget in my seat. I can’t stand the new dress shoes and necktie my parents bought for the occasion. The ceremony goes on forever. It is the dedication of a school named after my great grandmother, Caroline Wilder Harris. I don’t understand what is happening. There are long speeches. All I know is that my parents and grandparents are very proud, and I am proud too.
1967: James Brown blares on the barbershop radio, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” I wince as the barber combs out the tangles in my hair. He finishes, pulling the drape away like a matador. “Keep it handsome my man!” I notice that they took down the posters of the light-skinned men with slick wavy hair and put up posters of dark-skinned men with big afros. Who will I be when I grow up? I am sitting between parallel mirrors mounted on opposite walls and I try to follow the receding cascade of selves to its end. Reflections reflecting reflections. Which one am I?
2013: My job interview reminds me that it has been a long time since I have been black. I easily blend into the beige background and white noise of my suburban professional life like a post-racial chameleon. Is this passing?
1993: My DuBois quote continues, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
2019: The stylist struggles with my hair. She insists on practicing her English with me, and we have the same conversation every month. My hair is a complete mystery to her, but she muddles through as the uneven clumps of gray fall like snowflakes to the floor. Stretching across the years, I return the child’s curious gaze in the mirror. Does he recognize me among the reflections of reflections? It is a peculiar sensation. I smile, he smiles.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tommpoore