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I remember: the ignition churning; that old Benz K-turning; Pappy gesturing at my very white classmates loitering. I had not yet spent significant time with the other black boys I would come to know and acculturate myself to, the boys from the redlined peripheries of my small town who were a lot like the boys from the larger, all-black neighborhoods beyond it, boys who seemed older than me even when they might be younger, who threw their hands at each other habitually — and skillfully — both in earnestness and in jest.
I was still a few years away from familiarity with any of that, and boxing was something that I had only ever seen my father do. I remember the enormous, generations-old frustration in his exclamation in the car. Despite a dusting of freckles under the eyes and a prominent nose, no one has ever described him as anything but black. His appearance, along with the strength of his persona, allowed me to assume that the Williams family identity would forever be in his image, even though my mother is unambiguously white — blond-haired, blue-eyed and descended on all sides from Northern European Protestant stock.
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His grandmother was married to a man born in the final year of chattel slavery. Since I was very young, I understood that Texas was not so much where my father came from as where he never wanted to return to. My brother and I were raised in a small but gloriously book-crammed house by loving and devoted parents who came from elsewhere.
They kept few photographs or clues to the past and valorized individuality, cultivation and self-creation over membership in any particular lineage or clan.
I did not have the language for it then, but compared with all of my Polish and Italian and Puerto Rican and black and Irish neighbors and classmates, what was odd about my parents was just how uninterested in their ancestry they seemed. To speak about a thing clearly you must first be able to name it. To speak about yourself, you must first be able to assemble a sense of origin. As I write this, a tab on my laptop displays a pastel pie chart of my ancestral-geographical makeup. I scrutinize the color-coded slices for meaning. This lopsided ratio surprised me, though it should not have.
My aunt came back I am well aware that my situation is not yet, and may not ever be, a terribly common one, and that I have experienced a specific set of breaks and good fortune outside my own control that have contributed powerfully to my own sense of autonomy in the world. Growing up, I understood myself to be black, and yet I was also exposed to whiteness through my mother and most though certainly not all members of her family in nonantagonistic, positively nurturing ways. Today, my children, who are roughly a fifth West African descended, are so blond-haired and fair-skinned that they can blend in with the locals when we travel in Sweden.
What we can control is what we make of those differences. It has become commonplace to acknowledge the following point, but it bears repeating anyway: The idea of racial classification, as we understand it now, stretches back only to Enlightenment Europe.
I have stayed in inns in Germany that have been continuously operating longer than this calamitous thought. And yet I am convinced that we will never overcome the evils of racism as long as we fail first to imagine and then to conjure a world free of racial categorization and the hierarchies it necessarily implies. But from time to time, once a year or less frequently, the phone would ring, and his voice would grow folksier, maybe even slower, and he would chat with some relation for an hour, sometimes more.
I tried to picture the faces of these phantom men and women who — incredibly, to me — knew who my father was, knew from what world he had come, but imagine as I would, I had no idea what lives they might lead. When Pappy hung up, whatever link had been temporarily forged with the past immediately receded from our home, and it was obvious the subject was closed.
After all, the evidence, like those books, was all around me. In that basement, we had a treadmill, stationary bikes and resistance machines, in addition to medicine balls, benches and weights. There was a professional-grade heavy bag and a speed bag in the garage, as well as full sets of headgear and scarlet-red Everlast gloves.
Only looking back on it now do I realize that my father must have anticipated that he would train us. There would be intermittent lessons throughout my childhood and adolescence, moments of instruction snatched in the hallway or kitchen in which he patiently demonstrated to me where to place my feet, how to hunch my shoulders — chin down, protect the neck — and how to parry a blow.
Pappy was unhittable, at least for me, whip-fast with the hands, torso and head well into his 60s. It was beautiful to witness what he could do. Is there anything more wonderful than watching your father soar? Perhaps, I imagine now, it is equaled only in the pleasure of imparting — really transmitting — something of yourself to your child. One evening thrusts beyond the fog of childhood memory like a rocky peak glimpsed from an airplane window. It is a hard space, with hard tiled floors cracking to expose the concrete underneath — the most undomesticated part of the house by far.
The air is cool and damp on the hottest day of the year. It is an uncomfortable space, with nowhere to sit. You have to stand. You have to work out or remove a book from one of the shelves and read. When you descend into this space, you have to improve yourself in some demonstrable way.
He throws straight jabs, repeatedly, on the chin, which astonish the boy, who has never been hit like that before. Has never been hit at all. He withstands several more blows to the jaw and chin, the imprecision of the bulky gloves allowing one to graze the nose, flooding his eyes with salty tears. I have no recollection of how that session ended, whether on a good or bad or neutral note.
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As it turned out, I never did muster the discipline to learn how to box. But even as a very small child, I understood that Pappy was only showing me the sincerest kind of care. Looking back, I am most jarred by the sheer artificiality of the endeavor. The genes I share with my father and others who look like us, which have kinked my hair and tinted my skin, do not carry within them a set of prescribed behaviors.
Blackness was what you loved and what in turn loved or at least accepted you, what you found offensive or, more to the point, to whom your presence might constitute an offense. The s will not go down in history as a particularly incisive political epoch in the history of black America. She took a position in the San Diego County War on Poverty program, in Otay Mesa — the same neighborhood as the conservative Baptist church where her father was the minister — and became the director of a center providing basic social and recreational services to low-income black and Mexican families.
One evening, she hosted a community meeting and invited the executive director of the county agency to speak. As the fastidious Southerner standing before her carefully laid out his vision of social justice, my mother listened rapt, feeling as if he were speaking not just to her but from her, putting into words the inchoate jumble of thoughts that had been stirring in her mind for years. They began working together, and she fell in love with this man and his mission all at once, deciding that she would marry him.
Nine years her senior, my father took longer to reciprocate. He was wary of the ludicrous, irrational resistance he knew in his bones would be coming for them.
Only the year before, the Supreme Court had ruled on Loving v. Virginia, invalidating so-called racial-integrity laws that barred interracial unions in certain states, yet a Gallup poll showed a vast majority of white Americans more than 70 percent still opposed the idea of black people and white people marrying. My parents, justifiably fearful of compromising his position in the community and her relationship with her family and church, found it impossible to acknowledge each other romantically in public — an excruciating racial tax that boggles my mind to think they were forced to pay.
After five circumspect years, my father proposed, once he was convinced that they were individually robust enough to withstand the ostracism and scrutiny they would surely encounter, especially once they decided to have children. There are photos of my mother with the family that was hers before we became her own, which I have to scrutinize at length before I can recognize who she is. Who is this brood, with all that blond hair bleached a blazing shade by the California sun?
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One photo in which Mom is around 16, in the early s, has her standing alongside her parents and young siblings. Of course the children are just that, which is to say they are genuine innocents, but the parents inhabit a country that does not yet have civil rights, and they are posed with an unperturbed air that reminds me of something James Baldwin once observed about how racism dehumanizes us all but may in fact dehumanize the racist more severely. Looking at my Bible-thumping grandfather, whom I so markedly resemble in the facial structure holding up my tanner shell, I feel several conflicting emotions well up inside me.
I feel both anger and pity, but mostly I feel the cold unreality of familial connection. It is hard to believe that we are in any way kin. Nonetheless, he intrigues me. I neither love nor hate him. I feel sorry for him. And I wonder about the gratuitous charge he paid for having failed for decades to live up to his own professed Christianity — even knowing that he was failing yet unable to help it — by allowing himself never to be bothered in any way at all with the all-American experience of someone like my father.
It is only now that I am a father myself that I can appreciate the exorbitant price of the loss my grandfather inflicted on himself, and on my mother and on my grandmother, too — but mostly on himself.