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December 14th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Opinion: Why I call myself black

Editor's Note: Carleen Brice is author of the novels "Children of the Waters," a story about race, identity and what really makes a family, and "Orange Mint and Honey," which was made into the television movie “Sins of the Mother." She’s working on her next novel, "Every Good Wish." Her book for writers, "The Not So Fearless Writer," is forthcoming from Agate Publishing in 2013.

By Carleen Brice, Special to CNN

(CNN)  I have copper skin and freckles.

When I was a girl, my hair was red (which I was told came from an Irish ancestor), but as I’ve aged it has darkened to brown. I no longer straighten my hair, but when I did I was sometimes confused for a white person. I have always self-identified as black. I knew and know no other way to think of myself.

We have a mix of races on both sides of my family.

I am the daughter of a beige, straight-haired woman who in 1971 when I was 8 followed me around for weeks begging me to let her cut my hair and style it in an Afro. I am the daughter of a brown man who as a boy yelled at the movie screen for Tarzan to “get those jungle niggers,” and as a young man kept his children home from school on Malcolm X’s birthday. To my mother, black was beautiful. To my father, black was a chance to be proud.

On my father’s side, I am the granddaughter of a light-skinned woman who as a child was forced to leave Arkansas with her family when her brother hit a white kid with a stick and word came that the Klan was on its way.

They settled in Omaha, Nebraska, putting down deep roots in the community. They joined Claire United Methodist Church, where my grandmother has belonged for more than 80 years. My Uncle Charles opened the Fair Deal Café, and my Aunt Delores married the owner of Thomas Funeral Home.

My grandmother became a cook at the county hospital and married a man with skin like midnight. My grandfather served in the all-black 530th Quartermaster Battalion in World War II, and often had to fight white soldiers for respect. He loved music and had a knack for public relations. In a different world he would have been a band manager or music promoter when he was discharged from the Army. Instead, he worked as a porter, cab driver and security guard. Instead of a career, music became his hobby. He made friends with musicians and compiled a renowned collection of black music (and sports) memorabilia.

To my grandparents, black (which came after “colored”) was Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Jackie Robinson and Cassius Clay. It was Jet magazine and the Omaha Star. It was working as cooks and cabbies Monday through Friday and partying at the Dreamland Ballroom on Saturday night. It was serving your country even when your country sometimes didn’t serve you. It was family and friends. Black was, in a word: home.

On my mother’s side, I am the granddaughter of a peach-toned woman who as a girl was blond. Her beloved grandfather was dark-skinned and his last name was Black. He was known by blacks and whites in the small community where they lived in Texas as “Daddy Black.” As a toddler, she transposed the nickname and called him “Black Daddy.”

One time when Black Daddy was taking his crop to market, white farmers from outside the region saw a black man with a white-looking child and assumed she had been kidnapped. Strangers ripped my grandmother from Black Daddy’s arms, disregarding his explanations and her screams of terror.

She told me that story two years ago, and it finally explained why she was hostile toward my red hair when I was young. It explained why she had rinsed my aunt’s red hair with tea to try to darken it. One of the worst things you could say to my grandmother was that she looked white. I named a white character in one of my novels Lois and my grandmother, mistakenly assuming the character was named after her, was wounded. To her, black was security. Looking white was a danger she didn’t want for her children or grandchildren.

So to me, black is all those things: beauty, pride, food, music, love, home. Yet black is both the sum of my parts and not the whole equation.

I have a privilege that my foremothers and forefathers didn’t—I can identify as more than my race or skin color. I’m a woman, a writer, an American, simply human. It’s one reason I created a blog to promote black authors to others in addition to black readers. Our stories are universal.

I would never tell anyone else how they should identify themselves. But I come from Mom, Dad, Grandmama, Papa, Grandma and Black Daddy. And I am black like them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carleen Brice.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Marj

    Beautifully written. I had tears in my eyes from the passion of your words and the history tied into your journey.

    December 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jorge

    Miss Carleen, you may be a lot of nice things, but genetically you are no longer "black" or "white". By luck of the draw, your parents and ancestors had you give up a lot of genes and acquire others, you have much less predisposition to sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis and other diseases, you have a combination of fast reflexes and good analytical thinking skills and your body is better prepared for childbearing than those of your pure-blood ancestors. If you marry an Asian or Middle Easterner, chances are your children will be even healthier and smarter than you. You are proof of the scientific findings discrediting the theory that racial purity makes superior people. I am too, welcome to the club.

    December 17, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Bill Lee Joel

    Uh? Cuz you are....

    December 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jorge

      A combination of Spaniard, African and Arawak bloods, like many other people of the Caribbean and Central America.

      December 18, 2012 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Maryann

    Carleen, thanks to your eloquence and candid language, I feel as if I've been privileged to have a glimpse of what growing up was like for you: a child of color. As a white woman from farm country USA, I grew up knowing that women, as well as black folks, were not treated equally. Sadly, we still have a ways to go to reach true equality for race and gender. It pleases me to see you hold your head up high for both your race and your gender. Thanks for sharing~

    December 14, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  5. karendegrootcarter

    Carleen Brice's family history reveals what it means not only to be part of a certain demographic, but to be American. Diversity is not just a trendy word, it's a truth lived by generations of countless families, a truth many find difficult to embrace. It's time we all pay more attention to these stories, appreciate them for what they reveal not only about our history but about our present and our very near future, and encourage those with diverse backgrounds to celebrate their heritage. I'm grateful to Carleen Brice for exploring her past in print and hope she opts to do so on a regular basis; I'd love to read much more about her childhood and her family...especially Grandmama, Papa, Grandma, and Black Daddy.

    December 14, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |