They Call Me "Negro"
By Dr. Ruth L. Baskerville
Early family photo in 1951. The author is on the bottom right.
In 1943 in Manhattan, NY, a 46-year old African- and Native-American man who was a renowned band director and jazz composer marries a 19-year old naive European-American woman of Jewish Ukrainian descent, who wants to sing professionally. I’m the second of five children.
At age four, I overhear Mommy telling her Mom she won’t leave Daddy and me in order to come back home with my whiter looking brother. Every year of our growing up, Mommy takes the whitest looking child to find new housing, and our unwanted family moves in the middle of the night. We’re in new schools, too.There are no "Mulattos" in our neighborhoods, and I’m constantly asked, “Where are you from? I mean, what are you?” The questioners have distorted faces, uncomfortable with their ambivalence about my ethnicity. Even today, they need to fit me into a race category before they can utter their next sentence! “You’re Saudi – Moroccan – Indian – Spanish – Italian - definitely foreign!” I’m from New York!
By my high school years, Daddy’s jazz and blues piano playing, and his writing musical arrangements for greats like Billie Holiday are competing with Rock ‘n Roll. Mommy works more and Daddy less until his health causes him to stop altogether. He never lets racism defeat him, and Mommy says, “Your Daddy gave me ME!”
I go to college and soon fall in love, but the Black females tell me to “pass” and leave their Black men alone. I marry that young man, who becomes my true love for forty-five years! My four siblings choose European-American mates and almost exclusively European-American friends. My husband and I attain advanced degrees and career success, but the pain of prejudice follows us everywhere. When I shop alone, I receive immediate service. But when my husband and I shop together, we’re followed in stores, asked to show receipts for our purchases, and face housing discrimination.
At my first teaching job, colleagues scold me for “deceiving” them by appearing to be Italian. During the same time period, our three-year-old daughter comes home from pre-school sobbing because a classmate told her I was not her mother, since we’re not the same color. Innocence stolen, our child is forced into being exposed to the meaning of racism.
When I fly, I’m “randomly” stopped at security to have my luggage poked, my hands swabbed, and/or my body inappropriately patted down before I can get on the plane. I’m profiled alongside other brown-skinned people who also read as potential terrorists, to security or to white passengers who report their concerns in whispers, stealing glances our way.
When my siblings and I compare birth certificates for the first time, we discover that four of us have “White” listed under “Race,” and one has “Negro.” We’re all interracial children from the same parents, who died before we could ask them about this enigma. I proudly accept being “Negro” - African-American - although I embrace my full heritage and keep a healthy sense of humor whenever anyone asks, “What are you?”