The Color of Love
6 December 2012
Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.
My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.
Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.
Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.
When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.
Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”
When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.
It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.
I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.
That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.
Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.
These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him to document an approach to racial healing.
My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelery are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.
In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.
In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.
When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.