I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921, April Fool’s Day, in Poland. I don’t remember the name of the town where I was born, but I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwarja Zylska. My parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and I got rid of that name when I was nineteen and never used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.
The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it.
Mommy, after all, did not really look like me. In fact, she didn’t look like Richie, or David—or any of her children for that matter. We were all clearly black, of various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly hair. Mommy was by her own definition, “light-skinned,” a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew, that told me. It was in my blood, you might say, and however the notion got there, it bothered me greatly. Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: “Is James adopted?” which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy.
Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no farther than our own mother. Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it. She couldn’t stand racists of either color and had great distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich whites by putting on airs and “doing silly things like covering their couches with plastic and holding teacups with their pinkies out.” “What fools!” she’d hiss.
…One afternoon on the way home from church I asked her whether God was black or white.
A deep sigh. “Oh boy…God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
“Does he like black or white people better?”
“He loves all people. He’s a spirit.”
“What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
Nobody liked me. That’s how I felt as a child. I know what it feels like when people laughing at you walking down the street, or snicker when they hear you speaking Yiddish, or just look at you with hate in their eyes. You know a Jew living in Suffolk when I was coming up could be lonely even if there were fifteen of them standing in the room, I don’t know why; it’s that feeling that nobody likes you; that’s how I felt, living in the South. You were different from everyone and liked by very few. There were white sections of Suffolk, like the Riverview section, where Jews weren’t allowed to own property. It said that on the deeds and you can look them up. They’d say “for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants only.” That was the law there and they meant it. The Jews in Suffolk did stick together, but even among Jews my family was low because we dealt with shvartses. So I didn’t have a lot of Jewish friends either.
To further escape from painful reality, I created an imaginary world for myself. I believed my true self was a boy who lived in the mirror. I’d lock myself in the bathroom and spend long hours playing with him. He looked just like me. I’d stare at him. Kiss him. Make faces at him and order him around. Unlike my siblings, he had no opinions. He would listen to me. “If I’m here and you’re me, how can you be there at the same time?” I’d ask. He’d shrug and smile. I’d shout at him, abuse him verbally. “Give me an answer!” I’d snarl. I would turn to leave, but when I wheeled around he was always there, waiting for me. I had an ache inside, a longing, but I didn’t know where it came from or why I had it. The boy in the mirror, he didn’t seem to have an ache. He was free. He was never hungry, he had his own bed probably, and his mother wasn’t white. I hated him. “Go away!” I’d shout. “Hurry up! Get on out!” but he’d never leave.
…I myself had no idea who I was. I loved my mother yet looked nothing like her. Neither did I look like the role models in my life—my stepfather, my godparents, other relatives—all of whom were black. And they looked nothing like the other heroes I saw, the guys in the movies, white men like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who beat the bad guys and in the end got the pretty girl—who, incidentally, was always white.
The question of race was like the power of the moon in my house. It’s what made the river flow, the ocean swell, and the tide rise, but it was a silent power, intractable, indomitable, indisputable, and thus completely ignorable. Mommy kept us at a frantic living pace that left no time for the problem.
As I walked home, holding Mommy’s hand while she fumed, I thought it would be easier if we were just one color, black or white. I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul. I don’t consider myself Jewish, but when I look at Holocaust photographs of Jewish women whose children have been wrenched from them by Nazi soldiers, the women look like my own mother and I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.
You know, my whole life changed after I fell in love. It was like the sun started shining on me for the first time, and for the first time in my life I began to smile. I was loved, I was loved, and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I wasn’t worried about getting caught, but I did notice that Peter’s friends were terrified of me; they stayed clear anytime I came near them. They’d walk away from me if they saw me walking down the road coming toward them, and if they came into the store, they wouldn’t even look at me. That started to worry me a little but I didn’t worry much. Then after a while, my period was late. By a week.
You know, the thing was, I was supposed to be white and “number one,” too. That was a big thing in the South. You’re white, and even if you’re a Jew, since you’re white you’re better than a so-called colored. Well, I didn’t feel number one with nobody but him, and I didn’t give a hoot that he was black. He was kind! And good! I knew that! And I wanted to tell folks that, I wanted to shout out, “Hey y’all, it really doesn’t matter!” I actually believed folks would accept that, that they’d see what a good person he was and maybe accept us, and I went through a few days of thinking this, after which I told him one night, “Let’s run off to the country and get married,” and he said, “No way. I don’t know where that’s been done before, white and black marrying in Virginia. They will surely hang me.”
I was always grateful to Aunt Betts for that. Even though she slammed the door in my face years later, I never felt bitter toward her. She had her own life and her own set of hurts to deal with, and after all, I wasn’t her child. Mameh’s sisters were more about money than anything else, and any hurts that popped up along the way, they just swept them under the rug. They were trying hard to be American, you know, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind. But you know what happens when you do that. If you throw water on the floor it will always find a hole, believe me.
“They’re making me marry her,” he said. “My folks are making me.”
“Did you get her pregnant?”
Oh, that messed me up. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore and walked back through the black neighborhood, into the store, and went upstairs and cried my heart out, because I still loved him. I went through this entire ordeal and here he was getting busy with somebody else. The fact that he was black and the girl he was marrying was black—well, that hurt me even more. If the world were fair, I suppose I would have married him, but there was no way that could happen in Virginia. Not in 1937.
I made up my mind then that I was going to leave Suffolk for good.
“I’ll never learn to drive,” she said.
The irony was that Mommy knew how to drive before she was eighteen. She drove her father’s 1936 Ford back in Suffolk, Virginia. Not only did she drive it, she drove it well enough to pull a trailer behind it full of wholesale supplies for her family’s grocery store. She drove the care and trailer on paved and dirt roads between Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and North Carolina. She could back the trailer up with the goods in it, unload it at the store, back the car into the yard, unhook the trailer, and park the car in the garage, backing in. But she had left her past so far behind that she literally did to know how to drive. Rachel Deborah Shilsky could drive a car and pull a trailer behind it, but Ruth McBride Jordan had never touched a steering wheel before that day in 1973, and you can make book on it.
I kept in touch with her for many years. She helped me through college and helped me get into graduate school as well; she didn’t pay my way, but if I had an emergency, she would help. One morning a couple of years later when I was at Oberlin College, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from her telling me that her husband had died suddenly of cancer. Later that day I was standing on the street with a group of black students and one of them said, “Forget these whiteys. They’re all rich. They got no problems,” and I said, “Yeah, man, I hear you,” while inside my pocket was the folded letter holding the heartbroken words of an old white lady who had always gone out of her way to help me—and many others like me. It hurt me a little bit to stand there and lie. Sometimes it seemed like the truth was a bandy-legged soul who dashed from one side of the world to the other and I could never find him.
“I know you’re gonna marry a shvartse. You’re making a mistake.” That stopped me cold, because I didn’t know how he learned it. To this day I don’t know. He said, “If you marry a nigger, don’t ever come home again. Don’t come back.”
“I’ll always come to see Mameh.”
“Not if you marry a nigger you won’t,” he said. “Don’t come back.”
Like most of the Jews in Suffolk they treated me very kindly, truly warm and welcoming, as if I were one of them, which in an odd way I suppose I was. I found it odd and amazing when white people treated me that way, as if there were no barriers between us. It said a lot about this religion—Judaism—that some of its followers, old southern crackers who talked with southern twangs and wore straw hats, seemed to believe that its covenants went beyond the color of one’s skin. The Sheffers, Helen Weintraub, the Jaffes, they talked to me in person and by letter in a manner and tone that, in essence, said “Don’t forget us. We have survived her. Your mother was part of this…”
As I walked along the wharf and looked over the Nansemond River, which was colored an odd purple by the light of the moon, I said to myself, “What am I doing here? This place is so lonely. I gotta get out of here.” It suddenly occurred to me that my grandmother had walked around here and gazed upon this water many times, and the loneliness and agony that Hudis Shilsky felt as a Jew in this lonely southern town—far from her mother and sisters in New York, unable to speak English, a disabled Polish immigrant whose husband had no love for her and whose dreams of seeing her children grow up in America vanished as her life drained out of her at the age of forty-six—suddenly rose up in my blood and washed over me in waves. A penetrating loneliness covered me, lay on me so heavily I had to sit down and cover my face. I had no tears to shed. They were done long ago, but a new pain and a new awareness were born inside me. The uncertainty that lived inside me began to dissipate; the ache that the little boy who stared in the mirror felt was gone. My own humanity was awakened, rising up to greet me with a handshake as I watched the first glimmers of sunlight peek over the horizon.
There was no turning back after my mother died. I stayed on the black side because that was the only place I could stay. The few problems I had with black folks were nothing compared to the grief white folks dished out. With whites it was no question. You weren’t accepted to be with a black man and that was that. They’d say forget it. Are you crazy? A nigger and you? No way. They called you white trash. That’s what they called me. Nowadays these mixed couples get on TV every other day complaining, “Oh, it’s hard for us.” They have cars and television and homes and they’re complaining. Jungle fever they call it, flapping their jaws and making the whole thing sound stupid. They didn’t have to run for their lives like we did.
Sometimes without conscious realization, our thoughts, our faith, our interests are entered into the past…We talk about other times, other places, other persons, and lose our living hold on the present. Sometimes we think if we could just go back in time we would be happy. But anyone who attempts to reenter the past is sure to be disappointed. Anyone who has ever revisited the place of his birth after years of absence is shocked by the differences between the way the place actually is, and the way he has remembered it. He may walk along old familiar streets and roads, but he is a stranger in a strange land. He has thought of this place as home, but he finds he is no longer here even in spirit. He has gone onto a new and different life, and in thinking longingly of the past, he has been giving thought and interest to something that no longer really exists.
Doctors found squamous cell cancer in a small mole they removed from Ma’s face, a condition caused by too much exposure to the sun. Ironically, it’s a condition that affects mostly white people. To the very end, Mommy is a flying compilation of competing interests and conflicts, a black woman in white skin, with black children and a white woman’s physical problem.
For her, her Jewish side is gone. She opened the door for me but closed it for herself long ago, and for her to crack it open and peek inside was like eating fire. She’d look in and stagger back, blinded, as the facts of her own history poured over her like lava. As she revealed the facts of her life I felt helpless, like I was watching her die and be reborn again (yet there was a cleansing element, too), because after years of hiding, she opened up and began to talk about the past, and as she did so, I was the one who wanted to run for cover…Imagine, if you will, five thousand years of Jewish history landing in your lap in the space of months. It sent me tumbling through my own abyss of sorts, trying to salvage what I could of my feelings and emotions, which would be scattered to the winds as she talked.
Mommy’s children are extraordinary people, most of them leaders in their own right. All of them have toted more mental baggage and dealt with more hardship than they care to remember, yet they carry themselves with a giant measure of dignity, humility, and humor. Like any family we have problems, but we have always been close. Through marriage, adoptions, love-ins, and shack-ups, the original dozen has expanded into dozens and dozens more—wives, husbands, children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews—ranging from dark-skinned to light-skinned; from black kinky hair to blonde hair and blue eyes. In running from her past, Mommy has created her own nation, a rainbow coalition that descends on her house every Christmas and Thanksgiving and sleeps everywhere—on the floor, on rugs, in shifts; sleeping double, triple to a bed, “two up, three down,” just like old times.
She catches all of her important moments with a camera, waddling down Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue from the A train to Long Island College Hospital to take pictures of my daughter Azure’s first days of life; standing my toddler son, Jordan, up against a tree in her yard so she can snap a quick picture of him in his Easter outfit. Her photos are horrible, heads cut off, pictures of nothing, a table, a hand, a chair. Still, she shoots pictures of any event that’s important to her, knowing that each memory is too important to lose, having lost so many before.