Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success

Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success

by Carolyn Marie Wilkins

ISBN: 9780826218995

Publisher University of Missouri

Published in Calendars/Multicultural

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Black Bourgeois Blues

That girl was staring at me, I could feel it from across the room. Tugging surreptitiously at the hem of my miniskirt, I pushed my way through the crowd and poured myself another drink from the makeshift bar. A second paper cupful of cheap Chianti did little to relieve my anxiety.

I didn't know a soul in the room.

It was September 1969, and I was attending my first-ever party as a college student. I had never lived away from home before, and hard as I was trying to hide it, I had never tasted an alcoholic drink before that night. More than anything, I wanted to be as cool as the other longhaired, blue-jeaned flower children who filled the small apartment.

Jefferson Airplane's music poured from a colossal speaker propped on a milk crate in the corner. "Don't you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love?" screamed Grace Slick. Yes I did. Desperately.

Clutching my drink, I took a deep breath and headed toward the kitchen. When I turned around, the girl was standing right in front of me. She was staring even harder.

"What are you?" she said, inspecting me through her granny glasses.

"Excuse me?"

"What are you? You know, what country are you from?"

"I'm American. I was born in Chicago."

"Oh." Clearly unsatisfied, she twirled a lock of strawberry blonde hair between her fingers. "You know what I mean. I mean, what ethnicity are you?"

Here we go again, I thought. A familiar knot began to tighten in my gut. I looked around for someone else to talk to, but the girl had planted herself directly in my path. There was no escape.

"I'm black," I replied, using the terminology of the day.

A wrinkle of irritation creased her face and twisted her thin lips into a pout.

"No you're not," she said. "Your skin is nowhere near black. You're more like tan. Are you Israeli?"

"I told you, I'm black." My mother had raised me to be polite to strangers, but this was getting ridiculous. The girl's high twangy voice reverberated across the room, and a small crowd began to gather.

"I know. One of your parents must be white, then," an onlooker piped up.

"You definitely don't talk like a black person," offered another voice from the back of the room.

"Yeah. You don't even have a southern accent."

This was getting way out of hand.

"No. I'm black. Both my parents are black. My whole family is black. Excuse me." Abandoning all hope of ever fitting in with this crowd, I pushed past my tormentors and fled into the crisp September night.

In the forty years that have passed since this incident, I have had to explain my racial background to curious strangers on a fairly regular basis. When I was growing up, my parents bypassed the Chicago public school system and placed me in an elite private academy where I studied side by side with the children of University of Chicago professors. My family lived in an integrated neighborhood, and my brothers and I played with white, black, and Asian kids as equals.

Although I now have good friends of all colors, there is no denying that much of my life has been spent straddling the racial divide. Some of the most painful rejections of my blackness have come not from whites, whose ignorance on the subject of racial identity is at least somewhat understandable, but from my fellow blacks. My first serious boyfriend was a dark-skinned black militant from the slums of North Philadelphia. He loved my yellow skin and long hair, in private, but when his friends saw us out walking in the 'hood one day, they thought I was a white girl and taunted him about it later. My boyfriend was horrified. Desperate to please him, I cut my shoulder-length hair into an Afro the very next day, but the damage had been done. He dumped me within a matter of weeks.

As I grew to adulthood, these and other incidents left me scarred and confused. Who was I, really? Where did I truly belong? When I chose to marry a white man, the cloud of racial angst swirling around me thickened. The idea that I could be both proud of my African American roots and in love with someone of another race upset folks on both sides of the color line.

Even when they don't know about my interracial marriage, some people refuse to believe I am black. My wavy hair, light complexion, and private school vocabulary confuses them, threatening their stereotypical concepts of African Americans. Since I look and act so "white," why on earth would I insist on calling myself black?

This identity crisis would not have been an issue for my parents. They knew who they were. When Mom and Dad grew up in the 1940s, there was little social contact between whites and blacks. De facto segregation was in full force, even in the big northern cities, and the kind of interracial college party I attended in 1969 would have been extremely rare.

My mother tells a story about the first time she met her roommate at Smith College. The girl was white, from a wealthy New England family. As Mom got ready to go to bed that night, she noticed that her roommate was staring at her. Feeling more than a little self-conscious, my mother finally asked the girl what she was looking at. The roommate sheepishly replied that she was looking for Mom's tail. She had heard that all black people had tails and, never having been this close to a black person before, she wanted to see if the story was true.

During the 1950s blacks were routinely discriminated against in virtually every area of American life. When my parents were in college, African American students were often excluded from collegiate social events. White fraternities and sororities in the North as well as in the South barred black students from membership. My parents' generation responded by creating their own alternative world of all-black social organizations. There were hundreds of African American social clubs and women's groups; there were black fraternities and sororities. And black folks have run their own churches since before the end of slavery.

Within this all-black world, there were many layers and levels of prestige. The criteria for who would get admitted and who would get excluded from the top tier of black society were based on a complex mixture of wealth, social influence, and family connections. Skin color was very important. For the social climber trying to enter black society, a light complexion, while not an absolute requirement, gave one a huge advantage. Back in the day, black folks had a saying: "If you're white, you're alright. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back."

In Black Bourgeoisie, his scathing 1957 study of African American middleclass social mores, the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier described the "unavowed color snobbishness" and insular tendencies he found within many black organizations. Blacks participated in "society" activities not simply for social reasons, Frazier observed, but "in order to maintain status or as a part of the competition for status." In Frazier's view, the driving rationale behind the creation of an alternative elite world of black bourgeois social activities was to differentiate these bourgeois blacks "from the masses of poorer Negroes and at the same time compensate for the exclusion of the black bourgeoisie from the larger white community."

When it came to differentiating themselves from the majority of Chicago's African Americans in 1950, the Wilkins family stood near the top of the social ladder. My paternal grandfather, J. Ernest Wilkins, was a successful attorney, a powerful figure in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and an active member in Sigma Pi Phi, an invitation-only society for African American men of distinction. He and his pale-skinned blue-eyed wife, Lucile, were among the rarified handful of blacks with advanced degrees from the University of Chicago.

Each of J. Ernest and Lucile's three sons was distinguished in his own right. My father, Julian, was a Harvard Law graduate and a successful attorney. His brother John, also a Harvard Law graduate, worked for the Justice Department in Washington. And my uncle J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was a physics prodigy and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at the age of nineteen. No one on the Wilkins side of the family featured a skin color darker than almond.

My mother's family, the Sweeneys, had amassed their own string of accomplishments. My grandfather Rev. Samuel Sweeney, pastor of the largest Methodist church in Harlem, was an Oberlin graduate who spoke Greek and Latin. Before my mother was allowed to marry my father, her parents made her promise that she would finish her education. For the first six months of her married life, Mom dutifully finished up her master's degree in musicology at Smith College in Massachusetts while my father waited back home in Chicago.

The Wilkins family's star rose even higher in the black bourgeois firmament when my grandfather J. Ernest Wilkins was appointed U.S. assistant secretary of labor in 1954. My grandfather was the first black man ever to participate in a Cabinet meeting and was sent abroad to represent the United States at labor conferences in Europe and the Caribbean. His groundbreaking appointment made front-page news in newspapers across the country. In 1957 J. Ernest again made history when he served as the lone black member on the first U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

As I was coming of age in the 1960s, however, times were changing. With the coming of integration, the tight-knit world of the black elite, while it didn't entirely fade away, lost its place as the sole arbiter of social success. A new militancy was sweeping through the black community, and in many quarters a light complexion was no longer such a desirable commodity. By the time I entered college, "Black" had become "Beautiful." Afros were in, and "high yellow" blacks like me scrambled to prove that, despite our light skin, we were "down with the Revolution."

Despite the winds of change blowing through their color-conscious world, however, my parents held fast to the old values. When I was a kid they dragged me kicking and screaming to meetings of the elite Jack and Jill Club, in the hopes that I would begin to make the proper social contacts early in life. When I turned sixteen, my folks deposited a hefty sum of money with the Links Society so that I could "come out" in the prestigious organization's annual spring debutante ball.

For months leading up to the cotillion, my fellow debutantes and I lived in a bizarre time warp. In a large ballroom deep on Chicago's South Side, we put our modern selves aside. Dressed in our Sunday best, we perched daintily on the edges of our chairs while doddering blue-haired ladies with skin the color of almond paste lectured us on the arcane niceties of proper etiquette. I learned what all the forks were for, how to address a duke or an earl in case I happened to meet one, and most important, how to curtsey. Every Saturday for months under the watchful eyes of these women, my long-suffering boyfriend and I practiced our minuets, waltzes, and the most sedate cha-cha you ever saw west of Buckingham Palace.

No one darker than a paper bag joined our little soirees. Our clothing, hairstyles, and demeanor were inspected weekly to ensure compliance with "proper" bourgeois social standards. One girl showed up for practice in an Afro one day. She was quietly taken aside and asked to leave the group. When the night of the Big Dance finally arrived, my parents beamed with pride from the front row as my fellow debutantes and I, attired in formal gowns and sixteen-button gloves, waltzed awkwardly around the room on the arms of our escorts. All told, my experience as a black debutante ranks among the most miserable moments of my life. If this was what my family's black heritage was all about, I wanted no part of it.

However, there was someone in my family who had not allowed the social conventions demanded by "proper" black society to limit her. Despite her status as the "grand dame" of our extended family clan, my father's Aunt Marjory had managed to retain her earthy vitality. When I was around her, I felt connected to a family history that was about much more than prestige and material success. Because her sister had been married to my famous grandfather J. Ernest Wilkins, Aunt Marjory was technically my great-aunt. But most people who knew her, even those who were not relatives, just called her Aunt Marj.

By the time I got to know her, Aunt Marj was already in her late eighties. She felt she had earned the right to say and do just about whatever she wanted. Her sharp tongue and eccentric ways were legendary, as were her warmth and generosity.

One thing that Aunt Marjory and I had in common was music. She played the piano, composed, and sang, just as I did. Back in the 1920s she had studied at the prestigious Conservatorio di Guiseppe Verdi in Milan, where Giacomo Puccini, Gian Carlo Menotti, and a host of Italy's most respected composers and conducters had received their training. A true citizen of the world, Aunt Marj spoke Italian and at least three other languages. When she came back to the States she founded the J. Marjory Jackson Academy of the Arts, which thrived in the heart of Brooklyn's tough Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood for the next fifty years. Although her eyesight was failing, Aunt Marjory remained active, still teaching music, Spanish, and French to a motley crew of preschoolers in her basement.

A four-foot-ten-inch bundle of dynamite, Aunt Marj had never met a crowd she couldn't entertain. One Christmas Eve when she was on her way from New York to Chicago, a snowstorm grounded her plane for several hours. Family legend has it that Aunt Marj, unfazed, unpacked a small portable keyboard and proceeded to entertain the stranded passengers until the plane was able to take off again.

Never content merely to drift through life, she was always up for an adventure. Even at eighty-five, when her diet consisted largely of instant mashed potatoes and orange soda, she talked of taking a trip to Europe "sometime soon," to sit along the great boulevards of Paris and watch the people. "And you know what I'm going to do?" she'd say with a glint in her eye. "I'm going to get a gigolo to keep me company. Just you wait and see!"

Aunt Marjory had always been one to extend a helping hand to anyone who needed it, especially family members. She was the Queen, the Matriarch, and if you were hurting, for whatever reason, she was the one you went to for an encouraging word. Each Thanksgiving, she'd invite twenty friends and family members to share the holiday with her. And, after every Thanksgiving dinner, she'd remind all the family members that our ancestors came from Africa.

With her chest puffed out and her head up high, Aunt Marjory would declaim in her most resonant tones. "More than two hundred years ago your ancestor Jeremiah came to New York on a slave ship from Madagascar. He docked at Fulton Street right here in Brooklyn." At this point in her narrative, she would cock her head and look at each of us in turn.

"I'll bet you didn't even know that they had a slave market here. But they did. Jeremiah was sold at a slave auction to a man named Robinson and went to live in Kentucky. He was a slave. But he escaped! He followed the Underground Railroad to freedom in Calgary, Canada. There he met a beautiful Indian woman from the Saskatoon tribe and they married. This is the beginning of our family. We came from Africa, but now we live all over the world."

At every family gathering, Aunt Marj would tell the story of Jeremiah and our African ancestors. She would speak of the trials they endured during slavery, and of our vast extended family, which now included just about every race and color under the sun. Then she would have us sing Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." Which was pretty funny, because these were the only words any of us ever learned to that song. We'd just repeat it over and over again in a joyous raucous chorus. Stomping our feet and clapping along, we'd all belt it out together: "We are family! We are family! We are family!"

Aunt Marj tried her best to pass along her encyclopedic knowledge of family lore to the next generation. I cannot remember any visit to her brownstone that did not include a lengthy session with her photo albums.

"Listen, Carolyn," she would say. "Go in my study and bring me my albums."

Dutifully, I would rise from the overstuffed sofa and squeeze into the cramped room that she used as a study. The room was six feet wide at best. On the desk at the end of the room sat a small typewriter and a Dictaphone, buried under tottering piles of paper. The shelves lining the walls on both sides of the room sagged under the weight of Aunt Marj's memorabilia. There was her doll collection, scores of dolls in their native costumes from all over the world. There were the statues, and delicate figurines, and glass paperweights, given as gifts by grateful students. There were plaques, and framed photos of Aunt Marj with mayors, congressmen, students, and friends.

And then there were the photo albums. Ten bulging volumes. A lifetime of memories.

Carefully I pried one loose from between a glass ballerina and a stack of old vinyl record albums.

"Here we are," I said, carrying it back to the living room and placing it between us on the sofa.

"This is your family, Carolyn. We come from every continent on this planet. It's very important to know who you are and who your family is."

For the next three hours, we'd go through the scrapbooks one by one. You could see the years drop away as she lovingly turned the pages. None of the pictures was labeled, but Aunt Marj knew who and what was in each snapshot.

Here was Uncle Charles, her ne'er-do-well brother who, according to Aunt Marj, had himself buried faced down so that the entire world could "kiss his you-know-what."

Here was Aunt Francis, the Liberian orphan that Aunt Marj's father adopted during a missionary trip to Africa in the 1930s.

Here was Aunt Marj walking down the streets of Milan with her schoolmates at the Conservatorio in 1921.


Excerpted from "Damn Near White: An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success" by Carolyn Marie Wilkins. Copyright © 0 by Carolyn Marie Wilkins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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