It happened when the four of us were running errands together.
“We’re white!” my three-year-old son exclaimed from the back seat of the car. Unspoken words passed between my husband and me: Did he really just say what we think he said? We asked him to repeat himself.
“We’re white!” Canon said again, empathically this time, then added, “And blue!” James and I looked at each other: had our boy just recognized his white mama and black daddy and his own skin’s caramelized blend of both colors?
“You’re right, baby,” I replied. “But we’re white and black, not blue. We’re a little bit of those colors.” He thought about that for a second or two before moving on to the next subject.
Our boy had begun to see color.
I never set out to marry a black man, let alone the son of one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of our time—but I’m getting ahead of myself—nor did I expect to find myself passionate about issues of racial justice. Caring about race was for people of color, not for those of us in the simple majority. Besides, hadn’t our ancestors already apologized for the atrocities of our past?
Why did we need diversity, when there were only a handful of kids who didn’t look like the rest of us?
In the seventh grade, I dressed up as Maya Angelou for English class and performed a reading from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I wore loose flowing fabrics, like I believed she would have worn, and I wove a floral head wrap around my frizzy auburn curls. Chunky beads hung down my pubescent chest and I read to my classmates in my silkiest, richest voice. But I didn’t paint my face black or brown or use any make-up to make myself appear darker. That would have been too much. That would have crossed the line.
And I probably wouldn’t have gotten extra credit for dressing up.
7th grade school photo, the same year I dressed up as poet Maya Angelou.
So we held race and racism, people of color, and the problems of America’s past at arm’s length. We kept a respectful distance and we tried not to stare when a black family came to our church. We cocked our head to the sides at the swimming pool when their mamas put shower caps over their heads, and we tried not to watch when the black boy at summer camp – the only one who’d come from the local AME Church – threw rocks at the side of the dining hall and refused to come inside and eat.
Were all black people that angry?
In our suburban ignorance – and cluelessness as to the conservative, white, privileged world we inhabited – we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know any better because our schools and our churches and our friends were white. We didn’t know any better because, given our town’s socioeconomic differences, we believed we already lived in the throes of diversity: after all, there were skaters and preps, athletes and drama kids, choir nerds and band geeks. We didn’t know any better, and we didn’t think racism had anything to do with us.
How wrong we were.
I was twenty-five when I first took notice of race. An English teacher, the high school celebrated International Day annually, paying homage to more than fifty languages alone spoken within the student body. My freshmen students may have been squirrely, hard-edged adolescents, but they still wanted to be liked. Miss Mac, Miss Mac! They yelled, calling me by the first part of my maiden name. Taste our food! Watch us dance! Look at what we’re wearing!
They wanted me to see and celebrate the beauty that was theirs, the good and necessary diversity that existed within the walls of our classrooms.
So I scarfed down lumpias dipped in toyomansi from my Filipino students.
I watched a group of normally shy and reserved Mexican girls twirl and shake and smile in unison, with a recreated quincienara dance.
I laughed along with my gregarious fifth period students, Jonas and Unique, at the Black Student Union table, when they offered Kool-Aid and their respective mamas’ fried chicken with a side of outlandish humor to a waiting line of customers.
And I began to see color that day. If action stems from taking notice, my eyes were opened to the possibility of something else, because for the first time I realized it wasn’t about me. A seed had been planted: I began to see culture and race in a whole new way. I began to see our differences as a portrait of beauty.
Perhaps intrigue was the initial drive. Perhaps God had begun to open my eyes to the world.
I eventually left teaching and entered full-time outreach ministry, where I spent the majority of my time working with kids of color. I don’t think it had anything more to do with them needing an adult to befriend and mentor them, and me being an available adult to fill that role. That, and the Spirit seemed to think we were a rather good fit for each other.
They also seemed to need me just as much as I needed them.
So I went to Jamba Juice with Leila, a first-generation Tongan, and I stood in line for Frappucinos at Starbucks with Jenise and Monique, who were black. Three Latinas, Flava, Stacy and Maria, proposed an after school exercise club to their high school’s administration and invited me, their newly appointed advisor, to come along and sweat.
We talked about race and we talked about faith and spirituality. I asked them questions about their families, and although I was single at the time, they learned about mine.
One day Leila and I sat on the sidewalk. A song always on her heart, she strummed her ukulele while I asked her questions. It was our usual Tuesday afternoon routine.
“I don’t like white people,” she said bluntly. I looked at her.
“Um, Leila, you realize I’m white, don’t you?” She nodded. Tears filled her eyes.
“But you’re different. You don’t count.” She went on to tell me about the white people who threatened to take away her family’s house, and how her white teachers were always telling her what to do. White people didn’t listen to her. They didn’t respect her. They took one look at her and judged her based on the color of her skin: stupid, lazy, ugly.
I put my arms around her and let her cry on my chest. Hers was not a judgment about me, but an association she’d made by how most white people had treated her.
I could only say I’m sorry.
Around the time of my conversation with Leila, I met my future husband.
A month after our initial introduction, he began to call everyday around two in the afternoon, just to check in and hear about my day, just to let me hear his voice. We soon set up our first date at a nearby wine and bruschetta bar, splitting a bottle of Pinot Noir and a plate of dressed-up bread. By our third date, four days later, he sat me down on his couch and arranged a stack of books on the table in front of me.
“This is my father,” he said, flipping to tabbed pages in various books, all highlighting the Civil Rights Movement. I stared at the pages before me: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were names I remembered from my 11th grade U.S. History class. But James Meredith, the first black man to integrate into the University of Mississippi, was news to me.
“This is huge,” I whispered back to him. “Your dad is a really big deal.” He nodded, his namesake a conversation he’d entered into countless times before. As my fingers touched each picture – pictures of his father marching alongside Dr. King in the South, and posing with novelist James Baldwin in front of a New York City brownstone – a thousand questions ran through my head.
Martin Luther King, Jr. with my father-in-law, James Howard Meredith on the “March Against Fear” in 1966. Courtesy James Meredith on Facebook
My father-in-law James Meredith, the first black student to integrate the University of Mississippi, is escorted into class by U.S. Marshals in 1962. Library of Congress.
James Howard Meredith conducts a radio interview with his twin sons Joseph (front) and James Henry (back) on his lap. (The twins’ names are incorrect in the typed caption.) Courtesy James Henry and Cara Meredith
Not only did I want to know how this prominence shaped the man I already seemed to be falling head over heels for, but I yearned to know how it would affect us. My heart told me there was something different about my James, but was I too different for him? Were we to continue moving forward, would his family, a cornerstone of the black community, accept me, a white woman?
And what of our children? I knew I was jumping the gun, but I couldn’t shake a conversation from my childhood.
“Cara,” my mama once said to me, “you know we’ll accept any man you bring home. But if you marry a black man, I’ll worry about your children: I wouldn’t want them to have to choose between races.” She spoken the only truth she knew, a truth she’d later apologize for and never mention again after her mixed-race grandchildren were born. But would this be the case for us, if we had children together someday? Would our children struggle to find their identity between whiteness and blackness, and what would this blackness mean and represent to them?