Passing

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I sensed it was important to establish common ground quickly. I told my radio host that I had just visited another beautiful Southern area, Hertford, North Carolina, in the eastern end of the state where my father was born. “By jiminy,” he drawled, “I don’t believe it! That’s where I’m from. Isn’t it truly God’s country! Now don’t tell too many people about it, because we want to keep it small and secret. By jiminy! I knew I was going to like you.” His interview was straightforward, with no blind curves or cul-desacs. When it was over, I asked him how he thought white Southerners would respond to my story. “Well, Shirlee,” he said, “we’ve all known this for years. Some of the ol’-timers may not like to see it in print, but what the heck, it’s all part of that devilish thing we call history.”

I think there is a sea change. It is surely a new day when white Americans will look at their nonwhite roots.
 

Early one Saturday morning the graceful Southern voice of an elderly man told me was sorry to interrupt my weekend privacy but he had just finished my book and could not wait until Monday to talk with me. He had called directory assistance for my telephone number.

Since regional accents often disguise race, I couldn’t tell whether he was black or white. He wanted to know more about the Halyburton side of my family, which he had researched and said he was related to, thus making him distantly related to me. I was pleased to be able to supply him with facts about two Halyburton generations of which he had no knowledge, dating back to the late 1600s in Scotland. After we had talked a bit, he told me how close he felt to various aspects of the book, because, like my father, he was a Baptist preacher.

I asked him what he called himself.

“My family is mixed like yours, and I think of myself as a mulatto. I know I had two black aunts, but somehow we got whiter.”

“What does your community call you?” I queried.

“Oh, white, of course.”

“And your congregation?”

“My congregation is white.”

The minister told me that he lived in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountain area of North Carolina and that he was going to preach about my book on Sunday. I would like to have been in that audience.

It comforts me to think there is a sea change in America. It is surely a new day when white Americans are willing to look at their roots and find that some of them are possibly colored. Perhaps some of us are beginning to do what one anthropologist suggested would be the first step in eliminating racism: separating our need to belong from the dangerous temptation to hate others.

I doubt whether these letters would have been written even five years ago. I doubt if strangers would have been calling and talking softly about these most private aspects of their lives. It has buoyed me that all the response so far has been positive, open, and curious. And perhaps the ultimate reconciliation came in a letter from a white woman in a small town in Illinois. She wrote of the man I had discovered to be one of the progenitors of my family, a white Virginia judge who sired and raised my great-grandfather, Edward Everett Morris, a mulatto slave. “One of your ancestors, James Dandridge Halyburton, is my husband’s great-great-grandfather. Should you care to correspond with us, we would be delighted. I truly enjoyed your book and am glad that I have found another part of the family.”

Recently, Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist and the author of several books on evolutionary biology, wrote: “We all agree that we will face the truth together. . . . We have only one joint fate, and we must create it together.” At the confidences shared and the secrets disclosed I am not surprised. In America I believe there is now a profound need, a deep preternatural yearning to connect—to feel related, to be part of that special group we call family.