White Thug, Black Panther
“Mom, how did you and Dad meet?” I asked my mother
over the phone. It was close to her bedtime. I was praying she was
drowsy so I could catch her off guard.
“Reverend Rob says hi,” my mother replied, in a tone that
meant my man is sitting next to me, so I’m not going to talk about your father.
It always happens. I bring up my father, and suddenly my
mother’s favorite Lifetime movie is on or her fiancé is there and
she just has to catch me up on how his mortuary classes are coming
“Guess what he told me? The more fat you have, the more
slowly you decompose,” she continued.
It’s not that I don’t love hearing about Reverend Rob’s adventures
in the death-care industry, and I’m certainly glad my mother
has found love after thirty years of being single. She and Reverend
Rob make an adorable couple. He’s five foot four; my mother is
five foot zero. I’m taller than both of them, and looking down at
the sight of them in tiny love is so cute, sometimes I have to restrain
myself from patting them on their heads. It’s like you could
just stick them on top of their own wedding cake and serve it.
I know my mother doesn’t enjoy talking about my father, especially
in front of her fiancé. It took months before she even felt
comfortable telling him that her ex-husband was a white man.
“I’m a little worried what he’s going to think,” she said to me,
about a week before she confessed her vanilla sin. Reverend Rob
wasn’t shocked; he just laughed and pointed to a picture of my
mother, my brother, and me. “Come on, now,” he said. “Unless you
adopted your kids, that’s pretty obvious.”
My husband and I are the same race (African American and
everything else except Asian), the same religion, and lived less
than two miles from each other, yet it took us one-year subscriptions
to Match.com and six months of e-mails and chatting before
we met. If it took all that for us to find each other, how in the world
did my mother, a Black Panther from West Philly, meet and marry
a white guy from a small town in upstate Pennsylvania? I don’t
even think my father had black people in his hometown; I remember
being six years old and taking long rides to visit his relatives.
“Where are the sidewalks?” I asked my mother from the backseat
of our Ford Granada.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They seem to just disappear once you
get out of the city, don’t they?”
“Where are the black people?” I asked, later on in the trip. She
gave me the same answer she had for the sidewalks.
I gave up on probing into my mother and father’s dating life that
evening and called a few weeks later. After listening to details of
Reverend Rob’s latest mortuary lesson (bargain coffins may not be
such a bargain), I tried a slight variation on my original question
about my mother and father’s romance.
“Mom, what did you think of Dad when you first met him?”
“I thought he was black,” she replied.
Oh. My. God. Who approved my mother’s Black Panther application?
If she couldn’t tell the difference between a black man and
a white man, how effective could she have been at fighting the
Man? How could she ever think my green-eyed, freckle-faced,
sandy-haired father was black? He’s so pale that my mother’s postdivorce
code name for him was Master Alabaster, as in “Girl, I have
to go to court again. Master Alabaster hasn’t paid child support for
six months, but I saw him driving a brand-new car.”
There was silence on my mother’s end of the line. I started
laughing so hard I coughed and had to throw down the phone for
a moment to compose myself.
“You okay? Get some water! Get some water!” my mother, always
the nurse, yelled through the receiver.
“How could you think he was black?” I choked out between
“What do you mean, How could I think he was black? He lived
on my block!” my mother said, and started laughing herself. “There
were no white people except his mother for miles around! He had
a black stepdad, and all his friends were black. I just thought he
was mixed and came out really light.” Her voice lowered. “I was
naïve, I guess. I was naïve about a lot of things.
“To be sure about his race, I asked him about it on our first
date. He had taken me to an oldies night, and we were dancing. In
the middle of one of our dance moves, I just came out and asked
him, ‘Are you white?’ He said, ‘Yep.’ He told me he was born in an
all-white town in Pennsylvania and moved to West Philly when his
mother got remarried to a black man.
“I thought, Oh, Lord, what have I gotten myself into? We kept
on dating, though. People looked at us like we were crazy. I had a
very big Afro and a very white man on my arm.
“You have to understand, I worked for the Black Panthers in
their free clinic as a nurse and I worked for the Medical Committee
for Human Rights. I probably have an FBI file; I was deep into
Power to the People. Some folks didn’t understand how I could be
with your dad. People had a misconception that Black Panthers
hated all white people. They didn’t understand that I could fall in
love with a white man and still work for social justice.
“The people who were the most vocal about us dating were the
black men. Black men would shout right at me, ‘You trying to look
black with your big Afro, but you’re not black!’ ”
My mother stopped talking. Maybe she was thinking of the
guys who judged her for being with a white guy; perhaps she was
figuring out that their disapproving reactions were why it took her
so long to tell Reverend Rob that her ex-husband is white. Or
maybe she was wondering why she didn’t run off and be with a
black man when she had the chance. Once, when my mother
found out my father was cheating on her, I heard her on the phone
crying to her best friend, “I knew I should have married that
African prince in college! He was good to me, and he was rich! He
took me to Macy’s and told me to pick out anything I wanted!”
Later that day, I informed her that if she had married the
prince, she wouldn’t have been blessed with me (conceited at eight
years old!). My mother’s face dropped with the realization that I
had overheard her conversation. She put her hands on my shoulders
and said she wouldn’t give me up for anything in the world,
not even to be an African princess with a high-limit Macy’s account.
Faced by my mother’s silence, I had to think of a question that
would lead her to tell a story. My mother will spill her guts about
anything as long as she gets to tell a long, animated story while
doing it. She sometimes preaches the children’s sermon at her
church, and all week leading up to Sunday, she practices her storytelling
choreography in front of a mirror. Her arms flail at her sides
as she pretends she’s outrunning and ducking imaginary sins. She
sometimes recites her own poems to the children, the subject matter
of which is often black pride. I remember a pastor coming up
to her after a particularly Afrocentric sermon. “You used to be
married to a white man?” he asked. “I just don’t believe it.”
“Mom, what did Dad do when black guys would step to you
about being with him?”
My mother laughed again. I heard her rise from her sofa to
start the story. “Your father was crazy. He’d be all up in their faces,
trying to fight them. More than one date ended with me saying,
‘Jack, please. Let’s just go.’
“Of course, no one could believe I actually married the white
man, but the biggest shocker was when I had you. I was head nurse
at the city hospital back then, so I knew nurses all over town. I
knew some in Pennsylvania Hospital, where you were born. Some
of the nurses there hadn’t seen me in years and only knew me as
this militant Black Panther.
“When I was in the hospital recuperating from having you, this
nurse who knew me from college saw how white you were and
checked the wristband three times before she gave you to me. I had
to say ‘Yes, this is my baby’ many times during the days after you
My mother started laughing again, then yawned. I told her to
go to sleep, but she ignored me. No story goes unfinished with her,
especially if she’s not paying the long distance charges.
“I had to share a room with a white lady, and she was not too
happy about my chocolate butt being in the room with her. She
wouldn’t even speak to me. Soon after they brought her in, her
electric hospital bed started folding up, with her and her baby in it.
She had just had a C-section and couldn’t move too well, so I
grabbed her baby and snatched the plug out of the wall to make
the bed stop folding up on her. Then she had the nerve to start
screaming like I was trying to steal her baby and didn’t even thank
me for getting her baby out of the bed.
“As if on cue, your dad walks in to see how I’m doing. The
white lady still hadn’t recovered from the shock of being eaten by
her own hospital bed, and then in comes a white man to kiss me
on the lips! That lady looked like she wished the bed would eat her
back up again.
“When your dad left, she was steaming. Then one of the big
doctors at the hospital comes in to see me. We had both volunteered
at the Human Rights Committee together. He nods to her,
and goes by her bed, walks right up to me, and says, ‘Hey, Gwen,
you still head nurse at City?’ Her eyes got so big. Her whole world
changed that day.
“The next day, I said good morning to the woman and she
wouldn’t say anything back. So later, a nurse came in while I was
holding you and asked your name. I said, ‘Angela’; then, loudly, I
added, ‘After Angela Davis!’ just to make her think she was sharing
the room with a radical.
“But that wasn’t right. I didn’t name you after Angela Davis. I
named you after I saw your face. You looked just like an angel, and
I knew there was no other name I could give you.”
Damn, I kinda wanted to be named after Angela Davis. Oh, well.
I heard my mother’s microwave go off. The beep seemed to jolt
her out of reminiscing. Her voice lowered. “I have to go,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, a little saddened at the abrupt ending. Hearing
the disappointment in my voice, she perked up.
“Did I tell you I’m on Weight Watchers again? I get weighed in
tomorrow. I’ll call and let you know how much I’ve lost! If I could
get back down to the size I was when I had you, I’d be a foxy
“Okay, good night, foxy mama,” I replied, hanging up the
phone and reminding myself to update my mother’s slang on my
next visit home.
After I hung up, I wondered if there was a Black Panther alumni
newsletter and if my mother had recently sent in an update.
Gwen Nissel ’74 writes to say that she regularly chats
about Weight Watchers points with her half-white daughter.
Though she no longer actively participates in the revolution,
she is happy to announce that the divorce from the white
man finally went through and she is now engaged to a black