Detail from the cover of Angela Nissel's Mixed.
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 along.
"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 laughs.
"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 were born."
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 mama!" "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 Baptist preacher.
Excerpted from Mixed by Angela Nissel Copyright (c) 2006 by Angela Nissel. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.