THE BLOG

How I Realized I Was Part Black

08/31/2012 05:09 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT

2012-08-30-Dianneblog5.jpg

Take a look at my picture. Can you tell what race I am? It is clear I am mixed with something, but what?

My mother was a blonde Latvian who had escaped the country as the Russians were crossing the border and laying claim to Latvia during the war. She made her way to Canada, became pregnant, had me out of wedlock and eventually settled down with my stepfather, a nice Jewish fella. We lived in various neighborhoods in downtown Toronto before moving to a Jewish suburb. Like many people of that generation she kept her secrets. One of them was who my genetic father was.

At the age of 29 I left Toronto, moved to Los Angeles and received a huge shock. I moved to a neighborhood that was on the divide between white (north of Olympic, mid-city going east) and black (south of Olympic). And not just black for a few neighborhoods, but for miles and miles! "Wow," I remember thinking. I was speechless in a way. "They take segregation seriously down here."

My next "wow" moment came when people I started to make friends with, progressive, white liberals all of them, told me to watch out, be careful, stay safe because I was in a black community. But I walked my dog everyday and saw only lovely historic homes, well manicured lawns, expensive cars in driveways and wondered what my so-called "liberal" friends were talking about. I felt completely safe. (I have lived in this community for half my life and only felt unsafe when I moved to Hollywood for a few years, the speed-freak capital of the world). So this element of knee-jerk prejudice existed even in the liberal community.

My next "wow" moment came as I made friends with my black neighbours and they asked me about my racial background. I would tell them I wasn't sure and they would invariably tell me I looked like a family member or a good friend who was considered "high yellow." High yellow blacks often pass for white.

But no doubt about it, according to the brothers and sisters, I had some black blood in me. So at the age of 29 my identity as a white person ended. I accepted that in all likelihood I was mixed race with black heritage, which meant, according to some, that I was black. My reaction? I thought, "Wow the race issue really is irrelevant. Who I am, my sense of self, has nothing to do with the colour of my skin."

I was still the same person black or white. I saw how, in America -- in truth -- issues of race had been used to manipulate reality because in real reality, skin coloufr is irrelevant to the soul, the human needs, of a person. To paraphrase Dr. King, it's about character, stupid. Period. This is not to dismiss or marginalize the unique qualities of black culture or it's unique struggle in America but rather to make the point that at the essence of us all, we really are the same.

Growing up in Toronto during the 50s and 60s, I was unaware of any kind of "us" and "them" when it came to the black people in our community. Most of the African-Canadian families had deep roots in our history either from early slaves who were emancipated when slavery was abolished in Canada in 1833 or from the thousands of slaves who, with the help of the underground railroad, escaped from America to Canada.

Between 1850-1860 the numbers of blacks in Canada ballooned due to the enactment by US Congress of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, which overturned previous decisions to grant freedom to escaped slaves who had reached "free" states. The act allowed slave "masters" (or jailers which is what they really were), to claim the return of the enslaved. Canada became a safe haven. Many brought skills and sufficient means to buy property and start businesses.

From Black History in Early Toronto by Daniel G. Hill:

"John Dunn, Receiver General for Upper Canada during the 1840s, stated in a letter to an American abolitionist that, 'Negroes ask for charity less than any other group and seem generally prosperous and industrious' and "This observation was certainly justified, for in Toronto alone-to say nothing of Windsor and Chatham where coloured communities also flourished-Blacks owned and operated three hotels and taverns, two livery stables, three restaurants, a hardware store and a women's dress shop."

Here is another interesting tidbit:

one of the most significant contributions of those early Canadian Blacks who settled in Upper Canada was the establishment of two newspapers: The Voice of the Fugitive, published in Windsor by a famous refugee named H.C. Bibb, and another refugee newspaper called The Provincial Freeman, founded in Toronto and later moved to Windsor.

This latter abolitionist newspaper was very competently edited by a most remarkable and highly literate black woman, Mary Ann Shadd, well known for her sharp tongue and biting editorials. Shadd was born of free parents in Wilmington, Delaware on October 9, 1823 and fled with her family to Canada. Shadd is acknowledged as the first black newspaperwoman in North America and the publisher of Canada's first anti-slavery newspaper. Perhaps she was the first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada.

My point being that Canada had a history of early support for black people and provided an environment that allowed for acceptance and integration, so by the 1950s the idea of a segregated culture between blacks and whites did not appear to exist in Toronto. A black person wasn't a "black" person but just another neighbor or schoolmate. At least in my youthful perception this is what I remember.

Chris Mathews had a major smackdown with the President of the RNC, Reince Preibus, over the RNC's use of the race card. New Yorker magazine writer Ron Brownstein picked up on a statement by a Republican strategist that "that this is the last time anyone will try to do this" --"this" being a near total reliance on white votes to win a presidential election.

There is little doubt that many of those trying to bring down Obama do so out of a knee jerk inability to tolerate a black man in power. An old, left over, gut reaction from a culture that will be dead in a few generations and replaced with this reality. The white race as a power source is on a decline as younger generations, fueled by pop cultural images, are comfortable with and turned on to a variety of skin colors. You cannot stop nature.

Taboos about crossing your culture's boundaries and marrying outside your race are disappearing and mixed race is inevitably going to be the result and dare I venture to say, maybe.....30, 50 years from now, the predominant culture? I would venture to float the idea that it's less about the rise of different races overpowering the right wing vote, although that is happening, but more about young people manifesting the idea that we really are all one people.

The effect of that iconic image of the Earth sent from the moon back in the 60s -- the first time in history we saw OUR home not mine or yours, may be starting to sink in? Creating more families that are a mix of races, something that is already happening on TV, will be the proof of the paradigm shift in our thinking. But one thing you can count on -- America will be unrecognizable in 100 years. So....a gay, mixed race president in 3012? Why not?

Oh yes. A friend of mine sent me a link from a website that had a series of photos from Latvia. It was from the Latvian Blonde Parade. Every year, the Latvian Association of Blondes put on the parade and blondes gather from all over Latvia to participate. The purpose? Simply to raise the spirits of the country as it struggles through it's own economic downturn.

As I clicked through the photos I noticed a woman with features like mine. Same shaped face, same kind of eyes. I had the same "Wow" moment and something else was added to my "identity." Wouldn't it be cool to identify with and feel connected to various races and ultimately move toward just identifying with everyone? The rich identifying with the poor, the poor with the rich. Israelis and Palestinians identifying with each other?