by Billy Calloway
“You make sure to keep a bonnet on that boy’s head. We don’t need to tip off the sales agent that a Black family is moving in.”
This was the first story I remember being told to me by my dad. My father grew up in Roanoke, Virginia during 1930’s. He was brown skinned. He graduated from high school at the age of 15 and was accepted at the University of Virginia. On the day that he was to register for class he was told the ‘porter’s quarters were down the hall.’ When he produced his acceptance letter he was ushered off the Charlottesville campus. He returned with an up and coming attorney, Thurgood Marshall, who forcible told the school officials that his client would sue if he were not admitted. UVA, instead of fighting my dad, negotiated a deal with him that they would pay for him to go to any other school, just not theirs. My dad went to all Black Fisk University, graduating first in his class at the age of 19 and then went to Meharry Medical College where he graduated second in his class at the age of 23.
My mom was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1936. Her mom was a ‘light skin’ girl and her father was White. She’s what you call a ‘high yaller.’ Both of her parents died when she was very young and she was sent to live with ‘Nanna’ in New York. She was discovered by a talent scout who worked for John Johnson of Ebony and Jet magazine fame. When the Ebony Fashion Fair toured the south it would be my mom who got off the bus to get food for the rest of girls and crew. She ‘passed.’ For my mom being so fair was not an advantage. She was resented by her ‘friends’ who were darker because they thought she went around ‘passing’ as White when in fact she didn’t and by White’s who called her ‘nigger lover’ because she lived in Harlem and associated with Blacks.
Am I Black? Hell yeah! I have light green eyes, when I had hair it was curly and blonde. My complexion is café au lait. In the summertime, I brown well and I’m often asked by those not in the know “What are you?’ because you ‘look exotic.’” When I tell someone who’s White that I’m Black, they reply no you’re not or you must be joking. When they see that I’m not ‘joking,’ the next thing that comes out of their mouth is “Who’s White in your family?” or “Calloway? That’s Irish right? You must have a lot of fun on St. Patrick’s Day.” When I reply that Calloway was the name of the plantation in Georgia where my fathers descendants ‘worked,’ the look on their faces is priceless. It’s the ‘ahha’ moment, but then comes the reply “Why don’t you just say that you’re White?” This is a daily occurrence and its exhausting and even more than that it’s insulting. I’m not White. I have never have identified as being White. It could be so much simpler to tell those that I am White, but doing so diminishes the struggle that my parents and other family members went through, and there is no way that will ever happen.
When a person of color inquires about my race and I tell them I’m Black, I don’t get questions as much as I get suspicious looks. It’s the raised eyebrow, a once over with the eyes as if to see if there is that telltale sign that I could be a ‘brother.’ “You’re Black? You speak like a Whiteboy….” No idiot, I speak like an educated person. I speak like everyone in my family and the circle of friends that I was brought up with. I had no clue that being Black meant I had to speak a certain way. When the discussion a couple years ago was brought up to introduce Ebonics in the classroom as a dialect, my mom went off on a rant about how ‘that would send us back 300 years.’ It always takes a defining moment with another person of color for them to realize I’m Black. As a kid, having a massive blonde afro wasn’t enough to prove my Blackness – it was on the playing fields where I ‘proved’ it. My dad made it a point to have me play in leagues that were predominately Black. “We have a Whiteboy on our team?” After the game was over and I was the leading scorer, rushed for the most yards or got the most hits, it was “I knew you were one of us.” As an adult, all it can take is for me to go to Popeye’s for lunch and pullout my own hot sauce.
There are no advantages. When there is a group photo, I’m always in the middle either to ‘lighten it up’ or to add a ‘little color’. Being as light as I am has made me know ‘our’ history better because I’m constantly challenged by those whose question my Blackness. My being Black has been everyone else’s burden not mine. I’ve never questioned it. I’ve appreciated how it’s molded me.
The truth is, being a person of color is difficult no matter what shade; and disregarding the trials and tribulations that I had to go through is nothing more than a testament to the ‘crabs in a barrel’ mentality.
Born and raised in New York City, Billy Calloway attended Hamilton College in Clinton, NY where he played football until he injured his knee. Having worked on Wall Street for 23 years, he is currently a recruiter for the Allen School of Health Sciences in NYC. Greatest accomplishment: Father of Payton, 12 and Coltrane, 9. Diehard Yankees and Jets fan.