On Seeing My Grandpa Strike a Pose at the Beach
What the textbooks never taught me about Black history, growing up, is that it sat beside me on a plastic-wrapped couch most Sundays, watching reruns of Baywatch over microwaved TV dinners. The lectures never acknowledged that the people who were spat on — taunted, threatened, denied basic human rights on the basis of skin color — looked just like the people I called “grandma” and “grandpa.” Grandma and Grandpa, who were also homeowners and foster parents; a seamstress and an artist; so many things to so many people that no one living knows the half of it.
I don’t recall a single February in which I was told what Black people were up to when they weren’t being enslaved, discriminated against, disenfranchised, experimented on. (Wait, I remember. It was jazz.) What I learned, instead, was The White Gaze Presents: Black History, a Tale of Linear Progress. To hear my teachers tell it, Black people in the U.S. were treated Very Bad for a precise period of time, starting with slavery and “ending” with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But all of that was long ago, they assured us; they even offered evidence: the AM radio crackle of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the monochromatic images of marches and lynchings. Those “ancient” relics were proof of a racist and bygone era, so far in the past that no one I loved could have possibly been affected. The evidence seemed to suggest that the old, colorless world of history books was nothing like this one — which had AOL, and MTV, and interracial marriages like the one instigated by my birth.
Logically, I knew my grandparents were somewhere in the backdrop of those history lessons. At the same time, they were conspicuously absent from Black History Month: their stories, their images, their idiosyncrasies. And so I couldn’t place them on this twisted timeline, couldn’t imagine them being subject to the raw, impersonal hatred I learned about in school. I couldn’t imagine some haircut sneering That Word at my grandma, who I rarely saw out of her designated recliner and who always had a blue Danish cookie tin full of caramel squares and waxy strawberry candies when I came to visit. Nor my grandpa, with whom I shared a bedroom wall for five years and who never ratted me out for sneaking cigarettes indoors, who was frail and goofy and often held my hand at the wrist. And my mom — my Leo rising, Libra sun, Sag moon mom? My visually striking, taller-than-average, friendly-to-a-fault mom — the one who pronounces Target with a soft G like Oprah and is only a quarter-joking? No. I couldn’t imagine strangers hating them for the color of their skin, or for any other reason. Or I could, but didn’t want to, because that would break my heart.
Because of the mandate that all of Black history be condensed and crammed into the shortest month of the year (for some reason…), the timeline of events never quite made sense to me as a kid. We would jump from Carver’s peanuts, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, to the “colorblind” present, and I never knew where to place my family in any of it. My grandpa was a veteran, but both he and my grandma kept their pasts locked up tight, two survivors of a kind of war. I was young enough in age and mind to not ask questions. They were in their eighties and seemed at peace, at least around their grandkids; maybe they preferred to think about the future when we were around.
And when it came to my mom, we didn’t talk about race so much as we lived it: As a mixed family of varying hues, we were all navigating what was, for us, uncharted territory: history was important, but our present took up most of the oxygen in the room. Either way, it seemed to me that my Black elders — my mom, my aunt, my grandparents, Michael Jackson — all existed on some post-racial alternate timeline, present yet parallel to the brutality I learned about in class.
About a year after my grandma died, my grandpa was mugged in broad daylight returning from the grocery store. Hit in the head with a rocklike object as he descended his own stairwell, if memory serves. He moved in with us for his remaining 10 years as a result; I learned surprisingly little about him in that time. I was a depressive teenager; he was 83-plus and content to watch his soaps. But the things I did learn changed my perception of him. I learned he was an atheist — I was too, at the time, and it made me feel closer to him; no one else in our household identified that way.
I also learned he was born in 1914 and became obsessed with that bit of information; it basically meant he’d lived to see almost all of the 1900s (plus the spiciest of the Bush Jr. years). The wars and assassinations. The Great Depression. Jim Crow and Tulsa. The Hindenburg, and Hiroshima, and Hitler. Woodstock and Y2K and 9/11. It overwhelmed me to think about; it was too much history for one person to have to endure, in my opinion.
The more I thought about him in that context, the more I understood that there was no alternate timeline. A Black man born in 1914 would have likely seen and experienced some nightmare shit, no matter how much I personally wished it weren’t true. The thought wriggled into my head and gained reinforcement with every haunting image I was shown by The White Gaze Presents: the firehoses, the water fountains, the throngs of dead-eyed White people pointing, and jeering, and foaming at the mouth while a human being hung from a tree branch in the background. Slowly and insidiously, my own experience of my grandparents was cannibalized, replaced by a narrative of suffering and dehumanization.
This new context didn’t just change how I saw them, it changed how I saw me. I knew I was Black, but like, was I though? I was already so much lighter-than-light-skinned that people, usually of the White persuasion, would challenge my race at every turn; the suggestion being that perhaps I had developed in some other woman’s womb, that I didn’t even belong to my own family. It hurt because I was, in fact, a love child: the accidental product of my parents’ three-year relationship and a catalyst for my father’s parents disowning him — leaving me with one set of grandparents for the first four years of my life (and from an emotional standpoint, far longer than that). My parents had to choose me, and it cost them both to do so.
It also hurt because, while I knew early on that my parental configuration and racial makeup made me “different,” it was a difference that I adored and celebrated, not one I wanted trivialized or erased for other people’s comfort. Still, I understood that my skin color was not some throwaway detail, that it granted me access to some experiences while shielding me from others. With a growing awareness that my skin would always be considered by others before my actual reality — even lacking in pigmentation as it was — an unconscious belief became more firmly entrenched: I was not subject to suffering due to my skin color, therefore, I had not struggled in the specific ways that would deem me “sufficiently Black” (whatever that means). As a result, I began to unintentionally erase my own truth, along with my grandparents’ (and, in an indirect way, the truth of every Black person).
I don’t remember when I started becoming aware of this bias, which for the most part played out in me being hyperconscious about appropriating struggles that I would never experience due to my skin color. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, on the face of it, except it blinded me to my own racial trauma — and my Blackness. The unintended consequence was that I became increasingly distant from my own identity and reality, allowing my lack of certain experiences to invalidate my roots, my family, my childhood, my culture, my inheritance, my very being.
Which brings me to the photograph of my grandpa, striking a pose at the beach:
My sister found the photo, and a bunch more of them, while organizing my parents’ storage unit. For most of my life, I’d only seen one photograph of my grandfather as a youth: a portrait taken when he was 17, which I promptly developed a crush on (he looked like the fourth, lost member of Immature, sue me). But as it happens, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of photos like this one. My grandpa, and his father before him, were photographers; each of them left behind a trove of images that answered some of the questions I had about what my grandparents’ lives were like before I arrived. For example, I now knew they went to the beach.
They went on dates; they posed and accessorized.
They had kids, and later, grandkids.
The photos, reflecting on them, melted something in me. My grandparents were just as poised, and multifaceted, and beautiful as anyone else’s — why was this never reflected on TV, or in history books, or anywhere but in our own photographs and memories? What kind of culture would have me forget? Looking at the photos, I felt our humanity returning: our mundanity, our truth. My grandparents’ memory, restored: They were people, not symbols of some great suffering that was beyond my comprehension. Yes, it’s safe to assume racism had a deleterious effect on their lives: as it has on mine, and on the lives of millions of others, in ways overt and discrete. But my grandparents’ Blackness — their lives — were never defined by that suffering alone. It wasn’t then, in the bad old days, and it’s not now.
In hindsight, I can see what happened: First, I’d bought into the myth of linear progress. I had to believe things were better now, even as my eyes, heart, and mind told me different. That’s what things are, now: different. Unquestionably, social progress has been made — I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t. At the same time, my grandparents were not alive for the militarization of police, the newfangled and increasingly insidious efforts to suppress the Black vote, the ballooning wealth gap eviscerating the middle class to which they once belonged. That’s not to say my generation has it worse — I’m not qualified to judge that; I don’t think anyone is — but we do have it different. Believing that it was better, instead, created cognitive dissonance that made it difficult to see that some of my own contemporaries are grandparents waiting to happen; their expansive lives at risk of being condensed to a single sentence in some history book, if anyone bothers to mention them at all.
I’d also begun to fully understand my grandparents’ America at the same time my own identity was being constantly scrutinized, undermined, clowned on. I had no White-presenting, biracial role models to look to for guidance on these matters; even my siblings had different experiences than my own. And that was painful, alienating; I didn’t have the tools or the insight to begin to deal with how isolated I felt, over something I saw nothing wrong with and in fact, was quite proud of. So I took my own pain, sandpapered over it, and projected it onto my grandparents instead. Life was probably brutal for them, so what right did I have to complain?
But it was never about whether I had the right to complain. It was about acknowledging my own pain, and recognizing the opportunity I had to validate myself, and to heal. Not because my pain was more important than anyone else’s but because, if I had been comfortable enough to acknowledge my own racial trauma, I would’ve known earlier that none of us are defined solely by the weight we’ve been made to carry. That in the multitude of ways Blackness is lived and expressed, mine is valid (if not a bit fringe). And that, interwoven with my pain — with all of our pain — there is joy and family and caramel squares; there is shrieking laughter and profound quiet; there is a photograph of one’s grandfather, striking a pose at the beach.