BLACK & WHITE: A FAMILY INTIMACY

Even as a child, I knew my mother’s immigrant father had taken one of the few jobs available for the discriminated Irish: a Chicago police officer. Additionally, I knew he had been killed while on night duty in 1927 by three Black men he had arrested for robbery. My mother was ten.

A murder in any family is like throwing the Rocky Mountains into the Mississippi River: the damage is colossal and the ripple effects widespread. They reach pass time and space, into the next generations. Souls become deformed, forever changed for the worst.

As an adult, I realized both Blacks and Whites – and all humans – have been killing each other since time began. The rule of the jungle is to be prey or predator. To lose a fight over food is to die. Thus all people alive today have predator-killer genes.

Fortunately my County Clare Irish grandmother raised my mom free of prejudice. The same cannot be said for my father. He was raised by a man who was step-fathered. My paternal grandfather may have endured the male version of Cinderella: daily physical violence and emotional humiliation. My father raised us seven girls the same, but sheltered us from the evils of city life by moving us northwest 25 miles to a small town. He was from a small, Southern Illinois town of less than 2,000 people, so Des Plaines with only 14,000 was comfortable for him. Not for my mother. It destroyed her social network – now only available during our Sunday visits to Grandma in her West Side Irish neighborhood encircled by Polish, German and Italians.

When I was ten in 1960, my Irish grandmother died. My mother’s family argued then agreed, despite possible neighbors’ disapproval, to sell Grandma’s two story brownstone at 4838 West Jackson Boulevard to a Black family. The Black family had offered the best deal. They also had a right to improve their own and their children’s lives by moving into a White neighborhood.

Soon afterwards came my mother’s rage. Insurance companies had red-lined the area! I didn’t understand. She explained: People with money – insurance companies – were terrifying all the White people into selling their homes quickly and cheaply. They created fears of a Black invasion. As always, the rich won. The Irish and surrounding ethnic groups disappeared, transformed into Chicago’s dangerous Black West Side.

One of the first records my mother bought for our new hi-fi was the Inkspots. Thus commenced another mom-and-dad fight. “Huh?” I asked them, a child trying to stop their violence. My father shoved the album’s cover into my hands. I saw black inkspots splashed on the white cover. I cranked my neck to look up at him. “Turn it over.” I saw a group of Black men. My mother explained, “Never play this when Father’s home.”

As a child lying on the living room floor in shorts and a t-shirt, knees bent, legs dancing in the air, head held within my palms, I read the Sunday’s Chicago Tribune. My father didn’t toss me the comic section. “You gotta read more than just the funnies,” he advised. I read that my family name of “Walker” was the 19th most popular last name in America! My father once bragged that his family may not have come over on the Mayflower but they had been in the USA since the 1600s. The family stories were that ‘an old American had married into an immigrant family’ and ‘a country boy married a city woman’.

As I grew older, experienced the Civil Rights Movement, then anti-Vietnam War Movement which kick-started the Women’s Movement, sometimes, but rarely, I met Black people with the same last name,

In 1972, I had become friends with a Black woman at work, a fellow legal secretary in Chicago. As we ate lunch, I asked about her last name, which was White. I confided that I worried my father’s family had been slave owners. She educated me: Once freed, Black slaves didn’t have last names. Many chose to take names of US presidents, or others took their former owners’ names. We continued talking. We both complained that we didn’t like to work and then come home and cook and clean. We looked into each other’s eyes. She said it first. “I wish I had a slave to do all that!”

Shockingly surprised but in agreement, we both laughed.

I graduated in 1973. A college friend had told me how her brother had been homosexual years ago. He had walked into the family’s cornfield and shot himself. She never revealed his homosexuality to her parents. After college, when she moved to California, it seemed most everyone she dated was Black. I concluded she did this to learn about emotions: her White family had been so emotionally repressed, that Black culture with its broad, spoken and lived emotions, appealed to her.

In 1974, in graduate school in Vancouver, Canada, I first encountered many Asians. But when I crossed the border to visit a friend in Seattle, I found thousands of Blacks in Seattle.

Since my graduate degree was in creative writing, I had a problem: Alice Walker, a poet and short story writer, later a novelist, The Color Purple. It wouldn’t be politically correct to have the “Black Alice Walker” and the “White Alice Walker”. I became A. Delaney Walker, taking my mother’s Irish maiden name.

In 1978, I left San Francisco, on my way to Yemen for the Peace Corps but with a one-month stay at an artist colony, Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. I asked the Black man who worked with the horses if I could help him. He gave me a brush to brush down one side of a pony as he did the other.

“Why is your name Jimbo?” I asked.

He said his name was Jim but the boss called him ‘Jimbo’, short for ‘Jim boy’.

‘Why?”

We stopped brushing the horse. It was a short pony so we could look over its long spine where we both had balanced ourselves with one hand on its back. Our eyes met.

I felt the reason flood up my spine, face blushing, my eyes widening. “I’m sorry,” I said. “That’s awful. Why don’t you tell him to stop?”

Old man Jim bent and resumed brushing the horse. “Won’t do any good.”

“Wait,” I said, covering his hand with mine. “May I call you Jim?” I asked. “Would you like that better?”

He kept brushing, a smile emerging, ‘That’s fine,” he said.

I left Ossabaw Island, called home because my mother was doing another dress rehearsal for death. As she lay dying, taken home and ensconced in an expensive hospital bed in the living room, I looked at her whole body. She had refused to have her leg amputated from a diabetes complication. Gangrene ended that fight. She was bed-ridden, my father attended her. I then looked into her face. “Did you ever forgive the three Black men who killed your father?”

Her nostrils flared and her eyes dilated.

“Hmm.” I said slowly. “Maybe you still feel you want to kick them in the ass for killing him?”

She mumbled, “Maybe.”

I returned to staying with a friend in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side. But every time I left his apartment, I had a religious experience. When copying my resume for a job, I imagined the 50ish male storekeeper to be of Irish descent. I heard his everyday chatter on one level of reality, but on a deeper level, accessible with the mind-altering effects of my mother’s condition, I heard something else entirely. He sounded as if he were my dead Irish grandfather advising me what to do next: Help his daughter die well and meet him in heaven.

Remodeled Chicago subway station

My Mission: Find three Black men and have them say, “I’m sorry.” One was easy. While waiting for the subway at the Washington Street station, a young Black business man in a suit and tie, along with a briefcase, bumped into me. He said, as I often did in such situations, “I’m sorry.”

The second one was a young Black man behind me in the unemployment line. The third was a friend from San Francisco whose art magazine I had helped sell. I telephoned and described my Mission. He easily said, “I’m sorry.” Then he asked if I had anyone to talk to, much concern in his voice.

It was like being on a low dosage of LSD for three days. I checked myself into a halfway house. My senses were over-alert. I heard a radio playing a few floors down after midnight. The next day, I asked the Black man in charge about it in his office. He said there weren’t any radios playing. Then we talked about magic. He said he tried to move the lamp on his desk with just his mind.

I looked at him in wonderment. “Try something smaller, like a key.” Then added, “Why move a lamp? It’s much better to move people’s hearts.”

The Peace Corps had lost my papers. I abandoned my dream to travel the world and teach in Yemen. Since I was in Chicago, I stayed. I became an adjunct-instructor part-time at Catholic Loyola University. To afford this low-paying job, I also had two clerical part-time jobs. For first day introductions, I asked the students to tell their new classmates a secret about themselves. I modeled. “When I was seven or eight, my sister and I stole money from the Church. We used a knife at the candle donation metal box that stood before the statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus. We balanced the quarters on the knife. When lucky, we used it to pull out a dollar bill. My younger sister told on us. My mother demanded I confess. To this day, I never have.”

One Black student, when called upon to share his secret, sat in silence. I was a bit new to teaching. I had not yet learned the wisdom of providing enough time for students to think before answering. Impatiently, I asked, “Is your father in jail?”

A hush descended upon the room.

“I’m sorry,” I told the student and class. “One of the dangers of being open and honest, as I hope you will be when writing and giving each other feedback, we make mistakes. I just made a big one. I am deeply sorry. Please forgive me.” I later apologized privately to the student. He and I spent the entire semester arguing about the value of the written word over the spoken word.

Years later, when I was curious about my family heritage, I wrote the Chicago police department to learn about my grandfather’s career as a sergeant. To my shock, I received a short letter that listed the names of the three Black men who had murdered him. And the amount of time each served in prison.

The horror.

I dropped the letter. I hadn’t asked for that. One name pierced my memory: Jackson. The street of Grandpa Delaney’s address? Or the name of one of his killers – the same last name of my former Loyola Black student?

Entrance roundabout to King Saud University in Riyadh

Years later, I did get overseas. In 1984, teaching in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised by skin-whitening products for sale. Someone explained many Indians wanted lighter skin. “Why?” I asked. Most Indians and Arabs simply looked like they had the much-desired light tan many Americans value.

“Brides. Lighter skin means a richer husband. Arabs use it too,” my friend added. When I learned of the dangerous components in such products, I was shocked they were allowed to be sold!

I later learned one Saudi prince preferred African women. This had created an entire branch of the Saudi Royal Family Black. And yes, they too were discriminated against by other family members and society but they were ‘royal’ and ‘family’.

In 1990, teaching in Cairo, Egypt, I indulged in trips to Luxor but had no desire to explore the African continent. I hadn’t yet read The Scramble for Africa which details how Europeans enslaved (colonized) the entire continent. However, I felt as a White person, I logically deserved to be a target for Blacks to attack. Even Egyptians separate themselves from Africans, declaring themselves ‘Pharonic’. DNA confirms that Egyptians have more in common with the Middle East and Europeans than southern Africans.

In 2000, when I was to have my photo taken for my Omani driver’s license, the Omani clerk said my face might not show up: that my skin was too light. I looked at him, surprised. I said, “It will be fine.” It was. Later looking at my male students’ drivers’ licenses, their skin tones were much lighter than their real life faces.

‘The photography machines are set to lighten faces,” a student educated me.

From all my travels, many cultures put a premium price on having lighter, whiter skin. I knew the expression ‘high-yella’ for Blacks who could pass as Whites. I wondered if any of my father’s ancestors had been high-yellow.

In Saudi Arabia my white skin made me an object of exploitation. An Indian worker told me to go down the street and buy a small item needed to fix something. Then he stopped me. “I will get it for you,” he said. When he returned, he gave me the change. “If you bought it yourself, it would cost twice as much. Or more,” he warned, lifting an eyebrow.

Curious, years earlier I had written my father’s grandparents names and where they had lived, Washington County, Pennsylvania. One of his cousins worked in the military in D.C. He had retired and done much of the genealogy footwork. Somehow, he and I got in contact. He sent me information that showed one of our mutual relatives had become a “Daughter of the American Revolution, a DAR”. This was based upon an ancestor who had fought in the Civil War. On a rare phone call, I asked my cousin about my father’s mother. My own mother was the talker in the family while my father kept his cards close to his chest. “It sounds like she was from a good family and wanted to be wild. Sounds like she married “Shorty Walker” just to upset her straight-laced family?”

He cleared his throat and embarrassed said, “Yep, that sounds like what she did. He had a very bad reputation. And she was a bit of a wild one herself.”

My grandfather had been lazy: a carpenter who only worked in the summer. And then, not often. In one drunken haze, my father had admitted his own father ‘ran with a gang but quit after one was later hanged.’ Family history: “The son of a small-town thief married the daughter of a city cop”.

This cousin had traced the maternal side of the family to an Alexander Agro, Scottish, and landing on Delaware’s shores around 1720. He might have been one of many Scots, Scots-Irish or Irish indentured servants to arrive in Delaware. The British, who had enslaved Ireland and other nearby areas for more than a thousand years, disdained these people and treated them badly.

Back in the 1980s, I had to choose: do the paperwork for an Irish passport or DAR membership. I didn’t value the DAR because I was from Chicago, immune to East Coast status symbols. However, an Irish passport offered European opportunities. It took nearly ten years to gather all the supporting documents. To undergo a similar chore to gain DAR membership was unattractive, especially while living overseas.

In 1987, teaching in Indonesia after two years in Saudi Arabia, I called home on my 37th birthday. My mother was dying again. She was on a ventilator. My six sisters were at the hospital, having finally decided unanimously to remove the ventilator and let her die. I packed and left for Chicago.

My mother and I shared an intimacy that often aroused family jealousy. Back in 1971, although I was the sixth, I was the only daughter who could convince her to checking herself into a mental hospital. Previously, my father paid the expensive Catholic institution, rather than a state hospital for her once every three years nervous breakdowns. With electric shock treatments. As a college psychology major, I researched. Fortunately, I found a nearby hospital that offered Gestalt talk therapy.

Now in 1987, once the ventilator was removed, she continued to breathe on her own. When my mother died later, nine months like a pregnancy after my phone call home from Jakarta, I felt nothing.

Years later, I tried researching my father’s heritage on the Internet again. John Walker. Not easy with such a common first name paired with what was once the 19th most popular last names in the United States. I found my notes of my father’s paternal grandmother with her maiden name, Marvel.

The Internet had made genealogy easier. I found a relative, a second cousin, who like me was a teacher. He still lived by my father’s birthplace. I learned why my father played his cards so close to his chest: My father’s Shelton cousins had made a deal with Al Capone: Capone got the North including Chicago while my father’s cousins got the South. I bought the Shelton books on Amazon.

If my grandfather’s cousins were so crime wealthy, why didn’t they help my father attend college? My father worked five jobs to pay for college, wanting to become a lawyer. He had to quit after two years. During the Depression. Even recently, in 2020, I read of a California woman who grew up in luxury, never experiencing deprivation, only to discover in old age that her family’s wealth was from the Shelton gang.

Then DNA ancestry kits arrived.

Yep, my father had told the truth. He was ‘old American’ as he called it, with Irish, Scottish and Welsh heritage, along with some Baltic. For years he denied he had German blood. During both World War I and II, German-Americans were required to register and check in with police stations. Since he was flat-footed, my father avoided the Draft. He insisted he was not German, but Prussian. Nowadays I know the Baltic Sea was part of Prussia, which was later incorporated into Germany. However, Prussia was absent from childhood maps.

My Heritage DNA kit offered genealogy information along with family-tree making, free for the first year. They sent an email, naming a Scottish ancestor as one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. What joy! My father had told the truth!

Thus commenced a more successful Internet search. Because he had a cancerous growth on his nose, which grew and dominated one side of his face, my non-direct brother or uncle Caesar Rodney never married. My sister in crime (stealing from the Church), had a similar cancerous growth on her nose. Fortunately, modern medicine did not deform her face. Another sister also shared Rodney’s asthma affliction.

The eldest of eight, Rodney raised his siblings as a clerk, then sheriff, but never married. Then I discovered he was so famous in the state of Delaware that a town square and huge statute of him stood in Wilmington. He had arrived on the American continent, via his grandfather who had accompanied William Penn in 1682. Rodney’s family migrated to the ‘three lower counties’ of Pennsylvania which became the state of Delaware.

Unable to marry because of his facial deformity, he devoted himself to politics. It was his stormy night ride, while sick, to Philadelphia that broke a standstill among delegates. He signed the Declaration of Independence.

He had even corresponded with George Washington during the Revolutionary War!

https://www.usmint.gov/learn/kids/library/50-state-quarters/delaware

Rodney covered his cancerous facial injury with a veil. He is said to have never complained about it. He was so sick, when after elections for a Continental Congress, he was appointed the first President of Delaware, despite being near death. Each and every one of his fellow politicians traveled to his home in Kent County to honor him.

Earlier, he had argued to outlaw the importation of African slaves into Delaware. Not the freedom of those Blacks born to slaves already in Delaware. A slight redemption. The USA prohibited importing slaves in 1808. Domestic slave trade continued. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 41 – 73% – owned slaves.

But how had our family fallen so far from grace?

From genealogy, my paternal family had migrated from Pennsylvania, through Kentucky then Ohio, onto Indiana and into Illinois To my poverty-stricken paternal criminal line.

Some DNA heritage information is so incomplete as to be useless. In many ways, it is SOS – the same old story: Begetting and killing. Feeding and dying. Slave and Master. We all have probably played each role in our human heritage.

Mother’s grave with Father’s ashes

In 2005, I had called my father from Seoul, South Korea. He instructed me, “Come home, kid. I’m dying.” He lacked Mother’s dramatics. I left Seoul. I landed in Seattle, rented a truck, and removed my stored belongings to journey with me. He was 96 years old. In an old-people’s home by one of my sisters in Arizona. It was a short meet-and-greet as he lay helplessly in bed and told me to continue my journey to Chicago. He didn’t die. His command to return home was more like an aid to exit a bad job than a death journey. He died in 2006 and was cremated. I was too new at a job in Oman to afford the plane ticket. It then seemed my mother’s near-dyings while I was on Ossabaw Island and in Indonesia had also served the same rescue purpose.

In 2005, in Chicago which had once been the ‘city you can always find work,’ I found people telling me it took six months to find a good job.

This was another attempt to quit teaching. And to live in the USA, in Chicago. Despite hating Chicago’s weather, no matter where I traveled to in Asia, Arabia and Europe, I missed one important reality about Chicago: its people. They were the most friendly, honest, and kindest people I ever met anywhere.

I failed to find work. Savings evaporating, and at 55, I looked around my Rogers Park apartment. Unhappily, I accepted an overseas teaching position.

I bought five large boxes and one smaller one. The cherished metal Buddha head bought in Muscat did not go to the born-again Christian sister. Someone got the now-forbidden ivory of Confucius with his removable fishing stick – don’t give a fish to a hungry person – teach them to fish. This had been a gift from my now deceased friend, Dr. William Hunt from Loyola University, awarded by the American Psychological Association for his lifetime contribution to the field.

I divided the UAE and Omani plastic telephone cards, similar in shape, size and flexibility as credit cards, into six groups for my sisters, five of whom had children. Each card had a cultural photo on one side: local desert animals, women’s colorful clothing, warning about “Don’t take drugs,” and a mother and father holding the hands of their child on a beach. I had collected them from telephone stands, discarded by users, free souvenirs. I don’t know who got the framed Chinese names which were suppose to be my name, but who knows what a Chinese calligraphy street vendor wrote on a Paris sidewalk for tourists. One sister got a red cloth, with Chinese on one side and Korean on the other. And more. To my sad surprise, hardly anything was of financial value, just rich with memories.

My home in Rogers Park with souvenirs
Omani Telephone card, of an Omani fort
From an Omani calendar
Paris Chinese Street Vendor
Buddha heads for sale in a Seoul, South Korean store

I filled the boxes and took them to the local post office. A Black woman helped me mail them. I looked at her name tag as we chatted. Walker. “We could be cousins,” I smiled at her. She replied with a smile too. We are all part of one extended family, each a nanometer facet on the diamond of humanity.

Photo from deceased father’s wallet – newlyweds

Photo Credits

  1. Declaration of Independence – Internet – Google images
  2. Police Officer Delaney – Chicago Police Archives
  3. Des Plaines town sign – me
  4. Inkspots cover – Internet – Google images
  5. Alice Walker Black – Internet
  6. Alice Walker White – Carolyn Horner
  7. Patrick Delaney – family photo
  8. San Francisco T-shirts – me
  9. Chicago Washington Street subway – me
  10. Saudi Arabia – University entrance sculpture – me
  11. Gulf counties – Internet
  12. Shelton book – Amazaon.com
  13. Shelton book – Amazon.com
  14. My Heritage – Amazon.com
  15. Caesar Rodney quarter – Internet
  16. Delaney family grave with Gilbert Walker’s ashes strewn before it – family photo
  17. My mother and father photo, found in deceased father’s wallet
  18. Chinese calligraphy and ivory statues – me
  19. Buddha heads for sale in Seoul – me
  20. Chinese calligrapher, Paris – me
  21. All others are UAE and Omani telephone cards – (photographed by me)

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