Some nights, when medication and meditation have failed to put me to sleep, I think of the relatives who abandoned my family to become white people.
Several generations ago, in midsized Ohio cities during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, some of my father’s ancestors walked away from their families, their homes, and their neighborhoods and stepped into the life-altering fiction that they were white. Most, though not all, of these relatives were female.
It’s a common story in America. Once upon a time, there was a group of Black people whose skin color was light enough to fool the rest of the world into thinking they were white. Their light skin was inherited mostly from enslaved ancestors who’d been raped by their owners. But the decision to circumvent the unjust rules of the sadistically organized society in which they lived — that was all their own. The risks they shouldered were enormous. Had their real backgrounds been discovered, they could have lost their marriages, their businesses, even their lives. Success came with its own cost: the desertion of every person and place they’d once loved.
During Jim Crow’s decades of legal segregation and lynching, hiding one’s origins required imagination, resourcefulness, and the ability to weather unimaginable stress. It also required an enormous spiritual sacrifice. My relatives’ roots had already been erased once by violence. To wipe them out a second time was to thumb their noses at the ancestors, to tempt the gods of fate.
Growing up, I knew I had two families: one real, the other composed of living ghosts. As I understand it, one reason why my light-skinned relatives undertook this Herculean labor of secrecy was that warped and beautiful force known as parental love. As white people, their children would have access to legal rights and capital. Those children could forge their own destiny instead of having one chosen for them.
The families those ancestors left behind disagreed with their choice. But their boldness? Their willingness to make a mockery out of this country’s foundational myth? Those were regarded with deep respect.
It wouldn’t have been difficult for my relatives to find the ones who left. There were only so many places they could have gone. Yet there are no stories of my relatives exposing the brothers and sisters who’d abandoned them. Our family trees are left with blank spaces, because my relatives showed restraint.
We could find our lost relatives now if we wanted to, but, generations on, we still show restraint. Within what we consider to be our family, my relatives and I acknowledge only those who stayed on the “wrong” side of the color line.
No, we have no reason to get to know our ancestors’ white descendants, who are probably living in the suburbs of Ohio, possessed of mown green lawns and mown brown hair. I picture neighborhood block parties in de facto segregated communities. Cargo shorts. Trips to Sam’s Club. Resentful suspicion of the brown immigrants slowly moving into the distressed areas of their state. Ignorance of the similarities between themselves and another group of migrants who fled the South in search of what were supposed to be better prospects in the Ohio River valley.
Nothing about the lives I imagine for these descendants interests me. One of them must have been startled by a DNA test by now, but they have not contacted us. I imagine we must be an uncomfortable joke to them. Some white Americans may hope a DNA test will turn up an unknown, fetishized Native American ancestor, but few long for a Black one.
I wonder whether the ones who passed would be happy with the results. Was it worth the terror of lying awake at night, praying to remain undiscovered? Running back through their day to convince themselves they hadn’t broken character? The backward glances on the street? The fear that some unknowing child, her skin only a half shade darker than their own, might call out to them in recognition?
Did they wonder whether they’d made a fair trade: their honest past for a future of secrecy? If it would have been better to pass on a truthful legacy to their children, the nonmonetary inheritance of centuries?
To me, the most constricting of all lives has to be one lived in fear of who you are. But then, I don’t know what it would have meant to have chosen legal disenfranchisement, restricted prospects, and the threat of violence simply for the luxury of self-expression. If I’d lived when they did, and looked as they did, I don’t know that I’d have chosen any differently.
Of course, I still live in a society that’s sadistically organized by race and gender, with Black women the least protected and the least considered of all. I’m one of these women, and I’m haunted by the ones who came before me and managed to buck their assigned place. They are not so far away. In fact, they have been making their presence known through my body for years.
My husband and I had difficulty conceiving. So in 2017 we saw an infertility specialist, who informed us, after many tests, that my uterus had been colonized by fibroids. Until I got rid of them, I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant.
Fibroids are tumors that grow in and on the uterus during the reproductive years. They’re a common malady: the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine estimates that 30 percent of women aged thirty to forty-five experience them. They’re also nearly always noncancerous, and they disproportionately affect Black women. These two factors have apparently discouraged the medical profession from digging too deeply into their causes.
Most women suffer few or no symptoms from fibroids. Others — again, disproportionately Black — experience everything from severe bleeding, to painful sex, to a distended abdomen, to pregnancy complications and, in my case, infertility.
If you suffer from fibroids but wish to preserve your fertility, there are few treatments available beyond painful, invasive operations. (To my suspicious mind, this was another proof that the medical profession wasn’t interested in offering good solutions to Black women.) The surgeon recommended a laparoscopic myomectomy: she would make multiple incisions in my stomach and pelvis, insert a robotic arm into my viscera, excise as many fibroids as she could, and sew me back up.
I was familiar with myomectomies. I’d already undergone the procedure once, when I was thirty-one. At that time I’d been experiencing periods so heavy I would exhaust boxes of tampons every month. I had pelvic pain. I was bleeding between cycles. I also happened to be living in Europe, with its more generous health-care system. The doctors told me the fibroids would need to be removed before I would be able to get pregnant. I was single, but I knew I wanted children someday.
My European doctors removed twenty-seven small fibroids. They lined them up on a metal tray and took pictures to show me later. The tumors were wizened bullets of flesh, purple and red and hazel. I imagined my uterus gasping for breath around all those choking hazards. I looked at those pictures over and over during the two-week recovery, much of which I spent unable to walk.
Over the next seven years I got married and enjoyed an asymptomatic life. But fibroids can grow back, which is how I found myself in a doctor’s office again in my late thirties, learning that my uterus was being strangled for a second time. While the news sank in, I asked why I kept getting the fibroids. All my doctors could tell me was that there’s a genetic component. My mother had fibroids, my grandmothers had them, and, they said, no doubt all the women who came before them had them, too. Ergo, I had them and would likely keep growing them.
The situation seemed unsolvable. But, for reasons I found impossible to articulate even to myself, I wanted a child badly enough to suffer through any remedy. So I registered for short-term disability. I arranged for everything I would need to be within reach of the sofa for the first ten days after the operation. When I awoke in the recovery room, disoriented and bleeding, the nurses told me that my operation had taken an hour longer than anticipated. The surgeon had spent most of this time scraping away scar tissue from the previous operation.
She’d removed twenty-three fibroids — the only babies my uterus loved to produce. Again the surgical team sent me pictures. Each tumor lay on a stainless-steel tray next to a measuring tape — two centimeters, four centimeters, five.
During my months of recuperation I saw several Chinese-medicine practitioners. They told me that fibroids are the result of chi — the vital life force — stagnating in the body, a condition that’s exacerbated by the aftereffects of physical or emotional trauma. They advised regular acupuncture, a plant-based diet, and uterine massage.
I grew up in the Bay Area, so I was well-versed in acupuncture and specialized diets, but it took me weeks to find an experienced uterine-massage practitioner. When I finally reached one, she told me, with anxious intensity, that she practiced a form of Mayan abdominal massage that could not be explained over the phone but had to be experienced in person.
Her shared storefront space was minuscule — just enough room for a folding bed and a chair — but it contained a whole world. Earth-toned frescoes and framed paintings of women laboring covered every inch of the walls. There were fertility icons and a plaster sculpture of a woman’s pregnant torso.
The practitioner was a middle-aged white woman who wore tie-dyed leggings and spoke of her experiences with Peruvian shamans. As I slid between the bedsheets, she turned on the music that must come in the San Francisco wellness-practitioner starter kit — soothing, murmurous tones; vaguely South Asian flute; a drone-like rhythm that brings to mind a misty forest — and began to work over my abdomen with vigorous, circular strokes. She made each stroke three dozen times clockwise, then repeated it in a counterclockwise direction.
“Feel the energy returning to your uterus,” she intoned.
Her eyes were closed, and she moved her head in time with the music. I closed my eyes, too, enjoying the sensation of feeling returning to my lower abdomen. My reproductive endocrinologist had laughed when I’d told her I was visiting a uterine-massage practitioner, but the experience was soothing, if a little weird.
After she finished, while I was dressing, she said with her typical anxious intensity that if I wanted the best chance for repair, I also needed “vaginal steaming.”
There I was, half naked, listening while my bodyworker urged me to place a pot of boiling water into my toilet bowl and squat over it. It was the kind of thing practiced by clueless trust-fund babies in Topanga Canyon.
I told her that didn’t sound safe.
“You need greater healing,” she said.
“There are too many ways for that to go wrong.”
She said she would build a special stool in her space, and we could do it together.
There’s a unique kind of vulnerability that emerges when you are half-clothed in an atmosphere of ethnically ambiguous music and totemic fertility gods, in front of someone who’s promised to heal your battered uterus. In that helpless moment I couldn’t figure out a reason to say no.
I arrived back at the storefront on a rainy winter night. The stool the masseuse had built was a wooden platform above a tin bowl. Eyes sparkling, she told me to squat on it while she filled the bowl with steaming water and herbs she claimed had healing properties. I disrobed, wrapped a towel around my waist, and squatted. Instead of healing, I felt scorching heat race up my inner thighs to my private parts. I leapt away, yelping.
“You’ve got to add cooler water,” I said.
“The most effective treatment comes from taking on the shine of heat.”
“It’s not effective if I’m burning.”
She huffed while pouring a small cup of cool water into the bowl, then started talking about her own childbirths. During any fertility struggle, it’s hard to hear other women chatter on about having children. Hearing it while I was sweaty and naked in a room full of fertility icons made me feel trapped in a karmic wilderness. I was relieved when she went back to talking about the Peruvian shaman.
Finally the very long half hour was up, and I paid in silence. Walking out, I noticed a sign advertising an upcoming discussion about the “vaccine controversy.” I was already feeling foolish for having gone through with the treatment. But feeling foolish hadn’t been enough to dissuade me from returning to her practice. What was enough to dissuade me was that antivaccination sign. I couldn’t support anyone who would harm her community for her own ends. I knew that disgraceful story. I nodded to the painful memory of my missing relatives and walked out with the lightness of someone who knows she’s never coming back.
My father has an aquiline nose and skin the color of dried grass. Strangers think he is Mexican, Spanish, Greek. For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve watched him tell people he’s Black, then take pleasure in their surprise and discomfort.
My father’s parents and aunts and uncles were light-skinned like him. “She could’ve passed, but she didn’t” is a refrain I heard about many a relative.
Unlike my father, his elder relations succumbed to the national disease of colorism. Their definition of a “good” Negro was one who was educated, charming, and invariably light-skinned. When they spoke of a “bad” one, the culprit always had dark skin, wild emotions, and uncontrolled curly hair. They married only those whose skin was as light as theirs.
From my own place in history, these affectations look self-defeating. My father’s family members suffered the same substandard housing, limited job prospects, and restricted wealth creation as those whose skin was several shades darker. What kind of social order did they think they were defending? So our ancestors were raped, and we have lighter skin — nothing to be ashamed of, but nothing to brag about either.
As a young man in the 1960s and 1970s, my father moved to California, the land of self-reinvention. This was at a time when Black pride was ascendant. Unlike in previous eras, there was little cachet within the Black community in being light enough to pass.
My father contemplated the phantom limb of his lost family members and reconsidered the colorism that had infected the remaining limbs. He thought about how generations of trauma had expressed themselves in his family — violence, depression, alcoholism — and wondered how to change those patterns. Then he made a leap. He chose to embrace what felt like the future. No more self-hating colorism.
He married my mother, whose skin was the color of burnt umber, dark enough that her own cousin refused to sleep in the same bed with her for fear that my mother would “fade” onto her. My parents chose each other for many reasons, but one was because my father wanted his children to be planted firmly on the side of the history that had chosen him.
Did he succeed? Yes and no.
My parents came of age at the end of the era of free residential college tuition in California. At state schools they both earned advanced degrees their parents could only have dreamed of. They graduated into a society that had been altered by the Civil Rights Movement. The struggle against job discrimination had led a few white-dominated institutions to hire people like them, who saw no need to apologize for being Black.
Had they been born just a few years earlier or later, their story would have been different. Earlier they would have found it more difficult to access jobs; later, the reactionary antitax measures voters passed — after it became clear that the state’s demographics were shifting away from white people — would have made it far more difficult for them to access higher education.
The California I live in is a stratified, semi-feudal state where white people cling to their inherited properties and hoard the few lucrative jobs for themselves and their college buddies. People of color are the numerical majority, but far too many can find only jobs providing services to the state’s landed gentry. California’s now-starved systems of public education and affordable housing maintain this separate and unequal system. Had my parents grown up when I did, they would have faced restrictions that kept them in a state of ossified prejudice and poverty, just like their own parents.
Luckily they were born at just the right time. They seized on the concurrence of events that made it possible for them to rise from poverty to the middle class and finally — thanks to good fortune and hard work — the upper middle class.
My father bet on Blackness. His children all have light skin and facial features that could be seen as ethnically ambiguous, but none of us looks as white as he does. We all identify, loudly and proudly, as Black. Still, I’ve endured many unsolicited, anti-Black confidences from non-Black people who didn’t realize they were talking to a Black person. I’ve also been treated with suspicion by darker-skinned Black people who didn’t believe I’d feel solidarity with their experiences of discrimination.
These aren’t complaints. Having lighter skin has given me relative advantages. But these experiences have helped me understand what it meant for my father to turn his back on his family history by marrying my mother; what it meant for him to defend my mother’s beauty and intelligence to his own grandmother; and why it may have been so hard for him to speak to his own children about how colorism had affected not just him but all of us. I had to piece together much of his family’s history from stories told by women in his family who looked down on my mother: their offhand discussions of relatives who had simply disappeared; the family trees with blank spaces.
When he was younger, my father grew a mighty Afro as a way of taking pride in the one physical attribute that kept him obviously on the Black side of the line. But the older he gets, the whiter he looks. His irises have lightened. The pink undertones in his skin have grown more prominent. What’s left of his hair has settled into straight, wispy strands. He wears it long so the ends crimp up. He wants the world to see the last remnants of his curls, the final sign of who he is.
When he’s walking down the street with my mother and I’m far enough away to observe them, I watch how pedestrians react: the affront or curiosity that often greets white male–Black female couples.
My parents notice these responses. How could they not? But they choose not to acknowledge them. So I don’t either.
I’ve experienced these reactions myself. My husband is white, and his family has known comfort and security for many generations. I could tell you certain truths about our union — that we had a blessedly normal courtship, only occasionally shaken by the tectonic movements of the racial and class structure in which we live; that we felt relief on learning of each other’s essential decency and practicality; that we love each other and each other’s families.
Yet it’s also true that I sometimes consider what it means for me to have extended the pattern that ruptured my own ancestral line. I married a white man. To their credit, no one in either of our families has ever spoken against our union. My father, understanding that the time I grew up in is one of Black individuality rather than community, has embraced his son-in-law. This is a relief. It also means it’s up to me to wonder whether, through my marriage, I have rejected my duties as a daughter — because a good daughter honors her culture and her ancestors. Or whether I have, unconsciously, honored my ancestors who decided to deny their own existence. It wasn’t until I found myself battling my genetic inheritance in the form of fibroids that it became clear these women would no longer be ignored by the family they had left behind — that they would make their presence known through our bodies.
Shortly after I abandoned the masseuse, I was at a party and met a Reiki healer who told me fibroids worked on an energetic level, representing a consolidation of negative energy from the past, including past lives that I needed to release in order to birth new ideas into the world.
I closed my eyes and thought of my phantom family. When I asked if it was possible that I had to do this work on behalf of those who’d come before me, he said it was likely.
I asked what it meant that I’d already “released” fibroids once, and they’d grown right back. He talked vaguely about my need for further energetic healing, for in-depth alignment work. The subtext: if I wanted more, I would need to pay for a consultation. I moved on to other subjects, convinced I would never find a cure for the stagnant past energies of ancestors that continued to haunt my body.
But something about the healer’s explanation sounded familiar. Later I did a Google search and located the theory of biological memory: According to a 2010 article by two Harvard biologists, “biological memory can be defined as a sustained cellular response to a transient stimulus.” The idea is that our body’s tissues can both remember and respond to strong, yet impermanent, sensation. It’s not a far stretch from there to the possibility that “biological memories” might be hereditary. In fact, it may feel familiar to anyone who has considered the impact of their family’s decisions on their own bodies; who has pondered the mystery of where their ancestors’ decisions end and their own decisions begin.
After my surgical recovery my husband and I started in vitro fertilization, or IVF. We could have tried something less intrusive, but we were getting older and there were no guarantees my fibroids wouldn’t regrow again.
When it came time to insert the embryo in my uterus, our first attempt failed. My reproductive endocrinologist suspected that fibroids on the inside of my uterus were preventing implantation. (The myomectomies only removed fibroids on the outside.) A hysteroscopy revealed an internal fibroid, which the doctor sliced out.
After the mandatory healing period I had a second transfer. It, too, failed. So the surgeon performed a second hysteroscopy, which turned into a polypectomy: in the six weeks since the first surgery, I’d grown an internal uterine polyp.
I was conscious during both procedures. On a computer monitor I watched the surgeon shave away my body’s tissue. Both times, I burst into tears as soon as she’d pulled the instruments out of me. Both times, the surgeon hustled out of the room while the nurses helped me into a chair. Both times, I heaved and bled. They gave my husband a few minutes to comfort me before explaining that they needed to clear the room for the next patient.
After the second failed embryo transfer, I joined several infertility support groups, both online and in person. I discovered a new community and was comforted by these women’s willingness to share their raw grief. Members also discussed clinics, doctors, medications, and experimental measures. Individual diagnoses were pored over in great detail. Successes were greeted with the bewildered joy of the Israelites identifying Moses in Egypt. But most of the women were struggling with low egg reserves, male-factor issues, or other complications I didn’t share. So I joined a Black women’s infertility group on Facebook, hoping to find others with fibroid-related infertility.
I didn’t find what I’d initially been hoping for: support for my experience with fibroids. These Black women suffered from the same problems as everyone else. I also didn’t find much information about the bewildering process of IVF, which most members of the group regarded as financially out of reach. In keeping with the American way of offering people only as much freedom as they can afford, few health-insurance plans cover the procedure. Most patients must pay for it themselves. I live in San Francisco, where in 2018 a round of IVF cost about $26,000. Medications can add several thousand to that number.
The patients in my general infertility support groups talked about finances, of course: insurance plans, negotiating with clinics, home-equity loans versus personal lines of credit. But the overall thrust of these conversations was always that, although the cost of IVF might be crushing, it was just one more hurdle on the journey to having a child. It wasn’t an obstacle that should — or, seemingly, did — prevent anyone from pursuing the procedure.
Meanwhile, in my Black women’s infertility group, many were relying on cheaper fertility options, specialized diets, and vitamin supplements while hoping for God’s grace. In reading and responding to their heartbreaking posts, I was reminded again of all the unseen ways this country has conspired to prevent Black people from having the same choices as others. The issue at hand was our race-based pattern of wealth accumulation, but the result was that these women were being denied the chance to reproduce. It was another ugly chapter in a long history of oppressive control over women’s fertility in general and Black women’s fertility in particular.
After the women welcomed me to the group and told me they wanted to offer me prayer and healing, I started listening to their conversations. I was able to hear something much more important than what I’d come looking for: a determination to shift history for the next generation.
In the general groups no one spoke about why she wanted to get pregnant. Children were assumed to be a right. But it was a subject of great interest in the Black women’s group. Over the course of a month I read many aching posts about the desire to build a family legacy. The women longed to honor the sacrifices of their ancestors. They wished to become mothers so they could pass on love, lessons, abilities, stories. They spoke of what it would mean to create new family members — people who would belong to you and to those who came before you. They talked about creating their own history for once — a specific thread of optimism, pulled bright and shining out of a vile tapestry of oppression.
I did not add my own comments to these posts, which left me feeling speechless, unable to contribute, unwilling to be seen. But I read them again and again. I realized I needed to read these posts. In them I found the reason I was so determined to have a child: the desire to finally have control of a family narrative in a country designed to stamp that out.
My reproductive endocrinologist told me she wanted to try something different for the third embryo transfer: to rely on my body’s natural hormonal cycle. Natural cycles are statistically less successful than medicated cycles, but I didn’t know what else to do. The more we scraped my uterus for fibroids and polyps, the more likely I was to develop scar tissue that would itself prevent implantation. Why not try something else?
The following month, my body chose to extend my menstrual cycle to an agonizing thirty-five days. I was too disheartened to tell myself much of anything. On the day of the transfer itself, I ignored the instructions to rest beforehand and spent half the day at work instead.
Several days later I began to feel a strange acidic build-up at the back of my throat. I hadn’t had this sensation after my first two failed transfers.
On the ninth day my reproductive endocrinologist called to inform me that my pregnancy test had come back “strongly” positive. Only then did I allow myself to think about the possibility that my body, so full of negations and punishments and blockages from the past, might now host a positive message for the future.
Nine months later a team of doctors carved a five-inch incision into my lower abdomen and sliced open my uterus. Despite the anesthesia I felt a heavy pressure, aching tugs on my skin. They rooted around in my body and found the heaving, slimy parcel that was my daughter. They gripped her, tugged her out of my midsection, and placed her on a tray.
I could hear her cry but was trapped beneath two surgeons who were calmly extracting my placenta. I’d been told there was a possibility I could hold her while this took place; instead I lay alone, listening to my daughter’s cries on the other side of the room and weeping with joy and panic.
Later I would learn the doctors were worried about the amount of blood I was losing; I could not hold her until they had completed crucial procedures.
Finally they brought her to me. I was furtive with her those first days. I counted and recounted her fingers, toes, eyes, nostrils. I felt the soft down on her skin, stroked her full head of dark hair, kissed each eyelid. I focused on her startled steel-blue eyes, her Popeye-like limbs. (“She’s got amazing muscle tone,” a nurse said. “Came out a fighter.”)
Wild with postoperative confusion, inhabitant of the wounded-animal postpartum body, I didn’t consider her very light skin until I had seen the pictures of her first moments on the receiving tray.
It was the same kind of tray on which I had seen my fibroids, all lined up in a row, twice.
Where my phantom family had once lain, my real family now lay.
Whatever my father’s feelings may be about having a white son-in-law, he was overjoyed to have a granddaughter. In the weeks after her birth, he contacted me with intrusive visitation requests and suggestions about her care.
I tried to be patient. As a new parent I suddenly felt more forgiving of my own parents, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t understand how a new family member can dredge up all kinds of subconscious anxieties. Shortly after my daughter’s birth, I invited my father to visit us at home.
It was an unseasonably beautiful February day: sixty-five degrees, a slight breeze, bright-red aloe plants and flowering jacaranda trees bursting down the block. I’d dressed the baby in a spearmint-green outfit and matching hat; she was the picture of springtime optimism.
While my husband and mother ran errands and I folded laundry and rocked a wailing baby, my father sat in a corner and kept up a stream of childcare advice from the middle of the last century. His torrent of unsolicited remarks made me feel as if he didn’t trust me with her. Finally, overwhelmed by the strain of folding sheets while nursing aching incisions, I snapped at him.
“I’m not doing a terrible job,” I said. “Her doctors all say she’s doing great.”
“I wasn’t saying you were doing a bad job,” he said, and before our conversation could descend into a spiral of misunderstanding, we were interrupted by a moment of grace.
A shaft of sunlight stirred over the baby’s head. Her cries ceased as she tilted her face toward its warmth. Her eyes closed, and she smiled.
Newborn smiles come not in response to social stimuli but to something far more private and mammalian and joyous. They catch everyone, especially their caregivers, unaware.
Seized by delight at his granddaughter’s expression — this child who had already fought her way through so much terrible history to come into the world in an era when she could finally embrace who we are and who she may come to be — my father stopped talking and stared at her.
“She likes the sun,” he said. We both smiled, delighted she was ready to be seen.