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Dark Secrets

lost&found

Lost and Found: Carmen Redmond (third from left) stands next to her father and his family--all relatives she didn't meet until she was in her 20s.

How a family secret kept a father and child apart, and a child alone

By Carmen A. Redmond

As God would have it, I became aware that I had no father. People would ask: "What is your daddy's name?" or "Where does your daddy work?" I felt ashamed to answer, "I don't know." I began to ask my mother about my mysterious father.

"Where is my daddy?" I asked her.

"Your daddy is dead," she said. "He was crossing the street and he was hit by an automobile. Now, he is in heaven."

So, I grew up believing that my father was dead. Why would my mother righteously tell such a devastating lie? She had been taught that sometimes lies are justified--for instance, when you tell lies to spare someone else's feelings or when you tell lies for the "good" of the other person. She taught me that this type of lie was called a "little white lie."

As I grew up, strange, resentful comments would randomly emerge from my mother's lips. "Your hair makes you look like an Amazon woman!" she would say, usually before dragging me in for yet another poodle cut. Or in a frequent burst of frustration: "I wish you had never been born!"

At other times, my mother could be extremely protective, doting on my well-being. However, through verbal abuse, "the silent treatment," a beating with a hairbrush or a hard slap in the face, I learned that her love was subject to withdrawal. The rule was: "Conform or be abandoned."

As I grew up, I was taught to be proud that I was Irish and--although I learned the Lord's Prayer--that the Catholic church favored rich people and had mistreated my mother because her family was poor.

Our friends were all white like us. I was taught not to stare at Negroes, that they were different from us and smelled funny. I was plagued with uncertainty toward blacks and, sometimes, fear. I didn't know how to look at them or how to talk to them.

DESPITE MY mother's efforts to separate me from him, I felt a strong connection to my unknown father. I had his name, Redmond, even though my mother had gone back to her maiden name. His name was my name; I clung to it like a life preserver. When my mother married a white man in l960, I acquired a stepfather. She took his name and she wanted me to do the same; he wanted to adopt me. She was enthusiastic and thought I would be thrilled. But my reaction--at 9 years of age--was strong and definite: I absolutely refused to give up my father's name. Something within me told me that I must remain a Redmond. I suppose my mother heard the determination and depth of feeling in my reply. She did not pursue the adoption or the name change.

After fourth grade, we moved to a suburban area north of Seattle. My classmates in junior and senior high school were predominantly white. I only remember one black girl in my high school--the janitor's daughter. I was ignorant of the civil-rights movement. In eighth-grade English I sat silently as the teacher led a discussion about racial discrimination. I heard one boy confidently say, "Why should I suffer for something my ancestors did?"

In high school, my white French teacher embarked on a shrill tirade in which she told us that as Northerners "it's easy for you to criticize white Southerners who are resisting school integration with the Negroes because you don't know how awful it is to have to live with Negroes and sit next to them day in and day out with all their ignorance, laziness and poverty." She said she knew firsthand how horrible it was, because she had lived in the South for several years.

My stepfather, Gene, the son of hardworking Swedish immigrants, was kind and supportive. But from time to time, I would ask my mother the old, haunting questions. One evening when I was about 15, I pitched questions from the back seat as my stepfather drove us to dinner.

"I know my dad is dead, but where is the rest of his family?"

"Oh, I don't know, honey. They never wanted you."

Or:

"Mom, where is my dad buried?"

(Stunned silence.) "What?!"

"Where is my dad buried? What cemetery? I would like to visit his grave--maybe take flowers."

"Let's not talk about this right now. I'll tell you when you're older."

IWAS 20 years old in 1971, attending the University of Washington in Seattle. On one visit with my mother, I was not surprised when she once again cast a disapproving eye on my thick, kinky hair and offered to take me to a top Seattle salon "where all the models have their hair done." After all, she had spent considerable time and money throughout my childhood taking me to hair salons; my hair had been repeatedly straightened, cut and styled in an effort to make it look "prettier" more times than I could count. The efforts had been futile. Other mothers commented on the extreme curliness of my hair and would frequently add, "Maybe you'll outgrow it."

Nevertheless, my mother remained steadfast. She made an appointment and accompanied me to my destination. After we arrived, she took a seat in the waiting room and I consulted with the hairdresser. He analyzed my hair and then said, "I know just what to do. Leave it to me."

When the cut was over, he handed me a mirror and rotated my chair so that I could see my new hairdo from all angles. I was fascinated at how he had made good use of my hair's natural tendencies. I went happily into the waiting room to show off this masterpiece to my mother. When she saw me, she gaped in amazement. There stood her "white" daughter crowned with a perfect dark-brown Afro--the "Black is Beautiful" haircut of that time.

A few months later, it was my turn to be surprised. As I walked across the University of Washington campus at dusk, I heard footsteps coming up quickly from behind me. I turned to look and saw a young black man coming up to walk beside me. We looked at each other with surprise, and then he spoke: "Oh, I'm sorry. When I saw your silhouette from back there, I thought you were a soul sister." I felt frightened and confused. I mumbled, "Oh, well ... I'm not," and then I hurried into the safety of the well-lit library.

That summer, feeling confused and unhappy for reasons I could not decipher, I sought counseling. My mother was supportive, even calling the university to speak to the counseling center.

I spoke to the counselor every week for an hour. This went on for many months. At one session, the counselor observed: "You feel different from others, don't you?" I agreed. I felt set apart somehow from the people I had grown up with--different. But I didn't know why.

Nevertheless, the counselor helped me to see that my desire for independence was healthy and normal, and that my experience had given me a strong sense of self. By the time I came to the end of the counseling year, my spirit of independence was stronger than ever. I became the publicity chairperson for the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). I moved out of my mother's house and rented a room in a private home near the university. I had a part-time job and volunteered at a nearby elementary school. I was assigned to tutor a sweet, shy little boy named Eugene, a black child in a predominantly white school. As for my mother, she saw my new maturity as "selfishness" and referred to the counselor as "that crazy bitch."

By the end of the next summer, I was dating a student in my creative dramatics class. Dennis Terry was warm, funny, adventurous and nonconformist. He was a Vietnam veteran, an artist and seven years older than me. He was a Californian, which added to his glamour. Although he is English and Sicilian, the first time I saw him, with his deep tan, broad face and long, straight hair, he reminded me of a Native American. By October 1972, three months after meeting Dennis, I had moved in with him. My mother showed up at our apartment--enraged--and demanded that I pack my bags and go home with her. "If you stay with him, you're going to be dead in a ditch!" she screamed. My stepfather restrained her. In a calm voice he told me, "Carmen, you're old enough to make your own decisions. I wish only the best for both you and Dennis." I stayed with Dennis; two months later, I married him.

Ten months after my marriage to Dennis, my mother called. As Dennis and I moved around our basement apartment kitchen, washing, steaming and stirring, I paused to answer the kitchen's wall-mounted telephone.

There was an exchange of pleasantries and then my mother revealed that she had called to tell me something. She hoped I would not be angry with her. She got right to the point. "It's about your father. He's probably alive. And ... uh ... I didn't want you to know because ... he's ..." She stopped here, almost unable to continue, but pressed on. "Your father is black."

Despite the years of deception, I believed my mother at once. I did not question the fact of my blackness at all. It felt true.

"My father might be alive? He's black? Why didn't you tell me before?" I was standing in the middle of my steamy kitchen, having a regular telephone conversation about my missing father, my missing identity and my missing family, and I felt good, wonderful, stunned, numb, curious and amazed.

My mother told me her family had not approved of her marriage; they urged her to leave my father even after she became pregnant. Despite their Catholicism, they urged her to abort rather than give birth to a mixed-race child. My mother seemed to think that I should be grateful that she allowed me to be born and that I should not dwell on the deceit. Of course, at that moment I was so overwhelmed by the truth that I just became quiet and thoughtful. I had a father at long last, and my focus was mainly on this miraculous gift. I did not feel anger; I felt gratitude.

Before the phone call ended, my mother also took time to explain that she had been worried for many years that I might give birth to dark-skinned children when I became a mother. She said that she wanted me to know that she had consulted with some doctors and that they had assured her that a child would rarely be darker than the darkest parent; therefore, she felt that I had nothing to worry about. I listened to my mother explain all this and I realized that it was her worry and not mine.

I asked where my father was; I wanted to meet him. My mother told me that I should not search for him. It was part of the divorce settlement that he would never try to see me. His family didn't want me, she said. But, I still wanted to know where he was. She said probably in Seattle, she didn't know; she hadn't seen or spoken with him since 1950. Before my mother and I finished this telephone conversation, my mind was racing ahead, designing a strategy for finding my dad.

After I hung up, I told my husband the news. He was surprised, but accepted the news without question. He knew that I had always wanted to know more about my father and that I was very curious about the Redmond side of my heritage.

On the other hand, I knew that my husband's family was prejudiced against African Americans. When I met my in-laws for the first time, we parked our car on the street beneath their large hilltop home. After Dennis and I mounted the stairs, my new in-laws opened the front door expectantly; I heard sighs of relief when they got a close-up view of me, and one of them laughed and said that when they first saw my profile from a distance, they had thought that I was black. Imagine that, the tone of voice seemed to say, we actually thought for a moment that our son had been crazy enough to marry a black woman! During our visit, my in-laws had made other remarks that let me know that they saw blacks as inferior.

"What can this possibly mean to me now?" I asked him. "I am grown-up. All of my life, I've lived as a white person. What difference can it possibly make now that I am half-black? This is like being told that I'm half-Martian and that my father is green!" A few days later, I wrote this in my journal:

"I know nothing first-hand and very little second-hand about black. But, I feel proud. I am a proud anomaly. I represent a possibility. I'm living proof, living refutation. I show that social forces shape who we are. I show that people live with half-truths substantiated mainly by what their eyes tell them. The eyes say I'm white, so I'm raised white, treated white, accepted as white. I'm okay to whites and to white-socialized blacks. I'm a honky to the black blacks."

Uncertain as I was about the full significance of my new racial identity, I wrote away for a copy of my birth certificate. I had never seen it before. Within weeks, I held it in my hand. It listed my father's name as Harold James Redmond and his race as white. I immediately wrote away for his birth certificate, which listed his name as James Harold Redmond, born Nov. 4, 1926, the second child of a twin birth to Anna Whittington Redmond and John Redmond. My dad's mother and my dad's father were Negro.

Several years later, I would learn that my dad's mother, my grandmother Anna, was part Cherokee. She, like me, was actually tri-racial, African-Native American-European, but only one race could be stated on official documents. I am told that Grandmother Anna could have passed as white, but that she chose not to do so. After reviewing the two birth certificates and my parents' marriage certificate, I filed an affidavit with the state of Washington so that my birth certificate would correctly show my father's race as Negro. As of Oct. 10, 1974, I am officially a mixed-race woman.

A month later, I searched for my father's name in the Seattle phone book. Sure enough, there was an address in the "central area," a part of town with a large population of non-whites. To the whites by whom I had been raised, it was known as an undesirable part of town. You kept your car windows rolled up and doors locked if you ever had to drive through. Now, my father was a resident. And if I wanted to meet him, I would have to go there.

I told my husband I was pretty sure I had found my father's address and phone number, but I could not summon the courage to call. Dennis insisted that we drive by the address "just to see what it looks like." He drove and I was his passenger; Dennis was streetwise from his days growing up in the urban areas of San Francisco and Daly City. As for me, I made sure that our car windows were rolled up and our car doors were locked.

Around 7pm, in the dark, Dennis parked our car at the curb and we looked up at the neat little house and well-kept yard. "I just have to go up there and ring the bell," Dennis said. "I want to see him." I didn't like the idea. I didn't feel ready. Dennis, however, would not be held back. He told me that he would not mention me. "I'll just pretend that I'm lost. You don't have to do anything. Just sit here. I'll be right back."

From the car, I watched him mount the stairs to the front door. It was quiet for a moment and then the porch light came on--a warm yellow glow washed over the landing. I could hear voices. Then Dennis's footsteps. He appeared at the car window on my side and motioned to me to roll it down. He was visibly excited.

"Carmen, it's him. I asked him if he had a daughter named Carmen Angela and he said that he does. I told him that I have you waiting in the car and he wants you to come in to meet him!"

I got out of the car quietly. At 22, I was about to meet my father for the first time. A white woman had taken me away from him, and a white man was bringing me back.

When I got to the top of the stairs, my dad was standing in the doorway. He was a gentle-looking golden-brown man in a cardigan sweater, waiting to welcome Dennis and me into his home and into his life. It seems to me that we said hello to one another and that we hugged each other briefly. I remember that it felt really odd to be greeting a man who was a total stranger to me as though he was a father with whom I had grown up.

Dennis was verbose. He kept saying how much resemblance he could see. Dad was trying his best to make us welcome; he offered us a seat and he introduced us to his wife, Evelyn, and to his infant daughter, my half-sister, Karen. He ran and got some picture albums and began to tell me about himself and about my grandparents--who had already passed away. I found out that Dad had worked his way up at Boeing and had a lot of seniority there. He was a musician, a drummer and a devout Christian.

He was conventional. I was a free spirit. I stayed quiet, feeling tense and constricted. Dad was talkative and expressive. He invited us to Sunday dinner. Then he walked us to the door. He looked at me and asked gently, "Well ... are you disappointed?" The question took me by surprise, and I replied quickly, "No, of course not!"

Sunday, Dennis and I returned to have dinner with my newfound family. I spent a lot of the time with Evelyn and Karen, which was easier than talking directly to my dad. The baby, Karen, provided the instant and socially acceptable distraction. Evelyn was warm and friendly, telling me how she had grown up in Philadelphia, earned a college degree in English, and after several years as a single, working woman had married Dad and chosen to become a full-time wife and mother. She was the first black woman with whom I had ever had any degree of familiarity, and my stepmother as well. While Evelyn and I chatted, Dennis and Dad talked at length. When it came time to leave, I was relieved. I still had a tense fear of rejection. I needed to get away so that I could breathe.

Dennis told me that Dad had explained how he lost me. Dad had come home from work one afternoon and found that my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, had taken her belongings and disappeared; Dad had searched for us, but in vain. Mom and her family did not want him to find us; my dad received hate calls from my mother's older sister. Finally, Dad got a divorce on the grounds of desertion.

I listened to all of this. I needed time and space to make sense out of everything. I had a new father; I had become a woman of African heritage; and I had been lied to by the people I had most trusted in my life--my mother and her family. The white people with whom I still identified could not be trusted, and I was numb with hurt and rage.

Dennis and I moved to California in 1974. I put about 850 miles between me and my Seattle memories. I wasn't ready to become a part of my new African American family and I wasn't comfortable being around my once-familiar Irish-American family. I kept in touch with my dad by letter and telephone during that time, but I did not visit with him face to face. I did not deliberately hide my mixed-race status from trusted friends, but I was silent about it otherwise. For example, I never told my in-laws and I did not reveal it to my employer. I was conscious that I could suffer social and employment difficulties if certain people found out that I was half-black. I decided it was safer to let them believe I was just white. And I still truly saw myself as a non-prejudiced white person, not as an African-American. I had not yet developed my identity as a mixed-race person.

When I gave birth to my first child, Andrea, in 1980, my marriage was in trouble. In 1982, despite our best efforts, including 18 months of marriage counseling, we divorced. One evening, as I made preparations to move into my own apartment, a father-daughter segment on a TV talk show caught my eye. I stopped packing and sat down, staring at the show; beautiful daughters, handsome fathers--proud, affectionate--sharing nostalgic memories and demonstrating the precious bond between father and child. I felt my loneliness; I felt my loss. As the show concluded, I became aware that I was standing there, silent tears flowing down my face. My chance for a childhood with my father had been irreversibly denied.

A few days later, with a great deal of humility, and with some embarrassment, I dialed my father's number. He answered.

"Dad? It's me, Carmen."

"Carmen? Well, for the love of Pete. How are you? Where are you?"

"OK. I'm still in California--Palo Alto."

"How are you kids doing? How's my little granddaughter?"

"Andrea is fine, Dad. But, Dennis and I ... well, Dennis and I are going through a divorce and ... well, it's ... so hard."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said quietly. "I know what it's like. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Well, I just feel like a terrible failure. I just need to hear that I'm still an OK person."

"You're OK, Carmen. These things happen sometimes. I'm sure that you've done the best that you can."

"Yeah, Dad, I've tried. And we have counselors helping us. We're both determined to take good care of Andrea. That's good."

"Carmen, I was thinking--what do you think about me driving down for a visit this summer ... maybe for your birthday?"

"I'd like it, Dad. I'm in the middle of moving to my own place right now. But I'll be settled soon, and I'll call you."

"Sounds good, sugar."

"Thanks for talking to me about all this, Dad. It helped."

"What's a father for? You call anytime, OK? I love you, and please send my love to Andrea and Dennis, too."

I smile now as I remember his sweet and supportive manner. I heard exactly what I needed to hear, and felt the unconditional love I had longed for all my life. I cried tears of relief and celebration.

AFEW MONTHS AFTER my divorce, I answered a personal ad placed by a man who was tri-racial--white, black and Native American--like myself. After we met, my friend and I were inseparable for about five months. Unlike me, he looked more black than white. Once he said to me, "Carmen, you're lucky to look so white." And I replied, "Yes, but God evened things out by making me a woman and you a man." He was my first nonwhite boyfriend; and by allowing me to see the world through his eyes, he taught me a new perspective. I began to lose my "white blindness"--my ignorance of non-white realities.

A few months after I broke up with my boyfriend, my dad came to California to spend my 33rd birthday with me--our first birthday celebration together. On the day of our celebration, I wrote this poem, which I titled "Emancipation":

Once I had
broken wings--
they pained me
and I could not fly ...

Looking up
at sunlit skies,

Looking up
at sparkling skies,

my limbs felt heavy
upon the ground.

Years and years
of mending,

Years and years
of hoping,

til one amazing day,
I took flight.

Now I fly
among the puffy clouds
and in the starry nights.

I soar up
in the heavens
like I'm never coming down ...

Yet,
broken wings,
o' broken wings,
I'll never be the same.

My innocence is gone,
I am forever scarred.

I love more,
I cry more,
because of you ...

because you taught me
how close
the earth is
to the sky.

IT PAINS ME that there remains a strong social and economic incentive to hide African American ancestry. In fact, the term "mulatto" derives from the Spanish word for mule. The late Walter White, former NAACP executive secretary and a white-skinned Negro, estimated that for every visible Negro there is at least one ĺinvisible" Negro. Based on the latest population figures, that means there are at least 33 million "passers" like myself. Given the social stigma of non-white status, I wonder how many other babies have been given inaccurate racial identities and how many have grown up and lived entire lifetimes without knowing who they are.

My experience of the divisive system which has categorized and ranked people based upon skin color, heritage, gender, income and other factors throughout U.S. history has inspired me to work for change. As a purchasing agent and manager, I have supported affirmative action because it attempts to recognize and to counterbalance unwritten, unofficial, even unconscious, preferences. In addition, I dedicate time and effort to my employer's diversity program. I believe that seeing clearly, not color-blindness, will end prejudice.

During my training to become a facilitator for the diversity program, I spoke for the first time about my childhood experience in public. My fellow students were men and women, white and non-white, U.S.‚born and non‚U.S. born, heterosexual and gay, able-bodied and disabled, Christian and non-Christian. We sat together in a circle. I hadn't spoken more than a few sentences when sadness overtook me and I began to cry; one of the trainers, an African American woman, came to hold my hand. The entire group encouraged me to go on and listened intently. Afterwards, an African American man, himself an orphan, approached me, hugged me warmly, and said, "I've found a sister in you." It felt so good to be accepted for all that I am, I wept with relief. The black‚Native American half of myself had been orphaned and left to die, but it had survived, and was now thriving and alive.

Last August, I attended the Redmond-Whittington family reunion in Seattle. My father escorted me, my sister Karen, my daughter Andrea and my son Colin to the festivities. I was greeted warmly by cousins my age who had grown up knowing I existed but painfully aware of my absence from all family gatherings.

While in Seattle, I also visited my mother and her relatives. In contrast to feeling relaxed and accepted with my father's family, I felt strained and formal with the family of my childhood. My father expressed concern for my mother; my mother expressed contempt for him. My mother tells me most blacks are irresponsible and amoral, but I am different because I'm "mostly white." I tell her that when she puts down blacks, she puts me down, too.

In December, I shared the first draft of this article with my family. My dad said it made him want to cry. My mother responded by rejecting my Christmas card and gift. My ex-husband wrote me a heartfelt letter that said: "I must tell you that this experience is one of the most importance in my life. Ignorance can only be corrected with the truth. The truth is that love commands more respect and freedom than separation by color." He learned the same lesson I did: You cannot tell a white person by the color of their skin.

Despite my experiences and efforts to share them, my mother still believes she did the right thing. I understand she is unable to face what she did, to ask forgiveness and change her ways. On a larger scale, our nation is unable to face centuries of wrongdoing toward Native Americans, African Americans and other non-whites, to ask forgiveness and change its ways. My father and I forgive my mother. We see that she is part of us and we hope that one day she will also see that we are part of her.


Carmen A. Redmond works as a purchasing supervisor for the County of Santa Clara Finance Agency and a diversity workshop facilitator. She lives in Palo Alto.



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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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