“I was the darkest of my siblings,” Grandma said, “he reminded me everyday how he treated me.” Arlene Allen, is my paternal Grandma, the matriarch of the Allen family. But at this moment, she was the child her father hurt.
I doubt I showed shock. My jaw didn’t drop. Nor did my eyes bulge. We were at her home, a three-bedroom apartment, in Breukelen projects. She had to be on the computer – playing spades. She always played spades. I had to be eating. She often fed me, when I came over. Got offended, if there was no room in my stomach to eat.
As I sat and tried to listen – I had a bad habit – more questions brewed. Were your parents married? How many siblings do you have? What was a day in the life like? To think, I was winging ‘em. Inquisitive. I didn’t want it to feel like an interview. More informal. Less button pushing. I hadn’t come across Fifty Questions For Family History Interviews by Kimberly Powell yet. But my mind had just piece together, an important detail.
I imagined how she may of grew up. Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 29th, 193X the – black sheep – out of eleven children. A line – sort of like the brown paper bag test – was drawn amongst her siblings. Her complexion was lighter than a brown bag, lighter than my caramel complexion, but still too dark a shade for her father. Why? What made this small detail of a woman – who would become a mother, devout Christian, community feeder, sharp talker – matter? Maybe it was a combination of our family history.
“William Allen, was my father’s name,” Grandma said. My Great-Granddad, was born in Danville, Pittsylvania, Virginia at the turn of the twentieth century on January 1st, 1900 (This corroborated the oral history told to me). But the 1900 United States Federal Census stated he was born exactly a year prior. More intriguing is his race is labeled as white. Oscar P. Allen and Lydia A. Allen – my 2nd great-grand parents, are listed as white as well. Maybe beyond complexion – white – represented a social status to him.
The 1910 Untied States Federal Census, echoed this social status. By the time William is eleven years old, the Allen family, who lived in Cople, Westmoreland, Virginia has grown to include four sons – my Great-Granddad, James, Lewis P and Benjamin. But what stands out in this census includes Minnie Johnson and Earnest Johnson – two black people – who were listed as servants. Minnie was a laundress and Earnest was a laborer; both were listed as wage earners. Yet, the only people above nine years’ old who couldn’t read (and didn’t attend school) in the household were the Johnsons. Maybe this idea – this colored view of reality – first found its way when Great-Granddad William was a child, who could have viewed the Johnsons as beneath him.
Although being a servant and darker complexion are not exclusive. The reality many black and brown folks – only 45 years removed from slavery – faced could argue a case. I don’t know what happen in Great-Granddad William’s youth. The work he did. His schooling. Anything that would show he had learned anything different. To find out more I turned to his father.
“His father didn’t want him to marry my mother,” Grandma Arlene said. But my Great-Granddad William married her anyway. But why would my 2nd Great-Granddad, Oscar Allen, take such a position? Maybe a case of Romeo and Juliet – feuding families? Maybe Great-Grandma Beulah – a first generation American – wasn’t American enough? The Allen’s family tree went back at least another three generations in the United States – the late 1700s. More likely Great-Grandma Beulah may have been kissed by the sun more so than any Allen.
Great-Grandma, Beulah Fernandez was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina on November 28th, 1907. Her father, Edward Fernandez – my 2nd great-granddad was born in Spain (Although no census I’ve found supported this oral history) on February 3rd 1882. Her mother, Daisy Green, – my 2nd Great-Grandmother was born around 1892 in Chester County, South Carolina. They both identify as Negro on a 1930 Untied States Federal Census.
But if Great-Granddad William looked at his daughter, Grandma Arlene as too dark what made his wife, Great-Grandma Beulah the exception? Who knows? Certainly, his Great-Grandchildren, myself included, would not pass any paper bag test.
At Grandma Arlene’s apartment, when I’m over for a holiday dinner or just to shoot the breeze – we rarely talk complexion. Like many black families, we have shades of black. But for Grandma Arlene her complexion hits a chord close to home.
7 Generations – is a blog series that digs into my family tree to consider the impact of circumstances and decisions through the generations.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) is a MFA in Creative Writing and Literature candidate at SUNY Stony Brook, where he is working on Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been featured in The South Hampton Review. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com