Author Gail Lukasik learned stunning news about her mother's ancestry while researching family genealogy. A later DNA test confirmed the revelation. I recently read White Like Her - My Family's Story of Race and Racial Passing. She deals with great sensitivity and compassion her mother's decision in the early 1940s to pass for white. Also covered in depth is the history of racial passing, which was fascinating.
Lukasik's book has captured the attention of genealogy fans and students of racial history in America. Her journey led her to the television program Genealogy Roadshow, and most recently an appearance on the Megyn Kelly Show (link below). Lukasik generously agreed to appear on my blog, with an excerpt from an article about her book and her journey.
My Mother Passed as White—Even to Me
By Gail Lukasik
Excerpt from The Daily Beast, October 29, 2017
My mother leans toward the mirror. With graceful upward strokes she applies liquid foundation to her face, and begins her day as a white woman.
I perch on the edge of the blue bathtub, watching in fascination as she transforms her olive skin to a lighter shade. At 14, I have no inkling of the depth of her deception. Nor the risks she takes everyday married to my white father and living in a white, lower middle class Cleveland suburb.
It’s 1960. Seven years before the Supreme Court declares interracial marriage legal. She knows what’s at stake. Her enactment is so artful, so practiced; my father will go to his grave, thinking he married a white woman.
“Why do you wear makeup to bed?” I’m starting to question my mother’s quirky habits, starting to wonder about the blank spaces in her New Orleans family tree.
Her answer leaves me bewildered and troubled. “You never know if you’ll get sick in the night and have to be taken to the hospital. You want to look your best.”
It’ll be three decades before I understand that to my mother “best” means white. It’ll be three decades before I discover my mother passed for white.
There were clues I missed. Her strict avoidance of the sun, her absence of family photographs, her unwillingness to visit her family in New Orleans, and her obsession with her make-up.
If not for my curiosity about my mother’s father, Azemar Frederic, my mother would have died with her racial secret intact. In 1995, while scrolling through the 1900 Louisiana census records searching for Azemar, I made a startling discovery. Azemar and his entire family were designated black. In an instant my sense of self was shattered.
When I questioned her, she vowed me to secrecy until her death. “How will I hold my head up with my friends?” she pleaded.
I’d never seen my mother so afraid. Reluctantly, I kept her racial secret for 17 years. And in the silence of those years, I was left confused over my racial identity.
A year after my mother’s death, I appeared on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow and revealed to 1.5 million people that my mother passed for white. On the 1940 Louisiana census my mother, Alvera Frederic, was listed as Negro, working in a teashop in New Orleans. Four years later, she moved north and married my white father. She was never classified as Negro again.
Gail Lukasik is the author of White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing.
The Washington Post named White Like Her one of the most inspiring stories of 2017.
After her 2015 appearance on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow where her mother’s life changing secret was revealed, she was inspired to write White Like Her. The book is the story of her mother’s “passing” for white, her struggle with the shame of mother’s choice, and her subsequent journey of self-discovery and redemption.
She also writes the award-winning Leigh Girard mystery series, a seasonal series set in Door County, Wisconsin. Peak Season for Murder won the Lovey Award for Best Traditional Amateur Sleuth.
Her website is: www.gaillukasik.com. White Like Her is available at: https://www.amazon.com/White-Like-Her-Familys-Passing/dp/1510724125
Megyn Kelly Show appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNiEBnOzgVw