of fire, the tortoise of Hindu legend that floated in space, supporting the weight of the world on its back.
Later, when I became more familiar with the narrower path to happiness to be found in television and the
movies, I’d become troubled by questions. What supported the tortoise? Why did an omnipotent God let a
snake cause such grief? Why didn’t my father return? But at the age of five or six I was satisfied to leave
these distant mysteries intact, each story self-contained and as true as the next, to be carried off into
That my father looked nothing like the people around me-that he was black as pitch, my mother white
as milk-barely registered in my mind.
In fact, I can recall only one story that dealt explicitly with the subject of race; as I got older, it would be
repeated more often, as if it captured the essence of the morality tale that my father’s life had become.
According to the story, after long hours of study, my father had joined my grandfather and several other
friends at a local Waikiki bar. Everyone was in a festive mood, eating and drinking to the sounds of a slack-
key guitar, when a white man abruptly announced to the bartender, loudly enough for everyone to hear, that
he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor “next to a nigger.” The room fell quiet and people turned to my father,
expecting a fight. Instead, my father stood up, walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture
him about the folly of bigotry, the promise of the American dream, and the universal rights of man. “This
fella felt so bad when Barack was finished,” Gramps would say, “that he reached into his pocket and gave
Barack a hundred dollars on the spot. Paid for all our drinks and puu-puus for the rest of the night-and your
dad’s rent for the rest of the month.”
By the time I was a teenager, I’d grown skeptical of this story’s veracity and had set it aside with the
rest. Until I received a phone call, many years later, from a Japanese-American man who said he had been
my father’s classmate in Hawaii and now taught at a midwestern university. He was very gracious, a bit
embarrassed by his own impulsiveness; he explained that he had seen an interview of me in his local paper
and that the sight of my father’s name had brought back a rush of memories. Then, during the course of our
conversation, he repeated the same story that my grandfather had told, about the white man who had tried
to purchase my father’s forgiveness. “I’ll never forget that,” the man said to me over the phone; and in his
voice I heard the same note that I’d heard from Gramps so many years before, that note of disbelief-and
Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or
octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and
crumbling porticos. And yet it wasn’t until 1967-the year I celebrated my sixth birthday and Jimi Hendrix
performed at Monterey, three years after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, a time when America
had already begun to weary of black demands for equality, the problem of discrimination presumably
solved-that the Supreme Court of the United States would get around to telling the state of Virginia that its
ban on interracial marriages violated the Constitution. In 1960, the year that my parents were married,
miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my
father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most
sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s
predicament into a back-alley abortion-or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for
adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse, a handy retort to the
handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.
Sure-but would you let your daughter marry one?
The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question, no matter how grudgingly, remains
an enduring puzzle to me. There was nothing in their background to predict such a response, no New
England transcendentalists or wild-eyed socialists in their family tree. True, Kansas had fought on the Union
side of the Civil War; Gramps liked to remind me that various strands of the family contained ardent
abolitionists. If asked, Toot would turn her head in profile to show off her beaked nose, which, along with a
pair of jet-black eyes, was offered as proof of Cherokee blood.
But an old, sepia-toned photograph on the bookshelf spoke most eloquently of their roots. It showed
Toot’s grandparents, of Scottish and English stock, standing in front of a ramshackle homestead, unsmiling
and dressed in coarse wool, their eyes squinting at the sun-baked, flinty life that stretched out before them.
Theirs were the faces of American Gothic, the WASP bloodline’s poorer cousins, and in their eyes one
could see truths that I would have to learn later as facts: that Kansas had entered the Union free only after a
violent precursor to the Civil War, the battle in which John Brown’s sword tasted first blood; that while one of