Pearl Watley Mitchell
2005 by Pearl Watley Mitchell
My name is Kaci Lee. I was told that my father was a black American soldier and my mom was either from Korea or Japan. The orphanage personnel and records would tell me only that a very young Asian lady who claimed to be my mother dropped me at the orphanage one day saying that she could not care for me anymore. She was sick and was going to die, she said. She begged them to take me, but would not give them her name. That is what I was told. How I got to the United States is beyond my knowledge. I’ve never been able to uncover any other information even though I tried several times.
In 1953, at the age of two, a black Naval military man, Henry Walker, and his white German wife, Carmen, adopted me and we moved to Mid-East Georgia. That’s where I spent my first ten years. As far as I’m concerned, these two people are definitely my parents. They raised me in love to have self-esteem in myself, to believe in my potential, and to love others. They raised me in a Christian Church and gave me faith to fall back on.
There was not much reason for me to believe that my childhood wasn’t normal. My home for the first ten years was in a black section of town. We had no white neighbors and my mom was the only white person who looked different in the apartments. Everyone thought that my mom was so beautiful, and she truly was a beautiful person. They all accepted my mom and I never thought much about it. I thought that it was normal. She was kind to my friends, loving, and generous to the neighbors. My mom was educated and many of the neighbors brought their legal papers, applications, and forms to her for help. My mother was always ready to help and the other mothers liked her.
Our parents shared their gifts of fresh vegetables from their small gardens, which usually would be planted at the edge of the porches where a few people planted flowers. My mother could really grow some tomatoes and peppers. My parents were friends with all the neighbors, and we often went visiting, sat on front porches, and talked. We kids played hide-and-seek in the dusk of the evening. We really got into trouble when we happened to run into the gardens and stomp a plant or two. Boy! We got yelled at and sometimes got a slap on the bottom. It didn’t matter whose child you were or who the adult was. If you were really bad, you got corrected by the closest adult, and sometimes switched on the legs with a small switch off the nearest tree or shrub. I think that’s what the old African saying meant when it said, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
There were the usual childhood spats with the kids, but we always made our peace. We played jump rope games and rode our skates on the sidewalks of the apartment housing project. We played “Red Rover”, “Mother, May I? ”, and “Stick Ball (Scrub)” in the streets. There were few cars then and we only saw one once in awhile. It was used more for walking than it was for driving. The road was our playground.
My elementary years were spent in a black school in my local neighborhood during segregation in America. We walked to school since it was only a few blocks. All of my teachers were black. All the children were friendly to me and I had many friends. They never indicated to me that I was any different than them, although I looked a different. My dark hair was curly, but had a texture more like a white child. My Asian background was obvious in my round face and the structure of my eyes.
My mom spent many hours telling me stories about her family in Germany. I learned about her sister Rachel and her brother Eric and how they had a lovely childhood. GrandMom was such a great cook, my mom said, and my mom would cook some German dishes off and on. My dad loved German cooking, and so did I. When I asked about GrandPop, Mom would always change the subject. She finally told me one day that she was not proud of him because he hated Jews and was not part of Hitler’s Army, but he fully agreed with Hitler’s philosophy.
Never once did I get to meet a single one of my mother’s relatives even though she swore to me that they were sweet and loving, She said that they worked hard to make a living, and were proud of their heritage. I could see GrandMom in my mind, and I would have given a lot just to have a hug and an hour with her. I think my Mom would have too, because sometimes when she told me stories, I could see a sad, wistful look in her eyes. Many years later, in her senior years, Mom confessed to me that the reason I had never met her family is because her father had disowned her when she married my father who was black. He had forbidden her mother or siblings to ever contact her. Sometimes my soul aches with the loss of never meeting these three people – GrandMom, Uncle Eric, and Aunt Rachel. It’s as if there’s a chasm in my heart that nothing else will ever fill. I always think how great it would be if I could have grown up with them and their children.
I begged my mom to teach me the German language, but that’s one thing that she was set against. “You will learn American English, child, because you are not in Germany”, she would say. “ You need to learn English good, so that you can finish high school and get you a good job”. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher in a school somewhere when I got grown, but I didn’t know if that was possible. It seemed right then like an unreachable goal.
Dad always told me that his family lived in Chicago. We got a letter from Grandma Walker at least once a month. She always tried to send a couple of black and white pictures of some family members with her letter. She often spoke of Uncle Clarence who had gotten killed in the war. She often urged Daddy to tell me about Uncle Clarence. Daddy had four other brothers and two sisters and she would write a little section addressed especially to me telling me about all the cousins and how they wanted to meet me. I hoped that would be possible some day, but Chicago seemed like another universe to me at that time since we never even left our own neighborhood.
I would say that I led a fairly sheltered young life. Daddy had a job as a “carpenter helper” and he left everyday with his hammer hanging in his belt. He explained to me that carpenters work with wood and they build things. I asked Daddy when he could be a real carpenter and not a helper anymore, Sadly he looked at me and assured me that it could never happen. “Why, Daddy”? I insisted, “You’re smart. You can learn anything”. Daddy always said, “We’ll talk about it later, girl”, and that was always his last word. I knew when my Daddy had said the last word on a topic because he gave me a look that told me it was time to drop the subject.
Rarely did we ever go out of the “about” 20-block area in which we lived. I didn’t know then that I was multi-racial or even a minority. Life seemed normal to me as I had no scale to compare it with. There were grocery stores, hardware stores, and clothing stores within our area. There was a school that served our elementary children, and a few churches. We attended the church at “St. Paul Assembly” but we often visited at the other churches for special singing and gatherings.
One problem was that once students in our area finished sixth grade, they had to go away to school, or either they were finished with school. There was no junior high or high school close enough for us to attend. At least, I thought that then. I understand now that the schools were there, but they were reserved for white children. No black or multi-racial children were allowed. In fact, my mom told me after I got to be a teenager that the reason we stayed so close to home was that the laws in Georgia did not allow black and white races to marry. She said that it was against the law. I wondered how that could be because I thought that a man and woman were married in the eyes of God, not by a government. I pondered that question a lot.
Sometimes I thought about my birth mother and father? Who were they? What did they look like? What were their personalities and their beliefs? Were these characteristics programmed into my genes? How did my father get together with my mother? Who was my father and where did he come from? I wondered if he was an American or if he came from Africa or even South America? If I thought about the possibilities long enough, I think it would have driven me crazy. I tried not to dwell on it. There was one question that plagued me most: “Was I conceived out of love or lust?” I prayed that one day I would know the answer to that last question because it was very important to me.
When I started fifth grade, my best friend who lived next door had finished sixth grade already and had to go away to school. My heart was broken – I didn’t think I could stand to see Susie go away. We had been together since I was two years old and she was four. We grew up together. She was like a big sister and best friend to me all at the same time.
Susie was going to board with her aunt in Atlanta and attend high school there. At that time in Georgia, the high schools were grades 7th to 11th, and a pupil graduated after eleventh grade. You could become a teacher yourself after graduation. Usually the teachers started out teaching primary school and moved on to the upper grades as they gained experience. Susie wanted to become a teacher too. We always said that we were both going to teach in the same school and be friends for life.
I grieved for several months with Susie gone because home just wasn’t the same without her. We slept over at each other’s house several times a week and it was very lonely in my house without her.
Finally, I adapted to fifth grade and to Susie being gone. It was right before Christmas and Daddy gave me a surprise. We were going to ride the bus to Chicago over Christmas holidays. It would take about two days to ride up there and about two days to come back. We would stay for five days. I was so excited that I didn’t think I’d be able to breathe. I would meet my Dad’s mother, my Grandmother, whom I had never seen. I would get to see the aunts and uncles and cousins. Daddy had not been back home to Chicago since he went into the Navy at eighteen years old.
Then I heard that Susie was coming home for the holidays. I was really torn. Why did these two major events both have to happen in my life at the same time? I wondered if God was mad with me for some reason and wanted me to miss one of them on purpose. Anyway, I didn’t really get to choose, because Daddy had already bought the bus tickets. The day came to leave and Susie had not arrived at home. I was so sad and so low. I wanted to see her before we left. But – it didn’t happen! We started walking to the bus station, bags in hand, before she got home. It was about three miles to the bus station and my bags started to get heavy, so Daddy took my big bag and gave me his little one to tote.
At the bus station, there was something I had never seen before. There was a waiting line for white people and one for “non-white”. I asked Daddy why they did that and he said that "we would talk later". Then I asked him if Mama could just get in the “white line”, and check us in since she was white.
“No”, Daddy said, “It doesn’t work that way."
Then a man came over and took Mama out of line and took her to the “white line”. He said that she would not be allowed to check in with us or sit with us. He said that we should know that "blacks had to sit at the back of the bus and whites at the front". That was the law, and we would not be breaking the law at his bus terminal," he said.
I started to cry. A few big tears ran down my cheeks. I wiped them, but they kept coming and kept getting bigger. Suddenly I was sobbing and I didn’t even realize it. “Daddy”. I cried, “Where are they taking Mama? Tell them to bring her back, pleeease!!”
Daddy was trying to comfort me and see what was happening to Mama at the same time. He started over to the white line where they were taking her, but a big policeman stepped in front of him and asked where he was going. He said something about Daddy knowing what the law is in Georgia. Mama waved us back as if everything was ok, and Daddy stepped back. The clerk went ahead and checked Mama’s ticket and her bags and sent her to the bus. They put her in a seat directly behind the driver.
When Daddy and I checked in, we ended up in a seat almost at the back of the bus. Daddy told me everything would be ok, but I kept screaming that I wanted Mama. I thought they were arresting her or something. Daddy kept hugging me and patting me and finally I drifted off to sleep. I woke up startled when the bus driver hit the brakes abruptly. We were in a little town and my Dad said that it was in Kentucky. I had heard many times of the State, but I didn’t know much about it. We learned at school that Kentucky had lots of horses. Also Daniel Boone was from there.
The little bus station was actually a little wooden store with a picture of a great big dog on the front. Daddy said it was called a greyhound. Daddy and I exited off the side door of the bus and Mama came later out the front side door. She looked at us and waved but she didn’t come over to us. I think she was scared to talk to us. I didn’t understand this and it was very disturbing to me because I had never been without my mama. It is very scary when your own mother can’t acknowledge you.
I suddenly remembered that while I’d been asleep. I had bad dreams. My mama was being taken away from us by several big men, and we could not catch her. Daddy was just walking, but I was running and trying to pull him along and Mama just kept moving. Finally the bus stopped and I woke up. Inside the store was a ticket counter over in the corner. The counter reminded me of the post office in our little area at home. It had three or four iron bars going up and down in front of the ticket taker’s face. He looked like he was in jail.
We went to the toilet while we were in the station, but I could not go to the same one Mama went into. A sign said “Whites Only”, and the guard stopped me as I started inside. I started to cry as Mama came back out and stood there, afraid to touch me. Standing there wanting my Mama’s arms around me was the loneliest feeling I could ever remember having in my life. My heart hurt so much, and I saw big tears in my mama’s eyes. I wanted to run to her, but I was afraid and so was she. The guard pointed me outside around to the back of the building where the colored toilets were. There was only one to be shared by both male and female. I could see the back of several men standing out a piece into the woods. I knew they were probably relieving themselves.
This is so crazy, I thought, so insanely ridiculous - for some people to be treated like they were not as good as other people. I kept seeing the tears in my mama’s eyes as she looked at me. I saw the love for me on her face. I saw her worry, her concern, her deep compassion, and I wondered how Mama could be different from these people, and be the same color. I loved my Mama so much and I missed her. I suddenly felt more sorry for her than I did for myself. I knew now why we never went far from our home back in Georgia.
I was very hungry because we had not eaten since early in the morning and it was almost dark. Daddy bought me some crackers and sausage from the non-white side of the lunch counter. We were not allowed to sit at the counter, so we went outside and lounged around the outside of the bus. Mama slipped around the back of the bus and talked to us quietly from the other side. This side of the bus was against the woods, so no one could see or hear her. She cried and told us that she was sorry and wanted to sit with us really bad. She said that she would stay away from us until it was ok because she didn’t want us to be embarrassed or even hurt. She kept saying over and over how much she loved us.
On our way again, Daddy and I snuggled together on the long seat across the back and I laid down on the seat. When I woke up, Papa was shaking me, and it was morning again. He pointed to the front and Mama was peeping around her seat looking at us. I heard one of the men at the front talking about her and using curse words that were not nice at all. But she blew a kiss to us and her head disappeared behind the seat.
The bus stopped again at a little place with a Big Greyhound dog picture on the front. As I walked around the bus, I saw the big Greyhound on the side of the bus. It was awesome. The big dog looked so fast, so free, so independent. I vowed to myself that one day I would be that free and self-sufficient. I vowed that one day I would have a good education and get a good job and make life for my parents much easier. One day that would be me running in the wind, going places - powerful and strong.
Daddy brought me back to reality with a little hug. “What are you pondering on there, my precious girl. You’re deep in thought.” I just smiled at Daddy and gave him a great big hug. He looked at me strangely as if he were surprised at my sudden burst of positive attitude. I couldn’t explain to Daddy about how I had a sudden burst of hope and I knew that things would work out someday.
As we exited out the back-side door, I looked for Mama. She stood at the front-side door watching for us. We just stood there and looked at each other for a long time, just communicating with our eyes and passing love through a non-verbal mode that I never knew existed. Daddy stood behind me taking it all in. Daddy had gone inside the store and bought us all three a bottle of sweet milk and a sweet cake for breakfast. A kindly white lady who had been with us all the way from Georgia came over to me and gave me a little cup with hashed-up fried potatoes in it. It was so good and I wanted to give Mama some, but I was scared that the people would be mad with her if I went up and talked to her.
When we got back on the bus, the driver passed the word back that we were about 100 miles from Chicago. That would be about three more hours, he said. We noticed that some people got off and some new people got on at the station. I looked and they were sitting all together, black and white mixed. Could this be possible, I wondered? Could the blacks and whites actually be mixing together? It was obvious and I could not believe it. I whispered my observation to Daddy and he shushed me with the “We’ll talk later, baby” comment.
Suddenly Mama got very bold. She got up from her seat, took her handbag and walked to the back long seat of the bus. She sat down gently between me and Daddy and I gasped. My first thought was that someone would notice her and hurt her. I kept looking around and so did Daddy, but no other passengers said a word or even noticed.
My mama’s arms went around me and my daddy’s arms went around her. We snuggled and hugged and held each other, afraid to turn each other loose. I had guessed that when a person went north in the United States, it was different than in the South. As long as I live, the bus ride from Georgia to Chicago was the most traumatic happening of my life. My precious mother was kept from me and intimidated as a criminal. She was called bad names and treated badly just for loving my father and me. I will work the rest of my life to make that up to her.
To make a long story short, when we got to Chicago, Grandma Walker didn’t turn me loose. She just kept hugging me and squeezing me and kissing me and fondling my hair. Daddy and Grandma took me into the back bedroom of Grandma’s big old house and told me a secret. It turns out that Uncle Clarence who got killed in the war had been my real father. My mother had written to Grandma and told her she had left me in the orphanage. She got Grandma’s address from a letter that Uncle Clarence had gotten from Grandma.
Knowing this information, Grandma had forwarded the letter to Daddy who was serving in the Navy at that time. Daddy and Mama had come to the orphanage and adopted me. Daddy and Mama had moved to Georgia because they thought it would be easier for me there since all the family knew Uncle Clarence’s story and knew about me. It turns out that Uncle Clarence, my birth father, had written Grandma and told her that he married my mother, who was Asian. I do not know her name, and her name was Qin. Uncle Clarence (my father) was bringing her (my mother) back with him to Chicago when he was discharged from the military. The letters from my father and mother – Grandma had kept them - she gave them to me to keep for life. I actually got to take a little peek into the heart of my birth parents. My mother’s letter said that if they could have come back to Chicago, I would have been accepted as a mixed-race child, but trying to raise me in her Asian country would be hard because I would not be accepted. My life would have been harder than if I had been raised in the orphanage, she said.
My heart has always wondered what it would have been like to be raised by my Asian mother – either in Asia or in the US. What would have happened if my father had not been killed? Would I have been raised in Chicago or in an Asian country? How would my life have been different?
But, the letters and the secret that they told me had freed my heart. I could look to the future because I knew about the past and had put it into its place. I did a lot of maturing that night and into my teen years. I began to put my priorities into place and I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help children like myself who were trying to figure out "who they were".
Things were happening now in America. A man named Martin Luther King had come onto the scene and was making changes in a nonviolent way. My world would change drastically because my family stayed in Chicago and I never went back to Georgia again except to visit Susie a few times. I was able to go to high school and graduate while living at home with my parents. I became a teacher and so did Susie. She moved to Chicago to live with us and teach in a school there.
I, myself, sometimes wondered who I was, raised by my uncle as my father and a German woman who in my mind is my mother. But there was one question that plagued me most, “Was I conceived of love or lust?” That question was answered in the handwriting of my own birth parents, in the letters that Grandma Walker kept for me, and gave me to keep for life. The answer to that question gave me the peace that I needed to handle any multi-racial problems that I encountered from that day until now.
It took most of my adult life to get here, but I am finally at the point where I see my multi-racial status as an asset and not a liability.
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