Dolores Johnson’s new book with the provocative title “Say I’m Dead” is a gripping memoir of her exploration into both her black and white identities, and subtly their sometimes clashing contradictions.
Johnson seamlessly weaves a narrative of her experience navigating between the white and black world as a person of mixed race, exploring her Black roots on her father’s side, and the through-line narrative of delving — sometimes trespassing — into her white mother’s past; she abandoned her family in order to protect them when she married Johnson’s father.
The book begins with one of many stomach-turning experiences, this one of Johnson driving into a local gas station after leaving her corporate job in Greenville, S.C. The gas station attendant interrogates her as to her racial identity, asking if she’s “injun,” then saying, “You ain’t a Jew, is you?” When she answers she’s Black, Johnson writes, “He whooped and jumped back from the car, then cupped his hands and yelled across the pumps to another attendant. ‘Hey Joe, come here and lookit this gal. She says she black … Get on out of that car so I can take a good look at you,’ he said, talking to me in a tone I imagined he saved just for blacks, demanding and superior, as though I had to obey. He reached for the driver’s door handle to pull it open.”
Johnson immediately reveals her indomitable disposition when she responds, “‘You better step the hell out of the way if you don’t want your foot run over.’ I hit the gas and fled the station.”
The author shares many other appalling instances — in corporate America, and within some of the neighborhoods where she and her husband lived, including a cross burning on their front lawn. But we also read of instances where Blacks exhibited their own prejudice against her for having a white heritage, including during a trip to meet her father’s family early on in the narrative.
Returning from this visit, Johnson puts together a family tree of this side of her background, only to realize it was actually more of a family bush. And, thus, we are launched into Johnson’s quest to learn about her mother’s past. Her husband warns her about what this search might reveal, but Johnson writes, “I had a right to know about my family … That would be painful for Mama to tell me, but she and Daddy had been married 36 years. With that much time gone by, did it matter now?”
Well, it turns out that it mattered very, very much to her mother, who only extremely reluctantly agreed that Johnson could seek out her family, whom she had left without a word nearly four decades before, only if Johnson lies and says that she was dead. Her mother couldn’t bear to face them after disappearing without a word, believing they would hate her for it.
When she asks why her mother ran away without a word to her family, Johnson’s father explains how dangerous it was then.
“We didn’t want you kids to know we could have gone to prison for being together,’ Mama said … ‘We were afraid Daddy would get hurt, so we left.’ They decided before we were born not to scare us with the ugly truth, not to raise us knowing that kind of fear and hate.
‘“Daddy said they had given us a family — a black family and raised us black because that was the only choice there was. ‘You sure couldn’t have your white family in the 1940s.’”
Johnson’s mother didn’t tell her family not just because she believed her parents wouldn’t accept her marriage, but also to protect them from discrimination themselves, which could go so far as to destroy her sister’s chance of marrying.
This drastic request to lie and say she was dead sets up the emotionally dangerous nature of Johnson’s quest as she goes on to finally track down her mother’s sister who, it turns out, is beyond happy to meet Johnson and fully embraces her. Her aunt is devastated when learning of her sister’s passing (their parents had died during Johnson’s mother’s self-imposed exile), and Johnson finally maneuvers a meeting between the siblings.
The reconciliation is far from the end of the story. Johnson keeps us turning pages as we learn more about her life, professional success, mother and father’s experiences, and the complicated nuclear family dynamic. Sprinkled throughout are extraordinarily thoughtful and self-reflective insights that bring us close to Johnson.
Toward the end, Johnson shares an important revelation, “Not until I wrote this book did I understand what my half-black, half-white, mixed race meant. My early struggle to rise to my full potential as a black person I knew myself to be was advantaged by my insider’s notion of how some whiteness functions in America. That unique mix of determination and insight was its own form of privilege.”
Asked about what inspired her to write “Say I’m Dead,” she says, “Years of conversation with my mother about her life choices and their impact on family and my own identity inspired this ‘conversation among Americans’ about the price real people paid to overcome the weight of our racial norms.”
Johnson adds, “I’d like readers to take away the hope that love and family can jump the racial divide, even as we fight embedded, systemic injustice. And the accelerating growth of mixed American marriages, partners, and births across color lines proves it. The Census Bureau forecasts 20 percent of our country will be mixed by midcentury.”
Subtitled “A family memoir of race, secrets, and love,” what shines through Johnson’s book is love … of family in all shapes and sizes and colors.
Dolores Johnson will be speaking on Zoom through the Edgartown library on Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 7 pm. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation.
“Say I’m Dead: A Family Memoir of Race, Secrets, and Love,” by E. Dolores Johnson, is available online.