My grandfather Charles died in 1995, April 18 to be exact. He and his wife, Irene, raised me for the better part of my life and in all honesty, I consider them my parents. Since I was a child I'd heard about Dorothy K. and her brother, Pete, who were passing for white in our city. The oddest remembrance I have is being a little girl visiting with my great-grandmother who was their maternal aunt and looking up and seeing this "white" woman at the front door. And I also remember reading old guest books from the funerals in our family and seeing the name Dorothy K.
Well, a few months after my granddad died, I was living in his home and the telephone rang; it was Dorothy K. asking for my grandmother, Irene, her first cousin. I had to tell Dorothy K. that my grandmother had been dead for 2 years and that I'd just lost my grandfather. Evidently, they were the two times she didn't read the obituary daily in our local newspaper to see if any of her black relatives had died, because she was shocked and I had to console her. I knew Dorothy K. was passing for white in a nearby suburb and had known pretty much all of my life, but I never thought in a million years I'd speak to her. We talked for two hours and I asked her everything I could think of and she answered me. She explained that the passing began with her black mother who didn't look black married a white men and moved to white neighborhoods. She told me that her husband, a business executive with a local company was a bigot and that she had two adult children who had no idea their mother was black. Most importantly, she shared the pain passing has caused her over the years, mainly that she had to be isolated from her secret family and of course, her past. Her brother who was passing as a Greek white man on the other side of the city, had no problems with it and didn't want to know anything about his black family. A few years after this conversation, I told my elderly black aunt who could easily pass about talking to Dorothy K. and she became angry. She shared that the family always had to be inconvenienced b/c of her mother's sister and her cousins passing. She told me about a time when they were kids and Dorothy K.'s mother sneaking to visit her sister, my great-grandmother and her family. My aunt hated that they had to keep a secret for Dorothy K. and her mother. And my aunt does not, to this day, care for Dorothy K. though they live five to ten minutes away from one another. In an odd way, I'm incredibly grateful to have spoken with Dorothy K. who thanked me for listening without passing judgment. I'd always hoped that her husband would die and she'd come out of her closet, but that hasn't happened and if it has, I haven't heard and wouldn't know given I do not know her married name. I do know, however, that she is a woman with a tragic story and who is haunted by a decision made many years ago. She, in many ways, is a lost soul and will be until she can reconcile with passing as white. I am able to relate to her b/c I do not know my biological father and feel that sense of loss though I'm hardly passing for anything but who I am. My elderly aunt, however, is not as forgiving or objective in her thinking.