‘White Like Her’ Memoir Details Hidden Heritage
A growing interest in genealogy has plenty of people discovering surprises in their family trees.
Libertyville mystery writer Gail Lukasik had her own family mystery she wanted to unlock. It involved a grandfather she’d never met, and a mother who took a startling secret to her grave.
Lukasik details her search for the truth in the new memoir, “White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing.” The Washington Post called her poignant personal tale “one of the most inspiring stories of 2017.”
Below, a Q&A with Lukasik and an excerpt from the book.
Why did you decide to explore your family’s heritage?
I had never met my maternal grandfather and whenever I brought him up with my mother, she would try to change the subject. So I decided to try and find out about him on my own.
How did your search begin?
Well this was 1995, before the internet was commonly being used and before anything like ancestry.com. So I went to the Buffalo Grove Family History Center and searched through the archives.
What did you find?
My mother was born in New Orleans, so I went and found the 1900 Louisiana census. In those records I found my mother’s father, Azemar Frederic, and I was shocked to discover the he and his entire family were listed as black. I then contacted the state of Louisiana for my mother’s birth certificate and found out that she, too, was listed as colored.
Did you try and talk to your mother about this?
Yes, but she begged me not to tell anyone. So for 17 years, until her death, I kept her secret.
Lukasik shares all the poignant details of her search for the truth in her family’s history, as well as coming to terms with her new identity, in her memoir.
Read an excerpt from “White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing.”
MODELING WHITENESS, An excerpt from WHITE LIKE HER
“Looking white is, in many ways, contingent on doing white.” – Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile.
My mother had no manual on how to act white, no guidebook, and no set of instructions. Her light skin said white, but she knew that whiteness was more than a skin color. If she was to pass successfully, she had to not only look white but also act white. Movies were her training ground as well as her escape.
In the era of double features, she went to the movies sometimes twice a week. From the time I was six years old until adolescence, I was her companion and escort to the Friday night double feature at the local movie house. She favored the dark, moody dramas of unrequited love where the heroine retained her honor at all costs or the dark Hitchcock mysteries with their secrets and surprising revelations.
During my childhood I remember vividly Giant, The Night of the Hunter, Mogambo, The Caine Mutiny, and A Place in the Sun, movies that were too mature for me and sometimes frightened me with their disturbing themes about tough choices, sexuality, and evil. The eerie image of Shelley Winters’s drowned body at the bottom of the lake, her hair floating around her, disturbed me for years.
From movies she learned how white women dressed, styled their hair, spoke, gestured, and dealt with troublesome men. Though she seldom smoked, when she did she mirrored Bette Davis, flicking her cigarette ash coyly with that frisky glint in her eye that said, “I’m in charge but you can try.” Smart brunettes like Rosaline Russell and Joan Crawford intrigued her with their sassy remarks and independence.
She disliked Marilyn Monroe for her overt and crass sexuality and dumb blond act. Though one year for the neighborhood Halloween party she masqueraded as Monroe, donning a platinum wig, red satin dress with a thigh-high slit, black gloves, fishnet stockings, and a long cigarette holder she pretended to smoke, inhaling and blowing out nothing. I was transfixed by how her personality changed, how seamlessly she became another person. Gushing in a breathless Monroe voice she asked, “How do I look?”
Her obsession with movies ran so deep she named me after a movie starlet, Gail Russell, a 1950s actress who succumbed to alcoholism and died alone in 1961 at the age of thirty-six in her apartment surrounded by empty liquor bottles.
When I asked her why she chose Gail as my name, she answered that when I was born I had blue eyes and dark hair just like Gail Russell, whose beauty she desired for me. She shrugged her shoulders. “But your eyes changed and so did your hair.”
The movies were a release for my mother. In the dark theater she could cry without explanation, something I rarely saw her do at home. Her identification with the women on the screen was transformative, as well as instructive, blurring the line between the real and the imaginative. For those two hours she was Susan Hayworth, Hedy Lamar, Lana Turner, women faced with impossible decisions who manage to survive. For the time we sat together in the darkness she could also be herself, appreciating her own performance. How she’d tricked a society intent on putting her in her racial place.
Whether from the movies or from growing up in a boarding house schooled by her great-grandmother, my mother viewed good manners as a sign of good breeding.
“Manners will take you anywhere in society, even further than money,” was one of her mantras.
I always attributed her strict emphasis on manners solely to her Southern upbringing. But acting white is part of appearing white. Being so polite, so well bred, how could anyone doubt her whiteness.
If manners and good breeding were my mother’s interpretation of what it meant to look white, she reasoned that her daughter, who was a reflection of her, should have all the grace and charm that her own childhood had lacked. According to my mother, charm school would teach me how to be a lady. She was convinced that anyone could escape the prison of poverty and class if they were privy to the secrets of good breeding.
But at thirteen I was wise to her true intentions. As much as charm school had to do with good breeding, it had just as much to do with her dream of me being a beauty queen, which now in light of her racial secret seems both subversive and vaguely risky.
Every once in a while my mother would suggest I fill out an application for a beauty pageant. And whenever she did, I knew she wasn’t seeing me, what she was seeing was herself or how she wanted to be seen. My mother was beauty queen material, not me. Maybe I was her stand in, her last chance, her doppelganger – the white self no one could doubt or question. My whiteness was unbreechable. I was the payoff for her passing – a white daughter who could walk a runway with other white girls – no questions asked.
In 1960 African American women were barred from competing in the quintessential beauty pageant, the Miss America competition. And not until 1984 would Vanessa L. Williams become the first African American to win the title of Miss America, thirteen years after the Miss America contest allowed African American women to enter.
In light of what I know about my mother’s mixed race, the rules and expectations of charm school—captured in a notebook I still have today—are a symbol of 1959’s white middle-class America, at least the white America I knew, defining the narrow goals set for white middle-class young women, all centered on physical appearance.
We were cautioned to watch and track the numbers of our body measurements and proportions in this notebook. It was all about before and after, the notion that a woman was evaluated by her body stats. The reward for all this watching and self-discipline would be a fashion show where we would walk a runway and model a Higbee’s outfit.
My notebook had headings like: “Charming of Form,” “Grace in Motion,” “Charming of Face,” and “Charming of Dress.” There was a cautionary play on the word charm: “Remember: Charm – C = Harm.” There were body and hand exercises, examples of how to stand and sit, how to enter and exit a room, how to glide walk, how to ascend and descend stairs, how to apply makeup, how to use accessories, how to achieve a bandbox look.
Charm school reinforced my self-consciousness, fostered by my mother, her belief that every hair had to be in place and every movement choreographed, not so much in a pursuit of perfection, but of uniformity. To stand out in an uncharming manner might suggest other unsavory things about you.
To my mother’s dismay, a few years after charm school one of my best girl friends from Miss Angela’s dance studio, Judy Adams, not only entered a beauty contest but was crowned Miss Teen USA. Judy was a natural beauty with long wavy blonde hair and that beauty queen smile, toothy and sincere.
After my mother’s death, I joined a grief group facilitated by the local hospice center. One evening I finally found the courage to share with the other group members the devastation I felt at the loss of my mother, this woman who had been such a force in my life, who forged me as if I were raw metal and she was the smithy. Verging on tears, I pieced together what she meant to me, leaving out any mention of her racial secret. When I was done, after the other members had offered me their support, Liz the facilitator said, “Gail, you have such a grace about you.”
My mother would have loved that, I thought.
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