With a simple infinitive-- to be --she was.
For three-quarters of a century, Grace Morris Cramer lived her quiet, Spartan life as a white woman. Her younger sister, Margaret Morris Taylor, cut off from most of the Morris clan, lived as black, worlds apart, haunted by their ghosts.
The story of these two sisters, their torn family and the geography of pain separating them is at the center of Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's book, "The Sweeter the Juice." Ostensibly a family biography, Haizlip's slim volume also examines the facile labels of race and identity, while exploring the varying degrees of privilege. (Haizlip is Margaret's daughter.)
\o7 Passing\f7 is a term out of an antique void. It renders the notion of "color" a state of mind. With a slight change of a last name, a new address, a "new race," some black families splintered in two or three like a branch inflicted with dry rot. The most complex challenge: making sure no clues were left on the trail.
In the case of Margaret Morris, it meant, without warning, that she was unceremoniously relieved of her history. No family Bibles or albums filled to spilling with stoic portraits of her forebears. No grandmother's hug or grandfather's knee.
The Washington, D.C., family unraveled in 1916 when Margaret's mother died and her father and five older siblings scattered to live as whites. Four-year-old Margaret, quite fair-skinned herself, was sent to live with a cousin.
She, too, became what she believed herself to be: a "colored" woman.
Nowadays, Shirlee Haizlip's sunny Hollywood living room is shot through with photos--six generations of them. Portraits of the family--immediate as well as extended, both black and white--reconstructed through a bridge she built through time.
Margaret Morris Taylor sits beneath a wall of windows, surrounded by the faces that in life had eluded her. Taylor, who has been accompanying her daughter on the book tour, touches on just a small portion of her arduous journey; her reluctance to reach out to the family that had abandoned her as a child: "I wasn't going to try again," she says. "They had already rejected me two times. I couldn't do it again. So Shirlee said she would. . . ."
Question: What was your emotional state while revisiting the sources of your mother's pain?
Haizlip: \o7 I'd heard my mother's story since I was a child, so I think probably the emotionalism was gone\f7 .\o7 . . . It was just a fact of life.\f7 . . . \o7 So it was an intellectual exercise to find the answers to this puzzle.
\f7 Q: At what point did you decide to turn this search for your mother's only surviving sister into a book?
A:\o7 I didn't know it was going to be a book. I was doing a personal "This Is Your Life" kind of manuscript for my mother's 80th birthday. Then I saw the drama of all the things that had happened to her. I thought, "This could be a book."
I was reading some of the things that I had written at her birthday party and even the waitresses were responding. . . . I have a friend who is an agent, Faith Childs, and I told her I had an idea. . . . The proposal (was) basically what I had already written, just spruced up a little and I sent it to her.
She took it to 10 publishers. And the only one who didn't offer was Disney Books\f7 . Q: For what is often an emotionally fraught topic, to what do you attribute the wide interest?
A: \o7 The climate. The mass consciousness. Five years ago, a story like this couldn't be published. This whole thing about multiculturalism\f7 .\o7 And diversity statistics have shown that America is getting more and more brown.\f7 . . .
\o7 In the year 1995, 58% of the world's women will be Asian. And the fastest-growing group of children in this country are children of mixed race. . . . So the browning of America is inevitable. Corporations have known it, schools know it. And I think it's just getting out there in the consciousness\f7 .
But no matter how open or forward-thinking one believes he or she is, what Haizlip contends is sure to raise eyebrows, if not ire, in some quarters. In others, she hopes it mines long-buried issues at the core of race relations.
"Many Americans," Haizlip writes, "are not who they think they are; hundreds of thousands of white people in America are not 'white.' . . . If a new sociological method of determining race were devised, equal numbers of black people might no longer be black. What happened in my family and many others like it calls into question the concept of color as a means of self-definition."
When he lost his young wife, Rose, to cancer, Haizlip's grandfather, William Morris Sr. (whom Haizlip describes as being of Irish and mulatto descent) took the first step over the line. Figuratively shedding his skin, he hoped to find better fortune as a "white" man.