I was five when my mother married my stepfather, Alfred Brown, Jr. in 1980. My stepfather, or, as I think of him, my father, was 21 years older than my mom and had already raised a daughter by the time he met me, but that didn’t stop him from getting a second job at the Ford plant in Mahwah, New Jersey so he could give me what I’d asked him for when he married my mom: my own room, and a back yard with a swing. He got me the room and the backyard and the swing, but what came with moving from the city where we were to a small rural town where a different set of understandings, like when I went from a place where I knew other mixed-race families to a place where kids used to throw Oreos at me on the bus to school to symbolize my black-and-white family. Even after the Oreos stopped flying in middle school, I dealt with people’s fear of and prejudice against my father every day.
Now that I am grown and my father has passed away, and people see the blonde, blue-eyed, upper-middle-class, NPR-listening, Brooks Brothers-employed me, people think they know who I am and who I must have come from. This was brought home to me recently when someone looking over my shoulder as I tried to find a picture on my computer pointed at my computer and asked me whose house was in the picture that was currently on my screen. I said that it was a picture of the house in which I grew up. My dad was also in the picture, pulling weeds, and the person looking over my shoulder said, “And was that your gardener?” I said no, that he was my father, and in that moment, I was so angry at the implication of the assumption, and yet, I was so, so very grateful that I got to claim him again, publicly, as the man who made me who I am.