I learned at an early age that my body’s shape, hair style, or clothes were an instigator of admiration or displeasure based on Dad’s keen eye. I fell in line, brushing my teeth daily and washing behind my ears. When I had my school bag strapped over my shoulder and was ready to walk out the door, he would say, “Judy, wait just a minute. Come over here.” Then he’d sit down on the couch and say, “Did ya wash up? Lemme take a look.” I’d put my book bag down and walk over to him.
Then he would pin me between his legs and squint.
“Smile. Lemme see yer teeth.”
I’d bare my teeth.
“Now open up.”
I’d spread my jaws till my uvula was dangling like a flasher.
He’d put his hands on the sides of my cheeks and tilt my head back; look inside- up, down, and all around. Then he would bend my ears back and look in the crease behind. He might say, “Very good, go on to school.” Or, “There’s sleep in yer eyes, give it another once over. I want to see that face a yers shine.” This was the routine, done in a matter of fact manner like he was doing quality control on the assembly line at his factory.
When I was very little, Dad’s complements felt like fairy dust, swirling through me and lightening my spirit. A fond memory is the day I came home from first grade with straight A’s, I thought Dad would take flight as he peered at my perfect report. I longed to repeat the performance, but the next year I got checkmarks for lacks self-control; I was prone to conversing with my neighbor.
Once I became a teen, the complements from Dad were hard to come by and unpredictable, like a slot machine. I never quite knew when I would get the payoff, but I kept pulling the handle. I realize now that predicting how I could please Dad was a useless aspiration. He was like a sports coach often pointing out your weaknesses so you could improve. That was just his way of loving you and showing he cared about how you turned out. Sometimes he liked my outfit or new haircut, but I was often timid to show myself, especially when I had on my first pair of nylons or tiny high heels. I was often uneasy to confront his reaction.
Dad was a master storyteller. My cousins and I would gather around for an episode of the Snoose and the Snocker; “POW,” he’d yell as he pounded his fist into his other hand; or the Billy Goats Gruff, sometimes standing up to impersonate the troll under the bridge who wanted to eat the tender little billy goats in one bite. I shook with fright and delight at these stories.
There was an obvious gap in the subject matter of Dad’s stories. That was anything pertaining to family history. When I’d ask about our roots he’d say, “Better watch out you might find out something you don’t wanna know.” I wondered if my Great Grandpa was a thief or murderer.
As adults, we discovered Dad’s family secret. My sister Jackie had told Dad about her desire to visit New Orleans to work on our genealogy. “Don’t bother,” he said. “The courthouse burned down years ago with all the records.” Regardless of the warning, Jackie visited the Big Easy and uncovered my grandfather’s birth certificate with the race labeled “c” ; colored for African American. We, Liautaud’s, thought we were Forever White, but with this revelation took a closer look. Could it be true? After all we had fuller lips, curly hair, good rhythm, and darker skin that tanned and didn’t burn.
Jackie came home eager to see what Dad had to say about this revelation. Dad went off like a steam engine, sputtering and pointing his finger to the door, “Get out of my house,” he said, “and don’t you ever bring that subject up again.” Months later, my brother Jim supplied Jackie with copies of family certificates, many stamped with the “c”, confirming our black roots.
It was Uncle Phil who eventually filled us in on the details. In 1911, the social climate had changed for free men of color and all their rights were being taken away. As Uncle Phil said, “They were pinning crimes on us and hanging our friends.” So, when Dad was seven years old, his family bought a one way ticket north. On Friday they left their home in New Orleans, colored folk, unable to vote, ride the bus, or drink from a public fountain. On Saturday they stopped over in St. Louis, and boarded the front of the train. When they got off in Chicago, they were white and free with all the privileges of societies favored race. We were “passing” for white.
The Liautaud family made a pact to never speak of it again. Uncle Phil told a story of Dad working as a bell boy at the same hotel as his mother who worked as a maid. They pretended they didn’t know each other because Nana had a darker complexion and it might have compromised Dad’s status.
So when I got pregnant out of wedlock, it made perfect sense that Dad would first react with a burst of anger and then concoct a new story to protect our name. Judy would not bring shame to the Liautaud family when they had fought so hard for the rights of the privileged.