Her mother kept her racial background a secret her whole life
Gail Lukasik thought she was white until she learned her mother was racially passing
Originally published on August 26, 2018.
Gail Lukasik was always curious about her mother's side of the family, particularly about her maternal grandfather.
Why didn't her mom ever talk about him and why didn't she have any photos?
It wasn't until later on in life, when she decided to comb through census records for her grandfather, Azemar Frederic, that Lukasik found out why.
"I saw something very curious. Behind every single Frederic name was the letter 'B.' And I had to go up to the head of that column and find out what it represented, and it said 'race,'" she told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.
So I sat there for a moment and I was stunned because I'm thinking, 'Does that mean I'm black?' - Gail Lukasik
Thinking perhaps there was a mistake in the records, Lukasik pretended to be her mother and requested her mother's birth certificate from the State of Louisiana.
When Lukasik received a copy, she saw the letters "COL" used to describe her mom, at the time a racial designation for "coloured."
"I didn't know what to make of it, because I had lived my entire life to that point as a white woman, that was my identity. And so it's like finding out you're someone else. It's not the whole truth," she said. "I feel a little bit betrayed by my mother, because why didn't she tell me this?"
Facing the truth
It took two years until Lukasik felt she had an opportunity to confront her mother.
"I said, 'I have an official document from the State of Louisiana and it says you're coloured.' Well, it became very quiet in the room. I watched her and it was almost as if she was shrinking.
"She looked at me and she said, 'You can never tell anyone until after I die.'"
Lukasik kept her mom's secret for 17 years. And, even though she tried to talk to her mom about it, about her life, her mom wouldn't budge.
Lukasik continued her research after her mother passed away and eventually wrote a book titled White Like Her.
"I think it's very interesting, on her 1940 census records that she is listed as 'NEG' which stands for 'Negro.' Four years later, she marries my white father, moves north, and is never listed as Negro again."
Lukasik says she doesn't think her dad ever knew the truth.
"My dad was a man of his generation and of his ethnicity. So there was bigotry, there were racial slurs in the household."
Piecing together her mom's story
After starting to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her mom's life, Lukasik said that certain "quirks" began to make sense — like the fact that her mom always wore makeup to bed.
As a teenager, she asked her mom about it one day.
"I said, 'Mom, why do you always wear a light foundation to bed?' And, she says, 'Well, Gail, you never know if you get sick in the middle of the night, and you have to call an ambulance, and they take you to the hospital, you will get better treatment if you look good.'"
Lukasik has since come to interpret looking "good" to mean "looking white."
She also started learning more about what it might have been like for her mom growing up in the south, and why she decided to leave behind a part of her identity to pass as white.
"Once I understood the kind of stress she must have lived under, passing for white in a very white community, she must have been so anxious all the time about this, just so fearful. And, then I thought, 'Wow, she was really courageous to have built a whole new life.'"
After divorcing Lukasik's grandmother, her maternal grandfather Azemar Frederic remarried and had kids. Lukasik eventually connected with his side of the family.
Lukasik says she now identifies as a mixed race woman or as a white woman with mixed race ancestry.
She also said her views on race have deepened through her research and personal experience.
"I did a lot of research ... about racial designations and what people of colour had endured. I knew some of that through history. But, you know, it's different when it's your history, when it's your family. I had a deeper understanding of race and what it means to be a person of colour in America."
This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "The Secret Lives of Parents".