I Woke Up One Day to Discover I Was Black - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The author, on the ball from a very young age.
SourceTeresa Hightower Boone

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because race can be a quicksilver thing.

By William T. Lamar-Boone

My story begins in a small town (population 11,000) just outside of Houston.

I spent almost my entire childhood running up and down a dirt court on the side of my single-wide trailer, pretending to be the next Michael Jordan. I was born to a white couple, raised in a predominately white area and was the youngest of five white children.

I was different, though, and I recognized this difference early in life. I never fit in with my siblings and peers no matter how desperately I tried. That isn’t to say we weren’t a close family — we were — and it isn’t to say I didn’t have plenty of friends (I did). It is to say I never felt like I belonged.

No one “made” me feel like I didn’t belong; I just had a deep-seated insecurity that I wasn’t who I was supposed to be.

I had to shave my head, although that didn’t stop the administrator from questioning my ethnic selection.

As I grew older, my appearance began to change, which felt more and more unreal. Not like I wasn’t real, mind you, but like something about me wasn’t authentic. My senior year of high school, I decided to grow my hair out. Up until then, my hair had been kept short and meticulously manicured by my mom. But since I was stepping into manhood I decided it was time to find my own carefully curated look.

As my hair grew, I noticed how thick and coarse it was. My red curls grew into a red Afro. About the time that I started using a pick to comb my hair out, a friend suggested I might be Black.

“Hey, Will, are you sure your parents are being honest with you about being white?” she asked me one day.

Initially, I was offended. As time progressed, though, the thought crept into my mind that maybe my friend was right. Maybe this was why I had never felt like I belonged. So, for the first time in my life, I confronted my dad and mom about my “unusual” appearance.

My dad, being the loving and understanding man he is, tried to reassure me by showing me a picture of himself in his decades-old high school yearbook. He too had an Afro. Granted, his was more like Bob Ross’, the soothing, paintbrush-wielding guru on PBS, but still, it was an Afro.

My curiosity momentarily satisfied, I accepted the explanation and moved on to major life choices. Upon graduating from high school, I gave myself two options: rely on financial aid to support me through college or join the military and serve my country with the intention of earning a degree. After briefly reflecting on the potential outcome of each scenario, I decided on the military, and my dad signed me into the United States Air Force at age 17. I was on my way to becoming a man.

A true patriot, I decided to keep my Afro when I went off to basic training. Unfortunately, I had to shave my head, although that didn’t stop the administrator who was reading my paperwork from questioning my ethnic selection.

“White?”

I looked at him, confused. He turned his eyes down to his clipboard and kept the line moving. Ashamed, I became determined to alleviate myself from any last doubt I had about my ethnicity. Motivated by a desire to get back home and confront my parents one last time, I began outperforming many of my peers in almost every area by simply being in a rush.

A year later, in spite of my success in the military, the lingering doubt continued to pull my focus away from being in the moment. I eventually began to accept that unless I confronted my parents, I would never experience what it was like to feel whole.

Which is why, for the next several weeks, I carefully devised a plan that would involve not making the same mistake I made in high school by ensuring my father wasn’t present the next time I asked the question.

I waited until precisely the right moment to ask my mother if she would join me on a “date” at the local Olive Garden, knowing my father would be too preoccupied with work to join us. She obliged.

The waiter didn’t even have time to take our drink order before I asked my mother one last time. At this point my mother had two choices: She could continue to perpetuate a lie that would only make my life worse, or free herself from the burden she had been carrying for the first 18 years of my life.

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The author with an Afro.

She chose the latter and told me that I was a product of her and my dad being on a “break,” that my dad was not my dad and that my biological father was indeed Black. He had died when I was around 2 years old.

My mother had kept this secret from everyone, including my stepfather and my siblings. According to her, the day I was born was one of the most stressful days of her life. At least right up until she noticed my skin was light enough for me to pass as my stepfather’s son. No one is 100 percent sure why my mother held on to this secret. Only she really knows. 

To this day, the man I grew up thinking was my father, and who thought I was his son, and I have yet to acknowledge to each other what we are: stepson and stepfather.

But after identifying as a white man for the first 18 years of my life and a Black man for the next 12 years, I came to the conclusion that I was no longer going to allow society to determine what kind of person I want to become. Through my faith in God, it has been his grace that helped me discover I can be whomever I decide I want to be.

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