Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Skin That I'm In

Margaret Doyle
I have been thinking about this blog topic for days. Trying to decide if I should share more of my grandmother's story. Athough genealogy does bring pain, my intent is never to hurt anyone's feelings. However, this story, like all the other's was a part of her and I think that she would want me to share..

When my maternal Grandmother passed away nearly three years ago at the age of 94. My family came together as families do. At her memorial gathering each of us grandchildren stepped up to share kind words about her. She was the only grandmother that we knew growing up. When my brother spoke about her, he started out by saying " I never knew that my grandma was white". It was then that I realized that even in our family many did not know about her Identity. I just assumed that we all knew.   I realized that her history needed to be shared with everyone. Although she identified herself as being black or "Negro" as she would say. She did look white and could have easily passed for that if she wanted to. Growing up, we didn't see the color of her skin. She was just Grandma. We were crazy about her and she was always, always there.

My Grandparents: Anthony Bannarn and Margaret Doyle
She came from a mixed race family. Her father Peter DOYLE was Native American and Irish. Having red hair and blue eyes he looked more white than anything. Her mother, Mary Belle CARR was black, Indian and German. She had eight siblings, out of which two of her brothers were darker in color than the rest. That in itself caused racial issues between the siblings.

Out of the many talks that we had over the years. The one thing that she never talked about was the color of her skin. I wondered if she had ever passed for white. I always sensed that it was a touchy subject for her and although I was curious I could never bring myself to ask her. It wasn't until she was almost 90 years old that she finally shared her story with me. As she started talking I noticed the far away look in her eyes. It seemed as if she was no longer in the room..she had traveled back in time to share her story with me. Her pain was so obvious.

Her Story:
Siblings: Margaret and Robert Leonard Doyle
Growing up in Iowa in the 1920's and Great depression era of the 1930' was not easy. Most people thought that her father was a white man with a black wife. It was a time when they didn't ask you what you were. The color of your skin spoke first. Her father; the son of a slave, knew first hand about the struggle that his white looking children faced. He told her to marry into the black race because the white race would never accept her. While her brother Bill struggled with his identity, being darker than his fair skinned siblings..her sister Rose passed for white to get jobs in the rich neighborhoods of Iowa. Swearing her siblings to secrecy, she told them that should they see her to just act like they didn't know her. She talked about how prejudice Des Moines, Iowa was and all the racial slurs her family suffered.The Klu Klux Klan was a real and active force in many Iowa towns. They burned a cross on her family's front lawn in the 1920's. After she married my grandfather, Anthony BANNARN and moved to Minnesota. She still faced discrimination. As the country went into WWII she went to work to help take care of her family. She would get hired for jobs. They never asked about her race, and she never told them. All was fine until they found out that she was colored, and then she was fired. This happened many times.

I loved her even more for sharing her uncomfortable memories with me. I understood so much more about who she was. She had answered all the things that I was curious about but could never bring myself to ask her. She knew me as her quiet  granddaughter, forever asking questions about the family. She also knew that I wanted to know all that there was to know about her and her ancestors.. maybe that's why she finally shared her story with me.
Grandma holding my sister, me and my brothers  - 1965


© 2013 Denise Muhammad


  1. I think your grandmother would be very pleased at the way you have shared her story. I wonder how the employers discovered she was black, her husband and children, where she lived?

  2. Thank you. I would like to think that she would. She never said how people found out, I suspect that within the small neighborhood where she lived, word got around to her employer.

  3. "The Imitation of Life"scenes with Sarah Jane passing at her job, was a reality of life for a lot of people. As my grandfather went in between both worlds also. But as DNA testing is being very common, the one drop rule is no longer the rule for the European DNA folks who have that one drop or mor of Sub-Saharan ancestry. As DNA and genealogy has proven we are all one people...just took different journeys.

    1. Yes, I remember that movie. I cannot imagine what life must have been like for them. Thank you Stephani, I appreciate your comment.

  4. Our history is rich & though MANY times bittersweet [and oft times tragic] must be told. Ancestors choose the right descendant to share their stories with love & the reverence due. Grandma Doyle was beautiful, obviously inside & out. A wonderful job Denise helping us learn about her journey.

  5. A really poignant story, Denise. Thank you for sharing it.


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