"'Passing' describes the choice to identify as a member of another racial group rather than face social prejudice,” writes Sil Lai Abrams in her memoir, Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity. “Today the term is used almost exclusively to describe black people who consciously adopt a white identity.”
But for Abrams, born to a Chinese immigrant mother and a white American father, passing was a result not of choice but of ignorance. All her life she had been told that the reason her skin was darker than the rest of her family’s was that she was born in Hawaii. And then, when she was 14, the man she thought of as her father told Abrams that her actual biological father was black.
Black Lotus is Abrams’ awakening as a biracial woman in America and her journey to embrace her black cultural identity. She describes being made aware of the inherent racism against black Americans at age 14 through the experience of her first kiss: The boy asks her, angrily, “‘You’re not black, are you?’” Writes Abrams in reflection: “My takeaway from my first kiss wasn’t sexual. It was social.” As a girl newly conscious of her black heritage, she was learning about the layers of stereotypes and racism in America; she was learning about the intersection of race and gender and their specific, often painful violence on the body of the black American woman.
In this brutally honest and deeply felt memoir, Abrams weaves together personal narrative, history and social analysis to heal from a legacy of interpersonal and societal violence. Here, too, is a discussion of the repetition of destructive relationships in families. Abrams’ parents, both alcoholics, would leave the newborn Sil Lai home alone to go pub crawling. Three years later, her mother would lock Sil Lai and her little sister out of the house while their father was at work. “I knew better than to reach out for comfort from my mother,” Abrams writes. But while their mother often showed affection to her nonblack children, a distance was always kept with Abrams. “To a child, it's unfathomable to think that your mother doesn’t like you, and if she doesn’t it’s because of something you did—not who you are.”
And so Abrams began a lifelong journey of trying to change herself to gain love and acceptance from others. After her mother’s infidelity and escalating physical violence from both her parents, their marriage ended in divorce. This left Abrams, at 4 years old, the caretaker of her two younger siblings.
“How does a girl learn to depend on a figure constructed from the fragments of a handful of conversations, peppered with the occasional dose of actual memory?” Abrams muses. This is the undercurrent of yearning for a mother’s love that permeates Black Lotus. We watch Abrams grow into a teenager and engage in the same destructive and addictive behaviors of her parents, acting out to give voice to a pain she does not yet have the language to articulate.
When she is already cringing from the physical abuse from her father and emotional abuse from her stepmom, the addition of the virulent racism of her Florida community sends Abrams into a downward spiral of drinking, shoplifting, ditching, suspension and, ultimately, arrest between 13 and 15 years of age. Before she was told she was black, Abrams did not have the words to name her experience, only a vague instinct that she was not being told the whole truth. Even then, she could feel the hostility from the racist members of her community, but she could not understand why she was always singled out and bullied by both her white classmates and their parents.
But then, after the day her father let it slip that he was not her biological father and that Abrams was a “n—ger,” she understood that “the main reason for their hurtful treatment was because I was brown in a world where being anything other than white was an abomination.” Surrounded by racist friends who did the Hitler salute and screamed racial epithets at black people, Abrams did not know what to do. “Thanks to Dad’s lie, I now had to completely reconcile my identity, not only as a member of the family, but also as a member of a race that I had no connection to at all and had been taught was inferior,” she writes.
If one feels tempted to judge Abrams for this negative internalization of blackness, one must remember that she was a child; she was abused; she was a product of an extremely racist society that taught her only white was right and everything else was no good. Her story becomes a testament that we must do better—not just in protecting children from domestic violence and physical abuse but also in effecting change in our society so that all children can feel safe, valued and appreciated no matter their skin color.
“Modeling saved my life,” Abrams writes simply. It took her to New York City, where, in the rich diversity of the city, she began to embrace her blackness. But still unhealed from her childhood trauma, she fell into her family’s pattern of destructive relationships with abusive men that left her with two children. Motherhood spurred Abrams to track down her own mother, and they enjoyed a brief reunion until Abrams’ mother said that she never wanted to see her again. Abrams, of course, was devastated. But ultimately, by focusing inward, on herself, rather than upon other people and addictions for fulfillment, she was able to move forward with her life: “Until I explored my own soul to discover the self-love and acceptance deeply buried within, I was condemned to wander the world.”
Today Abrams has made it her mission to work to “create more diverse representations of black women.” She hopes that other girls and women will never have to face the trauma she did. Here is where the memoir shines. Redemption is in the poignant triumph of self-love and self-acceptance. And while one wishes that more time were spent on this aspect of Abrams’ journey rather than on the destructive aspects of her story, this is a powerful, important read about the nature of family and identity and the importance of true self-acceptance and self-love.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.