They booed me because they thought a Cumbo couldn’t be smart enough to coach. – Dad

1900 U.S. Census - Cumbo

1900 U.S. Census for my great-grandfather Noah Francis, whose father James Henry was born black but then crossed the “color line”

This is one of the stories my dad told me last night when we were talking about his family stories.  When he was a senior in high school, he was the head coach of their JV basketball team.  (His graduating class had 14 people in it, so the school used all its resources.)  For a game, the team went to a neighboring county – the county where his uncles and cousins lived, folks that lived hard, who had a history of murder and prison time – and the crowed booed him.

To think of my sweet, tender-hearted, oh-so-smart father getting booed – it cracks the edges of my heart.


My own uncle – a man I love dearly – has told my dad that I must be wrong. We cannot be related to black people.  I have to have made a mistake.  He has continued to insist I’m in error despite the documentary evidence that both my dad and I have shown him.

It makes me sad – and angry – to have him disbelieve me, to have his own prejudices blind him to the truth, to have to prove something that should not – in any way – be anything more than a fact.

But it makes me sadder that we still live in a world where this discussion is important – where the idea of race as a construct (a construct with very real consequences) is mostly unacknowledged – where people would invest time in challenging the idea that my family – a family of white people – had our origins in a black family.

My family is – in some genetic sense, in some kinship sense, in some sense of relationships and identity – black even as we walk in the world of white that says we have the privilege to deny that identity if we choose to do so.

I don’t choose to deny it.

If I had my wish, none of these conversations about race would matter, but they do matter. And so my real hope is that we can have these conversations in a real way – an honest way – a way that moves us just a bit further toward the world where they may not matter some day.

The fact that some members of my family – kind, good-hearted, loving people – do not want to see the truth much less talk about what it means – that cracks my heart down the center.


Our family stories haunt us. They are not things we choose. In that, they echo the very nature of family.

But in them run deep, long strains of identity and history and the fundamentals of who we are.  Sometimes they wound, sometimes they heal, and sometimes they just echo the scars we have already etched into our bodies.

What would you do – or have you done – when someone in your family cannot face the truth of experience?