He was black, my 9 times great-grandfather Emanuel Cambow.  So was James Henry Cumbo, my great-great-grandfather, until he crossed the color line taking on the identity of a white man.

Race is slippery.  Race is flint hard.

I walk around in my white skin every day.  I am given the privileges of that complexion every day.  I think of myself as white, as does almost every single member of my family.

And yet, I have far more than that oppressive law that claims one drop decides where a person can abide.  My family tree has an entire beautiful branch that is made of up people whose stories trace back to Angola, whose bodies have lived the reality of a slave system – outside it by the label of “free” but still very much caught in its grasp of papers and passes and the theft of their bodies, their freedom.  Whose homes have been havens – I hope – in the midst of a Jim Crow world that brought fear and anger like the morning brings the sun.  Whose experience of this world has been shaped by a perspective I do not have to take up in my white skin.

So am I black? Who determines who is who? Who determines who is not?

Friends of mine – genealogists of color – have claimed me, pulled me close, and I launch into that embrace.  Others friends – understanding – push me away, knowing that I cannot know what it is to walk in darker skin.

Race is fiction.  Race is a very real, very lived experience.

I will not take on what is not mine to own. I will not claim to understand that which I cannot begin to fathom. I will not wield my privilege like a law.

I sit here in this place – whiteness my orientation, my experience – and I celebrate the stories – both black and white – that make me who I am: a fiction, a reality, a person.  Abiding here, in the mystery of story, claimed by any who will call me family and friend, my heart wide open to pull them close.

I don’t know how to answer my own question. I don’t think I need to know because maybe, for once, it’s not mine to determine.