Wednesday, February 7th, 2007
If you read his recent New York Times Lives column, you probably want to know more about David Matthews, an exceptional writer whose new book Ace of Spades looks at race and class in America through the personal lens of his childhood. Matthews has a Black Nationalist father, an absentee Jewish mother, and a first chapter, below, that will leave you more curious than ever to dive into his deep, dark, clever, and candid book. His brutally honest interview with Rachel Kramer Bussel will give you some insights into the complex mind of a man with an amazing story to tell.
Chapter One: Mother Nature’s Son
God knows why, labor was induced a month early, on the afternoon of November 8, 1967, while my father, who had received an unruffled phone call from my mother informing him of the impending proceedings, was at work. By the time he arrived at Washington, D.C.’s Sibley Memorial Hospital a few hours later, my prunish skin was settling somewhere closer to Caucasian than Negro. That is what my father, a lean, butterscotch-colored man, was called then—a Negro. It says “Negro” on my birth certificate as well. My mother was white. She was also Jewish.
My father, Ralph Matthews Jr., a prominent black journalist, then forty, married my mother, Robin Kahn, then twenty-seven, in the spring of 1967. They were both working for Sargent Shriver at the Office of Equal Opportunity. Shriver had joked to my father that despite Robin’s marked fecundity and the occasion of their marriage (my pop is still hazy about which situation arose first, which can only mean that the ghost of a freshly dead rabbit accompanied them to City Hall), “there would be only one raise allocated per household.”
My mother was a secretary at the OEO, and my father a public information officer. Back then, whites who worked in the civil rights movement were referred to by blacks as “well-meaning white liberals,” a label interchangeable as pejorative or commendation. My mother was obviously one of these wmwl, though to her credit, she walked the walk, all the way down the aisle. It seems to me now, under the sickly glow of political correctness, that their pairing was doomed from the beginning. If interracial unions today account for less than 4 percent of all American marriages (by interracial, I mean black and white—the percentages of other combinations is a whopping 12 percent, which suggests that black and white remains the hardest love of all to forgive), then in the heat of the civil rights movement a black and white union could end in rope burns and lead poisoning. With stakes that high, my mother and father must have been in love. Love would have been their ballast in the midst of that squall. None of my father’s black friends understood (there’s an old Richard Pryor joke that goes something like: don’t ever marry a white woman . . . why should you be happy?), and my mother’s family abandoned her.
On the night of their wedding, my maternal grandfather—who had refused to attend the civil ceremony—called my father to express, in the sincerest of terms, how untenable an alliance between him and his daughter would be. My father said, I didn’t marry you, and hung up on him. It was my mother and father against the world. That is, until the morning of June 5, 1967.
My father knew very little about his pregnant bride. He hazily remembers her as an impish, corporeal version of Modigliani’s Jeanne Hebuterne. Robin was at once restive and fey, which lent her the ephemeral air of a doe stumbled upon in the woods, the snap of a twig or scent in the wind enough to break the spell. She was in therapy, like many upper-middle-class Jews of the time, and my father found her relatively benign quirks and peccadilloes charming. He was aware that she had moved to D.C. to escape her rigidly Orthodox father (a man, my father recalls, of some renown in Jewish studies) and he had admired her willfulness. My father still smiles at the remembrance of Robin’s apostasy, her sly quip that she had given up Orthodox Judaism because there were “too many dishes to wash.”
On that morning, at 7:45 a.m., Israeli Mirage III warplanes preemptively wiped out the Egyptian air force, and the Six-Day War began in earnest. The same afternoon, at a famous D.C. watering hole, my father and some reporter cronies were tucked into a leather banquette, two or three martinis into their 80-proof lunch, when in walked my three months’ pregnant mother. In full Israeli army combat fatigues. Fucking beret and all. Everything—the organ grinder, the handlebar-mustachioed waiters—stopped. My dad’s colleagues, always up for a good one, scooted farther into the booth, elbowing each other with why don’t you join us malicious glee. My mother sat down, exchanged banal pleasantries, and ordered something to eat. In what must have been one of the longest lunches in history, the men sat slack-jawed, suppressing titters and disbelief while she picked at a Caesar salad; and no one—not my mother, not my father, not his ribald friends—mentioned the fact that she looked like the Little Drummer Girl. She would settle in to the rest of her abbreviated pregnancy with no further displays; but alas, the bar had been set, and my mother would not rest on her laurels for long.
A few months after my birth, but before Robin left us forever, she did endeavor to have a measure of quality time with me, a “take your son to war” day of sorts. From my father’s account of the (mis)adventure, my mother’s sanity—to put a fine point on it—had finally shit the bed.
One evening at the office—his belly just beginning to gnaw a telegraph to his brain that perhaps it was getting nigh time for dinner—the phone on my father’s desk rang. My mother was on the other end.
I’ll be home soon, my father answered, what’s for dinner? There was a faint echo, his words bouncing back through the receiver.
There was a silence on the other end, which made my father wonder if Robin had heard him. After a beat she replied, We’re at the airport.
Why are you at Dulles? he asked, the hairs already going horizontal at the back of his tidy Afro.
There was that delay again, and by the time she answered, We’re at Tel Aviv International, my father knew that something was definitely not right; and a beat later, when he uneasily repeated, We? and she answered—her voice and mind four thousand and one million miles away—I’m with David, my father knew that something was very, very wrong. I spent a little more than two weeks in Israel, a retroactive Sabra, until my father’s exhortations and my failing health shocked her back to lucidity and Washington. No one knows what we did during those weeks; no one but Robin.
A month after my return, in what would become his act of penultimate heroism, my father rescued me from my mother. While a friend distracted Robin at the front door, my dad hurried me (any decent messianic complex begins with the unfledged being spirited away in swaddling clothes) out the back door. From what I hear, it took a few days for Robin to notice we were gone. Within a week she had returned to Jerusalem. My father and I neither saw nor heard from her again.
In addition to the passel of doctors and nurses who surrounded my incubator in the days after my birth, I am told that my maternal grandmother briefly materialized and hovered worriedly nearby. That was as close as I ever got to any other Kahns; Robin and the rest of my Jewish relatives set my father and me adrift in a two-man diaspora, retreating to their brownstones in glass-eyed great cities, or to lime carriage houses in deathless, tony suburbs. My father’s letters to Robin’s family—in case she ever returned to the United States, us, or sanity—came back unopened. His sentiment then, and now, was Fuck them if they don’t want us.
Time heals all wounds, or else infects them.
Despite Robin’s departure, my first memories are of a mother’s love. Jan was my father’s girlfriend when I was still an infant, a bob-haired University of Maryland graduate student, maybe twenty-two, just gorgeous. I remember her primarily as a name. Any visual memory I have—misty images of bell-bottoms and chunky turtlenecks—comes paired, almost a priori, with a jarring, plaintive, unbidden shriek. In that blackest part of the night where the mind cannot distinguish the rumpled pillow in the corner from the world of silent, morphing kobolds, I would strain against the bars of my crib, screaming, IWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJANIWANTJAN . . . I knew Jan as a need, which is, I suppose, how most infants (if only it stopped there!) know their mothers. Perhaps that is where it—contentment, love—all begins, in the vacuum that develops after a child suckles his fill, his needs met. But that is another story, not my own.
Jan was the first woman to imprint herself upon my consciousness, the way a mother doll made from scraps of carpet and yarn is held fast to an infant chimp’s heart. My father was obviously a fan of one-stop shopping—Jan also worked at the OEO, although she and my mother had never crossed paths. I remember trailing behind Jan, my Lilliputian hand in hers, as she went about campus; to this day, holding a woman’s hand is an almost unbearably intimate act. I would sit in the back of a classroom, occupied by a book or doll, while she sat beside me, one hand at the ready, even as the other took notes, to brush the hair from my eyes or stick a straw under my lips so that I could slurp the carton of orange juice we shared. Jan was white, and way too young to be saddled with a forty-two-year-old lover and his motherless son. My father was slight of frame, a darker iteration of deputy Barney Fife from TV’s The Andy Griffith Show, and barely solvent. He has, however, a preternatural ability to make one feel as though there are truths about oneself, and the world, which can be found only at his feet. Anyone who has spent time in his presence inevitably walks away feeling frustrated and unheeded, yet unable to deny his bracing intelligence. To a young girl, possibly laden with white guilt and a slight maternal pang, my father and I must have been irresistible.
We all lived together in a modest apartment in D.C.’s Turkey Thicket Park. I suppose that for my father, part of Jan’s appeal had been her willingness to “adopt” me. My father knew nothing about changing diapers, heating Similac, or transporting an infant across the country to cover news events. The first months on our own had been tough, as single fathers were about as plentiful then as Arabs at a Hadassah benefit.
In April of ‘68, after soundly trouncing Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy in a raucous pillow fight, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of room 306 at Memphis’s Lorraine Hotel and onto the balcony. He never made it to his scheduled dinner with Memphis minister Billy Kyles, and D.C. burned for days afterward. My father held me on the front porch while M60 tanks razed our front yard, Hueys beating the skies above us. Without Jan running provisions (and this was no mean feat for a white girl in the middle of a race riot—remember Reginald Denny after the Rodney King verdict? Cube that), my dad would have had to continue using newspapers as diapers and catsup as baby formula. After nearly three years of this, Jan began to explore the world beyond premature motherhood. The enticements of giving up her youth, and likely her studies, to raise a child that was not hers were not enough to keep her around. Jan left me with those shrieks, and needs, and a plastic Donny Osmond toy electric guitar.
While my real mother left me, teats swollen with rotting milk, Jan had given me a sort of love, as well as a sort of poison. In some ways, I wished I had never known a mother’s love in any form. Had I never had it, would I have missed it? The months spent with Jan were my first hit off the mother pipe, and I would forever chase that high.
Read an interview with David Matthews.
Here’s what the New York Times says about Ace of Spades.
From Ace of Spades. Copyright 2007 by David Matthews. All rights reserved.