A letter to the biracial sister I never knew I had
Last year I discovered I have a half-sister who is just two years older than me. She was adopted as a baby, and she is biracial like I am. Before I learned of her, I thought I had only older, “full black” siblings on my dad’s side, and younger, “full white” siblings on my mom’s. Funny: In my mind, my parents dated outside their race only with each other, and I was their only mixed-race child. I’m nervous about the power I hold in either enhancing my sister’s life or complicating it further with knowledge she may not want. This is a letter to her.
I’ve spent the past two years gathering photographs, letters, ID cards and medical records — whatever I could find to document our dad’s life. I’ve driven to addresses on return envelopes to take pictures of the houses he lived in. I’ve asked my mom more questions than she would like to answer about the man she left when I was three. I’ve done it all to get to know the father I barely knew.
In my quest, I recently uncovered a new layer: you. A forty-two-year-old sister born just two years before me.
The simple question, “How many siblings do you have?” has always left me tongue-tied. Sometimes I say I have one, counting only my half-sister from my mom’s remarriage. Sometimes I say two, to include the stepbrother who lived with us part time. If I’m feeling extra chatty (or extra vulnerable), I try to include the six on our dad’s side, but I get too wrapped up in assigning names to fingers to be able to come up with an answer, especially since I’ve only met two and found out about one in my dad’s papers after his death. As I contemplate my response in silence, the asker looks away in either guilt or confusion, and I know she wishes she could take back the question just as much as I wish it for her.
The one constant in my ever-convoluted family dynamic is the knowledge that my dad’s children are black and my mom’s children are white — with me smack dab in the middle, in both age and appearance. Then in a Facebook message, that constant crumbled into pieces at my feet.
My cousin Alyce recently sent me your baby picture, unaware that I didn’t already know of your existence. In the faded Polaroid, which she later sends by mail, you’re staring at your young, blonde mother with my eyes, my widow’s peak, and my long, narrow feet. On the cardboard back is conveniently investigable information — your birth name, birthdate, and address, likely written in your mother’s hand. Our father didn’t think you were his, but you’re one hundred percent mine. It’s a strange feeling to know you’re walking around with half my face, part of my DNA, and no knowledge of your little sister — your biracial double.
I was at my desk when the picture pinged on my computer screen. After our father died, I had bought the unfinished, un-put-together desk with the small amount of money left in his bank account. For the past few years I’ve been using that desk to eke out a life as a mixed race scholar. Our father’s memory and inspiration shine through the polished wood. Next to the desk sits a framed photograph of Dad, my mother and me in our Haight Street kitchen. One of only two photos of the three of us together.
Immediately after I learn of you, I hate my father all over again. The way he discards his children and makes up fabricated stories about why he left, even from the grave. “Their mothers didn’t want me to see them,” he said of his boys, born just one year apart. “They were adopted out without my consent,” he said of his twin daughters. And now you, also adopted, exist both in the oblivion outside the realm of connection and in so tangible a form as to make my heart ache at your absence. You complicate my already complicated life story, making it that much harder to close my own narrative.
I’ve always brushed up against ignorance and discrimination, as I’m sure you have, from both sides of the racial divide. Throughout these difficult times, my parents’ early relationship, which blossomed in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 70s, has always made me feel connected to something special. This special feeling has fueled much of my identity, as I’ve written papers, articles, and even books about what it’s like to be mixed-race.
But the face that stares back at me in this new photograph is biracial, too. Your mom’s white skin contrasts against your olive tones, just as my mom’s do with me. Your mother looks even younger than my mother, even though my parents were nineteen years apart. I wonder what your own narrative is. Who your new parents are. If you have any siblings. I wonder if you think about your biological father, and what you imagine him to be. Perhaps you believe he’s a great man — an intellectual who fought against poverty and his own abandonment. Or perhaps you picture him as an abandoner himself, and one who left you with nothing. Both snapshots would be correct, and I stand frozen at the power I possess to enhance or shatter your own life story.
I will look for you, though part of me says not to rock the boat — not to threaten the equilibrium that has been hard to come by. After all, I already have a sister I would die for, and our differing appearance, which always leaves others astounded, doesn’t change our bond. I lost our dad even before he died, as he chose the bottle over his children. After his death, it became easier to embrace him, knowing he could never leave because he was already gone. But you could disappear the way he did. And maybe you don’t want to be found. But the boat has already been rocked, and to ignore it could be saying goodbye to my own flesh and blood without even saying hello.
This essay is part of The Blend, a new HelloGiggles vertical all about the mixed experience. To learn more about The Blend (including how you can send us your pitches), check out our intro post.