Schwartz means black

by Wanda Sabir

It is one thing when there is racial ambiguity based on systemic commodification of one’s people; it’s another when the questions stem from an omission or purposeful lie, which is the case when little Lacey Schwartz was born. Lacey, who is accepted into the clan, notices as did others her darker skin and curly hair, yet says nothing.

Lacey Schwartz
Lacey Schwartz

Perhaps upper class Woodstock, New York, is a town without many Black people. Certainly the childhood photos in her film, “Little White Lie” (2014), do not show any students in grammar school with Lacey who are unquestionably Black, nor do we see Jews with African ancestry at her family synagogue. Hers was the tight, close-knit community which can be a blessing; in this case it was, because, though she was different, no one seemed to stigmatize the young girl for her darker skin or complexion.

Yet, Lacey knew she was missing a part of the story. How come she didn’t look like both parents, cousins or aunts? The Sicilian grandfather explanation for her skipping generations of pigment just didn’t feel right the older she got. The questioning glances didn’t help either, especially when her mom and dad divorced. Was she the cause?

When Georgetown University accepted her application for admission, then had the audacity to call her African American when she left the race identification box unchecked (yet included the requisite photo), suddenly, someone disconnected emotionally from the sigma or shame silently attached to Lacey’s birth named the elephant sitting in the room all her life.

Georgetown helped coax the elephant out of the house onto the field where it gave Lacey room to hose it down. The stench was pretty awful; lies are like that. Clearly Lacey was onto something she had to pursue, and she immediately joined the Black Student Association.

The omissions  – who was she – loomed like huge craters in her 18-year existence. She stepped gingerly on the debris covered surface, careful not to fall as she led two lives – one at school and another in Woodstock. If her parents noticed her changing, neither said anything to her about it. It was as if she had really come home once she got away. Her brown skin now had social and political context. Unable to claim all of herself for 18 years, Lacey had a lot of catching up to do then.

Lacey knew she was missing a part of the story. How come she didn’t look like both parents, cousins or aunts?

Now – post film, after academic life, after marriage – now that she is CEO of Truth Aide Media and interested in helping others uncover their secrets or lies, one could say the split is less apparent.

Lacey now occupies both sides of the room. She has had feet in both worlds about equal time, so perhaps she has finally caught up with herself. However, when asked, she says the process of healing and forgiveness might take a lifetime.

One wonders in “Little White Lie” – the word “white” is highlighted in color to emphasis the literal coloring or racializing of the word – was the notion of Blackness ignored or omitted because whiteness was preferable to Blackness?

That typically white people do not talk about race certainly played a role in Lacey’s acceptance in Woodstock, but at Georgetown University, then later at Harvard, where the director got a law degree, Lacey’s evolving discovery of self and other aspects of her personal history and culture continued to be challenged as she embraced all of herself, even if the parts sometimes were at war.

In an interview, the director says that she was able to make the journey because she had such a good therapist whom we meet vicariously in multiple sessions where a sometimes tearful Lacey on film shares what she is feeling as her carefully constructed world comes tumbling down.

Lacey and her mother
Lacey and her mother

The mother of writer James McBride tells him when he asks about his skin color and how his is different than his mother, that he is the color of water, God’s color. In “Skin,” directed by Anthony Fabian, a South African family whose daughter, Sandra Laing (born in 1955) is clearly Black, her father has her classified as “white” because both he and her mother are.

However, the child learns painfully that judicial mandates do not always win out over appearances when she is kicked out of school and her father disowns her when she marries a Black man. The young woman has to leave home and family when her brother, father and community turn against her. Unlike Lacey’s story, this Black woman who was raised in anti-apartheid South Africa finds herself between the two poles, accepted by neither.

Limbo is a dangerous place to occupy.

Even though race, technically, is an artificial construct, so much of American life and post-Apartheid South African public policy is still based on pigment or melanin content. If Lacey had been able to pass for white, she would have never known she had another father and the “little white lie” would have remained under wraps until perhaps a stray gene like a free radical – the kind Woodstock was known for – peeked its head across generations in recognition of the complexities of relationships: who we marry, who we love, who we decide is worthy and who we disregard or pass over and the consequences of all this a la Lacey.

Late in the film, Lacey in many conversations with her mother who tells the lie, learns that her mother would not have married her biological father even if she could have because her Dad, the man who raised her, in her view was the better catch.

Even though race, technically, is an artificial construct, so much of American life and post-Apartheid South African public policy is still based on pigment or melanin content.

Yet we hear her mother’s hesitation, that she couldn’t see herself marrying a Black man then. It just wasn’t done. Lacey’s biological father’s wife knew about the affair and his child, yet neither Lacey nor her dad did.

I don’t know what Jews do to repent, but Lacey’s mother has a lot of repenting to do. Maybe these years of silence were the purgatory this film allows her to wash with truth?

The film had its world premiere Aug. 3 at the Castro Theatre as a part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2014, with upcoming screenings Thursday, Aug. 7, 7 p.m., at the New Parkway Theater, and Saturday, Aug. 9, 3 p.m., at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Visit the film’s page at SFJFF or call 415-621-0523.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.