A woman came up to me at a recent event and asked me that very question. Why don’t I look like my mother? Wow. Is that just another way of saying, ‘why is your skin color so much lighter?’ or ‘how is it you have blond hair?’.
My parents told me that when I was born, people came to the nursery in the hospital and would get into arguments when they saw that Eartha Kitt’s baby was a pudgy, white, girl.
Now, I’m not looking to start a debate about genetics. I’m far from an expert, and really, who cares. (If you do, then I apologize for being so flippant, but, I didn’t choose my parents and can’t change the way I came out). I just find it interesting, that some people need an answer, even to a question that may not have a clear one.I think my mother got a kick out of having a child who, at first glance, didn’t have any resemblance to her. She would tell me with great pride how I “…was like a walking United Nations. Belonging to everyone and no one at the same time.” Impossible to be put into just one category or descriptive column.
Why was that so important to her? As a light skinned African American in the South, in 1927, she was labeled a “Yella Gal”, too light to be accepted by the black community and too dark for the whites. And, as a person of color in the music business, there was the need to classify her as a ‘Jazz‘, ‘Gospel‘ or ‘Blues‘ singer. My mother didn’t understand the need for pigeon-holing a person. She would ask, “Why was it so important to make a person feel like they weren’t wanted by anybody if they didn’t fit ‘required specifications’?” “Why couldn’t an entertainer just BE who they were?” “Why wasn’t it enough to be a member of the human race?”
People have often asked me who do I relate to most? Meaning, how do I racially ‘categorize’ myself? Well, I took my mother’s words literally. I think of myself as ‘belonging’ just the way I am and check off numerous boxes or leave them all blank, depending on my mood, feeling confident that I can either fill numerous quotas or offend many, by my presence. That being said, I realize that my responses can be interpreted as simplistic or unrealistic. I guess it’s just wishful thinking on my part.
My mother loved reading me a story by Dr. Seuss called The Sneetches, about yellow creatures that had two distinct groups: plain belly and star belly. Through machines, the Sneetches continued to switch from plain to stars, until they were so mixed up, they could no longer tell each other apart and came to the conclusion that their need to be identified by their differences was both exhausting and unnecessary. Yet, another wonderful gift my mother gave me. I highly recommend reading this story and maybe we can all be wishful thinkers together. Then, there will be no need to answer stupid questions.
Kitt Shapiro opened Simply Eartha as a tribute to her mother, with the hope that Eartha’s “writing and her wisdom and created designs continue to inspire her fans, both old and new. May they touch your heart, as they do mine.”