She spent her life lying about who she was. Her daughter found out. It changed everything.

“Promise me,” she pleaded, “you won’t tell anyone until after I die. How will I hold my head up with my friends?”

For two years, I’d waited for the right moment to confront my mother with the shocking discovery I made in 1995, while I was scrolling through the 1900 Louisiana census records.

In the records, my mother’s father and his entire family were designated black. With her pale olive skin and European features, my mother had kept her ethnicity concealed for nearly a lifetime.


The discovery had left me reeling, confused, and in need of answers. My sense of white identity had been shattered. My mother’s visit to my home in Illinois seemed like the right moment to bring it up. This was not a conversation I wanted to have on the phone.

But my mother’s fearful plea for secrecy only added to my confusion about my racial identity.

Reluctantly, I agreed to keep my mother’s secret. For 17 years, I told no one except my husband, my two children, and two close friends that my mother was passing as white. It was the longest and most difficult secret I’d ever held.

Over the course of those 17 years, I tried unsuccessfully to break through my mother’s wall of silence. Her refusal to talk about her mixed race only fueled my curiosity. How had she deceived my racist, white father? Why was she so fearful and ashamed of her black heritage?

The author's mother, Alvera Fredric. Photo via Gail Lukasik.

Using my skills as a mystery author, I started sifting through the details of her life, looking for clues that would help me understand her. But this real-life mystery only intensified as I tried to sort truth from fiction.

My mother had always told me that she didn't visit her family in New Orleans because there were just too many sad memories — now I wondered if she was really just afraid that if we visited we’d meet family members who were not passably white. On several occasions, her mother and her sister visited us in Ohio, but they appeared white and no one hinted otherwise. But my uncle never visited — was it because he was darker than the rest? Was the reason my mother had never shown me photographs of my grandfather growing up because he was visibly black?

Piecing my mother's life together, I marveled at how she endured living in a predominantly white suburb with a racist husband.

My father’s racism was a reflection of his upbringing in a close-knit Cleveland ethnic neighborhood. Though he never used the n-word, he was still vocal about his bigotry, referring to African-Americans using other racial slurs, deriding black people for what he perceived as their lack of ambition and their criminality. He had no idea that he was in fact deriding his wife, my mother.

My mother reprimanded him with little vigor. Was she afraid of bringing too much attention to the race issue? Or had she convinced herself that she deserved it for the lie that sat at the heart of their marriage? In escaping the Jim Crow South, coming North and marrying my father, she must have thought gaining white privilege was worth the price of losing family ties and her authentic self.

The irony was that in gaining white privilege, the onslaught of racism was splayed open to her.

Its ugly face could now be shared with her, a “white” woman. Every day she had to live with the paradox of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “two-ness,” the ambivalence of people of mixed European and African ancestry. If a mixed-race person is white enough to pass, how do they deal with the trappings of a racist culture where you’re forced to choose a side?

As if in self-defense, or maybe retaliation, for my father’s racism, she imbued me with a moral imperative to respect all people regardless of their color. As a child, I listened with rapt attention to the story of the old black woman on Canal Street burdened with packages who didn’t move off the sidewalk for a white man. He shoved her aside like so much trash and called her the n-word. “That wasn’t right,” my mother told me. “But that’s how it was in New Orleans back then.”

Now I understood the clues concealed in that story, that she was hinting at her hidden self or maybe preparing me to accept the part of her she’d left behind in New Orleans.

The author, Gail Lukasik. Photo via Gail Lukasik.

After my mother’s death in 2014, I was freed of my vow.

In what can only be called serendipity, I was presented with an opportunity to solve the uncertainly of my racial heritage on PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow.” I traced the Frederic family back to 18th-century Louisiana. I discovered slave-owners, enslaved women, and free people of color. Through the centuries, I saw how shifting racial laws had affected my family, boxing them into racial categories that hindered them.

Three days after my appearance on the show, my mother’s family found me. My “new” family welcomed me with generosity and love, neither judging my mother nor rejecting me. At a welcome home party in New Orleans, I met my new uncle, two aunts, and slews of cousins. We were every shade of skin from darkest ebony to whitest white and all the shades in between. Suddenly, I was part of a multiracial family.

Although I could check “other” or “multiracial” when asked my race on a form, I still identify as a white woman.

At this late point, it would be disingenuous of me to claim any other identity. I’ve enjoyed white privilege my entire life. I will never forget my mother’s haunted look as she said, “How will I hold my head up with my friends?” I bear no rancor toward her for not telling me of her mixed-race heritage. I feel only sorrow that, even after I knew, she was unable to share with me her feelings about who she really was and the life she had lived.

Even so, I find solace and pride in finally knowing the truth of my own heritage and the mixed-raced family I am a part of.

This story originally appeared on The Lily, a publication of Washington Post, and is reprinted here with permission.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less