Biographical Non-Fiction posted September 14, 2022 Chapters:  ...7 8 -9- 

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The relationship between my black brother, Bill, and myself.

A chapter in the book I Didn't Know I Wasn't Black

I Didn't Know I Wasn't Black 9


Bill was my black brother; he lived with us during the period when my mom, two sisters, and myself, moved in with Arnold until I was about 10 years old. He was Arnold’s grandson and was older than me. I looked up to him like I would have any older brother. I don’t know how Bill felt about me being there or hanging around with him, but he never really complained.

Bill went to the same school as my sisters and me and was the only black student. He had no one of his own “kind” to hang out with. Bill had his own devils to deal with. I didn’t know that then but looking back I can appreciate his situation. Maybe he liked my “little brother” attention for that reason.

Bill was tall and lanky. He could run fast, he could jump high, and he could wrestle better than anyone I knew. I liked Bill; I liked having him around. He tolerated my youthful ignorance and innocent curiosity and would actually hang with me. Early on in our black/white family relationship, we would go out back of the house and go snake hunting. I don’t know why we wanted to find snakes, I certainly didn’t like them, and I know snakes scared Bill almost white, but we looked for them anyway.

Quite often we could tell where a nest of snakes would be because the ground would be soft to the step. On one of our outings, I walked over a piece of ground next to a big stump and when I stepped off I turned around and saw the ground moving. Bill saw it too; about the same time I did. Neither one of us had to say anything. Bill’s eyes got as big as saucers, his mouth dropped open, and he snapped around and ran. I yelled for him to stop and come back but he was in his own world by then. There was no stopping him now.

We always used a walking stick when we went on our little excursions. I took my stick and poked around the ground where it had moved. With enough poking around I was able to uncover a nest of blue racers. Most of them were babies but there was at least one very big one who did not look happy. That sight made me run like the wind. I said Bill was a great runner but this time the distance gap between us was gradually getting smaller. When Bill saw me running behind him he didn’t have to see anything else. He put it in high gear, and he was gone, out of sight.

One day, when I was about six years old and he was about 12 or 13, Bill talked me into walking into Fremont, about three miles away. We both had on a pair of blue jeans and a crisp, clean white T-shirt. I pointed this out to Bill and said, “See we really are brothers.” He shrugged it off and said something like “Yeah, OK, no big deal.” He said something like that anyway, something equally as noncommittal, something that would not show any emotion or sentiment or expose his true feelings. I think he may have liked having a little brother, whether I was black or white, but didn’t want me to know. 

We were almost at my sister’s house in Fremont when Arnold pulled up alongside us and told us to get in the car. He was mad, very mad. He didn’t say another word; he just drove back to the house, got out, and told us both to go inside. We got inside and Arnold was speaking directly to Bill as he removed the belt from his pants. “I told you not to go anywhere without me. You went anyway, didn’t you?” Bill just stood there wide-eyed and didn’t say anything. I watched, paralyzed as I saw Arnold take one of Bill’s hands, hang on to it and begin strapping Bill’s legs and butt with the belt.

Bill was dancing circles around Arnold. He was jumping and yelling all at the same time as Arnold continued to lash out at him. I was stunned with shock and fear. I had no idea what was going to happen to me until Arnold let Bill’s hand go and came and grabbed mine. He did the same thing to me just for being a part of Bill’s little adventure. Arnold lashed out, strap after strap, stinging my legs and burning my butt until I didn’t think I could grab another breath of air. He let me go and I sailed across the room just from the momentum I had built up by dancing around Arnold. He put his belt on and walked outside. Bill and I were both crying loudly and uncontrollably now. I never knew Arnold to be so mad and I didn’t want to experience it again.

Arnold only knew what he had experienced, coming of age, in the Southwest part of the country. He was trying to protect his grandson by not letting him out of his sight. Arnold knew Bill was highly visible out on the road, by himself, with a little white boy. Who knows what horrendous tales Arnold could have told us, given the opportunity? One thing he did know was how cruel society really could be. I was yet to learn that lesson, but I was going to learn it well.

At night when we went to bed in our drafty upstairs loft, we would bundle up in our individual personal homemade quilts and weather the night. My two sisters slept on one end of the upstairs, and Bill and I slept on the other. Mom would come up every night, just before leaving for work, and say goodnight to us. That was one treasured moment of intimacy with my mom I always anticipated and remember and treasure still to this day.

Mom would go around to every one of us individually, including my black brother Bill, and say something that singled us out from the others. Then she would say goodnight and call us one of many different endearing terms; honey, sweetheart, sweetie, baby, or whatever it was that came to her mind, but she would use a different term for each one of us every night.

After her rounds, she would leave, go downstairs and head for work. We would all lie silently as we heard her drive away and down the road. One by one we would each pray a short little prayer, out loud, for her safety; we would wish her our best and give her our blessings and ask Jesus to please take her to work safely and bring her back to us. After we prayed we would challenge each other with who had received the most coveted endearment. Who did she refer to as her darling, or her sweetheart, and which one was best?

These few moments meant a great deal to my two sisters and me. It was that one “secret” communication we had with our mom. I never knew how much this could mean to my mom until years later in my adulthood our secret came out. That was perhaps the only time I have ever seen mom break down and cry tears of love and thankfulness; when she realized her kids prayed for her every night.

Bill’s situation was as questionable as mine. First off, his real mom had surprisingly left him with his grandfather; she just walked away. Bill and his mom, Arnold’s daughter, had spent the night with Arnold, sometime before mom and us kids came along. Bill’s mom got up very early the next morning and silently drove away, without Bill. I have no idea what transpired between her and Arnold, but I know she left her son behind.

Secondly, Bill had no idea who or where his real father was. In the few years he did live with his mom he had seen several “father figure” men but none of them seemed to stick around long enough to be Bill’s dad. For as long as I knew Bill he never personally knew his dad. I guess I was the lucky one in that case; I knew my dad and I knew where he was; I just didn’t have any idea how to get to him.

Thirdly, Bill was a minority, not only in the general population but in our household as well. There were four white people, mom, my two sisters, and me, and two black people, Bill and Arnold. The only person of the same race he had to turn to was his grandfather, who was not a real easy person to talk to. In addition, Arnold had already posed himself as the enemy. It can’t be easy to talk with someone or to appreciate someone, who would strap you for taking a walk.

There was no one of Bill’s age or even of his generation and of the same race, whom he could share his frustrations with. In addition, Bill was the only black youngster in the whole neighborhood. Occasionally we did go to typically black gatherings but that was very infrequent. Most of the time they were religious outings, things like evangelical tent meetings, special ministry presentations, and primarily black churches.

On one occasion Arnold took us all to a black Pentecostal (mom called it Holy-Roller) church. He liked the church and I believe he just wanted to share his enthusiasm. We all slid into a row about midway up the auditorium. The preacher was pretty scary. He was hollering, pacing back and forth, shaking his fist and waving his arms and it seemed like he was scolding everyone. Now and then, someone would stand up and yell back at the preacher something like “AMEN brother,” or “Hallelujah!” Every time that happened it startled all of us kids.

About midway through the service things started getting exciting. People would stand up and shout and dance in the aisle then they would sit back down. My sister, Ginny, got a headache from all the noise and complained to mom. She may have complained a little too loudly because the man behind her wrapped his big, gnarled hands around her head and commenced to squeezing and rubbing. At the same time, he was admonishing the Lord to help this young girl. “Give her relief Lord, take her pain away.” Our eyes must have shown we were stunned but none of them were as large as Ginny’s. She was downright scared.

Mom turned and thanked the man but told him Ginny’s headache had left, and she was better now. That may not have been the best thing to tell the man. Once he heard that, he jumped up and joined the throngs of people who were celebrating their happiness by dancing in the aisle, in their rows, and even in their seats. This is where Bill lost it. He just had to laugh; he couldn’t hold it back any longer. When he laughed my sisters started giggling and chuckling and slapping their hands over their mouths to stop from busting out in a loud hilarious laughing spell.  

I didn’t see the humor; I was scared and wide-eyed. The laughing didn’t sit well at all with mom and Arnold. They scowled at Bill and my sisters, and I saw Bill mouth back “I can’t help it, what’s the matter with them?” A church member approached and handed us each a large fan. It wasn’t hot in the church; it wasn’t even warm, but the church member saw the problem and he hoped we would understand what to do with the fans. We did, everyone covered their faces with them but that did nothing to silence the laughter. I just held mine and kept staring.

It wasn’t getting any quieter in the church. More and more of the congregation kept standing up and dancing whenever they wanted to dance, right there in front of us. They were screaming and hollering and singing and doing all sorts of things that we just didn’t expect to see in any church. Eventually, Arnold had no choice but to escort us all out of the church and into our car. We drove home in as much silence as Bill and the girls could muster.

What may have seemed like a good opportunity for Bill to rub shoulders with a lot of people of his kind turned out to be no more than a joke to Bill. I don’t think he even wanted to admit to anyone that the people he had just been with were his people. Bill was the first one to burst out laughing when some of the larger ladies got up and started dancing and waving their arms around above their heads. Everyone knew he was the one who started the laughter. Nothing more was said about the church except between all of us kids, that night, upstairs on our pallets.

I know Bill had problems and troubles of his own. I don’t think he shared them with anyone either. He was probably even a bit more aware of his situation than I was of mine since he was about six or seven years older than me. At that age, a person has more mental comprehension potential than a five or six-year-old. It’s one thing to be disadvantaged but a different thing altogether to know it.

All in all, Bill was a pretty good guy. He never really hurt me and was never mean to me. I had to realize he was in a situation every bit as tough as the one I was in. Both of us were just trying to make the best of it. He was alone at school in a white world. I was with kids of the same race, at school. He waited anxiously to get home from school so he could be with his black grandpa and whatever black family might be visiting. I waited anxiously to get to school so I could be with other white kids my age. We made the best of our forced relationship, and in the end, it really wasn’t all that bad.



My white Mom left my dad and moved in with her black lover in 1950s America. She took me and my two sisters with her but left the rest of her children behind with the admonition that she "did not want them. "This is a profile of what my relationship with my newfound black brother was.
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Artwork by Renate-Bertodi at

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