Growing Up Multiracial

A Historic Inauguration Becomes an Occasion for Personal Reflection

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THE OPPORTUNITY FOR Chapman to attend the inauguration resulted from her participation as a high school student in the National Youth Leadership Forum, a six-day conference on national security. The forum presented her with a future invitation to not only become a witness to the historic inauguration, but also to spend five days at a conference in Washington meeting with such prominent political figures as former Vice President Al Gore, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and political commentators Tucker Carlson and James Carville.

A sea of people crowded the National Mall on Jan. 20 to wit¬ness the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama.“I don’t even know if there are words,” she says, trying to express her emotions about the results of the election and the opportunity to meet so many politically relevant people. Chapman says she is indebted to President L. Jay Lemons and Provost and Dean of Faculty Linda McMillin for helping her find funding to pay for her trip. “Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to witness history. Susquehanna has truly changed my life,” she says.

With words that were both powerful and personally wrenching, Chapman described in the taped message her journey as a child of mixed heritage and the racial intolerance she suffered along the way.

“Growing up biracial in a rural, backwards, Mayberry-esque western Pennsylvania town (whose school districts had a day off to acknowledge the first day of buck-hunting season, but not Martin Luther King Jr. Day) made my relationship with my ancestors a very complex one,” she said. “Given my fiery red hair and my moon-pale skin, the other kids in my high school assumed I was like them—Caucasian. Due to fear and confusion, I did very little to enlighten their perceptions.”

When Chapman was 12, she began to embrace her black roots. In her message, she said she “stole my father’s jazz albums, tore voraciously through Alex Haley’s Roots and begged my parents to buy me kente cloth. I yearned for some kind of connection to my ancestors and the ‘other side’ of me; the side that had so much to say, but no voice to say it with.”

Unfortunately, her classmates stifled her expressions of identity. “I had just begun to feel confident in my multiethnic body when a group of white kids at my school started a campaign of rebel flag-waving and name-calling, which resulted in my being called a ‘white Oreo cookie’ until the final bell. After this incident, I subconsciously began to identify myself only by my outward appearance,” she recalled.

In the years that followed, she treasured her identity but “kept that card close to my vest. I simply had no idea how to reconcile the two sides of me. One, the outward one, was a dorky white girl with black-framed glasses and a penchant for punk rock and Gloria Steinem; and the other side, a militant, afro-wearing black woman who longed for the days of marches and protests, and possessed an affinity for Ray Charles and Angela Davis. Could it ever be possible to successfully merge the two without infringing on the rights of either?”

She remembered the conversations with her father about his growing up as the youngest of 11 children in the 1930s and ’40s in New Jersey, his decision to attend a historically black college, and his move to Somerset, Pa., in the 1960s.

“He told me stories of the shopping malls built on his college campus that none of the students were allowed to use, the movie theaters that permitted him only in the balconies, the restaurants that would serve his white friends, but not him. My own father had first-hand experience with the trauma that had previously only been communicated to my friends and me through the grainy black-and-white news footage shown in our elementary school history classes. My father never completely opened up about all of his struggles; when probed, he became stoic and reserved, his gaze distant, cold and laced with bitterness. Now as a mature woman starving for information, there are so many questions I have for him about who I am, and they will all go unanswered.”

Chapman’s father died in 2007. Although his death silenced their conversation, it helped reignite the desire to connect with her black heritage. She said Dr. King’s I Have a Dream and I Have Been to the Mountaintop speeches have overwhelmed her and given her a sense of security and comfort.

“To me, Dr. King represents a link to my lost self and has played a huge role in my existence. Without him, my father would have never reached the heights of professional success, nor would he have been able to overcome the stigma of interracial marriage in a small, closed-minded community. Dr. King has made it possible for me to love and represent all parts of myself without condition or hesitation. It is impossible for me to be judged solely on the color of my skin; it tells only a small fraction of my story. Because of Dr. King, it is the content of my character that matters.”


Julie Buckingham ’09, Victoria Kidd and Gerald S. Cohen contributed to this story.

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