AUGUST 31, 2016
SIL LAI ABRAMS HAD HER SUSPICIONS about her race as a very young child. Her brown skin was much darker and her hair much curlier than her fair-skinned, straight-haired younger sister and brother. When she would walk down the street with her Chinese mother and White father, her White neighbors would stare and whisper.
“Your skin is brown because you were born in Hawaii,” her father would tell her anytime she asked, assuring her of her legitimacy as his own White child. It became her retort when she was met with “porch monkey” and other racist slurs by children at her majority-White school: “I’m Hawaiian!” she assured them, not Black.
The same father who raised her in Whiteness would strip her of that safety net of privilege when she was 14 years old. After Sil Lai laughs at racist jokes with her younger sister May Lai, one of which is how to “stop a nigger from jumping on the bed” — par for the course in her Seminole County, Florida, neighborhood — her father came into the room, appearing disgusted, only to say, “I don’t know why you’re laughing, Sil Lai. You’re one.”
With that inferred comment, “You’re a nigger,” and the masochistic way the brain works, Abrams began to make distorted sense of her life. The product of her mother’s affair with a married Black man, Abrams began associating her mother’s inability to hug her, emotionally connect with her, or even stick around to raise her with Abrams’s Blackness — a source of shame. When Sil Lai was five years old, her mother abandoned her, and her father’s alcohol-fueled cruelty and her mother’s abandonment, her isolation from her classmates and even from her fair-skinned half-siblings, were all due to what Sil Lai had been socialized to believe was her inherent inferiority as a Black child.
That’s where Abrams’s new memoir, Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity, begins.
Still, this is no “tragic mulatto” tale.
Once she escapes the stifling racism of Goldenrod, Florida, Abrams doesn’t straddle two worlds. She firmly plants herself in the Black community when she arrives in New York City as an aspiring teen fashion model. As her memoir title suggests, Abrams blooms in Blackness. She becomes a journalist thanks to help from the National Association of Black Journalists and an award-winning essay in the historic Black magazine Ebony, and she cobbles together a family out of the Black friends and mentors she acquires throughout her adventures in the city. It is within this community that she finds beauty and acceptance, not just for herself but for all that Blackness entails: a history of struggle and truce, rebellion and revolution, much like her own.
From checking White on her driver’s license application as a teenager to raising her two children as definitively Black as an adult, Abrams wrestles with the artificiality of race while reveling in the sense of belonging she finds in the common experience of oppression and overcoming. She unpacks race in the context of global White supremacy as she encounters deep-rooted anti-Blackness when she tries to reconnect with her Chinese family in Hong Kong.
She draws on the ancestral strength she inherits from the Black father she’s never known, and survives cycles of unspeakable abuse, abandonment, and heartache. With alcoholic, emotionally abusive parents, happiness may not have been her birthright, but surviving, it seems, is.
Abrams went on to launch her own marketing firm and self-publish her first book, No More Drama, to both tell her story and provide nine principles to help others transform hardships into opportunities for healing and success. She now works as an advocate for other women who have survived domestic violence and sexual abuse. Through her nonprofit organization Truth in Reality, she works with volunteers to increase positive portrayals of women of color in the media and to end gender-based violence as entertainment.
While No More Drama is a self-help book, Black Lotus is not a tome on how to raise a healthy biracial child. Though the mother of two has seen both children off to college, her single-parenting journey is not without mistakes, and biraciality is not a label she claims for herself or her children. Instead, the domestic violence activist embodies within the pages of her memoir the James Baldwin quote she cites as an introduction to her story: “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” Black Lotus is that forced reckoning. Her path to self-love is sometimes ugly, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes devastating, sometimes glorious — but always honest. Her pain pulses on the page, and at the core of her unfolding is an undying hope that the truth of all that she is will be loved and accepted. If that is Abrams’s goal, then Black Lotus is a triumph.
Through one woman’s deep dive into racial identity, the reader is forced to reckon with their own lives. And that, as with all great art, is the point.