December 5, 2008
November 9, 2008
COUNTY LINES | WHITE PLAINS
Long Before Obama, a Search for Identity
By JOSEPH BERGER
FINDING ROOTS Ben Nightingale, who is by appearance white, as a boy
a Y.M.C.A. camp in 1947.
By JOSEPH BERGER
Published: November 7, 2008
PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA'S remarkable life journey has set off
deeply personal echoes for Ben Nightingale, a 70-year-old resident of
this city. He too has an unconventional racial biography — though his
story is more like the flip side of Mr. Obama's.
Mr. Nightingale has spent considerable energy trying to clarify his
identity, for himself and for others, but his challenge has been
subtly different, he said, because in the racially divided era he
up in, society determined that he had to be either black or white and
keep the other part hidden.
"Back in the 1930s they decided that those elements could not live
together," he said in a recent conversation, an urgent edge to his
voice. "My job has been to reverse my dismemberment."
Mr. Nightingale, a genial man with an elfish sense of humor, is by
appearances white, and the woman who gave birth to him was white. But
he was adopted at 3 by Ethyl Smith Nightingale, a black actress in so-
called race films, and her husband, Ben.
The 1930s and '40s were a time when adoptions of white children by
black parents were unheard of — just as they are extremely rare
His was permitted because the man who fathered him told officials
his own mother was part black. In that era's racial arithmetic, the
Hebrew Home for Infants on Staten Island, where Mr. Nightingale spent
his first months, concluded that baby Ben was black and sent him off
to what was called "a Negro boarding home" in Philadelphia, from
the Nightingales adopted him.
He has three birth certificates, one filed at birth describing him as
white, another filed after the adoption describing him as Negro and a
1981 revision that lists his race as Negro/white. Mr. Nightingale
initiated that change because "I felt the need to have a definitive
piece of paper that embraced both races and didn't say mixed."
But his complicated roots took an emotional toll from the start. He
grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood of Philadelphia, a few
houses from the legendary contralto Marian Anderson, and his closest
childhood friend was her nephew, the conductor James DePreist. He
to Y.M.C.A. camp where photographs show him as the only white child
a cluster of black swimmers.
He spent Sundays singing spirituals in the choir of the First African
Baptist Church, relishing the fervor and the cadences. But he was
taunted as "whitey" by children who disbelieved his black heritage.
Then at 12, after his divorced adoptive mother moved to Los Angeles
audition for TV's "Amos 'n' Andy" and he attended an integrated
school, he felt the sting of being a black child with a white face,
hearing a teacher, a scoutmaster and students drop scornful remarks
Mr. Nightingale tried drawing closer to whites, even having himself
rebaptized in a white Presbyterian church, because, he once
blackness was invisible to others — unknown, never thought of, only I
thought of it." But, he said, he paid a price for denying his "black
essence," ballooning to 250 pounds by 21.
"People had looked at me and not seen me," he wrote in The
Philadelphia Inquirer's magazine. "Now I wasn't allowing them to."
He tried straddling both worlds at times, living with his black
but letting co-workers think he was white, a kind of Zelig adapting
what people wanted him to be. But he said he found that white women
broke off relationships when he confided having a black mother. He
married a white woman, but her fears of having a black baby because
his genetic heritage kept them childless, and that marriage ended
after 13 years. A tormented spiral ensued, capped by heavy drinking.
If his journey seems far more troubled than Mr. Obama's, that is, Mr.
Nightingale says, because they grew up in starkly different eras. Mr.
Obama, the son of a white mother and a black Kenyan father, has been
able to "transcend race" because he came of age when the civil rights
movement had made oceanic strides and elite colleges and law firms
were recruiting African-Americans, Mr. Nightingale says.
"Race hasn't crippled Obama," Mr. Nightingale said. "He has a great
sense of self and a belief in himself. I don't feel I let race
me, but it did things to me."
He says he feels he and Mr. Obama have thrived by embracing their
tangled histories. Like Mr. Obama did in "Dreams From My Father," Mr.
Nightingale set down his story three decades ago in various articles
for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Ebony, with one titled "Am I Black
"I wasn't going to leave 18 years of Philadelphia behind," he
had to find some way of existing in the world with these multiple
At a packed meeting last month at his synagogue, Bet Am Shalom, Mr.
Nightingale spelled out his story's later chapters: how a childhood
spent with black spirituals shaped a career singing for the New York
City Opera and other groups while earning a living as an accountant,
and how he married again, this time to a Jewish woman from White
Plains, Gillian Friedlander, with whom he had two children. (He
discovered after meeting his wife that Judaism was also his birth
His daughter Elana, a 27-year-old production manager for Alley
in Houston, has sought to keep the strands of her heritage intact.
said she "didn't want to walk out of college living in an entirely
white world," so at American University, she joined an African-
American sorority, Zeta Phi Beta, where she is still active. Asked
race on applications she puts down "other."
"I don't feel Caucasian adequately describes who I am," she said.
E-mail: joeberg@nytimes. com