Looks can be deceiving.
To look at a photograph of Alvera Frederic Kalina, you wouldn’t know the secret she was hiding. Hiding from her husband, hiding from her children, hiding from everyone but those she cut all ties to when she left her New Orleans roots far, far behind.
Alvera avoided the sun. She had no photos of her family. She was obsessed with makeup, even wearing it when she slept.
“I can’t even imagine the fear she lived with, which I later understood was why she did (those mysterious things),” said Alvera’s daughter, author Gail Lukasik.
Lukasik is a mystery writer, but her newest book “White Like Her” is a mystery of another sort. Unlike the female driven detective novels Lukasik is known to pen, “White Like Her” tells the story of a true mystery, one Lukasik — not one of her fictional protagonists — unraveled. It was the mystery her mother made her swear to carry to her grave.
It began with Lukasik wanting to know more about her mother’s father, Azemar Frederic. She knew nothing of her grandfather and when asked, her mother would only say her parents divorced when she was young and her father didn’t raise her.
“The one time I asked her if we could visit New Orleans, where she grew up, she said it would depress her to go home, so I let it go. But in the back of my mind I always wondered about Azemar Frederic. What did he look like? What did he do for a living? What kind of man was my grandfather?” she said.
The answers would shock her and would change everything she thought she knew.
Curious by nature, Lukasik decided to delve into her own family mystery herself, driving to a nearby family history center since the internet wasn’t yet at her disposal in 1995.
“I had very little to go on. I had no birth date or death date, I had nothing,” Lukasik explained on Wednesday to a crowd gathered in Bethany Lutheran Church as the La Porte County Public Library hosted the author.
Flipping through a 1900 Louisiana census record, Lukasik had the breakthrough she’d been waiting for.
“I stumbled upon a shocking discovery which made me rethink who I am,” she said.
There, next to Azemar Frederic and the rest of the Frederic family members names, was one letter which suddenly made her mother’s secrecy all the more clear. It made Lukasik realize heritage isn’t what’s on the surface.
Next to her grandfather’s name, in the column marked race, was the letter B.
B for black.
So begins the story detailed in Lukasik’s book “White Like Her” which documents the revelation of her mother’s mixed heritage and how she eventually left the south, where Jim Crow laws made anyone with even one drop of black blood in their heritage legally identity as black. It was story of how her mother would pass as white and abandon a family and a heritage while living in constant fear of discovery — a story of Lukasik’s own struggle with the shame of her mother’s choice, and her subsequent inner journey of self-discovery and redemption.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother so afraid in her entire life. She was petrified,” Lukasik recalled from when she confronted her mother after learning the truth.
“She said to me, ‘You can never tell anyone until after I passed away.’ I did not want to do this, I felt it was not something to hide. But she was my mother and I was going to honor her wishes,” she said.
Lukasik bore the burden of that oath for 17 years. After her mother’s passing in 2014, she would appear on PBS’s Genealogy Roadshow where even more of her family history would be unearthed in a decision which was tough for Lukasik, since it meant publicly outing her mother’s secret.
The outcome led to further discoveries, however, and changed Lukasik’s life forever as she learned not only of a past she’d never known existed, but a whole new family she was tied to and would connect with.
“I would like to believe that “passing” is an archaic notion," she said. "I really would like to believe that, because we no longer have laws like the one drop rule. But I suspect that in America’s racist culture, mixed race people who can pass for white must still wrestle with that choice. I have to tell you, if I hadn’t found that 1900 census record and appeared on Genealogy Roadshow, I would’ve lived my life blissfully ignorant of my black heritage and the family my mother left behind in New Orleans. To me, that would have been a tragic loss.”
“White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing” is out now and also available to check-out at the La Porte County Public Library.