january / february 2007:
His So-Called Life
David Matthews grew up a biracial Jew, but never told the white classmates at his exclusive high school for fear that he wouldn't be accepted. In his new memoir, Matthews recalls how he suffered and why he finally decided to come out as a proud black man.
Story by Tina Barry | Photograph by Sam Norval
I meet David Matthews, the author of a new memoir, Ace of Spades, in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. He’s more attractive than he appears in a black and white publicity shot sent by his publisher. With his light, tawny skin, green eyes and silky dark hair, Matthews, 39, could be Jewish, perhaps Italian. Black would be my last guess. But Matthews is biracial. His father, Ralph Matthews Jr., is African American; his late mother, Robin Kahn (a pseudonym), was white and Jewish.
In his memoir he chronicles his experiences as a child “passing” in the segregated inner city of Baltimore, circa 1970s and 1980s, and takes a mostly realistic look at the privileges Caucasians are afforded for simply living in our skins. Jews are lumped together with the privileged.
He’s an unsettling presence. In conversation, Matthews picks up on subtle fluctuations in questioning like a divining rod, shifting his answers from open to wary at my slightest quizzically raised eyebrow. None of which comes as a surprise. His personality is the adult version of the tormented survivor portrayed in his book.
Here’s the abridged account of Matthews young life: His mother was a schizophrenic who fled to Israel a few months after his birth. He never heard from her again. Her family, “Ultra-Orthodox Jews with a recognizable name,” says Matthews during our talk, cut off all contact with father and son.
Matthews’ father, a poorly paid journalist for well-regarded black newspapers, had a knack for finding women who didn’t hang around, or, like Karen, a white poseur with an Angela Davis-complex and a raging temper, remained long enough to give birth to a step-brother, Khari, and plunge a fork between David’s shoulder blades.
He grew up in a housing project surrounded by a wealthy community. “The residents of Bolton Hill were rich, landed blue bloods who, having watched their surroundings literally darken, nonetheless refused to leave their million-dollar homesteads,” he writes. With neighbors like that, what child wouldn’t deduce that whites lived a better life and want a piece of the action? “I knew from the time I was nine that whites lived a better life. I didn’t want to have second-class status,” he says.
He was able to “pass” as white, but Jewish students at the prestigious Baltimore City College High School didn’t accept him as one of their own. There he met kids who compared bar/bat mitzvah stories and “divid[ed] their loot — stocks, bonds, promises of cars two years hence, international student exchanges — like exurban pirates.” He thought he managed to finesse his way among his new peers with a mention of a mother in Israel, until “Filing out of the cafeteria, I was buried a few bodies behind my new ‘chosen’ people, when I heard Benjamin Weinstein say to Joel Tyberg, ‘Jewish, yeah right — whose his mother been f**king?’”
“It was like an ulcer. I was always fearful of being found out,” says Matthews of his early teen years.
Towards the end of Ace of Spades Matthews “comes out” as a black man, and finds his mother’s sister through a Google search. He learns that his mother died twenty years earlier.
I’m curious if his mother’s religion plays a part in his adult life. “Well, technically I’m Jewish,” he says. “I was invited to a meeting of rabbis and Jewish thinkers and they all said, ‘If your mother’s Jewish, you’re a Jew.”
Fine. But is there more to it than that? His answer possesses equal parts respect and rancor. “When I see Jews, I see myself,” he says. “I may not be religious in a formal sense, but I feel a cultural tie to the people.” His problem though, is that too many Jews don’t look at him and see themselves. “There’s the exclusionary thing with Jews. I felt it in high school because I didn’t have the same experiences — camp [he thinks of sleep away camp as ‘exotic’], the bar mitzvahs — they looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t have these things, you’re not one of us.’”
He’s met with members of his mother’s family, and that added another layer of pain to his story. “They said that they’d always wondered about me, but were unsure where to find me. My father tried contacting them over the years and they never responded. I knew it was bulls**t. We’ve barely spoken since then. I had to make sure their identity was concealed in the writing. They don’t want to be associated with the book.”
Matthews, whose single, says he would date Jewish women. But, Jewish mother or not, it seems they have issues with him. “I asked a Jewish woman I know if she would bring me home to her parents. Do you know what she said?” he asks. “‘Why would I do that? You’re black. It would kill them.’”
If you'd like to comment on this article, email us a Letter to the Editor.