Family Story

My Parents

My parents married in 1956, in Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka). My father has published a memoir on his life, which relates his history, growing up Black in America, earning a scholarship to Harvard University, serving in the Army in WWII, and raising five children as an inter-racial couple in New York during the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. 

This unique history has always informed my world view. Yet, I am aware of how I am perceived.  Most people assume I am white, and I benefit from that as I move through the world.

In 2014, at First Parish in Concord I delivered the following reflection at the Martin Luther King Day service.   It is included here to provide a sense of my orientation toward issues of race, diversity and inclusion.

A Reflection by Mark Howell: Passing 


Passing for White…

I’ve been doing that all my life.

It is easy to do when you look white and live in the community.

But I have never really felt it, White that is…

And, in a way, I hope I never do.


Here’s why.


I am a member of one the fastest growing racial segments in America. I am mixed race. 


My mother is white, my father, African American, although actually mixed himself, as is true of many descendants of slaves. 


This was unusual in the 1960’s. As a boy I noticed that we looked different from other families I knew. My relatives came in just about every shade, from dark to coffee to white.  Our family gatherings have a character that is rare even today because of this.


My parents had married in Sri Lanka and lived mostly in Asia for almost a decade, including much of the first seven years of my life. My mother’s parents did not attend their only daughter’s wedding. A rift that my arrival as first grandchild is credited with starting to heal. My Dad and Grandfather started writing letters and eventually became quite close.


There is no doubt that discrimination impacted my father’s professional prospects. Working in Asia for a non-governmental organization was one of the few avenues available to him, even with a degree from Harvard.  So for years, it was with some guilt that I passed for white in the professional world.


Growing up I didn’t know what to call myself, how to be or with whom I belonged. In my small NY suburb, with its distinctly Italian, Irish, Jewish and white subcultures, the simple question, “What are you?” was a hard for me to answer. In school, everyone seemed to be in a pretty clear box except my family. “Bi-racial” wasn’t a box then. 


I was well aware that discrimination, more often called prejudice or bigotry then, was present all around me. I was born in New York City. On my birth certificate, in the box for race of father, the hospital filled in “Colored”. My Dad was offended; he crossed out “Colored” and replaced it with NEGRO in bold block letters.  By the time I could actually read my birth certificate for myself, we were calling ourselves “Black”. For me, the boxes kept changing. 


It was hard to find an identity to own. Somehow I felt my experience wasn’t what was being called “The Black Experience”. My family wasn’t poor and I wasn’t obviously discriminated against. Yet the assassination of Dr. King was a body blow to me as a boy. And I knew the struggles from my family stories.


As a teen, I found that I had inadvertently infiltrated the white world. Sometimes when I was with friends or co-workers a racial joke or insult would spill out of someone, someone who would only say such a thing because they thought they were among only the white.  This made me feel awful, as if I had not told them who I really was. Yet, they were wrong and I had to call them on it.


By the time I was in my twenties this had happened enough times that I started to act to prevent it.  I would casually, but intentionally, inform people I knew of my racial background. This would save them, and me, from that very awkward encounter.


Today such incidents are rare, at least here.  I no longer feel a need to warn people to be on good behavior.


It’s progress and I celebrate it, small step that it is.


And yet consider this; two men you know as 17-year-old boys. Each has a black dad and white mom, me and Barack Obama.

Barack Obama knows that he could have been Trayvon Martin.


I know that I could have been just passing.

Produced by the Committee to Elect Mark Howell, 2023