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In Print: a family tree's tangled branches

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Ronne Hartfield's family tree bears an African branch, a Jewish one, a British one, and a Choctaw Indian one. Her heritage is so varied that when a radio producer wanted to recount Hartfield's family history as part of a series to be pitched to WBEZ, a genealogist had to be hired to help fact check. "My maternal grandfather was a plantation owner who had three children with my grandmother, who was the daughter of a married German Jew" and a half-white woman, says Hartfield. "So my mother was really only an eighth black, though she considered herself black. Our clan, so typical of African-Americans, has been completely miscegenational for generations."

Hartfield--whose five decades of work in arts administration and social service include stints as head of Urban Gateways, the Chicago Children's Choir, and museum education at the Art Institute--set out a few years ago to fulfill a longtime goal: writing a book. "I decided on a family chronicle, because I felt the need to dispel the stereotype of the tragic mulatto." Her agent is still shopping "Another Way Home" around to publishers. Meanwhile, it's serving as a main thread in "Crossing Boundaries: Stories and Music From Biracial America," produced by Ann Feldman and set to air on Eight Forty-Eight next fall.

To challenge the myth of the "victimized black woman," Hartfield cites as evidence the experiences of her own grandparents. "My grandfather Arthur, who ran two plantations near the Louisiana-Mississippi border, built a house for his three illegitimate kids behind the mansion he occupied with his mother.... When my mother came of age he introduced her to New Orleans society at the Octoroon Ball. He declared one of the sons white so he could inherit some properties. After my grandmother died in childbirth, Arthur married a white woman but continued to care financially for his mixed-blood children."

In South Carolina another rich plantation owner made sure his slave son, Hartfield's paternal grandfather, learned to read and write. "The stuff you often hear about white master and black servant girl--rape, whipping, coercion--seemed not to have been the experience of my extended family," Hartfield says. Despite her accounts to the contrary, she says, reporters still twist her mother's and grandmothers' lives into unhappy tales. "Even the producer of the 'BEZ show had to be reminded again and again not to succumb to that cliche."

Hartfield's mother left New Orleans for Chicago during the Great Migration of 1918. She found a job in a factory--where she passed for white--and met her husband, who worked in a neighboring factory. They brought up five children in Bronzeville, making sure each got a college education. "That's another theme of my book--the optimism and protectiveness of that lower-middle-class community," says Hartfield. "People who write about black life tend to ignore the quotidian."

Hartfield, who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1955 with a history degree, married a Jewish mathematician she met there. Throughout the 50s her color kept the couple from renting in the heart of Hyde Park. "We didn't let that get to us," she says. "We just went about leading our complicated lives with great ease." Their daughters have grown up comfortable with their multiracial background. And things have changed: "There are more and more people like us."

Hartfield will read from "Another Way Home" as part of a live preview of "Crossing Boundaries" narrated by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, tonight (Friday) at 7 at the Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive. The program also features soprano Harolyn Blackwell singing songs from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Chicago and pianist Willie Pickens performing pieces by Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Lester Young. Tickets are $15-$20; call 312-665-7400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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