“I was born a poor Black child.”
Fans of writer and actor Steve Martin’s early work will recognize those words from his 1979 comedy, The Jerk. Readers of Steve Majors’ powerful family memoir, High Yella, learn early on that the author used this memorable line in a key moment of courtship; An awkward attempt to use humor to explain a childhood marked by racism, shadeism, poverty, abuse, alcoholism, homophobia and the black magic that Black women in his family called “hoodoo.”
“The fact that I was born a poor Black child was just a part of my past,” Majors writes. “The full story of how that poor Black child grew up and escaped his past is wilder and crazier than any screenplay Steve Martin could ever dream up.”
The central part of High Yella involves race, identity and family. Majors, 55, is a light-skinned, cisgender Black gay man from upstate New York who was the youngest of five children, raised Roman Catholic, and married to a cis, white, gay Jewish man. He writes how he “checked boxes” when he needed to, and is perpetually plagued by people who presume to question his identity because he is white-passing. Majors also shares his own challenges—and failings—as a parent, and recounts painful recollections of family dysfunction and strife as a child.
“In years to come,” Majors writes, “I’d not only have to stop running from my family. I’d also have to make my way back to them.”
Along with his husband, Todd, and their daughters, Majors now calls suburban Maryland home. With each chapter, he takes readers along as he escapes the hell of his childhood home on a hill in Batavia, N.Y., and flees to New York City, the suburbs of New Jersey and New Orleans. He also travels across the Deep South. He intertwines stories of his modern family’s joy, angst, hope and heartbreak with the bleak, broke, funny and frightening tales of his birth family, from his earliest memories to their dying days.
He also reveals his own very personal struggle before coming out as gay.
“I feel very freed,” Majors said. “Shining a light on a dark chapter of your life brings visibility, but I also believe it frees you from shame. There are no more secrets, and that’s how I feel after writing this book. I don’t have to worry. There are no more secrets that I have to hold or hide.”
Majors is a former television news journalist who worked at NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC and in local TV stations from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla. He was once this reporter’s boss. His essays on race, culture, and identity have appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post. Majors spent seven years as vice president of marketing for Communities in Schools, a national education nonprofit serving marginalized students. Currently, he serves as chief external affairs officer for Teach for America, which works toward creating educational equity across America.
What follows are excerpts from my interview with Majors, conducted this month via Zoom, which have been edited for inclusion in this story.
About that title:
Dawn Ennis: For those who haven’t read it yet, why title your memoir High Yella?
Steve Majors: I tell people, the term ‘High Yella’ is not one that I proudly call myself. It’s an outdated, antiquated term that still has some currency in the Black community. I would say it’s a problematic term. I think it smacks of colorism. I will say that when my family used it with me, it was jokingly and lovingly.
Ennis: Have these stories always been inside of you, waiting to get out?
Majors: The stories have always been inside of me, and I think I come from a long line of storytellers. I grew up in a family, as dysfunctional as it was, where we told stories about ourselves, and told stories about who we thought we were. We oftentimes told stories to make sense of our troubled history. And I think those stories were a coping mechanism for us, a way for us to make light of the trauma that we experienced.
There’s a lot of dark humor in the book, and I think that is borne of the dark humor that we used as a coping mechanism in our lives. I remember distinctly my sister often telling me that we would tell stories to make each other laugh, to keep from crying.
She would often tell me, ‘Somebody’s got to write these stories down one day.’ And when I started to pursue a path of journalism, she would often say, ‘Stevie, you’ve got to be the one to write this book. Tell me, one day, you’re going to be able to write this book.’ It’s a bit bittersweet that she’s not here to see the book come to life. She did have a chance to read the draft. I give her so much credit for pushing to make sure that those stories get out in the world.
Ennis: I’m sorry for the loss of your sister, Steve. And your mother, and your brothers, too.
Majors: There are only two of us remaining out of the five [siblings]. And I’ll tell you, Dawn, writing this book was also a way of me bringing them back to me, and in a way, reliving those stories for me was a way to time travel. I miss my family, and I think even writing the book made me miss them that much more. I find now, I haven’t put pen to paper on this book in more than two years, but I find myself thinking about them more frequently now than I ever have. And for me, this book was also a gift to me, to be able to bring them back to me in some kind of metaphysical way. They’re closer to me, and I feel much closer to them, even in spite of the fact that I had to write some difficult things about my family members.
What business leaders can learn
Ennis: You also write about your experience in the workplace. What lessons have you learned about diversity, equity and inclusion in your 30 years in local and national television news, public relations and public affairs?
Majors: I’m a mixed race, Black gay man. To some, I appeared to be white and straight. Though I never intended to “pass” as something I was not, it frequently made me privy to conversations among senior television executives and media consultants who discussed diversity issues in private. Diversity was a business imperative, but for all the wrong reasons. A decision to intentionally recruit or promote a person of color to the anchor desk or a prominent reporting position was made because they were trying to appeal to Black television audiences. There was no understanding that these folks were bringing a diversity of experience, background and ideas. Instead, they were making decisions based on skin color and audience demographics.
I cringe now remembering conversations where the words “articulate,” “polished” or “camera friendly” were used. As a young man, I found the conversations uncomfortable. It’s only with time that I saw these words were coded language.
I think about the mask that I would put on in the workplace and the things that I never brought into the workplace: My true, authentic self, my history, my background that I never made visible to anyone else. To even share some of the basic facts meant disclosing divorces, dysfunction, addiction, incarceration and just basic facts about my family. So, I couldn’t and never brought that into the workplace, and I felt that affected my ability to be my best self at work. I was not my full self at work.
I think that in the workplace, we have to be cognizant of the fact that even in this virtual world where we are zooming into people’s houses and seeing more of their life and more of who they are, in ways that we never had before, there is an aspect of folks’ identity that is under the surface, that’s underwater, that we don’t see. We have to figure out respectful and empathetic ways to invite people to share more about themselves.
Majors: Spoiler alert! I actually have written and I’m shopping a young adult book whose title is Light Bright. And that was once the working title of High Yella in addition to The Hill.
This young adult book explores a lot of the same themes—race, culture, family identity, sexual orientation. But it takes some of the setting of my real life and takes some stories that I did not explore in the memoir, and I fictionalized them for an audience of young adults to kind of give them some sort of exposure to these issues.
The University of Georgia Press and the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication’s Low-residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction will host Majors for an official virtual book launch on Nov. 10, during which he will read excerpts from High Yella, and participate in a Q&A with Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence. Click here to register for the free event.
Copies of High Yella are available to purchase directly from UGA Press at this link. Use code 08HIYELLA for 30% off.