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He saw the ghost of his racist grandfather. It helped lead to meaningful healing

John Blake's story is about growing up as a Black kid in West Baltimore in the 1980s and learning painful secrets about his family.
John Nowak
John Blake's story is about growing up as a Black kid in West Baltimore in the 1980s and learning painful secrets about his family.

I'm pretty sure I don't believe in ghosts. Now, I say pretty sure because there is part of me that doesn't want to rule out the possibility.

I have heard others talk about this period of time after a person dies, when their soul or their spirit hasn't settled into whatever comes next, and that person's essence feels close. I have felt that, for sure.

Right after my mom died, she was in my dreams a lot. It felt so real that I would wake up thinking she was alive, and then I had to go through a muted form of grief all over again when I realized it was a dream.

Then there's the way my parents' favorite songs have come to me. I remember the first time I went into a grocery store after my mom died. They were playing, "I Just Called to Say I Love you," by Stevie Wonder – she would sing that song all the time. And when I drove from my father's funeral back to my hotel a couple years ago, the song on the radio was "American Pie," by Don McLean. Whenever my dad sang that song, you knew he was in a good mood.

So these things, these coincidences, these experiences, they felt supernatural in a way to me. But straight-up ghosts? Seeing spirits of those who've died, is that real? Could that actually happen? I don't know, but the writer John Blake says it happened to him.

Blake is a longtime writer for based in Atlanta, and he's written a memoir called More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew. It's a story about growing up as a Black kid in West Baltimore in the 1980s, learning painful secrets about his white mother and, yeah, a ghost.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Blake: I was a young Black man growing up in West Baltimore in this infamous neighborhood. It's the setting for the HBO series The Wire, and it was also the epicenter for the 2015 violent protests that erupted after a young Black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody.

There was tremendous hostility toward white people there, and I grew up knowing that I had this whole white family who rejected me at birth. Including a mom that wanted nothing to do with me.

Rachel Martin: You gave us a sense of where you grew up in West Baltimore, but may I ask you for even more specifics? Can you tell me what it smelled like, what it sounded like?

Blake: That's a good question. It smelled like sour milk because I lived in this industrial area where there was a Good Humor ice cream factory right behind my house. It was a blue collar part of West Baltimore, but it was also a place of what we call stoops. Everybody would sit on these marble steps at night, particularly in the summertime, and talk and flirt. It was a very communal place. People would go on the corner and sing Temptations songs. Everybody knew everybody's business because you live next to one another. You could hear people argue, you could hear people laugh, you could hear people have sex. Everybody's business was on the street.

Martin: As you mentioned, your parents weren't together. Your dad was raising you and your brother on his own, except not really because he wasn't around a lot.

Blake: Correct. It was kind of a weird upbringing because I kind of felt like half my identity had been amputated at birth. I knew I had a white mother, but all my family told me was her name, Shirley, that she's white and that her family hates Black people. That's all I knew. I had no picture of her, I didn't know the sound of her voice. So my father was the one who tried to raise me, but he wasn't particularly suited for it because he preferred being at sea. He was in the merchant marines, and so I spent most of my time in foster homes while my father was overseas.

Martin: When did you start pushing for more information about your mom?

Blake: I didn't dig for more, because I was afraid of the answers. I didn't want to think about it. I had to conserve my mental energy. It was enough to deal with staying in these foster homes, staying in a neighborhood that was steadily becoming more violent, and living as what I call a closeted biracial person. I didn't want to tell people that I had a white mom because I was ashamed.

There was a lot to deal with so I didn't have the mental space to spend time wondering, where is my mother? I would think about it, thoughts like, "Her family's racist. She's probably racist. They just don't want me." That's how I felt.

One day my father calls me into his bedroom. The Price Is Right is on the television, and he says, "Do you want to meet your mother?" It was like a bombshell. There was no preparation. I was just kind of stunned. But that was his nature, he was a rough merchant seaman and he wasn't a touchy-feely person. And I said, "Well, sure, of course."

Three days later I am driven to the outskirts of Maryland with my younger brother and we're taken to this massive red brick building. It looked like The Shawshank Redemption. And this was where our mother was staying.

Martin: And you have no context for this?

Blake: No, they just said, "This is where your mother's staying." So we're led into this waiting room of this massive building, and as we're waiting I can hear people moaning in pain in these distant hallways. And then I hear other people breaking out into hysterical laughter, and it's still not computing for us. And then we see a hospital orderly escort this thin, young white woman out into the room, and she sees us and her eyes light up.

She says, "Oh boy, John and Pat, it's so good to see you." She hugs us and I don't know what to do because I've never even used the word mom before. I hug her, then I step back and it begins to hit me. We are in the waiting room of a mental institution. My mother has schizophrenia, a severe form of mental illness. I didn't make that discovery until I was in the waiting room that day.

I think part of the reason they didn't tell us is because they didn't know how. Back then, in the '80s, people didn't know how to talk about mental illness. They didn't talk openly, it was a shameful thing. I was already ashamed of having a white mother, and now I had this other shame to contend with: I have a white mother who also has schizophrenia.

John Blake's mom.
/ John Blake
John Blake
John Blake's mom.

John Blake and his younger brother Patrick made regular visits to see their mom. Her ability to have deep conversations was pretty limited, but they found ways to connect - they developed a relationship. John also got to know his mother's sister, and during one visit she showed John a photo of the white grandfather he'd never met.

Here's where we get to the metaphysical part of this story. Blake recognized the man in the photo. When he was around nine years old, he and Patrick both woke up in the middle of night to a frightening scene.

Blake: I glanced over into the corner of my bedroom and I saw an elderly white man who was half walking, half floating through our bedroom. At first I thought it was a dream and I rubbed my eyes, but he just stayed there and I watched him. When I woke up the next morning I talked to my younger brother Patrick and said, "Did you see somebody last night?" And he said, "Yeah."

Blake didn't see an apparition of his dead grandfather again. And then, decades later, when he was in his mid-thirties, he was married and living in Atlanta, and this time it was his wife who saw the frightening thing.

Blake: I awakened one morning and when I looked at my wife's eyes they were huge and she had this look of terror on her face. She said she saw a white man standing over the bed looking down on me with a troubled expression on his face. She tried to wake me up but I wouldn't wake up. I knew immediately who she was talking about and I got a picture of my mother's father and asked, "Was this the man?" She said, "Yeah. Who is that and who is he to you?" And I said, "That's my grandfather."

Martin: It is such a bizarre experience. Let's just assume that it was him. Why was he there?

Blake: Well, that was the question I had. So I called up a buddy of mine. This is a guy who's a hospice worker, who I felt had a sensitivity to these types of issues because he had worked with people who were dying and he was a very spiritual person. His name is Scott, and he said, "Just think of it, the only stories you know about your grandfather are stories about his racism. This was the man who called your father the n-word, who wanted nothing to do with you because your father was Black and he died never knowing you. The only thing you know about him is that he was just a racist, nothing more. Think about the torment that might have caused. He could have had a relationship with you but didn't. I think he wants forgiveness."

Then I talked with a pastor who said the same thing. And he asked, "Have you prayed for him?" I said, "No, I never thought to pray for him." But that's what I did. I got on my knees and prayed for him. But that was only the beginning. It's not enough to pray for him because I didn't know him. I had to get to know him. And one of the things I learned from getting to know him is that, in a way, I haunted him – he didn't just haunt me. I began to see that he was more than his worst act, and I think that was really healthy for me because that helped me also reconnect with other members of my white family.

Martin: Did you give your grandfather that forgiveness?

Blake: Yes. I knew what it was like to grow up in an environment where you absorb racism and you don't even know it. I tell people a lot of racism is caught rather than taught. Nobody told me to hate white people. It was in my environment, it was just part of my world. He grew up in a similar world in a different way. He grew up in a segregated white world.

I got to know him and I know I've forgiven him. I don't feel like there is tension or anger when I think about him anymore. More than anything I feel compassion for him.

Martin: There may be those who hear your story and think, this is some nice, Kumbaya racial reconciliation. But America is plagued by structural racism, and this kind of narrative — I can hear people thinking – puts an unfair burden on Black people to just forgive the racist white people in their lives.

Blake: Yeah, I'm very aware of those types of stories and I can't stand those stories. There's a term, the "magic negro," you see that kind of character in movies. He or she exists to make white people feel better about their racism. And those stories simply imply that if we just hug white people, if we become friends, racism will disappear. And my story is not saying that.

What I will say to the cynics is this: So I come from West Baltimore and the stories that come from West Baltimore about Black people are stories about rage and despair and anger and racism. I've been writing about race for 20 years as a reporter, I've covered Charlottesville, Rodney King, Ferguson, all that. And the only stories we hear about race are stories about despair and hopelessness.

I tell people that if we only write and tell stories that tell white people that racism is inerasable, that it can't be transcended, what are they going to do with that? What incentive do they have to change? I think we have to become better storytellers. I think we have to tell more hopeful stories if we're going to survive. Because I feel right now in this country there are so many broken people who now believe that racism is embedded in our country, that people can't change, that it's a permanent part of being American.

I think one of the ways you deal with that is you have to tell stories that show people getting past racism. And I've seen these white members of my family change in ways that I never expected. I've seen myself change in ways I never expected. That is worth sharing.

Martin: Have you seen your grandfather again? Have you seen the apparition?

Blake: No. I joke that he might come back and say, "You misquoted me on page 22." No, I think that is over with.

Martin: Your mom died a few years ago. Where do your thoughts go when you think of her now?

Blake: I tell you, they have really gone full circle. When I was younger, I was ashamed she was white. And then, when I met her, I was ashamed of her because she had a mental illness. But only at the very end did I feel pride. Like, "wow, I am the son of this incredible, resilient woman."

Here's a woman who spent most of her life in mental institutions, away from her children, away from her family. She was rejected by her community, and yet when we visited her and spent time with her, she could still sing, she could dance, she could joke, and she would become mad at injustice if she saw somebody treated wrongly. And that she could still be that way after all that she went through, speaks to a certain strength. So I feel nothing but pride for her. I'm not ashamed of her. I'm proud, and I don't care what people say about her, she was an incredible woman.

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Corrected: June 18, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
In an earlier version of this story the name of singer/songwriter Don McLean was misspelled as Don McClean.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.