Shirley A. Blair taps into her own family history to take on social justice and race in America
By Nancy Vigran
Reporter for the Sun-Gazette
THREE RIVERS – For more than half-a-century, Shirley A. Blair Keller has been trying to respond to her grandfather’s question. When she was a child, her grandfather asked his daughter, Shirley’s mother, “If you do not care about yourself, what about the children?”
While her grandfather is long gone from this life, this Three Rivers author has now been able to respond by publishing her answers to him in “What About the Children?” recently released in paperback and on Kindle.
His question was really posed to her mother after she announced she was going to marry a black man. He was a long-time friend of the family, who had been by her side through her divorce. Her grandfather didn’t stop the marriage, and Shirley, who was 10 at the time, grew up a white girl and stepdaughter of a black man during the 1950s, a tough time when America was trying to deal with its racial divide.
“He loved my mother and fell in love with us,” she said. “They lived together for 52 years.”
They lived in Los Angeles at the time. Her maternal grandparents were Jewish. Shirley didn’t mind the differences in her family. In fact she knew no different, and she loved her stepdad.
But, “I’ve lived my whole life with that question,” she said. “So, I started writing stories to answer his question.”
Her life evolved into being even more diverse. Her father married a Japanese woman. She had one full biological sister, bi-racial half-siblings, step-siblings, and adopted ones. Some of her family were Muslim, some Buddhist, with all faiths of Christianity mixed in. She, like her mom, fell in love with and married an African-American.
“We’re kind of a mixed bag,” she said.
Most of their lives, Shirley and family have seen a variety of discrimination. “Sometimes they’re anti-Muslin, sometimes they’re anti-black, now they’re anti-immigration.”
“I’m related to all of these people,” she said, “and somehow we have to overcome our struggles and differences.”
It is truly a matter of coincidence that Shirley’s book was published during a time of a resurgence of intolerance within the U.S., she said. But, she hopes it might make a difference.
Her stories include meeting the late Josephine Baker, an American-born African-American entertainer and silent film star who had moved to France at the age of 19. Shirley was eight at the time and he was fascinated by the woman who had become one of the richest female entertainers in the world by then, Shirley said.
Shirley also was able to meet and get to know historian and author Paul Robeson Jr. He was the son of activist Paul Robeson, Sr. and who himself became an advocate for social and racial justice.
Upon hearing her own six-year-old talking about “blacks not being very smart,” Shirley and her husband decided they needed to make a change. She went to work with Synanon, a rehabilitation organization and community, founded by Chuck Dederich in Santa Monica.
“Drug addiction doesn’t have class or color,” she said.
The family moved into the center and later moved to the Bay Area and then on to Badger for a while, before moving back to the Bay. Upon their retirement, they moved to Three Rivers.
“Families come in many forms: blood, by marriage, by adoptions, adding siblings that are birth, steps, halves, and relationships-of-the-heart,” Shirley reveals as a prelude to her book. “Secrets and lies are a part of the tapestry.”
Published in February, the book is getting rave reviews from the local community and other critics.
“Teachers of human development including diversity and cross cultural teaching could use this book as an adjunct to the main text for undergraduate and graduate students,” wrote Rosemary A. Bower, Ph.D. in psychology.
“You will find this an exciting page turner,” said author and poet Sylvia Ross.
Signed copies of “What About the Children” are available at the Three Rivers Historical Museum and during 1st Saturday in Three Rivers at Keller’s Spirit Hill Art Studio, 43641 Skyline Drive. The Kindle edition as well a paperback are also available through Amazon.