"My Mother Hid Her Racial Identity": Revisiting The Secret Album

Filmmaker Sarah Klein sits down with author Gail Lukasik to talk race, identity, and why their film is more relevant than ever.
Feb 22, 2022 11:00 AM ET
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By Sarah Klein

In 2017, my filmmaking partner Tom Mason and I developed an award-winning series of films for HP about the power of printed images, and the immense effect they can have on our lives. Though all four stories in the series were poignant, one of the films, The Secret Album, feels even more relevant now than it did when it was first released. It tells the story of Gail Lukasik, who discovered that her mother had spent more than half of her life keeping her own racial identity a secret from her husband and children.

Raised in an all-White, working-class suburb of Cleveland, Lukasik had never thought of her parents as anything but Caucasian. When her mother was nearing the end of her life, she presented Gail with a family photo album that rocked not only her relationship with her mother, but also her fundamental sense of identity.

After doing genealogy research, she found that her mother began “passing” as a White woman in Ohio in her twenties after being raised as Black in New Orleans. She also discovered several of her grandfather’s relatives with whom she later reconnected — and reunited — with.

We caught up with Gail from her home near Chicago to talk more about the process of making the film and what it means to uncover a new racial identity and learn about the complexities in her family’s past.

Watch Gail’s story in The Secret Album, and the History of Memory short film series.

SK: I want to start by saying that this short film we made with you for HP is one of our all-time favorites. It was such an honor to tell your story. I would love to know, in hindsight, what the process was like for you and what it is like rewatching it now, a couple of years later.

GL: It was a wonderful experience. But it was also nerve-wracking and very emotional for me personally. When I watched it recently, I cried again. I think for me too, watching it again, reinforced my deep sense of loss about my mother. That in life, I didn’t know her, truly know her. Maybe that’s true for a lot of mothers and daughters. I don’t know. I can only go by my experience. But to me, she always held something back. Even when I promised to keep her secret, she was unwilling to talk to me about what she had gone through. Watching the film reinforced that loss.

On a more positive note, the film made me realize how unlikely it was that I would actually find this family that was lost to me. Every time we get to that part in the film, where there’s Moe, and Lauren, and A.J., and we’re having that dinner, I think, “Oh my God, how did this happen?” How unlikely is it in life that something like that occurs? Very unlikely.

SK: That is so true. I always get goosebumps at the end of the film when I see you all together. I’m curious, I recently watched the critically acclaimed film Passing, about a black woman in the 1920’s who passed for White. What did you think about it in light of your own family history?

GL: I think the movie did a magnificent job. [Director] Rebecca Hall is just fantastic. But the movie was based on a book written in the late 1920s. Even the way it was filmed in black and white made it feel like it was something that only happened in the past. But the notion of passing is still very much here in many forms. You’ve got to remember; my mother was born in 1921 but she was passing in Ohio up until her death in 2014. I imagine there are many people still passing today.

SK: In the last year and a half with the brutal deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others videotaped and made public, the conversations around police brutality and systematic racism have come to the forefront of the national conversation. As somebody who has had such a unique journey with racial identity, how do you take all of this in?

GL: The fact that my mother hid her racial identity, even from her husband and her children, shows how insidious racism is. Growing up under the brutal oppression of systemic racism, my mother’s opportunities were limited. She understood the dangers of passing for White. To survive she moved north and hid her true identity. Watching George Floyd get murdered was visceral for me. I felt it on a gut level because his story is the story of my family and the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed by racism.

SK: How has your own sense of racial identity evolved since you discovered your mother’s history?

GL: It has been a process and a journey. After my book, White Like Her, first came out, whenever I was asked how I identified racially I would say, “I’m a White woman with Black ancestry.”

It wasn’t until after my appearance on The Today Show, where I’d given the same answer when asked by Megyn Kelly, did I start to rethink my racial identity. What happened was about a day or two after my appearance, I got this really angry posting on the site where I have my book. The woman said that she is telling everyone who’s Black not to read my book, because I did not honor my Black heritage. Basically, she thought that I had turned my back on my Black heritage.

Well, that shook me up. By not claiming a Black identity, I thought I was being respectful to Black people, since I never suffered racism because of my skin color. I’ve enjoyed White privilege my entire life. No doubt about it. But, by saying I’m White was I honoring my own mother and how much she and her family suffered in the Jim Crow South? Was I honoring my ancestors going all the way back to Marta, who was enslaved in the early 1700s in Louisiana and who had 13 children by her enslaver?

I finally said to myself “The heck with it. You’re not going to do this anymore. Who are you really?" After that, I started identifying as mixed-race, because even my DNA says I’m mixed-race.

SK: What does Black History Month mean to you now that you have discovered your own family history?

GL: It has a much deeper relevance for me, as a mixed-race person. I mean, there are so many unknown stories of Black Americans and their contributions to this country. I truly hope there will be a time when, and this won’t be in my lifetime, when we don’t have to have a women’s history month or a Black history month. But for now, it is an important reminder that we’re not where we need to be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do, and that we each need to do this work together.

Gail Lukasik’s latest book, White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, was named one of the most inspiring stories of the year by The Washington Post. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Georgia Review.