Modern Life: A Biracial Family Shares Their Story
Birmingham-based artists Darius and Bethanne Hill on the issues—and non-issues—of being a biracial family.
Atticus, 11; Esme, 15 (holding Maisy); Darius Hill, 48, Visual Arts Department chair, Alabama School of Fine Arts; Bethanne Hill, 49, artist (holding Mindy); and Olivia, 20 (holding Alden)
"High school sweethearts" may sound like an antiquated term for this modern, artsy couple, but that's exactly what Bethanne and Darius Hill are. The two met in ninth grade, when they were students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and this past summer celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Among the things the couple treasures most are their long history and shared memories. "Since we both went to an art school, were in the same classes and critiques from age 14 on up, and are both artists now, there's a kind of hard-wired understanding between us."
Also between them are three wonderful children, each of whom Bethanne describes as "so beautifully different." Twenty-year-old college student Olivia is a cheerleader and a newly minted art major. "You don't see that combo every day!" Bethanne says. Their middle child, Esme, 15, studies theater arts and has her parents convinced that she'll become a household name. Finally, there's 11-year-old Atticus, who although quieter and shier than his sisters, just got a guitar and an amp. Bethanne laughs, "I'll be looking for that headphone jack soon."
Bethanne says her biggest surprise about motherhood was discovering that her instincts are usually pretty good. "Before I had kids, I was scared that I'd make terrible mistakes. The children might tell you that we do mess up and they'd be right, but they also see us try, really try to do better. I think there's value in that. One of the main things I learned is that they're always watching." And while the couple's parenting styles differ—she's the conversationalist, as in "Let's talk about why you should do it," and Darius is old-school, as in "Do it now"—they both understand the importance of camaraderie and of being on the same page. "It's kind of goofy," says Bethanne, "but I end family group texts with #teamhill, especially when things get hectic. It's just a reminder that we're a family working together." For Darius, a strong bond in the marriage is key: "Perfect happiness is when husband and wife are in sync on multiple levels. Doesn't happen all the time but when it does, it's true bliss."
Asked whether they've faced any major complications as a biracial couple, Bethanne says that while Darius' family has only ever been warmly accepting of her, she was saddened by her father's initial response. "My parents raised me with a good perspective on people, and my dad used to tell me how appalled they were when they moved from Ohio to the South in 1965. Dad would share what he remembered, what they saw on the news and how they felt about it," says Bethanne. "But then when I wanted to date Darius, the needle scratched on the record. He was afraid we'd have a terrible life because we're 'from two different cultures.' He said our children would be outcasts. And I guess with what he'd seen on TV in our own city, it's not surprising he was fearful, but at the time I was disappointed and confused. It's funny to think of Darius and me as being from different cultures; we've been so close and shared so much since we were kids."
The couple are proud of how they work together to raise their children, run a household and show gratitude. Says Bethanne, "It's important to praise everyone for their efforts. Remembering to thank them and tell them they make you proud are small but very important kindnesses." She laughs, "I don't always remember to do it, but when I do and things are running smoothly, I think, 'Why don't I do this every time?!' "
You've been married 25 years. What does your spouse do that still drives you crazy?
"Darius is a teacher, so he thinks he knows everything. I'm sort of joking, but people who live with teachers may recognize the type. The funny thing is, he's right much of the time. I admire him and try to remember not to grind my teeth so much when he does something I wouldn't do. There are a million better examples I can't recall, but for instance, he picked up vanilla frosting for our son's birthday cupcakes today. I scoffed at him for buying vanilla frosting (who does that?) and he just said, "You might be surprised." When Atticus got home from school, he was thrilled to see vanilla frosting (which we don't usually have because I always buy chocolate) and made himself a cupcake with a tower of vanilla icing. I blinked at him in disbelief and told him to thank his dad. It's silly, but little moments like that teach me to pay attention." —Bethanne
"Bethanne just doesn't understand how I can watch the same good movie over and over again." —Darius
What's your favorite part of the day?
"Selfishly, it's when everyone has just left for the day. I make coffee and head to the studio out back. I paint all day, usually while listening to music or a great interview on NPR, and the dogs are running in and out and I think, 'Is this for real? I get to do this?' After six years on the road as a college admissions counselor, then six years as a dorm mother, it feels like heaven.
"I also love when we do sit down to the family dinner (which I won't pretend happens as often as it should). We have this silly rhyme I made up years ago to get the kids talking. Everyone shares something about their day: The last, the first, the best and the worst." —Bethanne
"If we're talking workday, the answer is when I'm in the classroom teaching. As chair of the art department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, I am an administrator as well as a teacher. I enjoy being in the classroom more than being in a meeting in a room full of other admin types. The classroom is where I feel I make a real difference. If we're talking the weekend, the answer is watching the family enjoy themselves in whatever capacity. When the family is happy, I'm happy!" —Darius
How would you describe your art?
"My most recent work is a response to discoveries made while exploring the notion of the 'black experience.' The objective continues to be the use of memory as a spark toward an investigation that could lead me to reconsider issues in new ways.
"As my work in the studio transitions from being more like the construction of objects and symbols toward a more immediate, intuitive, abstracted approach, certain shapes and designs are becoming more prevalent than others. Lately, I've become obsessed with circles and chevron-like shapes. I'm beginning to see them as symbols that represent the black condition in America. Maybe the circle represents the vicious cycle that blacks find themselves in due to socioeconomic and racial issues. Maybe the chevron-like shape creates a directional flow; representing past, present and the future of blacks in America." —Darius
"My paintings are bold, rural landscapes. Australian Aboriginal art was an early influence, so my work tends to be colorful and stylized, with lots of pattering and outline. I also stay busy with illustration jobs and several commissioned pieces each year. I have a studio page on Facebook, Bethanne Hill Painting and Illustration, and a website, bethannehill.com." —Bethanne
Are your children artistic?
"Our oldest, Olivia, is an art major at Furman University. She arrived at that major recently and I think it's a perfect fit for her curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills. She has worked alongside me in the studio for years, so it's exciting to see her really jump in! She also specialized in creative writing as an Alabama School of Fine Arts (ASFA) student. She's opinionated and clever, so I'd like to spy on some critiques.
"Esme is an actor, dancer and model with a theatre specialty at ASFA. I used to look across the street (we live across from the elementary school) and see her on the playground, leading a group of girls in a made-up dance routine. It was funny because she was pretty tiny. But she's bossy when she has a vision. And she usually has a vision.
"Atticus is more of a quiet guy, thinking and observing. I've seen some excellent writing from him, so we'll foster that and his new guitar interest and soccer. And baseball. That's enough on his plate for now." —Bethanne
Have there been any complications being a biracial family in the South?
"Because we've always lived in a city (Atlanta, Birmingham) and circulated mostly in artistic, creative crowds, we haven't really experienced issues. If anything, we feel very supported and cheered on, so to speak, by friends and family. There are still plenty of problems in Birmingham, but this city has made lots of progress and is especially livable, with great parks and restaurants and lots of creative folks moving back downtown. So, ironically, it's been just the right place for us. This is not our father's Birmingham." —Bethanne
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
"Working and creating with people you love and admire and can learn from in all kinds of ways is the best. Remembering to pay attention and notice the wonders all around you and to be grateful makes all the difference. Also important is being old enough to realize there's no such thing as perfect!" —Bethanne