Last week I discovered I was black.
You might think that is something you can’t just discover in middle age, but stranger things—even similar things (Madeleine Albright finding out about her Jewish heritage)—have happened. In my case some old documents came to light—a relative was doing some sleuthing in genealogy and made this stunning find. I had no reason to doubt the news, just as I had no reason to suspect it before it became news. Does this seem impossible to you, to be black and not know it? To be thus—as I just put it, choosing a word that now seems to carry racist overtones—stunned? I too might have thought so before my cousin s announcement. But of course it’s not impossible. In fact it must be the case for hundreds, thousands of Americans, probably more, not to mention numbers of others the world over. What, after all, does it mean to pass? To pass is to move from one census box to another. It’s a move that is, in the absence of genetic reminders, quite simple and quite final. Once the physical signs have been erased, who is to keep the purely theoretical connections alive? Forgetting is, arguably, a choice. But it is a choice that has often been made.
I have been white for almost 50 years. Or should I say had been white? What exactly must that change of tense mean?
I’ll tell you one thing: For the past week it’s meant a wildly increased self-consciousness and an increased curiosity. It’s not just that I’m checking the moons of my fingernails, as people used to do in 19th-century America, assured by experts on race that the fingernails were a dead giveaway, that anyone could tell just by looking at those telltale moons (blue moons, some said) that you were black under your white skin. But I am reconsidering a bit. I’m thinking for example of a couple of aunts with their frizzy perms in the 1950s. I try to bring the memory-films into closeup. Was there anything I should have noticed about these aunts? Was there any chance those weren’t perms at all? Suddenly any familial flatness of nose or thickness of lip takes on new significance. And what about those who used to tan easily, as people always said? Anything there?
Were there hidden births, dark children shunted off to adoption agencies? I have a hazily dramatic picture of the world of unbreachable social walls, a world of stealth and tragedy, as portrayed in movies and fiction from the ‘30s through the ‘70s. More recent history seems recorded in garish Technicolor, with an emphasis on colorblindness that seems paradoxically to exaggerate color difference while seeking to deny it.
I myself was colorblind till a few days ago.
The Next Morning
The next morning I was looking in the mirror at that mole I’ve hated since it appeared a few years ago on my temple. Last week it was an annoyance; this week it’s something else. Melanin, I think, as I comb my hair to cover it. Melanin. Is that the most important ingredient? I’m thinking disconnectedly of the “Black Like Me” author, John Howard Griffin, who endured chemical treatments to darken his skin and then traveled—under cover of darkness, one might say—through the ‘50s South. He died of it, so the story goes, died of the treatment through which he achieved his racial crossover.
That next morning I was looking in the mirror, and such a host of new thoughts crashed in on me that I seemed actually to be another person. I looked the same, but I was carrying some other person’s baggage. Toting, perhaps I mean. I touched my face and considered these strange new thoughts. Then I took a pencil and began writing. I wrote:
There is only one great subject in America, and that is race. And the central strangeness of the subject is that, despite the fact that the word race now seems to many of us to be included in the word America—in fact it is included in the word America (“I am race,” declares one anagram)— it’s a subject that seems, in discussions of America, in our thinking about the concept of America, brand new. Because America in my childhood meant white America. America meant “us,” with a separate, struggling “them” whose troubles we watched on television.
And I wrote:
There is also only one racial color duo in America, only one that counts: black and white. Other concerns, the questions of various shades of brown, can’t come anywhere near that central one in importance.
Others, it turned out, had been there before me. “There are only two qualities in the United States racial pattern: white and black,” wrote Carl Degler in 1971, “A person is one or the other: There is no intermediate position.” And much earlier—in 1893—James Bryce observed, “In Latin America whoever is not black is white; in Teutonic America whoever is not white is black.”
But that next morning I hadn’t started consulting books yet. I was still thinking those first, unfamiliar thoughts. I looked up from my writing and thought, I should call Tess and tell her the news. And then I thought, Good heavens, you can’t just call up the only black person you ever counted as a friend, because that’s how it has been—for whatever reason, you’ve had only one black friend (visibly black, I must now amend) to speak of—you can’t just call up Tess, who anyway has been only distantly connected in the past 15 years since both of you moved away from the city where your friendship flourished. You can’t just call up a black friend out of the blue (or out of the blue moon) to happen to mention this in—as it were—passing. What is that news supposed to mean to her? That she should shout out for joy? That we should suddenly become as close as sisters? What words would I even use?
It’s not like Godfrey Cambridge in “Watermelon Man” or Keenan Wynn in “Finian’s Rainbow.” Those guys woke up black. One day they were white; the next day they were anything but. The contrast was funny and made for trenchant social commentary. But I don’t look any different. When I wake up, I am exactly the same, with the added element of memory: Now I have, in some sense, if only provisionally and on my cousin’s say-so, a racial heritage.
I didn’t before. I was never a hyphenated American of any kind. I didn’t even look any particular way—neither particularly light nor particularly dark. People had assumed me to be French, English, Scottish, Scandinavian or Canadian, Jewish on occasion, but never black. (Note the confusion of categories—nationality, religion, “race” —which is which?). I blended into the background, invisible. Ellison s Man was only metaphorically Invisible—he had, like any black-skinned person in a majority-white society, distinct physical visibility. I have none of that. I was used to my default racelessness. I had always just assumed that my family’s nebulous history was the result of inevitable melting-pot conglomeration. And it was—just more dramatically so, more significantly so than I could have guessed.
Looking through today’s newspaper, seeing a photograph in an article about African-American voters protesting the Bush election, I’m noticing the face of the young boy in the foreground of the shot. His features are even and handsome. His skin could be any color—in this rendition it’s a light gray, very light. I find him good-looking, but I’m now asking myself whether by good-looking I mean white-looking, and I think I probably do to some extent. And I’m also thinking of him as halfway related to me, because he’s identified as African-American, and now I have been, too. But before—before last week—would I have identified him as related to me on the basis of the mixed-race look of his face, the obvious Caucasian (do we still use that term?) influence? I don’t think so. And that’s a curious thing, is it not?
I did not call my erstwhile friend Tess. But I thought about her a lot. I remembered for example how I had been amazed by a group of family photographs she kept—beautifully arranged, artfully arranged —in her house on a table also piled with candles and flowers, like a shrine. I remembered my exact thoughts when looking at that group of photos: These people are not black. When you live as I had lived, sheltered in white, middle-class America, you do not generally devote much thought to fine gradations of blackness. You have your knee-jerk liberal reactions, perhaps, inherited from your parents, if you are lucky. You have flaunted as a schoolchild your equal-housing button stabbed through the cover of your history notebook. You smile at everyone equally but maybe a little more at those with dark skin. You mouth the platitudes: We are all brothers under the skin; no one should be discriminated against on the basis of the color of his skin. But you do not generally come up against the tough questions: What is skin color? How does it relate to life in this world? What does it mean to those whose skin is colored? How much color is “colored”?
A Single Drop
The United States is the only country in the world in which a white woman can give birth to a black baby but a black woman cannot give birth to a white baby.
In the late 1800s, in a reaction to the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution (guaranteeing black males the right to vote and ensuring that this right could not be taken away), the United States Supreme Court itself passed laws that held, as Albion Tourgée put it in 1896, that “a single drop of African blood is sufficient to color a whole ocean of Caucasian whiteness”—thus incorporating the unofficial “one-drop rule” into the rule of law.
E James Davis explains:
To be considered black in the United States, not even half of one’s ancestry must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the question “Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor rule”; some courts have called it the “traceable amount rule”; and anthropologists call it the “hypo-descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group.
All this rule-making presupposed that there was in fact such a thing as “black blood,” that you could tell which drop was African. And of course now that we have sophisticated techniques for analyzing blood, we know that you can’t. We know it when scientists explain it to us, telling us that “the extent of genic differentiation between human races is not always correlated with the degree of morphological differentiation,” by which they mean that those who look like each other superficially may actually have less genetic material in common than those who do not. So we know that “race” is a construct, a handy fiction, an invention. We know, and yet we don’t really know at all. Melanin confuses us. Skin and blood are terms forever twined, emptied or pumped full of meaning at the whim of whatever dark heart may be controlling the surge. Skin seems to reveal blood—can even literally do so, an observation Charles Chesnutt used in conjuring, in an 1898 story, the “Blue Vein Society,” eligibility for which rested on being white enough to show blue veins through one’s skin. Chesnutt was spoofing, but the beliefs he condemned were anything but a joke.
I suppose in the 19th century the question was more immediate, the opportunities for irony more pronounced. Mark Twain, in his 1894 novel, “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” which involves the switching of two babies at birth—one allegedly white, the other allegedly black—writes of the mother of one of the boys:
To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black out-voted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro.
“Fiction of law and custom” is a strong statement and still thought-provoking after all these years, but Twain presses his analysis further, telling us that even someone who didn’t know the two babes could tell them apart, despite their identical “blue eyes and flaxen curls,” by their clothes:
for the white babe wore ruffled soft muslin and a coral necklace, while the other wore merely a coarse tow-linen shirt which barely reached his knees, and no jewelry.
But few white Americans were pressing the nature/nurture question Twain here exposed. And law, which creates a fiction quite as solid as reality, continued to define and separate the “races” for another century. States had their own definitions, placed on the books at regular intervals. Notably explicit is Virginia’s 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, which declared:
It shall be unlawful for any white person in this state to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white.
Amazingly the United States is still ridding itself of these galls, picking them out of the hairy language of its legal system like stubborn burrs. Bans on interracial marriage were still being deleted from state constitutions as late as 1987.
Part of the fear embedded in the series of statutes defining and outlawing miscegenation is this: the fear of obliteration. Certainly “passing” has been viewed as genocide—that really is the nature of the betrayal. It is an act of extermination, the rejection of one racial story in favor of another. But of course genocide is possible only when there is a commonly recognized and predefined gens, some agreed-upon idea of race. The reason miscegenation has been so feared historically is that it necessarily dismantles the concept of gens, blurs the lines meant to contain color. Miscegenation forces the erasure of boundaries, renders the old diagrams—with their conspicuously non-intersecting circles—obsolete, throws the whole notion of measurement into question. How can we know, without boundaries and definitions, who is to be hated, who is to be feared, who, exactly, is the enemy?
Its everywhere, this urge, this need to draw fine distinctions, make absurd rules, because otherwise how can you tell? How can you know for sure? And for some reason, long after slavery, long after installation of the insidiously misnamed “colorblindness,” it’s still urgently important to know for sure. It’s still important to classify humans according to what has been, by a fiction of law and custom, called race. But what, whatever, is meant by that term? Even listening to the radio—“All Things Considered,” mind you, not AM shock-talk—I find myself reacting with discomfort to a report that “blacks tend to” have this or that medical problem, or “African-Americans show” this or that physical propensity. Who are they talking about? “Them”? Me? I worry about this continued application of the “scientific method,” which method, after all, brought us racial categories—with their retinue of now-discredited but still uneradicated notions about superior and inferior natural endowments—in the first place.
Once, before I’d ever imagined my cousin’s discovery, I made an accidental experiment. A young woman functionary stopped me when I’d failed to check the race box on a form. I said I didn’t believe in checking that box, but she said it was legally required. (Is that possible?) Anyway I refused. I walked away, leaving the form on her desk, and she called to my back, “I’m putting down White.”
Really that’s what it amounts to, isn’t it? What you see is what you get? Race, unless you speak up, unless you make a claim, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
I’m not suddenly bilingual, like Barbara Billingsly, famous as the mother in “Leave It to Beaver,” who in the movie “Airplane” played a white-haired lady fluent in jive. That was terrifically funny, the dignified WASP lady with her impeccable lineage in the whitest-of-white ‘50s television sitcoms, fluently speaking and easily translating (and of course being needed to translate) the incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo spoken by two dark-skinned basketball players.
Even Steve Martin’s amusing and liberally motivated turnaround in “The Jerk,” in which he plays a white guy who’d been adopted by a black family, is disturbing. Whether it reinforces or brilliantly critiques ingrained racialist assumptions, it nonetheless depends for its humor on the usual backward construction. Though we laugh when Martin reverses the direction of the joke—his character is atrociously, humiliatingly white, lacking, apparently genetically, any sense of rhythm or cool—we may feel coerced into unwilling collaboration, mocking but not rejecting the nature-instead-of-nurture hypothesis on which American racism has long depended.
You can appreciate the strangeness of the construct more when you are, even nominally, inside it. Watermelon, fried chicken, rap, basketball, dancing—did I ever think much about those things before? Why do I suddenly notice them? Where did all this meaning come from?
Like one of Twain’s two flaxen-haired babies (the one dressed in ruffles and jewelry, the one who was, it turned out, the son of the slave Roxy), I have no experience being black.
More to the point, I have no training. And that’s apparently what it would take. Race, in my newly adjusted view, appears to be this: 99 percent eye-of-the-beholder and 99 percent nurture. My math abilities were never very good. Now I suppose they reflect a racial deficiency as predicted by the bell curve.
It’s been only a week. I’m sure I’ll get used to this new tinge in my thinking. I can’t see any difference, and of course no one has noticed—how could anyone?—but I’m oddly aware of one thing: not blackness, but whiteness. It’s something I took for granted all my life—I lived in it, breathed in it, cloaked my assumptions in it. But what was it? It’s as if there had been no such concept before. In any case it wasn’t something that required attention. My understanding of whiteness was so absolute that I had no occasion to question the matter.
Now I do.