The race of Sally Hemings's and Thomas Jefferson's son, Eston Hemings, was
indisputably "black" while he was a slave at Monticello. Years later, living in
Ohio in 1850 as a free man, Eston was described by a census taker as "mulatto."
A decade later, Eston and his wife had moved to Wisconsin where a census taker
listed them as "white." What was the "truth" of Eston Hemings's race? To
answer the question is to take a journey through America's mixed-race past.|
Defining Race · "Forbidden Love" · "Passing" for White
"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," sociologist F.
James Davis explains. The "one drop rule," as it has been referred to, came
out of America's early experience with race-mixing during slavery and afterward
in the Jim Crow south. No other nation in the world defines race in quite this
same way, Davis argues. It grew out of our historic experience with slavery,
was perpetuated as pseudo-science, and remains with us so long as we need to
withhold full social status and privilege from blacks.
In 1790, the first population census enumerators were asked to classify free
residents as white or "other." Slaves were counted separately. By 1860, the
census requested that residents be classified as white, black, or mulatto. By
1990, there would be more than a dozen more racial categories on the census.
But, in an increasingly multi-racial America, identifying oneself by just one
category has been difficult. In 1997, the federal government issued
"Directive 15" which redefined
race once again. After much debate and controversy, the 2000 census, will be
the first in which to allow citizens to identify themselves by more than one
racial classification. The politics of race have combined with the politics
of the census count to make the 2000 census one of the most watched and argued over ever.
"Race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological
matter," professor Paul R. Spickard writes. "Race is primarily a
sociopolitical construct. . . Not only is race different from what many people
have believed it to be, but people of mixed race are not what many have assumed
them to be." This may seem self-evident to modern readers, but Americans have
been deeply confused about race for much of their history, using terms like
"Octoroon," "Mulatto," and "Colored," defining and re-defining "scientific"
racial categories, in an attempt to maintain lines that otherwise were too
blurry to see. The "Illogic of American Racial Categories" is a definitive
summary and analysis of centuries of national confusion about race.
Largely unnoticed, some Americans in pre-Civil War America refused to accept
the popular racial ideology of white supremacy and the danger of racial mixing,
historian Gary Nash reveals. "These people formed families, raised mixed-race
children, and strove for a decent place in their communities. . . They made
their ideas, values and racial openness plain in the way they conducted their
lives." In this excerpt, Nash offers portraits of mixed-race couples and
communities in the 1830's, 1840s, and 1850s which challenge us to look with
fresh eyes at our racial past.
This Supreme Court decision found Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws to be in
violation of the 14th amendment. In 1958, Virginia residents
Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving married in Washington D.C. then returned to
Virginia to live together. Mildred was African American and Richard was white.
Shortly thereafter, they were charged with violating Virginia's law against
interracial marriage and were sentenced to one year in jail. The sentence was
suspended, provided that they move out of Virginia and not return for at least
25 years. From their new home in Washington D.C. they struggled to appeal their
case, which was eventually brought before the Supreme Court.
Growing up, FRONTLINE producer June Cross lived two very different lives. During the school year, she lived in Atlantic City with her black family as an adopted child. On summer vacations, she lived in Los Angeles as part of a white show business family with Norma, her biological mother, and stepfather Larry Storch, an actor famous in the 1960s TV series "F Troop." Norma had left June's father-African-American vaudeville performer Jimmy Cross-and had given June away when she became "too dark to pass for white." This site features profiles of famous Americans with bi-racial family pasts, readings on mixed-race identity, and personal stories shared by viewers in the "discussion" area.
In her 1994 memoir entitled The Sweeter the Juice, Haizlip addresses the
issue of race in American society by chronicling her own family ancestry, which
encompassed African, European and Native American roots. In this American
Heritage article, Haizlip writes about all the responses and letters she
received from people across America concerning her book. In particular, she
focuses on the concept of "passing" - that is, the becoming of one race to the
exclusion of another. Haizlip tells the stories of her readers, --what passing
means for them, and how one establishes cultural identity.
Ray Stannard Baker, who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym David Grayson, is
known for his muckraking journalism, and for his biography of Woodrow Wilson,
which won the Pulitzer Prize. The "Tragedy of the Mulatto" discusses the
problems that mulattos faced in the early part of this century in terms of
defining their identity and running up against society's conflicting, and often
cruel, views on miscegenation.
James Weldon Johnson opens his "Autobiography" dramatically: "I know that in
writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the
secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my
earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives
which prompt me to do it. Though he portrayed himself as a white man with a
fatal drop of negro blood, Johnson was black. The book, published anonymously,
was a hoax intended to expose the nation's continuing confusion about the
nature and meaning of race.
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is it true? ·
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mixed race america
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