Davis - Who is Black - READING 1 WHO IS BLACK ONE...

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Unformatted text preview: READING 1: WHO IS BLACK? ONE NATION’S DEFINITION 37 WHAT IS RACE? EM Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition F. James Davis In a taped interview conducted by a blind, black an— thropologist, a black man nearly ninety years old said: “Now you must understand that this is just a name we have. I am not black and you are not black either, if you go by the evidence of your eyes. . . . Anyway, black people are all colors. White people don’t look all the same way, but there are more dif— ferent kinds of us than there are of them. Then too, there is a certain stage [at] which you cannot tell who is white and who is black. Many of the people I see who are thought of as black could just as well be white in their appearance. Many ofthe white people I see are black as far as I can tell by the way they look. Now, that’s it for looks. Looks don’t mean much. The things that makes us different is how we think. What we believe is important, the ways we look at life” (Gwaltney, 1980296). How does a person get defined as a black, both socially and legally, in the United States? What is the nation’s rule for who is black, and how did it come to be? And so what? Don’t we all know who is black, and isn’t the most important issue what opportuni— ties the group has? Let us start with some experi— ences of three well~known American blacks—actress and beauty pageant winner Vanessa Williams, US. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Ir., and enter— tainer Lena Home. For three decades after the first Miss America Pageant in 1921, black women were barred from competing. The first black winner was Vanessa Williams of Millwood, New York, crowned Miss America in 1984. In the same year the first runner— F. James Davis is professor emeritus ofsociology at Illinois State University. up—Suzette Charles of Mays Landing, New Jersey— was also black. The viewing public was charmed by the television images and magazine pictures of the beautiful and musically talented Williams, but many people were also puzzled. Why was she being called black when she appeared to be white? Suzette Charles, whose ancestry appeared to be more Euro— pean than African, at least looked like many of the “lighter blacks.” Notoriety followed when Vanessa Williams resigned because ofthe impending publica- tion of some nude photographs of her taken before the pageant, and Suzette Charles became Miss Amer— ica for the balance of 1984. Beyond the troubling question of whether these young women could have won if they had looked “more black,” the publicity dramatized the nation’s definition of a black person. Some blacks complained that the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, IL, was so light that he was a stranger in their midst. In the words of Roi Ottley, “He was white to all appearances, having blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and light, almost blond, hair” (19432220), yet he became a bold, effective black leader—first as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, then as a New York city coun~ cilman, and finally as a U.S. congressman from the state of New York. Early in his activist career he led 6,000 blacks in a march on New York City Hall. He used his power in Congress to fight for civil rights legislation and other black causes. In 1966, in Washington, DC, he convened the first black power conference. In his autobiography, Powell recounts some eX< periences with racial classification in his youth that left a lasting impression on him. During Pow» ell’s freshman year at Colgate University, his room— mate did not know that he was a black until his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was invited to give a chapel talk on Negro rights and problems, after which the roommate announced that because Adam was a Negro they could no longer be room— mates or friends. Another experience that affected Powell deeply occurred one summer during his Colgate years. He _ 38 SECTION ONE: CONSTRUCTING CATEGORIES OF DIFFERENCE was working as a bellhop at a summer resort in l\’lanchester, Vermont, when Abraham Lincoln’s ag— ing son Robert was a guest there. Robert Lincoln dis~ liked blacks so much that he refused to let them wait on him or touch his luggage, car, or any of his pose sessions. Blacks who did got their knuckles whacked with his cane. To the great amusement of the other bellhops, Lincoln took young Powell for a white man and accepted his services (Powell, 1971:3153). Lena Horne’s parents were both very light in color and came from black upper~middIe—class families in Brooklyn (Horne and Schickel, 1965; Buckley, I986). Lena lived with her father’s parents until she was about seven years old. Her grandfa~ ther was very light and hlueeeyed. Her fair—skinned grandmother was the daughter of a slave woman and her white owner, from the family of John (I. Calhoun, well~known defender of slavery. One of her father’s great~grandmothers was a Blackfoot Indian, to whom Lena Horne has attributed her somewhat coppery skin color. One of her mother’s grandmothers was a French—speaking black woman from Senegal and never a slave. Her mother’s father was a “Portuguese Negro,” and two women in his family had passed as white and be— come entertainers. Lena llorne’s parents had separated, and when she was seven her entertainer mother began placing her in a succession of homes in different states. Her favorite place was in the home of her Uncle Frank, her father’s brother, a red»haired, blue~eyed teacher in a black school in Georgia. The black children in that community asked her why she was so light and called her a “yellow bastard.” She learned that when satisfactory evidence of respectable black parents is lacking, being light—skinned implies illegitimacy and having an underclass white parent and is thus a disgrace in the black community. When her mother married a white Cuban, Lena also learned that blacks can be very hostile to the white spouse, espe» cially when the “black” mate is very light. At this time she began to blame the confused color line for her childhood troubles. She later endured much hostility from blacks and whites alike when her own second marriage, to white composermrranger Lennie Hayton, was finally made public in 1950 at? ter three years of keeping it secret. Early in Lena Hornels career there were conr plaints that she did not fit the desired image of a black entertainer for white audiences, either physi» cally or in her style. She sang white love songs, not the blues. Noting her brunetteewhite beauty, one white agent tried to get her to take a Spanish name, learn some Spanish songs, and pass as a Latin white, but she had learned to have a horror of passing and never considered it, although Hollywood blacks ac~ cused her of trying to pass after she played her first bit part in a film. After she failed her first screen test because she looked like a white girl trying to play black—face, the directors tried making her up with a shade called “Light Egyptian” to make her look darker. The whole procedure embarrassed and hurt her deeply. . . . Other light mulatto entertainers have also had painful experiences because of their light skin and other caucasoid features. Starting an acting career is never easy, but actress Jane White’s difficulties in the I940s were compounded by her lightness. Her fav ther was NAACP leader Walter White. Even with dark makeup on her ivory skin, she did not look like a black person on the stage, but she was not allowed to try out for white roles because blacks were barred from playing them. When she auditioned for the part of a young girl from India, the director was en» th usiastic, although her skin color was too light, but higher management decreed that it was unthinkable for a Negro to play the part of an Asian Indian (White, 19481338). Only after great perseverance did Jane White make her debut as the educated mu— latto maid Nonnie in the stage version of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit ( I 944). . .. THE ONE-DROP RULE DEFINED As the above cases illustrate, 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 ques— tion “Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry (Myrdal, 1944:] 1978:97—98; Willi; reflects the long t with Jim Crow seg known as the “one drop of “black blo also known as the courts have called it anthropologists c2 meaning that racial status of the subor This definition emei become the nation’s whites and blacks all 1979:27—28). Blacks ican cultural definiti as readily by judges, black protesters as it Let us not be con ent the usual statem terms of “black bloo so long ago it referrc try. The term “black general usage in [ht power movement pe. but the black and Ne; The term “black” is 1 any black African lir members of populatit The term “Negro,” wh cal contexts, means th “African black,” “unm are used here to refert from African populatit We must also pay 2 latto” and “colored.” Tl nally used to mean the Negro” and a “pure meaning of mulatto, ii latto” came to include tween whites and so—c example, Booker T. \ Douglass, with slave r were referred to as mul To whatever extent thei public in I950 af— there were com~ lesired image of a nces, either physi— ite love songs, not white beauty, one :e a Spanish name, .55 as a Latin white, ~ror of passing and illywood blacks ac~ she played her first her first screen test girl trying to play iking her up with a to make her look barrassed and hurt iers have also had heir light skin and gun acting career is ’s difficulties in the lightness. Her fae White. Even with 1e did not look like ie was not allowed blacks were barred llldliiOlICd for the 1e director was en— ” was too light, but it was unthinkable ‘ an Asian Indian reat perseverance the educated nine version of Lillian considered black of one’s ancestry )ne—fourth do, or iswer to the ones that a black is any 1 black ancestry (Myrdal, 194491348; Berry and Tischler, I978:97~98; Williamson, 1930;],2). 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 (Harris, 1964256). This definition emerged from the American South to become the nation’s definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks alike (Bahr, Chadwick, and Stauss, 1979:27—28). Blacks had no other choice. This Amer— ican cultural definition of blacks is taken for granted as readily by judges, affirmative action officers, and black protesters as it is by Ku Klux Klansmen. Let us not be confused by terminology. At pres» ent the usual statement of the one—drop rule is in terms of“black blood” or black ancestry, while not so long ago it referred to “Negro blood” or ances- try, The term “black” rapidly replaced “Negro” in general usage in the United States as the black power movement peaked at the end of the l960s, but the black and Negro populations are the same. The term “black“ is used [here] for persons with any black African lineage, not just for unmixed members of populations from sub—Saharan Africa. The term “Negro,” which is used in certain histori— cal contexts, means the same thing, Terms such as “African black,” “unmixed Negro,” and “all black” are used here to refer to unmixed blacks descended from African populations. We must also pay attention to the terms “mu» latto” and “colored.” The term “mulatto” was origi» nally used to mean the offspring of a “pure African Negro" and a “pure white.” Although the root meaning of mulatto, in Spanish, is “hybrid," “mu— latto” came to include the children of unions be— tween whites and so—called “mixed Negroes.” For example, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, with slave mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes (Bennett, 19622255). To whatever extent their mothers were part white, READING 1: WHO is BLACK? ONE NATlON'S DEFINITION 39 these men were more than half white. Douglass was evidently part Indian as well, and he looked it (Pre— ston, 198029—10). Washington had reddish hair and gray eyes. At the time of the American Revolution, many of the founding fathers had some very light slaves, including some who appeared to be white. The term “colored” seemed for a time to refer only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones, but later it be— came a euphemism for darker Negroes, even in— cluding unmixed blacks. With widespread racial mixture, “Negro” came to mean any slave or descen» dant of a slave, no matter how much mixed. Even— tually in the United States, the terms mulatto, colored, Negro, black, and African American all came to mean people with any known black African ancestry. Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever degree, while the terms black, Negro, African Amer ican, and colored include both mulattoes and un~ mixed blacks. These terms have quite different meanings in other countries. Whites in the United States need some help en— visioning the American black experience with an» cestral fractions. At the beginning of miscegenation between two populations presumed to be racially pure, quadroons appear in the second generation of continuing mixing with whites, and octoroons in the third. A quadroon is one—fourth African black and thus easily classed as black in the United States, yet three of this person’s four grandparents are white. An octoroon has seven white great» grandparents out of eight and usually looks white or almost so. Most parents of black American chil» dren in recent decades have themselves been racially mixed, but often the fractions get compli~ cated because the earlier details of the mixing were obscured generations ago. Like so many white Americans, black people are forced to speculate about some of the fractions~oneeeightli this, three—sixteenths that, and so on. . . . PLESSY, PHIPPS, AND OTHER CHALLENGES IN THE COURTS Homer Plessy was the plaintiff in the 1896 precedent—setting “separate—but»equal” case of 40 SECTION ONE: CONSTRUCTING CATEGORlES OF DIFFERENCE Plessy v. Ferguson (163 US 537). This case chal— lenged the lim Crow statute that required racially segregated seating on trains in interstate commerce in the state of Louisiana. The US Supreme Court quickly dispensed with Plessy’s contention that be cause he was only one—eighth Negro and could pass as white he was entitled to ride in the seats reserved for whites. Without ruling directly on the definition of a Negro, the Supreme Court briefly took what is called “judicial notice” of what it assumed to be common knowledge: that a Negro or black is any person with any black ancestry. (Judges often take explicit “judicial notice” not only of scientific or scholarly conclusions, or of opinion surveys or other systematic investigations, but also of some— thing they just assume to be so, including custom— ary practices or common knowledge.) This has consistently been the ruling in the federal courts, and often when the black ancestry was even less than one»eighth. The federal courts have thus taken judicial notice of the customary boundary between two sociocultural groups that differ, on the average, in physical traits, not between two discrete genetic categories. In the absence of proof of a specific black ancestor, merely being known as a black in the community has usually been accepted by the courts as evidence of black ancestry. The separateebut— equal doctrine established in the Plessy case is no longer the law, as a result of the judicial and legisla— tive successes of the civil rights movement, but the nation‘s legal definition of who is black remains unchanged. State courts have generally upheld the one—drop rule. For instance, in a 1948 Mississippi case a young man, Davis Knight, was sentenced to five years in jail for violating the antimiscegenation statute. Less than one—sixteenth black, Knight said he was not aware that he had any black lineage, but the state proved his greatvgrandmother was a slave girl. In some states the operating definition of black has been limited by statute to particular fractions, yet the social definition!the one—drop rule—has generally prevailed in case of doubt. Mississippi, Missouri, and five other states have had the criter rion of one—eighth. Virginia changed from one fourth to one—eighth in 1910, then in 1930 forbade white intermarriage with a person with any black ancestry. Persons in Virginia who are one—fourth or more 1ndian and less than one—sixteenth African black are defined as Indians while on the reservae tion but as blacks when they leave (Berry, 1965226). While some states have had general race classificae tion statutes, at least for a time, others have legis— lated a definition of black only for particular purposes, such as marriage or education. In a few states there have even been varying definitions for different situations (Mangum, 1940:38—48). All states require a designation of race on birth certifi— cates, but there are no clear guidelines to help physi— cians and midwives do the classifying. Louisiana’s latest race classification statute be— came highly controversial and was finally repealed in 1983 (Trillin, 1986277). Until 1970, a Louisiana statute had embraced the oneedrop rule, defining a Negro as anyone with a “trace of black ancestry.” This law was challenged in court a number of times from the 1920s on, including an unsuccessful at— tempt in 1957 by boxer Ralph Dupas, who asked to be declared white so that a law banning “interracial sports” (since repealed) would not prevent him from boxing in the state. In 1970 a lawsuit was brought on behalf of a child whose ancestry was al— legedly only one two~hundred—fiftyesixth black, and the legislature revised its law. The 1970 Louisiana statute defined a black as someone whose ancestry is more than one thirty—second black (La. Rev. Stat. 42:267). Adverse publicity about this law was widely disseminated during the Phipps trial in 1983 (discussed below), filed as Jane Doe v. State ofLouisimm. This case was decided in a district court in May 1983, and in lune the legisla— ture abolished its one thirty—second statute and gave parents the right to designate the race of newe horns, and even to change classifications on birth certificates ifthey can prove the child is white by a “preponderance of the evidence." However, the new statute in 1983 did not abolish the “traceable amount rule” (the one—drop rule), as demonstrated by the outcomes when the Phipps decision was ap— pealed to higher courts in 1985 and 1986. The history it far back as 1770, Gregoire Guillor his mistress (MC turies and two d1 great-granddaug the Louisiana co her deceased par she and her brot white. They all 1 eyed blonds. Mr passport becaus application althc her race as “c0101 information sup ably relied on th( the community. sification came thought she was twice married as ever, gave deposi selves “coloredf claimed to have thirtyeseconds b That was more t1 trict court in 19% Mrs. Phipps and In October a state’s Fourth Ci district court’s ( change the racial anyone else’s (47 the court in its 0 day describe ther ror in a documer colored” (479 So. designation as “c descendants mus able amount rule. preponderance o the Cuillory pare ing expert testimt individual canno curacy, the court , not based on scie 10 forbade any black —fourth or th African 1e reserva» i, 1965226). f classifica— have legis~ particular in. In a few initions for 58—48). All lil‘tll certifi— 1 help physi— statute be— tlly repealed a Louisiana e, defining a :k ancestry.” iber of times uccessful at: who asked to g“interracial prevent him lawsuit was :estry was al— —sixth black, I. The 1970 as someone :hirty—second rse publicity 3d during the )...
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