It is one of the most comprehensive websites about all things mixed-race…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, My Articles/Point of View/Activities on 2013-05-27 22:37Z by Steven

“First and foremost, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that people go to It is one of the most comprehensive websites about all things mixed-race… This is a website created by Steve Riley. He’s a regular on Mixed Race Radio and throughout the entire academic circle.. or circuit. He has created this website. And if you are looking for history, historical articles, snapshots of individuals doing amazing things in today’s world. A very real-time account of all things mixed-race.” —Tiffany Rae Reid

Kelly Ellison, “The Joys and Challenges of Becoming a Transracial Family Through Adoption,” Your Adoption Coach with Kelly Ellison (April 20, 2013, 00:27:25-00:28:04).

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Mixed Race Studies

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, United Kingdom on 2013-05-24 14:40Z by Steven

Mixed Race Studies

Mixed Race Family

Elizabeth White

For global people who are mixed race, belong to a mixed race family, are starting a mixed race family or who are from the global human race and are interested in learning more about the experiences of global mixed race families.

Today I’m off to Leeds University to attend a conference entitled Mixing Matters: Critical Intersectionalities.  It promises to be a really interesting day;  a great opportunity to meet new people and to hear from scholars about Mixed Race issues. I’m sure that I will have lots more to blog about when I get back home.

Since starting my blog in February, I’ve come across a wide range of information from newspaper articles to books, but I have to say that I have been really impressed by the extensive and comprehensive collection of work collected by Steven Riley at Mixed Race Studies.  I highly recommend you explore the collection if you studying Mixed Race or are simply interested in finding out more…

Read the entire article here.

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What is the Black German Experience? A Review of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey 2nd Annual Convention

Posted in Articles, Europe, Live Events, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, United States on 2013-04-07 04:55Z by Steven

What is the Black German Experience? A Review of the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey 2nd Annual Convention

Steven F. Riley

All photographs ©2012, Steven F. Riley

I received more than a few raised eyebrows after describing the recent trip my wife and I took to attend the Black German Cultural Society of New Jersey’s Second Annual Convention at Barnard College in New York. If you are tempted to believe that being both Black and German is an oxymoron; think again. African and German interactions go back as far as at least 1600. A fact that is unknown to most, Germany played a significant role during the American Civil Rights Movement as described in Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke’s book Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany. Although Black Germans, or rather Afro-Germans, consist of less than 1% of the German population (exact numbers are difficult to determine because German demographics do not track race), they are a growing and vocal segment within Germany and beyond.

Panel Session I: Teaching the Black German Experience – Roundtable Discussion, (Professor Priscilla Layne, Professor Peggy Piesche, Noah Sow and Professor Sara Lennox.) (2012-08-10)

I had the opportunity to experience a bit of this Afro-German experience at the screening of Mo Asumang’s autobiographical film Roots Germania at the BGCSNJ inaugural convention last year here in Washington, D.C. What I saw made me want to learn more.

BGCSNJ President, Rosemarie Peña (2012-08-10) Professor and BGCSNJ Trustee Leroy T. Hopkins (2012-08-11)

This year’s convention ran from August 10 to August 11, 2012 in Barnard’s Diana Center with the exception of the spoken word performances held at the Geothe-Institut’s Wyoming Building in lower Manhattan. I attended most of the sessions which consisted of five panels; a keynote address by Yara Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria; live readings by authors Olumide Popoola and Philipp Kabo Köpsell; a movie screening of the films “Hope in My Heart: The May Ayim Story” and “Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992;” a dinner banquet; and finally a live performance by author, artist, media personality, musician, playwright, actress, scholar and human rights activist Noah Sow’s band, Noiseaux at the Blue Note.

Olumide Popoola and Professor Peggy Piesche pay close attention during Panel Session II: Historical and Popular Cultures of Blacks in Germany. (2012-08-11)

It is very important to note that the term “Afro-German” is a socio-political term that includes all Germans (or German identified) individuals of African descent. Although most Afro-Germans are what we in the United States might refer to as, “of mixed-parentage” (usually a “white” mother and “black” father), no distinction is made within the Afro-German diaspora between individuals of so-called “mixed” and “non-mixed” parentage. I heard the term “biracial/multiracial” no more than five times during the entire conference. I theorize that this social taxonomy is derived from the desire not to fragment an already tiny group within German society and also create internalized marginalization within an already marginalized group. A further defining of this group identity was made by Noah Sow, near the end of the first panel, “Teaching the Black German Experience,” when she emphasized that the most appropriate terminology, should be the German term, Afrodeutsche, rather than Afro- or Black- German. During her introduction of the keynote speaker, BGCSNJ president Rosemarie Peña obliged, by referring to herself as Afrodeutsche. Time will tell if this label will stick.

Witnessing Our Histories–Reclaiming the Black German Experience. From presentation by Professor Tina Campt. (2012-08-11)

The highlight of the conference was Yara Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria’s keynote address, “In their Best Interest… Afro-German Children in Postwar German Children’s Homes” which explored the plight of so-called “War/Brown/Occupation Babies”—the children born of the union between white German women and Black American GIs after World War II. She described the systematic removal of Afro-German children from their birth families into substandard orphanages or foster homes, where many faced emotional and physical abuse. Her keynote touched on the story of Ika Hügel-Marshall, who describes her saga in her autobiography, Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany.

Also of note were the two touching presentations by Vera Ingrid Grant, “Ruby Road: An Excerpt from Paper Girl,” and Debra Abell, “Sauerkraut and Black-Eyed Peas” within the panel “Telling Our Stories – Black German Life Writing” which both explored the life experiences of growing up in the United States as children of a white German mother and black American soldier. Lastly, Jamele Watkins’s, “Performing Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in Germany” within the panel “ Historical and Popular Cultures of Blacks in Germany” explored the representation of blacks within theatrical presentations in Germany and discussed the controversial continued use of blackface by white German actors to represent black people.

Vera Ingrid Grant, “Ruby Road: An Excerpt from Paper Girl” (2012-08-11) Debra Abell, “Sauerkraut and Black-Eyed Peas” (2012-08-11)

One slight disappointment was the poor sound, poor ventilation, poor visibility and poor lighting of the Goethe Institut’s Wyoming Building that was used as a venue for the artist performances (who traveled all the way from Europe). Were they trying to recreate a German U-boat aesthetic? Barnard’s Diana Center Event Oval on Lower Level 1—which was used for all of the panels—would have sufficed nicely. If a smaller venue was needed, the Glicker-Milstein Black Box Theatre on Lower Level 2 would have fit the bill also. I looked forward to what appeared to be an excellent documentary, “Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984-1992,” on the life of American feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992), who allegedly was the inspiration encouraging Black-German women to “call themselves ‘Afro-German’ and to record ‘their-story’.” Like Lorde, who’s life was sadly cut short due to cancer, the film screening was also sadly cut short about a third of the way in due to a defective DVD.

Philipp Kabo Köpsell ponders his forthcoming anthology while waiting for a turkey burger. (2012-08-11)

Like any excellent conference, the personal interactions can be as fulfilling as the sessions. The BGCSNJ Second Annual Convention was no exception. My Friday and Saturday morning chats at our hotel with Millersville University Professor of German Literature, Leroy T. Hopkins provided me with an insight into the joys and challenges of teaching German literature as a person of color and to students of color. With a declining interest in the German language by students nationwide (largely due to an increased interest in Chinese and Arabic languages), Hopkins is hopeful that Afro-German authors like Köpsell, Popoola and others will publish their works in German to provide more contemporary reading materials for university classrooms.

On an ironic note, I had the pleasure of having a one-on-one conversation over lunch on Saturday with author and spoken word author Philipp Kabo Köpsell about the necessity to write about the Afro-German experience in English. He and others are working on a book project tentatively titled, “Witnessed.”

This conference would not have been possible without the dedicated work of BGCSNJ president Rosemarie Peña and her fellow staff. Rosemarie is a woman who found out—through documentation in 1994 that she “wasn’t who she thought she was” and discovered that her biological father was black, possibly an African American soldier, and her mother was white and a German national. On Wednesday, she reported to me by phone that they are planning for the third annual convention next August.

If you are the least bit interested in the Afrodeutsche experience, I would highly encourage anyone to make plans to attend next year.

©2012, Steven F. Riley

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An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

Posted in Articles, Live Events, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Poetry, United States on 2013-04-03 20:48Z by Steven

An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

Steven F. Riley

2012-2013 U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at Library of Congress (2012-09-13).©2012, Steven F. Riley

Natasha Trethewey is preoccupied about race. And it is indeed a fruitful preoccupation for which we all should be grateful.

[View the inaugural reading here.]

Last Thursday, Emory University Professor Trethewey gave her inaugural reading as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. After a warm introduction by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Ms. Trethewey arrived on stage for a handshake from Mr. Billington and a standing ovation by a packed and enthusiastic audience of 5oo (plus an extra 100 outside the auditorium).

Ms. Trethewey is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and she is the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993. Ms. Trethewey is also the Mississippi Poet Laureate (2012-2016); winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry Native Guard; winner of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; four Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prizes; The Lillian Smith Book Awards for Poetry; fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center and the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University; 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year; 2009 inductee into the Fellowship of Southern Writers; and 2011 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. And she is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Ms. Trethewey read a selection of poems from her recently released book of poems dedicated to her poet father, titled Thrall.

The poems read were:

  • “Elegy (For my father)
  • Taxonomy:
    • De Español y de India Produce Mestiso”
    • De Español y Negra Produce Mulato”
    • De Español y Mestiza Produce Castiza”
    • The Book of Castas”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Miracle of the Black Leg”
  • “The Americans” (“Help, 1968”)
  • Mano Prieta”
  • Torna Atrás”
  • “Mythology”
  • “Calling: Mexico, 1969
  • “Fouled”
  • “Rotation”
  • “Enlightenment”
  • “Illumination.”

Born in 1966 to a black mother and white father in Mississippi—the tortured crucible of race relations in the United States—it is understandable that the topic of race would be a recurring theme in Trethewey’s writings. Yet we never grow tired reading her poems about race because of her innate ability to weave the personal with the historical. As a consequence, her stories are our stories. As in her poem, “Elightenment,” where she describes a trip to Monticello with her father, for a few brief moments we read how she conflates one of our founding fathers with her own father.

…I did not know then the subtext
of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—

Without taking herself too seriously, Ms. Trethewey humorously described that the only surviving remnant of a family trip to Mexico in 1969 was a photograph of her sitting on a mule, as she began reading “Calling: Mexico, 1969.

In her series of moving poems about casta paintings, Ms. Trethewey reveals her ability to not only compel the reader to contemplate the lives of the subjects of the paintings, but also to bring the subjects of the paintings to life as in her poem “Taxonomy: De Español y de India Produce Mestiso” (Which describes a series of casta paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, c. 1715).

Spaniard and Indian Produce Mestizo. c. 1715. Oil on canvas. 81×105 cm. (Breamore House, Hampshire, United Kingdom).

The canvas is leaden sky
behind them, heavy
with words, gold letters inscribing
an equation of blood—…

…If the father, his hand
on her skull, divines—
as the physiognomist does—
the mysteries

of her character, discursive,
legible on her light flesh,
in the soft curl of her hair,
we cannot know it: so gentle

the eye he turns toward her.
The mother, glancing
sideways toward him—
the scarf on her head

white as his face,
his powdered wig—gestures
with one hand a shape
like the letter C. See,

she seems to say,
what we have made

After concluding her reading with her poem, “Illumination,” Ms. Trethewey received yet another standing ovation.

Head of the Poetry and Literature Center Robert Casper concluded the event, and Ms. Trethewey entered the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building for a reception and book signing.

©2012, Steven F. Riley

©2012, Steven F. Riley


Teaching & Learning Guide for: Multiracial Americans: Racial Identity Choices and Implications for the Collection of Race Data

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Social Science, Teaching Resources, United States on 2013-04-03 02:36Z by Steven

Teaching & Learning Guide for: Multiracial Americans: Racial Identity Choices and Implications for the Collection of Race Data

Sociology Compass
Volume 6, Issue 6 (June 2012)
pages 519–525
DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2012.00463.x

Nikki Khanna, Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Vermont

This guide accompanies the following article: Nikki Khanna, ‘Multiracial Americans: Racial Identity Choices and Implications for the Collection of Race Data’, Sociology Compass 6/4 (2012): 316–331, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00454.x.

Author’s introduction

In 2010, approximately nine million Americans self-identified with two or more races on the United States Census – a 32 percent increase in the last decade. President Barack Obama, the son of a white Kansas-born mother and Kenyan father, was not one of these self-identified multiracial Americans. In fact, Obama chose only to check the ‘black’ box, illustrating that multiracial ancestry does not always translate to multiracial identity. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing body of research examining the multiracial population and key questions have included: How do multiracial Americans identify themselves? And why? This paper reviews this research, with a focus on the factors shaping racial identity and the implications regarding the collection of race data in the US Census.

Author recommends

Khanna, Nikki. 2011. Biracial in America: Forming and Performing Race. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Looking at black-white biracial Americans, this book examines the influencing factors and underlying social psychological processes shaping their multidimensional racial identities. This book also investigates the ways in which biracial Americans perform race in their day-to-day lives…

Online materials

Race: Are We So Different?

This website explores the common misconceptions about race through several interactive activities.

Race: The Power of an Illusion

This website explores the question ‘What is Race?’ through several interactive activities.

Mixed-Race Studies

This website is a useful resource for anyone interested in mixed-race studies. Included here is information about articles, books, dissertations, videos, multimedia, and other resources related to multiracial people…

Read the (entire?) guide here.

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A Conversation with Eric Hamako

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Interviews, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2013-03-22 23:09Z by Steven

A Conversation with Eric Hamako

Steven F. Riley, Creator

This is the first in a series of interviews with scholars, writers, activists and others involved with the topic of multiracilism.

Scholar Eric Hamako is an Ed.D. candidate in the Social Justice Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a long-time student- and community-organizer of mixed-race activities. Last October, Eric was appointed to a position on the United States Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee (NAC) on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations for a two-year term. The committee, as one of several National Advisory Committees, advises the Census Bureau on a wide range of variables that affect the cost, accuracy and implementation of the Census Bureau’s programs and surveys.

I had a chance to sit down with Eric the morning of November 2, 2012, during the 2012 Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference (CMRS) at DePaul University in an attempt to learn more about him, his scholarship and his activism and how they intersect. The day before, both Eric and I had presented papers at the conference. Eric also presented another paper on Saturday followed by a report on the census for the CMRS business meeting on Sunday! Thus our face-to-face time was quite pleasant, yet far too brief. Recently, I caught up with him to follow up on our CMRS chat.

Steve Riley: What inspired you to get involved with mixed-race community and student organizing?

Eric Hamako: In college, like many Mixed-identified folks, I sought out community in various ways with various groups. In some places, I wasn’t seen as belonging or didn’t feel welcomed. In others, I felt I had more opportunities; people saw potential in me and welcomed my contributions. In particular, toward the end of college, I heard about a student organizing a student chapter of Hapa Issues Forum. I attended the small meeting and, as I listened to others, I thought, “Well, I have some thoughts and suggestions for what this group should do…” And, opening my big mouth, people seemed supportive—so much so that they said, “That’s a good idea… you’re in charge of that.” Little did I realize, at the time, that this was the first meeting and that, by virtue of showing up and demonstrating some initiative, I had somewhat inadvertently joined the leadership core of the group. Mixed-Race organizing has, unlike some of my other work and volunteer experiences, been a place where I’ve felt that I could make a more substantial difference. I’ve worked in other positions where, if I was heard at all, my ideas weren’t given much merit and I wasn’t sure what difference I was making. But, with my Mixed-Race work, I’ve felt that I’ve had more sense of community and more sense that I could impact what’s going on. So, I’ve tried to nurture that in my own work, to provide opportunities for others to connect and make their marks, too.

SR: Can you describe the selection process for membership to the Census NAC?

EH: Over the past few years, a number of Multiracial student and community organizations have been networking and getting closer to one another. Through some of our collective work, we were informed by a Census representative that the Census Bureau was putting out a public call for nominations to a new iteration of the Census Bureau’s advisory committee system. Our loose network of Multiracial organizations’ leaders decided we’d nominate someone, in hopes that we’d have a representative on the committee interested in Multiracial issues. Through an internal nomination and vote, the group elected to nominate me for a position. The Census Bureau grandparented in fifteen members of the former advisory committees, the REACs (Racial and Ethnic Advisory Committees), and of the nominations received, selected an additional seventeen new advisory committee members, for a total of thirty-two members on our National Advisory Committee. The Census Bureau chose me as one of the seventeen new nominees. I don’t know much about the process the Census Bureau used to choose among the nominees, but it’s my sense that they were looking for members who would be knowledgeable in various subject-areas and had community connections to various marginalized and hard-to-count populations.

SR: Certainly there are others in the mixed-race community who might have served on the Census NAC. What do you bring as a representative that others may not?

EH: There definitely are other leaders who also have area-related knowledge, historical perspective, and strong connections to Multiracial organizations and networks. I feel fortunate to have been nominated by peers and selected by the Census Bureau. To help share the information I’m learning and to solicit the concerns and opinions of people interested in racial justice and Multiraciality, I’ve created a blog: Two Or More: Mixed thoughts about the Census NAC (

SR: Are the NAC meetings in-person?

EH: There are several different National Advisory Committees (NACs), including the NAC on Racial Ethnic and Other Populations. The NAC on which I serve is scheduled to meet in-person four times in two years, as well as holding at least two virtual meetings. These meetings are open to the public and provide comment periods, which I encourage people to use. Additionally, our NAC will have “working groups,” which are tasked with exploring and researching various subtopics, such as how to count hard-to-count populations; the impacts of using third-party databases to supplement Census Bureau data; and what might happen if the Census Bureau combined the “race question” and the “ethnicity question” into a single question. The working groups are also empowered to recruit experts from outside the NAC to contribute to the group’s work. So, for people interested in working with the NAC, you might think about how you could contribute to a working group’s work.

SR: Do you anticipate any changes affecting the Two or More Race (TOMR) option on the 2020 census?

EH: I think it’s important for everyone to know that neither racism nor race are stable or natural. Racism metastasizes and changes over time, changing the ways that race is thought about and implemented in the US. For the last few decades, the Census has been one way to try to observe and track the symptoms of racial inequalities. For example, we can use the data to determine whether a racial group is disproportionately imprisoned or denied access to equitable bank loans. Without such data, it’s difficult to demonstrate racist trends.

At the same time, the Census’ racial categories change from decade to decade; one reason for those changes has to do with the ways racism and race change over time. For example, the more a group is able to assert that it is a group and has valid claims to seek recognition and protection from racism, the more able it might be to seek recognition on the Census. The 1997 Directive No. 15 issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) allowed for the “Mark One Or More” (MOOM) format on the 2000 Census’ race question, resulting in the Two or More Races (TOMR) data we’ve seen from the 2000 and 2010 Census. At this point, I do not have reason to believe that the MOOM format will be significantly altered for the 2020 Census.

But, there are many important issues that are related and less visible. For example, in the lead-up to Directive No. 15, I think many people were talking about “What will the forms allow?” (i.e., “enumeration”) and far fewer people were talking about “How will people’s responses be counted up and reported out?” (i.e., “tabulation” and reporting). I encourage everyone to educate themselves about how the data is tabulated and reported. Different agencies and organizations tabulate and report in different ways—and that impacts how the data can be used and what we can learn about racial inequalities.

SR: What challenges (if any) do you anticipate with your NAC?

EH: I think several of the challenges are logistical, but the logistics of things also impact getting to know each other and working together. All of the committee members are working other jobs and have other responsibilities. We’re spread out across the country and meet in-person only a few times during our term; that makes getting to know each other and remotely coordinating our work more challenging. Thankfully, I think that many of us have had experience collaborating over long distances and the Census Bureau provides some technical support for bridging the distances (e.g., conference calls; a web-based space for communication and collaboration; financial support for travel to our in-person meetings). Another logistical or perhaps communication challenge is sharing information with and gathering concerns and opinions from various populations and communities. While I don’t claim to represent every Multiracial-identified person or every person concerned about Multiracial issues, I do hope to find ways to communicate with other people. For now, I’m counting on my connections to various Multiracial organizations and my attempts to reach out through those channels.

SR: The census in Canada does not collect data on race. Do you think that the U.S. should follow in its footsteps? Why or why not?

EH: Because I think the Census’s data about race is an important way to identify racial inequalities produced by systemic racism, I’m in favor of continuing to collect information about race, rather than discontinuing it. That said, collecting information about race via the Census is merely a way to track the symptoms of racism, rather than the systems through which racism operates. I think we need information about both.

Similarly—and perhaps controversially—I think that we often use a person’s racial self-identification (e.g., on the Census) as a loose way of inferring things about their experiences of racism. Some scholars have pointed out that this is somewhat sloppy and also reinforces the myth that “race” is real, when really race is just a product of racism. So, if what we really want to know is, “What’re your experiences of racism?” then we can and should ask additional questions, beyond just “What’s your racial identity?” or “What race are you?” Part of racism’s myth of race is the idea that members of a so-called racial group are all similar and thus different from everyone of other racial groups—but really, there’s tremendous diversity within so-called racial groups. And racism affects members of a racial group differently, based on racism’s interaction with things like sexism, heterosexism, classism, colorism, ableism, nationalism, and Christian Supremacy.

SR: I was impressed with one of your Facebook posts about the California Mumford Act of 1967, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative Republicans, led by assemblyman Don Mumford and governor Ronald Regan spearheaded gun-control legislation because of a fear of increased gun ownership by black people. How and why is it important to use an anti-racist social justice framework when engaging in your work?

EH: I can’t claim credit for the content of that post—only for reposting it along to folks; there’s some good stuff out there. As for my own work, I’m trying to find ways to improve the ways that we teach about racism and about monoracism (oppression of Multiraciality). As a student and an educator, I’ve found that much of the anti-racist curricula that’s currently available isn’t well-suited for addressing monoracism or for reaching Mixed-identified participants. So, I’m trying to work with colleagues to identify some of those shortcomings and to improve what and how we’re teaching about racism, about monoracism, and about the other “intersecting” or intertwined forms of oppression. I try to keep a multi-issue analysis in mind when I work and when I teach. For me, I aspire to a social justice analysis that sees how things like racism and sexism are not only “intersecting” but are intertwined and make up each other. And, further, I think Multiracial organizers can learn a lot from other social movements. I’ve been particularly interested in what Multiracial organizers can learn and share with people organizing for bisexual/pansexual liberation and transgender liberation. Certainly, we’re present in each other’s movements, but we’re also each situated as “in-between” and many of the stereotypes and aspects of oppression are similar, too.

SR: How and why is the examination of the “mixed-race metaphor” in science fiction and other genres important in the discussion of mixed-race?

EH: I believe that stories are powerful. Stories shape how we think about ourselves and others; how we think about social problems, their origins, and their solutions; and what we think is possible or desirable. Many negative stories have been told about Multiraciality and, while they continue to be told, now there are also more seductively positive-sounding stories, too. But I want to emphasize: racial stereotypes that sound positive are still racial stereotypes, are still racism, and often play into larger racist agendas.

In the past, we had more stories where Multiraciality was represented as negative, defective, confused or evil. And those stories are still being told (e.g., Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise). But now we’re seeing more stories where a hybrid hero embodies more positive-sounding stereotypes and defeats the hybrid villain. So, the hybrid hero tells us positive-sounding stories, such as “Multiracial people are smarter, healthier, stronger, etc.” or “Multiracial people will be the end of racism!” But as sweet as those stories sound, as seductive as it might be for people to believe those lies, that’s all they are: racist lies. Multiracial people are neither racially inferior nor racially superior. No one and no group is inherently better or worse than another on a racial basis. And, I hope that we will strengthen our mental self-defense skills so that we’re prepared to fight back against racist stories; not just the obviously hateful racist stories, but also the seductive racist stories that try to say, “Hey, we used to say you were bad, but now we’re going to say you’re better… (better than those people).” I think that seeing the problems in stories is an important step to telling different stories, rather than retelling the same old stories.

SR: I found the Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) conference to be an incredible learning experience and thoroughly invigorating. It was great to have the privilege to present a paper and it was also really wonderful to meet many of the scholars that I have posts for on my site. What did CMRS do for you and how might it influence your NAC activities?

EH: I’m so thankful to all the people who’ve made the first two CMRS conferences possible—to everyone who attended, but also to the people who organized the conference and made it happen. As an attendee and a presenter, CMRS continues to be a place where I can meet new people, reconnect with friends and colleagues, feel inspired and useful, and also, as an academic, to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. As a representative to the NAC, CMRS provides me with opportunities to share information, gather ideas and opinions, and to connect broadly and deeply with people who’re concerned about Multiraciality, monoracism, and social justice. I’m looking forward to CMRS 2014!

©2013, Steven F. Riley

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While multiracial identities give the appearance of a deconstruction of a social order based on race, I suggest otherwise.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, My Articles/Point of View/Activities on 2013-03-20 03:47Z by Steven

While multiracial identities give the appearance of a deconstruction of a social order based on race, I suggest otherwise. For example, many multiracial Americans of African/European descent understandably attempt to claim and reassert their non-African ancestry; reminding us how they are “a little French, a little Scottish, Italian, etc.,” few of us stop to ponder the near utter destruction of their African ancestry and how it has-even with the inclusion of European ancestry-been reduced to “black.”  While some may embrace a “Black/White” identity, I ask where are the “Luba/Lithuanians,” “Shona/Scottish,” “Ewe/Estonians,” “Igbo/Icelanders?”  It used to be our identities told us and others, where we came from, what we did, how we hunted, how we gathered our food, where we pressed our wine, how we made cheese, when we planted, how we worshiped, and how we lived.  Only a few seem to know or notice these nearly infinite identities (even from Europe) have been reduced through the centuries by the onslaught of white supremacy to just a handful of exploitable commoditized categories. We think we can manipulate the morally corrupt framework of “race” into a modern utopia, but even the so-called “new” hybrid identities may be reabsorbed or discarded back into the oppressive essentialist elements.

Steven F. Riley, “Don’t Pass on Context: The Importance of Academic Discourses in Contemporary Discussions on the Multiracial Experience,” (paper presented at the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, Los Angeles, California, June 11, 2011).

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Demographic Demagoguery: Gregory Rodriguez’s views on race and the census just don’t add up

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Census/Demographics, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Social Science, United States on 2013-03-16 18:15Z by Steven

Demographic Demagoguery: Gregory Rodriguez’s views on race and the census just don’t add up

Steven F. Riley

Gregory Rodriguez’s editorial titled “President Obama: Black and more so” or “President Obama: At odds with clear demographic trends toward multiracial pride” in the April 4, 2011 edition of the Los Angeles Times reveals the destructive hubris that can occur when one mixes historical amnesia, cultural insensitivity, a misinterpretation of demographic information and plain ignorance into an essay about the complexities of race in the United States.

Rather than demand that our first black President, Mr. Obama provide the nation with a “teaching moment,” perhaps Mr. Rodriguez should head back to his schoolbooks for a learning moment.  There, he may learn that so-called “racial mixing”—via coercion and consent—has been occurring in the Americas for over 500 years.  Thus we are not entering a multiracial era, we have always been multiracial. He may also learn that ‘race’ is a social, not biological construct; originally designed for the commoditization, exploitation, oppression and near extermination of African, indigenous (and later Asian) populations. Race is an evolving convention that is constantly being constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to preserve the hegemony of those holding social and political power in the United States. Our decennial census is a tool that helps us measure our social interactions on the ground; not our dead ancestors in the ground.

Far from “bucking a trend,” the President is in fact part of the overwhelming majority of persons of mixed ancestry who proudly checked ‘black’ and only ‘black’ as their social identity on the 2010 Census. The trend is clear. This group, which is the most populous segment of the mixed-race population in the United States, is commonly referred to as African American. Mr. Rodriguez may also learn—without the aid of geneticists—that in addition to the vast majority of the nearly 39 million black Americans in this country, an even greater number of white Americans are of mixed ancestry—be it first, second, third, or any distant generation.  I find it puzzling that Mr. Rodriguez would violate one the tenets of the multiracial identity movement, by criticizing the President for exercising his freedom to choose a monoracial identity and at the same time, give his wife, the First Lady Michelle Obama—despite her known ancestral heterogeneity—(pardon the pun) a pass.  Even more puzzling is why many in the multiracial identity movement insist that President Obama embrace them because his mixed ancestry, while they simultaneously deny the very same mixed-ness of those on the ‘black’ side of Rodriguez’s so-called “racial divide.”

Mr. Rodriguez joins the chorus of commentators heralding a significant demographic shift due to a large percentage increase in the small number of people identifying as more than one race. But any first-year student of statistics will tell you that small changes can have large effects on small populations.  The 134% increase (since the 2000 Census) in the population of those who identified as both black and white is no more significant than the 118% percent increase in the black population of South Dakota!  Thus when we superimpose the 32% percent increase in the mix-race population to the nation as a whole, the percentage moves from 2.4% to only 2.9%.  Though 2000 was the first year that Americans could identify themselves as being of more than one race, it was not by any stretch, the first year that Americans were enumerated as such.  Another learning moment for Mr. Rodriguez would reveal that as far back as 1850, the census counted mulattoes (black/white) individuals.  In fact, in 1890 the categories quadroon (1/4th black) and octoroon (1/8th black) would make a one-time appearance.  The mulatto category would disappear in the 1900 census; reappear in 1910 and 1920. After 1920, this “emerging demographic trend” would come to a sudden end.

While some writers may write glowing articles about—for example—a 70% increase in the number of people checking two or more races in Mississippi (from 0.74% in 2000 to 1.15% in 2010), and how they are supposedly leading to “the softening of racial lines,” as Mr. Rodriguez puts it, a deeper interrogation actually reveals the continuing persistence of racial lines.  What you will not hear from the likes of Mr. Rodriguez is the fact that Mississippi has the lowest percentage of people checking two or more races while ironically—and not surprisingly due to its tortured racial past—at the same time, having the greatest potential for racial mixing because it is the state with the lowest white to black ratio in the nation.

Lastly, though our first comparative decennial examination of self-identified multiracial census data does indeed reveal an increase the number of individuals willing to identify as two or more races, what will censuses of future decades tell us about the identities of the children of today’s mixed-race population?  Will they identify as mixed? Will they, as some sociologists suggest, choose to identify as “traditional” racialized identities?  Will they occupy the middle or upper rungs of a Latin American-styled pigmentocracy? Or, will they transcend racialized identities altogether?  The mixed-race population may at some point in the distant future, become the fastest declining population in the United States. Mr. Rodriguez makes no attempt whatsoever to answer these questions and no attempt to envision what our society will look like if any of these scenarios come to fruition.  Rather than project his frustrations about America’s inability to enter the realm of post-raciality on President Obama, and his decision to check a single check box, perhaps Mr. Rodriguez could take a closer look at the racial attitudes of America, and while he’s at it, himself.

©2011, Steven F. Riley

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Biracial versus black: Thought leaders weigh in on the meaning of President Obama’s biracial heritage

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2013-03-16 16:46Z by Steven

Biracial versus black: Thought leaders weigh in on the meaning of President Obama’s biracial heritage

NBC News

Patrice Peck

“If I’m lucky enough to have children, I won’t tell them that Barack Obama was America’s first black president.”
Thus began columnist Clinton Yates’ piece, “Barack Obama: Let’s not forget that he’s America’s first bi-racial president”. Published on The Washington Post website two days after the 2012 election, Yates’ piece explores the notion that singling out President Obama’s African heritage alone has resulted in an incomplete narrative of his identity.

“As a black man who plans to eventually start a family with my white girlfriend, I’m going to tell [my future children] that Obama was the first man of color in the White House and that America’s 44th president was biracial,” writes Yates. “What would I look like telling my kids that a man with a black father and a white mother is ‘black’ just because society wants him to be?” Yates’ stance on President Obama’s racial identity points to an on-going, complicated debate surrounding the president’s race and how he chooses to identify himself.
Since Obama’s second presidential election win, countless media outlets have analyzed the major support in voter turnout exhibited by African-Americans and Latinos for the president. At the same time, an overwhelming amount of racist backlash surged on Twitter for several days, signaling the fact that, for better or for worse, race will likely always be a predominant element to consider during Obama’s term as president.
Yet, most reports on and reactions to President Obama have failed to mention his biracial heritage. It is rarely addressed in discussions concerning how the public identifies Obama, or critiques of how the president identifies himself. Yates’ consideration of Obama as the “first bi-racial president” is rare in its vociferous proclamation to define the man by both lineages.

To widen this limited discourse, we asked some of the nation’s leading authorities on biracial and multi-racial issues to share their thoughts on the president’s self-identification as black, and the possible stakes of not addressing his bi-racial identity more directly. These leaders offer interesting and at times surprising perspectives on what it means to have not only a black man, but also a biracial man in the White House.
Here is what they told theGrio about this historic first. How do you think President Obama’s bi-racial ancestry influences the nature of his presidency?

Steven F. Riley, founder of
In the paper “Barack, Blackness, Borders and Beyond: Exploring Obama’s Racial Identity Today as a Means of Transcending Race Tomorrow,” I explained that the president is black for three different reasons. I used a sociological framework, an ethnological framework, and a psychological framework. Number one, I say he’s black because he says he is. Number two, his heterogeneity, or his mixed background, is no different from people who are black. And then lastly, I say he’s black because he looks black, from a sociological viewpoint…

Yaba Blay, author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race and artistic director of the multiplatform (1)ne Drop project
Everyone seems to be negating President Barack Obama’s own story. The man himself has said publicly in print that, yes, his mother is white; yes, he is technically bi-racial, mixed race, whatever the language is people choose to use, but in this racialized society he is seen as a black man. And for that reason he identifies as black

Andrew Jolivétte, Associate Professor at San Francisco State University and editor of Obama and the Biracial Factor: The Battle for the New American Majority
For mixed people, being mixed you identify differently at different times and in different situations. I think the president is no different, so [a bi-racial] child still can take pride in [the fact] that President Obama is a bi-racial president. But he’s also a black president. I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. And that’s what happens often in politics when it comes to policy, that it has to be one or the other, not some sort of combination of policies that can be good. Because he’s bi-racial and always compromising and trying to find the balance between two different identities, I think he tries to do the same things in terms of his policy…

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Professor of Ethnic Studies at Stanford University and author of When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities
I think his identifying [as African-American] is very positive. On the other hand, I think there’s nothing creative or innovative or groundbreaking or revolutionary about [his identifying as black.] It’s very much following the status quo of the way that a majority of people expect him to identify… I personally didn’t have a lot of expectations about his ability to really go beyond what would be the mainstream position in terms of how he labeled and located himself. I have hopes that he might help us to go beyond these kinds of rigid racial classifications and categories. I think he could do that if he was able to identify himself more openly with all the different parts of his heritage…

Read the entire article here.

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The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White [Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2013-02-13 15:30Z by Steven

Daniel J. Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 415 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 9781594202827.

Steven F. Riley

“This is the decade of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama, where we talked about race combinations,” Robert Groves, director of the federal agency, said about forthcoming 2010 Census data in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt”. “I can’t wait to see the pattern of responses on multiple races. That’ll be a neat indicator to watch.”

The Toronto Star
December 13, 2010

While it is tempting to be as excited as Mr. Groves is in waiting for the census results of the racial makeup of the United States, I would suggest that the so-called “race combinations” that he speaks of have been occurring for quite some time. Much has been written in recent years about the “changing face” of America that foretells that we will become a ”mixed-race” country, or as Marcia A. Dawkins states, a “Miscege-Nation.”  Yet, this is not wholly true, for we are not becoming a multiracial society, we already are a multiracial society.  We have been multiracial not for years, or even decades, but for centuries.

So while many may proclaim that an increasing number of self-identified mixed-race individuals will usher in a new era of racial reconciliation, we are fortunate to benefit from the excellent scholarship of Daniel J. Sharfstein, Associate Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University, who points out to us that racial mixture is as old as the nation and it has not—in and by itself—led to racial reconciliation.  In fact, his portrayal of three families over a span of three centuries in his new book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, shows that under the specter of white supremacy, racial mixture was—and may still be—a way-station on the road to a white racial identity.  These racial journeys occurred so frequently in American history they should be considered one of  the great mass movements of people such as the settlement of North America, the westward expansion, and immigration. Furthermore, these journeys from black to white did not necessarily involve a change of venue, but could occur in the same community over a generation or more.

Unlike the stories of the Hemmings and Hairstons that explore the white roots of black families, The Invisible Line is an important work that explores the “black” roots of white familes. Though “race” as we know it today is a social—not biological—construct,  Sharfstein reminds us that it was and still is a very salient social construct.  In fact, for the families portrayed in the book, “race” becomes a form of wealth/property, obtained (by “passing” if necessary) and inherited by future generations.  In The Invisible Line, Sharfstein avoids casting a pejorative gaze upon these “passers” and their occasional accusers and instead casts blame squarely on the shoulders white supremacy.  Early in the introduction, Sharfstein points out that…

African Americans began to migrate from black to white as soon as slaves arrived on American shores.  In seventeenth-century Virginia, social distinctions such as class and race were fluid, but the consequences of being black or white were enormous.  It often meant the difference between slavery and freedom, poverty and prosperity, persecution and power.  Even so, dozens of European women had children by African men, and together they established the first free black communities in the colonies.  With every incentive to become white—it would give them better land and jobs, lower taxes, and less risk of being enslaved—many free blacks assimilated into white communities over time…

After researching hundreds of families, court cases, government records, histories, scholarly works, newspaper accounts, memoirs and family papers, Sharfstein chose to focus on three families: the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls.  Each of these families left the bondage of slavery and took different trajectories on the path towards a white identity.

The Gibsons

The Gibson story begins in 1672 in colonial Virginia when a free woman named Elizabeth Chavis successfully sued for the freedom of a boy of color named Gibson Gibson… who was also her son. In a reversal of English law where the status of the child followed that of the father, the colonies in a bid to codify slavery enacted laws that set the status of the child to follow the mother, or as the saying went, “birth follows the belly.” Contrary to popular belief, the laws did little to restrict interracial unions—especially between white men and black women—but rather, channeled these unions for the benefit of the institution of slavery. For Gibby Gibson and his brother Hubbard, harsh laws against people of color encouraged them to marry whites. Sharfstein states:

Whites in the family gave their spouses and children stronger claims to freedom and had immediate economic advantages—while black women were subject to heavy taxes, white women were not.  Increasingly harsh laws did not separate Africans and Europeans.  To the contrary, they spurred some people of African descent to try to escape their classification.

The Gibsons took what I shall describe as a fast-track to whiteness.  After Gibby Gibson’s freedom he and his brother spent the next 50 years amassing land and, yes… slaves.  After moving to South Carolina in the 1730s as planters they were granted hundreds of acres. By the time of the Civil War they were part of the Southern aristocracy.  Two brothers, Randall Lee and Hart Gibson, again took the spotlight and became standout students at Yale University and later ,officers in the Confederate Army.  Randall was promoted to brigadier general in 1864.  Despite the Confederate defeat at the end of the war, Randall would be a successful New Orleans lawyer, a founder of Tulane University, and would eventually be elected to represent Louisiana for four terms in the House of Representatives and for nine years in the U.S. Senate.

Randall Gibson’s white identity went unchallenged until January 27, 1877, when James Madison Wells wrote in an article that, “This colored Democratic Representative seems to claim a right to assail the white race because he feels boastingly proud of the commingling of the African with Caucasian blood in his veins.”  This accusation was grounds for libel, but Gibson did not sue Wells.  He did not need to.  As Sharfstein deftly points out frequently throughout the Invisible Line, white communities were very much aware of “mixture in their midst,” yet chose to believe these individuals were white.  Even if a person believed that his or her whiteness was secure, accusing ones neighbor of being black could have unintended consequences, especially if your children had offspring with the neighbor.  “Race” became a socially agreed upon arrangement.   Thus, as Sharfstein wrote in a 2007 article:

“…the one-drop rule did not, as many have suggested, make all mixed-race people black. From the beginning, African Americans assimilated into white communities across the South. Often, becoming white did not require the deception normally associated with racial “passing”; whites knew that certain people were different and let them cross the color line anyway. These communities were not islands of racial tolerance. They could be as committed to slavery, segregation, and white supremacy as anywhere else, and so could their newest members—it was one of the things that made them white. The history of the color line is one in which people have lived quite comfortably with contradiction.”

Yet this contradiction was not the same of acceptance, especially in Louisiana, where Sharfstein says…

“the existence of a large, traditionally free mixed-race class meant that whites had long competed with people of color for jobs, land, and status…  …On the streets of New Orleans, it was famously difficult to distinguish one race from the other at a glance—many whites were dark, and many blacks were light.  Every day people witnessed the color line bending and breaking.  The result was that whites believed all the more deeply in their racial supremacy.  They organized their entire political life around it…. …Believing in racial difference—enough to kill for it—was what kept whites separate from blacks.  For white Louisianans, knowing that blacks could look like them did not discount the importance of blood purity.  Rather, they were as likely as anyone in the South to consider a person with traceable African ancestry, no matter how remote, to be black.  The porous nature of the color line required eternal vigilance.”

The Spencers

The Spencers took an inconspicuous path towards a white identity.  George Freeman, possibly the son of his owner Joseph Spencer, was emancipated at twenty-four years of age around 1814 in Clay County, Kentucky.  Through hard work and a large family, Freeman was able to raise a profitable farm, enough so that he could provide loans to other farmers.  By 1840, Freeman’s wife had died, but by then eleven people lived with him including his grown daughters with children of their own.  In 1841, the  Freeman farm would make room for another resident; a twenty-five year-old pioneer white woman from South Carolina named Clarissa “Clarsy” Centers, who was pregnant with his child.  Freeman and Centers were not married, and could not if they had wanted to because of Kentucky’s anti-miscegenation laws.  Sharfstein points out:

“Freeman and Centers were not the only ones in Clay County breaching the color line.  Several free black women were living with white men.  It was less common, however for black men to have families with white women, and their relationships were perceived as a far greater threat to the social and racial order.  After all, the mixed-race children of black women, more often than not, [became] pieces of property, markers of wealth, for their owners.  But the children of slave men and white women were free under Kentucky law, and they blurred the physical distinctions that made racial status conceivable and enforceable.  As a result, all such relationships were subversive, even those involving free men.

Moreover, the control that white men had over their families, something that approached ownership under the law, helped maintain the idea that all white men were equal citizens in a country increasingly stratified by wealth…  …That control was undermined when white women had children with black men…

At the same time white communities did not always respond to these relationships with reflexive deadly violence.  They were capable of tolerating difference or pretending it did not exist.  Across the South in the early decades of the nineteenth century, black men and white women were forming families and living in peace.”

In 1845, George Freeman and Clarsy Centers’ daughter Malinda was pregnant by Jordan Spencer, Freeman’s son or brother.  After three years and three children, Jordan and Malinda’s family was part of a clan of twenty people within three generations living on fifty acres on Freeman’s farm; that was to small to sustain them all.

By 1855, Freeman was dead, forced to mortgage his farm to fight a fornication charge because he could not marry Clarsy Centers. The family of Jordan and Malinda was forced to move 100 miles away within rural Johnson County, Kentucky.  When they got there they called themselves Jordan and Malinda Spencer and their new neighbors welcomed them into their community… and called them white. As Sharfstein states:

“In Johnson County and elsewhere, being white did not require exclusively European ancestry.  Many whites did not hesitate to claim Native American decent.  While Melungeons in Tennessee often lived apart and married among themselves, the Collins and Ratliff families in Johnson County were considerably less isolated.  Half of the worshippers at the Rockhouse Methodist meeting had white faces, and light and dark families were neighbors along the nearby creeks.  Many of the families themselves were mixed, like Jordan and Malinda Spencer’s.  Their community offered them a path to assimilation.  Although the Spencers were listed as “mulatto” in the 1860 census, dozens of Collins and Ratliff men and women were, at a glance, regarded as white.  Jordan Spencer may have been dark, but there was such a thing as a dark white man.”

The Walls

For the Wall family, the path to becoming white was a reluctant and painful one.  Orindatus Simon Bolivar (O.S.B.) Wall and his siblings were freed by their owner (and father) in the 1830s and 1840s and sent from their plantation in North Carolina to be raised by radical Quakers in Ohio.  O.S.B. Wall eventually ended up in Oberlin, Ohio.  With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave catchers could now demand assistance from federal and local officials in any state (including free-states) in locating and apprehending runaway slaves.  Sharfstein notes that,

“The act also permitted slave-owners to kidnap people and force them into federal court.  After a short hearing, a commissioner would determine the status of the person in custody.  Commissioners were paid ten dollars upon ruling that a person was a slave, but only five dollars if they determined that he or she was free.”

Thus even free and freed blacks lived in constant fear that they and their families could be kidnapped and enslaved.  Fortunately, there was no place more hostile to slave catchers than Oberlin.  A generation earlier, New England Puritans had built the college and the town in the northern Ohio forest, dedicating themselves to bringing “our perishing world… under the entire influence of the blessed gospel of peace.”  Oberlin Collegiate Institute, founded in 1832 was a school that educated both sexes and within three years took the then-radical step of admitting students “irrespective of color.” Oberlin did not just give blacks the opportunity to do business on equal terms with whites—it offered blacks the unheard-of possibility of real political power.   In 1857 the town voted John Mercer Langston to be its clerk and appointed him a manager of the public schools.  He was the first black elected official in the United States.

After the end of the Civil War, Wall was detached to South Carolina to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands, a new federal agency devoted to integrating former slaves into civil society, (otherwise known as the Freedman’s Bureau.)  His hope was “to do justice to freedmen” while “do[ing] no injustice to white persons.”  It would appear that his hopes would become a reality in the fall of 1865 when the Bureau had begun redistributing thousands of acres of confiscated property to freed-people, but President Andrew Johnson ordered almost all the land returned to its previous owners.  By the fall of 1865 former slaves found themselves no better than indentured servants.  As the hope of Reconstruction began to fade, he realized that to serve the righteous cause, he would need more than a title and a responsibility, more than the sanction of law.  He needed power. Wall would move to Washington D.C. 

By 1877 Federal troops had abandoned the South, and as Sharfstein writes:

“Democrats had carte blanche to ‘encourage violence and crime, elevate to office the men whose hands are reddest with innocent blood; force the Negroes out of Southern politics by the shotgun and the bulldozer’s whip; cheat them out of the elective franchise; suppress the Republican vote; kill off their white Republican leaders and keep the South solid.  Countless thousands of Negroes in the South lived in conditions approximating slavery, shackled by sharecropping contracts, arrested on trumped-up charges, and sold as convict labor.  Every few days a Negro was lynched: burned, shot, castrated or hacked to pieces.”


The Invisible Line reveals that the trajectory of history is never a straight line.  The promise of the Reconstruction became the repression of Jim Crow. The Democrats of the past that sought defend slavery before and during the Civil War and deny basic freedoms to blacks afterwards are now the Republicans of the present who deny these events have any impact on the lives of black Americans today. Up became down, and black became white.

Perhaps the most emphatic paragraph in the book is on page 236, where Sharfstein describes the everyday pain in the lives of black Americans.

“The harder whites made it for blacks to earn a living, educate their children, and just make it through a single day without threat or insult, the greater the incentives grew for light-skinned blacks to leave their communities and establish themselves as white.  If anything, the drumbeat of racial purity, the insistence that any African ancestry—a single drop of blood—tainted a person’s very existence, accelerated the migration to new identities and lives.  The difference between white and black seemed obvious, an iron-clad rule, a biological fact.  But the Walls knew that blacks could be as good as whites and as bad, as smart and as stupid.  Blacks had just as much claim to schooling and jobs and love and family, to common courtesies each day.  The Walls knew that blacks could be every bit the equal to whites—and that their skins could be equally light.  As the United States veered from slavery to Jim Crow, O.S.B. Wall’s children did not stand up and fight. They faded away.”

This paragraph for me, offers a clear rationale why individuals chose to identify as white.  More importantly though, Sharfstein like all good historians, shows us how events in the past can be repeated in the present and in the future.  For the Spencers, becoming white meant fitting in.  For the Gibsons, becoming white allowed them to amass great wealth, to lose it (after the Civil War), and reclaim it. O.S.B. Wall lived his entire life working towards the goal that people of African descent could be free, prosperous, American and black.  For the Wall children, becoming white (even at the loss of financial status) was an escape from the indignities of being black.  The chains of oppression do not always result in resistance.  Sometimes the result is denial, surrender and assimilation.  Furthermore, Sharfstein, without saying so, reasserts the importance of influence of law and power upon the lives of his subjects.  Though it is now popular for contempary novelists and cursory historians to recount, reframe, and reimagine the stories of the individual lives without acknowledging the legal and social forces shaping those lives, this is simply unacceptable.  Fortunately, the works of Daniel Sharfstein and the late Peggy Pascoe remind us, as I like to put it, not to allow the history of experiences to obscure the experience of history.

Though The Invisible Line is about past racial migrations, the book says little if anything about present-day racial migrations.  Persistent economic and social disparity among racialized groups in the United States may lead to more Gibsons, Spencers and Walls in the future.  Just over a half-century ago, in 1947, N.A.A.C.P. Secretary Walter White said:

“Every year approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the 14 million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is ‘passing’—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites…  Often these emigrants achieve success in business, the professions, the arts and sciences. Many of them have married white people…  Sometimes they tell their husbands or wives of their Negro blood, sometimes not…”

Thus according to sociologist George A. Yancey, white Americans—despite demographic projections—will not lose their numerical majority status in 40 years or so.  For scholars like Yancey, Sharfstein’s secret journey to whiteness, may become a public parade.  Despite the increasing numbers and acceptance of interracial relationships and mixed-race births, intermarriage among non-blacks with whites far outpaces intermarriage between blacks and whites.  The future for Yancey and others is not a white/non-white divide, but rather a black/non-black divide.

With the increasing enactment of harsh anti-immigration legislation, it is indeed conceivable that many Asians and Latinos—particularly those with mixed European ancestry—may opt for a white identity through intermarriage with whites as a balm against increased anti-immigrant sentiment.  As sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank D. Bean point out, “Asian and Latinos may be next in line to be white, with multiracial Asian whites and Latino whites at the head of the queue.”  If the notion that Asians and Latinos can become white seems implausible, sociologist Charles A. Gallagher points out in his 2010 essay “In-between racial status, mobility, and the promise of assimilation: Irish, Italians yesterday, Latinos and Asians today,”  “If you were Italian or Irish in the mid- to late- nineteenth century it was likely that, as a matter of common understanding and perception, you were on the ‘margins of whiteness.’”

While The Invisible Line is a remarkable book that should be read by anyone interested in the complicated racial history of the United States, it is not a book that trumpets a so-called “post-racial” era.   Sharfstein does an excellent job shattering the notion of racial difference and shows us that the African American experience is integral to the American experience as a whole.  Yet in doing so, he does not—and perhaps he should not—suggest that not only is the notion of  “difference” a fallacy, but the notion of “race” is too.  After all, shouldn’t the Gibsons, Spencers, Walls and their descendents transcend race at this point in time?  Race—or as Rainier Spencer suggests—the belief in race, has been, and still is such a potent force in American life, it may take three more centuries to dispense with it. For all of the current discourses on a utopian future filled with mixed or blended identities, these identities are still defined within same outdated and hierarchical social topology of the past 400 years.  Thus the consequences of the memberships within this multi-tiered topology still has the life altering outcomes—though not as extreme—as in the seventeenth century Virginia that Sharfstein describes.  Without a drastic altering or the elimination of this topology, individuals and families who can, will continue to make the journey from a lower tiered racialized status to a higher one and heap misery and scorn upon those who cannot.  In the end, Daniel J. Sharfstein’s Invisible Line, may not only be a window to the past, but also a glance at the future.

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