On Becoming Black, Becoming White and Being Human: Rachel Dolezal and the Fluidity of Race

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-06-05 01:22Z by Steven

On Becoming Black, Becoming White and Being Human: Rachel Dolezal and the Fluidity of Race

Truthdig
2015-06-18

Channing G. Joseph


Library of Congress

For decades, no one knew my cousin Ernest Torregano was black. At least, no one who mattered in his new life.

Not the clients or associates of the prominent bankruptcy law firm with which he had built his reputation and his fortune. Not the other members of the San Francisco Planning Commission, of which he had been president. And certainly not the mayor, Elmer Robinson, with whom Ernest had been close since their days as fresh new lawyers in the city. It is quite likely, I think, that Ernest never admitted, even to Pearl, his second wife of 30 years, that she had married an African-American man.

Few understood the true extent of my cousin’s labyrinth of secrets until he was already dead and buried. By then, he had successfully “passed for white” for more than 40 years.

When his only child, Gladys Stevens, learned that her father had not died in 1915 but had been alive until 1954, she filed suit to claim her share of his estate—worth about $300,000 then, or about $2.6 million today. After a protracted legal battle to prove she really was Ernest’s daughter, she won. Meanwhile, her story—and Ernest’s—made national headlines for nearly seven years. One Oklahoma newspaper announced: “Widow Claims Rich Lawyer Was Really Her Negro Father.” A Connecticut paper proclaimed: “Daughter’s Suit Reveals Double Life of Man Who Passed Over Color Line.” But Newsweek magazine’s headline captured the essence of the story in just three words: “The Second Man.”

Born into a mixed-race family in New Orleans in 1882, the First Man was the fair-skinned son of a white father and a mixed-race mother. And because he so loved to sing and to laugh and to travel, he joined a touring minstrel troupe, performing in blackface makeup for cheering crowds across the South. In that show, he met Viola, who played the guitar, and they married. After their daughter, Gladys, was born, the First Man took a job as a Pullman porter on the Southern Pacific Railroad line from New Orleans to San Francisco—to make a better living for his new family. But at some point along the way—perhaps as he gazed through a train car window at the countryside rolling by or as he wandered along Market Street among white people who did not sneer at him or call him “boy”—he decided he would never return home. (According to one account, his mother, who supported the idea of his passing, convinced him that Viola and Gladys had been killed and that he should forget them forever.)…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-16 19:07Z by Steven

Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual

The New York Times Magazine
2015-06-15

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennesee

Daniel J. Sharfstein is the author of “The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America.”

Why do we care so much about Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. who apparently misrepresented herself as African-American when, according to her parents, she is Czech, Swedish and German, with some remote Native American ancestry?

In one sense, it’s not at all surprising. Stories of white Americans “passing” as members of other racial and ethnic groups have often captivated the American public — though the cases that have most fascinated us have usually turned on the malicious hypocrisy of the protagonists. In 1965, The Times famously reported that Dan Burros, the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Dragon in New York State and the former national secretary of the American Nazi Party, was once a Jew who not only was a “star” bar mitzvah student at his shul in Queens but also brought knishes to white-supremacist gatherings. In 1991, an Emory University professor drew headlines by unmasking Forrest Carter, the author of a best-selling Native American “memoir,” as Asa Earl Carter, an Alabama Klansman and a speechwriter for George Wallace, the state’s segregationist governor.

But nowhere in the details that reporters and Internet sleuths have uncovered about Dolezal is there any inkling of personal commitment to white supremacy; her work with the N.A.A.C.P., now finished, and as a professor of Africana studies suggests quite the opposite. Her story spins at a far lower orbit of oddity than the trajectories of Burros and Carter, yet she is attracting a similar level of attention. More puzzling still, her case has gone viral at a moment when we are learning that Rachel Dolezals have been much more common in this country’s history than we once might have thought…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Passing of Passing: A Peculiarly American Racial Tradition Approaches Irrelevance

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-01-22 20:40Z by Steven

The Passing of Passing: A Peculiarly American Racial Tradition Approaches Irrelevance

BlackPast.org: Remembered & Reclaimed
2014-12-14

Robert Fikes Jr., Reference Librarian
San Diego State University, San Diego, California


Three Harlem Women, ca. 1925

In the article below, independent scholar Robert Fikes Jr., explores a centuries-old process in the United States where African Americans with no visible African ancestry “pass” into the Caucasian race or other races to avoid the stigma associated with anti-black racial discrimination and social marginalization. As he notes below, the process finally began to lose its appeal in the second half of the 20th Century. He outlines a brief history of that process and suggests reasons for its decline.

Routinely shocking and sometimes lurid in detail, reports abound over three centuries of mixed-race persons lacking discernible African heritage masquerading as white: a Vassar student who proceeded toward graduation as informed school officials looked the other way; the man who abandoned his family in Atlanta and became a leading voice for fascism in the United States; a syndicated cartoonist who took his secret to the grave; an attorney who also changed his name and did not return home until retiring from a prosperous career on Wall Street; the Vaudeville actor-singer whose success vaporized when he was discovered to be “a Negro”; an assumed to be white New York Times editor and literary critic who also rose to captain in the segregated white Army of World War II; and the guilt-ridden New England doctor and his wife who journeyed to the extreme in withholding the fact of being “Colored” from even their four children.

The opportunity for passing during the colonial and pre-Civil War eras most often resulted from the mating of slaveowner and slave followed by additional whitening and inbreeding of mulatto offspring who were then able to slip virtually unnoticed into the dominant society. In the post-Reconstruction South politicians schemed to legally segregate the races which necessitated defining who was not white using a combination of percentages and the infamous “one drop rule,” condemning those with observable Negroid features to a life of greater hardship. Unlike Brazil, a nation that had a larger 18th and 19th century black slave population than the United States, there was not a “mulatto escape hatch,” as historian Carl Degler termed it, that permitted those with the taint of slavery in their background to be more easily accepted across the spectrum of society. A cause for anxiety for white Americans fearing racial contamination and degradation, but seen by many African Americans as a way of outwitting the system of oppression and making laughable fools of those who countenanced notions of white racial purity and supremacy, the extent of passing has never been reliably quantified by social scientists, hence estimates up to 1950 ranged from hundreds of thousands to several million blacks vanishing into the ranks of unsuspecting whites.

The complex predicament of persons living double lives passing as whites, deliberately or not, permanently or as a temporary convenience, intrigued a surprising number of major authors whose writings gave rise to the by now familiar trope of the tragic mulatto and the unveiled pretender. Among the books that pursued this theme, The Slave (1836) by Richard Hildreth and Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853) by William Wells Brown. Post-emancipation works that pursued this theme include Maria Lydia Child’s A Romance of the Republic (1867), Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), The House Behind the Cedars (1920) by Charles W. Chesnutt, Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, the satirical Black No More (1931) by George Schuyler, Colcorton (1944) by Edith Pope. Late 20th century works on passing include Oxherding Tale (1982) by Charles Johnson, Caucasia (1998) by Danzy Senna, and The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth

…Long after the “passing” novels left the bookshelves scholars began their investigations on black-white passing.  The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White (2011) by Daniel Sharfstein represents one of the best examples of this new academic interest.  These studies however have expanded the scope of passing to include those who have denied being gay and posed as heterosexuals, switched genders, claimed a different white identity (e.g., Jewish to Anglo-Saxon), feigned membership in a wealthier social class, mislead others about their age, and more.

In researching the experiences of blacks who passed as whites, in her new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014) Stanford University professor Allyson Hobbs offered a different perspective.  Fully aware that past research gave prominence to the supposed advantages of passing as white, when interviewed about her project she affirmed: “I am not interested in what people gained by being white, but rather in what they lost by not being black . . . . by rejecting a black racial identity.”  Numerous personal narratives in the book—some wrenching and heartfelt, others humorous and bordering on the absurd—reinforce her stance that passing for African Americans was, and remains, “a deeply individualistic practice, but it is also a fundamentally social act with enormous social consequences.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,

The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America – Daniel J. Sharfstein

Posted in Audio, History, Interviews, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-07-30 20:15Z by Steven

The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America – Daniel J. Sharfstein

Research at the National Archives and Beyond
BlogTalk Radio
Thursday, 2014-06-26, 21:00 EDT, (Friday, 2014-06-27, 01:00Z)

Bernice Bennett, Host

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

Join author, Daniel J. Sharfstein for a discussion of his book and research – The Invisible Line – Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.

Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved—how the very meaning of black and white changed—over time. Cutting through centuries of myth, amnesia, and poisonous racial politics, The Invisible Line will change the way we talk about race, racism, and civil rights.

Daniel J. Sharfstein is a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, he has been awarded fellowships for his research on the legal history of race in the United States from Harvard, New York University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His book is available in paperback as The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, and it has won three prizes: the J. Anthony Lukas Prize for narrative non-fiction, the Cromwell Book Prize from the American Society for Legal History, and the Hurst Prize from the Law and Society Association. Daniel has also spent the past year as a Guggenheim Fellow, working on a new book.

Defining their identities first as people of color and later as whites, these families provide a lens for understanding how people thought about and experienced race and how these ideas and experiences evolved—how the very meaning of black and white changed—over time. Cutting through centuries of myth, amnesia, and poisonous racial politics, The Invisible Line will change the way we talk about race, racism, and civil rights.

Check Out History Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with BerniceBennett on BlogTalkRadio

Download the episode here.

Tags: , , ,

Mixing Race, Risk, and Reward in the Digital Age (Sawyer Seminar IV)

Posted in History, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2013-11-01 04:04Z by Steven

Mixing Race, Risk, and Reward in the Digital Age

University of Southern California
Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Center for Japanese Religions and Culture
University Park Campus
Doheny Memorial Library (DML), East Asian Seminar Room: 110C
2013-11-05, 13:00-17:00 PST (Local Time)

USC Conference Convenors:

Duncan Williams, Associate Professor of Religion
University of Southern California

Brian C. Bernards, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Southern California

Velina Hasu Houston, Associate Dean for Faculty Recognition and Development, Director of Dramatic Writing and Professor
University of Southern California

What are the outcomes of evolving racial ideologies in North America and how are they impacting 21st century American identities?  How do 21st century multiracial identities and representations reflect and challenge historical constructions of racial mixing?  How does racial mixing inform transhumanistic enterprises (i.e., wearable technology) and impact educational experiences dedicated to mixed-race studies in digital spaces?

PRESENTERS:

“Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity”

Marcia Dawkins, Clinical Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
University of Southern California (Author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor University Press, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).)

“Frizzly Studies: Law, History, Narrative, and the Color Line”

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University (Author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (Penguin Press, 2013) and “Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the Emergence of the One-Drop Rule, 1600-1860,” Minnesota Law Review (2007).)

“Tweeting into the Future: Mixing Race and Technology in the 21st Century”

Ulli K. Ryder, Scholar in Residence, Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life
Brown University (Author of forthcoming book Mixed Race 3.0: Mixing Race, Risk & Reward in the Digital Age (Annenberg Press, 2014).)

For more information, click here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Frizzly Studies: Negotiating the Invisible Lines of Race

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-08-16 02:12Z by Steven

Frizzly Studies: Negotiating the Invisible Lines of Race

Common Knowledge
Volume 19, Number 3 (Fall 2013)
pages 518-529
DOI: 10.1215/0961754X-2281810

Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

Beginning with the assumption that race is a conceptual blur, this contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium “Fuzzy Studies” argues that race conflates what is plain to see with something that is invisible. Race roots today’s policy decisions in a remote and often imagined past. It blurs agency and overwhelming structural inequality. It is a set of categories that people define for themselves and that, at the same time, others — strangers, neighbors, government officials — relentlessly impose upon them. For four hundred years, the meaning of racial categories in North America has remained unstable. A central question underlying the history of race in the United States is how people could acknowledge the incoherence of racial categories while still structuring their lives, communities, politics, and culture around the idea of race. At a fundamental level, race has functioned as a set of rules and rights—and legal entitlements and disabilities are a primary source of meaning for racial categories. The law provides a starting point for understanding how there could be so much consensus regarding such a blur. Legal decision making is itself a process that blurs what is objective and subjective, scientific and social, precise and penumbral. Taken together, the pervasive fuzziness of race and law ensured the resilience of clear and definable regimes of discrimination and hierarchy.

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , ,

In new book, two Kentucky families discover surprising racial histories

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United Kingdom on 2013-05-14 04:39Z by Steven

In new book, two Kentucky families discover surprising racial histories

Lexington Herald-Leader
Lexington, Kentucky
2011-05-15

Linda B. Blackford

Freda Spencer Goble of Paintsville knew that she hailed from a proud and hardworking clan that carved a life out of the hills and hollows of frontier Johnson County. What she didn’t know was that one of those frontiersmen, her great-great grandfather, was partly black.

William LaBach is a Georgetown lawyer and genealogist who has long studied his Gibson relatives, a clan of Louisiana sugar planters who made a second home in Lexington before the Civil War. He’d heard that a colonial forebear was part African, but could never confirm it.

These two Kentucky families are now the subject of a new book by Vanderbilt University law professor Daniel Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White reveals the complex and shifting history of race in America, a history about people’s most basic — and yet most unreliable — assumptions about their own identity…

…Thanks to books like Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball and revelations about President Thomas Jefferson’s black descendants, people have become more used to the idea that family trees branch with different ethnicities. However, the idea they might be a different ethnicity themselves is a new idea that is only recently emerging in genealogy and other historical studies.

“This is a more unsettling story. … The story really changes the way people approach race,” Sharfstein said. “For a lot of the descendants I spoke with, being white meant they really didn’t have to think about race for most of their lives. But now they’re really paying attention.”…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Race has never been about biology and blood…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-03-31 04:33Z by Steven

“Race has never been about biology and blood. Plenty of white people have African blood. I’m looking at this history of migration across the color line and what do categories of black and white mean? These categories have been proxies for hierarchies and discrimination… for having a full set of rights as citizens.” —Daniel J. Sharfstein

Stacie Williams, “Interview with Daniel J. Sharfstein, author of ‘The Invisible Line’,” The Christian Science Monitor, (February 23, 2011).

Tags: , , , ,

The loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath, and his honour joined their hands, to the great satisfaction of all parties.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, History on 2013-03-20 03:51Z by Steven

In 1819 a Scotsman named James Flint crossed the Atlantic Ocean, made his way from New York to Pittsburgh, sailed down the Ohio, and settled for eighteen months in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just opposite Louisville, Kentucky. His letters home described everything from native trees and shrubs to the “taciturnity” of American speech, “adapted to business more than to intellectual enjoyment.” Soon after arriving in Jeffersonville, Flint recounted the time when a “negro man and a white woman came before the squire of a neighbouring township, for the purpose of being married.” The official refused, citing a prohibition on “all sexual intercourse between white and coloured people, under a penalty for each offence.” Then he thought the better of it. He “suggested, that if the woman could be qualified to swear that there was black blood in her, the law would not apply. The hint was taken,” Flint wrote, “and the lancet was immediately applied to the Negro’s arm. The loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath, and his honour joined their hands, to the great satisfaction of all parties.”

Daniel J. Sharfstein, “Crossing the Color Line: Racial Migration and the One-Drop Rule, 1600–1860,” Minnesota Law Review, Volume 91, Number 3 (February 2007): 592-656.

Tags: ,

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.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-02-14 00:02Z by Steven

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.

Daniel J. Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 236.

Tags: ,