Being Black and White

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2011-01-29 22:16Z by Steven

Being Black and White

The American Prospect
E. J. Graff, Associate Director and Senior Researcher
The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

When I was 18, I learned, quite belatedly, that my father’s brother had married a black woman. The wedding took place in 1958—the year I was born, the year after my parents married. Instantly I knew that racism had kept me from knowing my uncle (by then dead of a heart attack), my aunt, my cousins. Instantly I knew I would have to find them. But it was one thing to discover that the deepest, most volatile division in the country ran right through my family; actually crossing that divide to claim kinship was, for a long time, too daunting for someone whose only experience with “diversity” was being the sole Jewish kid among her semirural Ohio high school’s 2,300 students.

And so it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally met my aunt and cousins. To my surprise, they treated me not just as a cousin but as a living symbol of racial reconciliation. Once we’d met, told stories, and compared features—we share a long jaw and sharp chin—I started to notice how arbitrarily I’d sorted the world around me into “black” or “white.” All around were black people who looked related to me. White friends had color in their families of blood or choice: a stepfather, a spouse, a sister-in-law, a dearest friend. I started to feel that every American whose family has been here more than a few decades is from a mixed-race family, that somewhere out there—however near or far—we all have relatives of the “other” color. African Americans know this, of course, often down to the name of at least one plantation owner in the family tree. But for a white girl in a color-bound world, this was news.

As it happened, the insight that was striking me so personally—that the color line is drawn in shifting sand—would soon strike the culture. In the past few years, the headlines have been full of such things as the 2000 census’s mix-and-match option; genetic evidence that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (his dead wife’s half-sister and slave) left a widening delta of descendants; and the ascending god Tiger Woods’s refusal to reject his plural ethnicity. And since 1995, a number of mixed-race memoirs have hit our shelves, opening discussion of a new identity: biracial writers who have a black parent and a white one. These authors grapple with the sense that they don’t quite belong anywhere, that they aren’t fully claimed by either race. But their wide range of experiences reveals how deeply racial identity, like any identity, is affected not just by society but also by family, character, time, and place…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , ,