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Excerpt: 'Sellout'


Note: Author's footnotes have been omitted.

Chapter One: Who Is "Black"?

"How difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends."

—Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (1901)

Soon after declaring his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, Senator Barack Obama was asked on the television program 60 Minutes when he had "decided" that he was black. One of the reasons the interviewer posed this question is that Obama's mother was a white American and his father a black Kenyan. Obama, moreover, had had little contact with his father; he was raised mainly in Hawaii by his mother and her relatives, in settings far afield from conventional black American communities. Against this backdrop, some observers have questioned Obama's racial standing. "Obama isn't black," the journalist Debra J. Dickerson asserts, because "in our political and social reality [black] means those descended from West African slaves." Rather, Dickerson continues, "by virtue of his white American mom and his Kenyan dad . . . [Obama] is an American of African immigrant extraction."

Obama responded to the question on 60 Minutes by distancing himself from the idea that he had "decided" to be black. He focused on three other considerations: his appearance, the response of onlookers to his appearance, and his shared experience of those responses with others also perceived to be "black." "[I]f you look African American in this society," he remarked, "you're treated as an African American." In 1940, W. E. B. DuBois quipped that "the black man is a person who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia." Obama updated that view, noting that when he tried to catch taxis, drivers were not confused about his race; they all too often refused to pick him up for racially discriminatory reasons, just as they all too often sped by other "black" men.

Discussion of Obama's racial identity is a highly publicized instance of a feature of American race relations that is often ignored or misunderstood though it has deep historical roots. Many people believe that determining who is "black" is rather easy, a task simplified by the administration of the one-drop rule. Under the one-drop rule, any discernible African ancestry stamps a person as "black." A principal purpose of this doctrine was to address "the problem" of children born of interracial sex who would bear a mixture of physical markers inherited from ancestors situated on different sides of the race line. White supremacists hoped that by definitively categorizing as "African," "black," "Negro," or "colored" anyone whose appearance signaled the presence of an African ancestor, the one-drop rule would protect white bloodlines. It mirrored and stoked Negrophobia by proclaiming that even the tiniest dab of Negro ancestry was sufficiently contaminating to make a person a "nigger." Many white racists have believed what a character exclaims in Thomas Dixon's novel The Leopard's Spots—that "a single drop" of Negro blood "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."

Many champions of black advancement, however, have also become devotees of the one-drop rule (bereft, of course, of its white supremacist intentions). In her richly detailed defense of the doctrine, Professor Christine B. Hickman writes:

"The Devil fashioned [the one-drop rule] out of racism, malice, greed, lust and ignorance, but in so doing he also accomplished good: His rule created the African-American race as we know it today, and while this race had its origins in the peoples of three continents and its members can look very different from one another, over the centuries the Devil's one-drop rule united this race as a people in the fight against slavery, segregation and racial injustice."

The one-drop rule helped to funnel into one racial camp people who might otherwise have been splintered. It is because of the one-drop rule that some of the most significant leaders among African Americans are considered "black" or "Negro" despite their "white" ancestry; here I think immediately of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois. Long denounced as a method for protecting whites against the taint of Negro blood, the one-drop rule is now embraced by some devotees of black unity as a way of reinforcing solidarity and discouraging exit by "blacks" who might otherwise prefer to reinvent themselves racially.

Despite its evident significance, however, the one-drop rule has never been an unchallenged guide to racial definition. For a long period, several states formally defined as "white" individuals with known "black" ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, several states, including Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, statutorily decreed that an individual was considered white so long as he or she did not have more than one-eighth Negro "blood." In Virginia, until 1910, a person could be deemed white as long as he or she did not have more than twenty-four percent Negro blood. Not until 1924 did the Old Dominion adopt the one-drop rule. True, in many places, the mere appearance of being a Negro was sufficient to trigger mistreatment, regardless of one's genealogy or the words of some arcane statute purporting to define racial status. Still, the assigning of racial identity by white authorities has occasioned far more controversy than is generally realized.

Just as some "whites" have adopted rules of racial identification at variance with the one-drop rule, so, too, have some "blacks." Light-skinned descendants of interracial unions have at various times attempted to set themselves apart from those with darker hues. They have labeled themselves differently, for example, eschewing "black" or "Negro" in favor of "FMC"—"free men of color"—or similar formulations. They have created social organizations that resolutely excluded those deemed to be "too dark"—those darker than a light-brown paper bag or those in whose wrists one cannot discern blue veins. They have insisted upon marrying people who were as light as, or preferably lighter than, themselves. The one-drop rule lumps all "colored" people together regardless of the extent to which they are partially white in appearance or ancestry. But some light-skinned people of color have rejected that formula and insisted upon distinguishing themselves from "real" Negroes. Consider the case of William Ellison, who was born into slavery in 1790 in South Carolina. Allowed to purchase his freedom (by a white man who may well have been his biological father), Ellison amassed a sizable fortune, bought and sold slaves, contributed funds to pro-slavery vigilantes, aided the Confederacy, and then, after the Civil War, supported the opponents of Reconstruction. Today many people would describe Ellison as "black" despite his obvious multiraciality. Yet Ellison "did not consider himself a black man but a man of color, a mulatto, a man neither black nor white, a brown man."

Between 1850 and 1920, the United States Census demarcated a category for the "mulatto." Enumerators were initially given virtually no guidance; they used their own judgment, mainly based on appearance, to determine who was "black" as opposed to "mulatto." In 1870, census officials noted that the "mulatto" category included "quadroons, octoroons and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood." In 1890, officials supplemented the "white," "black," and "mulatto" categories with two new classifications that had previously been subsumed within the definition for mulatto. They admonished enumerators to:

"[b]e particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood."

At no point were enumerators provided with a methodology for extracting this information or discerning these differences.

The idea of the mulatto has been a gathering point for a wide variety of racial prejudices, fears, myths, and speculations. For one thing, throughout American history there has been a tendency on the part of whites and blacks to favor mulattoes and other mixed-race colored people over plain "blacks." This tendency has been fueled, in large part, by the logic of white supremacy: since whiteness has been perceived to be superior to blackness, lighter complexions have been accorded more prestige than darker ones. Hence the saying: "If you're black, go back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're alright."

The baleful efflorescence of racist sentiments in the post-World War I era prompted the Census Bureau to simplify its stratification of the American pigmentocracy. After 1920, the Bureau ceased enumerating mulattoes. It adopted the one-drop rule, declaring that persons of "mixed blood" would be "classified according to the nonwhite racial strain . . . [A person] of mixed white . . . and Negro . . . is classified as . . . a Negro . . . regardless of the amount of white blood [he carries]." Under the new regime, writes Professor Joel Williamson, "all Negroes did look alike. On the one side, there were simply Negroes, and on the other the melting pot was busy making everyone [else, except Asians] simply white. Obviously the Bureau was quite willing to add its strength to the effort to create a simply biracial America."

Although skin color is undoubtedly the most salient signal of racial identity in America, other actual or imagined bodily features have also been seen as distinctive markers of Negritude. These include the shapes of heads, feet, lips, and noses as well as the texture of hair. Adjudicating the race of plaintiffs suing for their freedom, a Virginia judge asserted in 1806 that:

"Nature has stamped upon the African and his descendants two characteristic marks, besides the difference of complexion, which often remain visible long after the characteristic distinction of color either disappears or becomes doubtful; a flat nose and a woolly head of hair. The latter of these characteristics disappears the last of all; and so strong an ingredient in the African constitution is this latter character, that it predominates uniformly where the party is in equal degree descended from parents of different complexions."

Yet, the very words used as labels for races—"white," "black," "red," "yellow," and "brown"—highlight the centrality of complexion in American racial consciousness. Skin color has long been the main physiological feature of the uniform that is widely seen as racially identifying the wearer.

So long as procreation stems from parents of the same race, appearance and lineage are typically congruent. Interracial unions give rise to added complexity. Interracial amalgamation will produce some individuals whose features diverge from those commonly ascribed to the races of their ancestors. When conflict arises between looks and lineage, it is the former that usually emerges as the more influential of the two. As Professor Robert Westley observes, "no one who is visually apprehended as Black . . . turns out to be white. . . . The judgment of Blackness is fixed, immediate, irreversible." In notable instances whites have been willing to grant what Professor Daniel Sharfstein terms "racial amnesty" to individuals who appeared to be white. The key to such amnesty, however, has been the appearance of the individuals in question; if they looked obviously "colored" there has been no controversy. They are labeled "colored" or "black" or "Negro" and that is the end of it. Only if they possessed physical traits that might lead them to be seen as white (or something else nonblack) would space be opened allowing for wiggle room in determining their racial placement.

Consider the early nineteenth-century North Carolina case Gobu v. Gobu, in which a white girl found an abandoned baby whom she claimed as her slave. When this enslaved boy grew to maturity he sued for his freedom. No one knew the identity of his biological parents. In appearance, according to the court, he was "of an olive colour, between black and yellow, had long hair and a prominent nose." Judge John Louis Taylor expressly states that if he had recognized the plaintiff as "black," the plaintiff would have borne the burden of proving that he was not a slave. In Judge Taylor's words: "I acquiesce in the . . . presumption of every black person being a slave." But the plaintiff was not "black"; he was of "mixed blood," meaning that his mother might have been white or an Indian. Given these possibilities, and the absence of any other pertinent evidence, the judge required the slaveholder to bear the burden of proving that the plaintiff was properly enslaved. The judge decided, in short, to give the plaintiff the benefit of the doubt—a benefit withheld from anyone deemed by appearance to be "black."

Neither appearance nor lineage nor the concatenation of the two exhaust the menu of ingredients that have figured into determinations of race. Consider the lawsuit in South Carolina in 1940 in which Virginia Bennett challenged the will of her deceased father, Franklin Capers Bennett. While leaving Virginia unmentioned, the will bequeathed Franklin's entire estate to his second wife, Louetta Chassereau Bennett. Virginia attacked the validity of Louetta's marriage to Franklin, asserting among other things that the union had violated the state's antimiscegenation law. According to Virginia, Louetta was colored, inasmuch as she was more than one-eighth Negro, and was thus prohibited from marrying Franklin, a white man. Virginia's motivation was clear. She wanted to obtain portions of Franklin's estate that would be lost to her if her father's marriage to Louetta was upheld.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina rejected Virginia's challenge. It ruled that Louetta was not a Negro, despite the presence of "some Negro blood in her veins," because she possessed a reputation as a white person--in the court's words, she had been "generally accepted as white"—and because she had long "acted white," by doing such things as marrying a white man, attending a white church, sending her children to white schools, and voting in political primaries open only to whites.

The ruling in favor of Louetta Bennett, despite her "negro blood," was firmly rooted in precedent. As far back as 1835, the South Carolina judiciary had weighed considerations other than complexion and lineage in determining racial identification. "We cannot say what admixture of negro blood will make a colored person," Judge William Harper declared. "The condition of the individual is not to be determined solely by a distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and [by] his having commonly experienced the privileges of a white man."

In the process by which individuals are racialized, they have little or no control over certain factors—the color of their skin, the identity of their ancestors, the judgments of others, the ascendant protocols of racial categorization. Barack Obama, for instance, has no control over one of the most significant aspects of his case: the fact that some American-born Negroes decline to acknowledge as "African American" or "black" African-born Negroes or their progeny. Professor Valerie Smith notes that "Obama's 'black credentials' have been questioned as much because of his Kenyan father as his white mother." Those who have raised questions on this score emphasize the centrality of slavery in America to their definition of "blackness": to them, a "black" must have an ancestral tie to enslavement in America—clearly a circumstance over which an individual today has no control.

Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. from Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, by Randall Kennedy. Copyright © 2008 by Randall Kennedy.

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Randall Kennedy