By Vikki Bynum, Moderator
In recent weeks, The Family Origins of Vernon Dahmer, Civil Rights Activist, by Yvonne Bivins and Wilmer Watts Backstrom, published December 6, 2009 on Renegade South, has received increased attention and interesting comments from readers. I’m pleased that Tiffany Jones even republished it on her blog, Mulatto Diaries.
A few readers of Renegade South posed interesting questions after reading the Dahmer history. “Ms T. A.”, for example, wondered what caused Vernon Dahmer, a man of limited African ancestry, to identify as “black,” and ultimately sacrifice his life working for black civil rights. Also, in regard to racial identification, A.D. Powell (author of Passing for Who You Really Are: Studies in Support of Multiracial Whiteness), drew attention to two instances in which the mixed-race infants of unmarried white women were reportedly given to mulatto families to be raised.
To better understand the ways in which economic class as well as race have historically shaped multiracial communities, I returned to my research files on mixed-race people, and also to a few books on my shelf. In her 1986 history of the Horne family, for example, Gail Lumet Buckley illuminated the “old black bourgeoisie” from which her mother, Lena Horne, descended. That elite group, writes Buckley, was comprised of “three segments of black society in existence before the Civil War: free northern blacks, free southern blacks, and ‘favored’ slaves.” (The Hornes: An American Family, p. 4)*
Of course, most mixed-race people were not part of this black bourgeoisie. Two classic autobiographies proved especially helpful in understanding less elite families : Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), and Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956, 1978). Both the authors were defined legally as “black” despite having greater degrees of European than African ancestry. White appearance notwithstanding, Harriet was born and raised a slave. Pauli, born after slavery was abolished, was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman who was impregnated by the sons of her master. On Pauli’s great-grandfather’s side, she was descended from a northern interracial marriage between a white woman and a mixed race man.
Both Harriet and Pauli had advantages denied to most people defined as black by white society. Harriet’s father was not only mixed-race, but a skilled carpenter; her grandmother on her mother’s side was the daughter of a white planter who managed through her connections to white society to gain her freedom (but not her children’s).
Pauli’s southern ancestors were likewise slaves. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters, however, were removed from their mother’s slave cabin by Mary Ruffin Smith, the sister of their wealthy white fathers, and raised in the “Big House.” Although Mary never publicly admitted that the four sisters were the daughters of her brothers (and therefore her nieces), she could not bring herself to treat them as chattel slaves.
My point in discussing Harriet Jacobs and Pauli Murray is not to retell their fascinating life stories, but to explore how white connections might mitigate the disadvantages of race, particularly among light-skinned people of African ancestry. Despite their white ancestry and advantageous connections, Harriet and Pauli, like Vernon Dahmer, identified first and foremost with their African American kinfolk. And why wouldn’t they? Despite light skin and interracial connections, Harriet was nonetheless a slave; Pauli was subjected to segregation. And, of course, both women witnessed abuse and discrimination against people of African ancestry all their lives. It was the cultural rather than biological experience of race that shaped their consciousness.
The lives of mixed-race children who had no favored place or acknowledged kinship with wealthy or influential whites were, of course, much different. Here, my research into North Carolina court records is most revealing. Not only were most mixed-race slaves raised in the quarters rather than in the Big House, but records indicate that being the mixed-race offspring of a single white woman or a free black woman often brought unwelcome attention from the courts, as such children were born free in a slaveholding society.
In chapter four of my book, Unruly Women (1992), “Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch,” pp. 88-110, I covered in some detail the multiracial communities of Orange and Granville Counties in North Carolina. Susan Williford of Granville County provided a particularly vivid example of the ways in which southern lawmakers punished poor white women for crossing the color line. Although Susan, a white woman, remained in a stable relationship with Peter Curtis, a free man of color, for most of her adult life (the two were forbidden by law to marry), all of their mixed-race children were removed by the courts from their home and apprenticed to white farmers or planters of the community. The children were forced to live and work for these “masters” until they reached adulthood.
Free women of color were likewise forbidden to marry across the color line, or to marry slave men. By law, any child born to a free woman was also free, regardless of the woman’s race or the father’s status. Therefore, if free women of color bore children to either white or enslaved men, those children were also subject to being apprenticed by the courts to white families.
In North Carolina, the pre-Civil War system of apprenticeship thus supplemented slavery in controlling the mobility and labor of free people of mixed ancestry. It also served to create the fiction of a society divided between “white” and “black” people, when in fact many free “blacks” (and a good many slaves) had more European and Indian than African ancestry.
Reviewing historical records and autobiographies makes it clear that economic class and gender, as well as heritage and physical appearance, played an integral part in shaping one’s racial identity. This was true in the North as well as the South, where even among Northern abolitionists racial discrimination was commonly practiced. For example, after escaping to the North, Harriet Jacobs wrote that she “found the same cruel manifestations of that cruel prejudice which so discourages the feelings and represses the energies of the colored people,” as in the South (p. 176).
Harriet E. Wilson’s 1859 autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, highlighted the racial hypocrisy of white northerners who viewed slavery as only a southern problem. This Harriet, who was the abandoned mixed-race daughter of a poor white woman of New England, expressed contempt for white abolitionists “who didn’t want slaves at the South,” but also did not want people of color in their homes: “Faugh!” she wrote, “to lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next to one–awful!” (129)
A final word about “passing”. This term might best be eliminated from our vocabulary, as it legitimizes the basis for the “one drop rule” of race. To “pass” implies that even though people might look at you and believe that you are “white,” you are nonetheless “black”–and should identify yourself as such–if you have an African ancestor lurking in your past. The assumption is not only that race is an objective biological category of distinction, but furthermore that African “blood” somehow overwhelms all other “blood” in determining who a person really is. The late Mae Street Kidd, a former “black” representive from Kentucky, exposed the absurdity of the one drop rule and the concept of “passing” when she said, “I’ve been passing for black all my life because I’m almost 90 percent white. . . . It’s so very obvious that I’m so much whiter than I am black that I have to pretend to be black.” (Wade Hall, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd (1997), p. 177)
The Dahmer family history certainly raises provocative questions and provides tantalizing insights into mixed-race or multiracial communities. For those interested in exploring the topic further, I recommend visiting Mixed Race Studies and Study of Racialism, both great bibliographic resources for both online and printed sources.
And here’s a hopeful sign, brought to my attention by A.D. Powell, that we are moving beyond simplistic and dualistic notions of race:
Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies,” the first annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, will be held at DePaul University in Chicago on November 5-6, 2010.