Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White?

W. Ralph Eubanks

Mr. Prejudice (detail), 1943, by Horace Pippin (1888–1946); gift of Dr. and Mrs. Matthew T. Moore/ Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY; © estate of Horace Pippin.

Race is an absurdity. Yet as a means of defining and separating people, it retains its power.

Curio · THR | What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White?

The obelisk bearing the chiseled gray-granite face of a Confederate soldier enters my field of vision each morning as I stroll across campus. After forty years away from Mississippi, I returned last year to teach at my alma mater, Ole Miss. Having entered the University of Mississippi in 1974, only twelve years after James Meredith shattered the color barrier, I was one of about fifty black students in a freshman class of more than 800, African Americans then making up less than 5 percent of the entire student body.

During my time as a student at Ole Miss, the culture, heritage, and traditions of the university stood as obdurate barriers to a black person attempting to feel part of the university, much less at home in it. And though Ole Miss and the state of Mississippi more broadly have since made certain commendable strides in reckoning with the past, the statue is a reminder of how the forces of race and history remain in constant collision, and of how the misinterpretation of the past can sometimes overshadow historical reality.

“Most white Americans are obviously and often all too unconsciously committed to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy,” wrote the essayist and critic Albert Murray more than forty years ago in his enduring reflections on our nation’s “mulatto” culture, The Omni-Americans.11xAlbert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1990), 223. First published 1970. What we are witnessing today, however, is quite conscious. I don’t mean here simply ugly and even violent displays, such as the now infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last summer, but something more insidious. This new iteration of racialized politics is one that dares not say its name. It even pretends that race-based discrimination and white supremacy are things of the past, issues well behind us. More brazenly—one might even say cynically—this new politics appropriates the language of the civil rights movement, and does so precisely to undercut some of the movement’s signal accomplishments (including voting rights), or at least to prevent some its goals (including equal as well as integrated schools) from being fully achieved.

Under the pressure of this transmogrified racialized politics, questions of identity become difficult to untangle. I am an American, a Southerner, a practicing Roman Catholic, and, by profession, what might be called a person of letters, having devoted most of my career to editing, publishing, and writing. But I am also a man who grew up as part of an interracial family whose members made blackness a conscious choice. My mother and her siblings were all born with birth certificates that, at the urging of the family doctor, designated them as white, and all rejected that designation and lived as black people. Before she moved to Mississippi to marry my father in 1952, my mother even changed the race on her birth certificate from “white” to “negro.” As for myself, I was a child of the civil rights movement. Born in 1957, just three years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, I am a grateful beneficiary of those many successful efforts to overcome racial discrimination and white supremacy. But as a black man, I still feel how contingent and precarious those gains have been.

If American blackness—not merely as a racialized category, but as a cultural, political, and economic identity—has a history that is largely Southern, my identity has been shaped by the forces of blackness and whiteness. And though I feel I am more than my inheritance and skin tone, I still say it loud that I am black and I am proud. Indeed, the more evidence I see of a new white supremacy rising, the more inclined I am to assert my blackness, not least as a gesture of solidarity.

Segregation of Family and State

During the last two decades, I’ve been writing about my family history and my own childhood, in large part to figure out how race has played a role in both. My grandfather, Jim Richardson, who came from a gentrified landowning family in Alabama, was a white man who defied that family to marry a black woman, Edna Howell, whose family’s ancestry was an amalgam of Creek Indian, African, and European. For that, he was disinherited, and most of his white relatives still refuse to acknowledge his descendants. At the time of their marriage, in 1914, interracial marriage was only discouraged by Alabama’s state constitution. By 1929, when the last of their seven children, my mother, was born, it had been declared a felony, with penalties set at two to seven years of hard labor. Despite the harsh impositions of Jim Crow segregation, my mother and her siblings were brought up to feel secure in their black identity and never any lower in status than their white father. Because Jim Richardson’s marriage to my grandmother could not be legally recognized, at the end of his life his white relatives claimed his body and buried it in a cemetery alongside those of his ancestors, many of whom had fought for the Confederacy. “We had him all those years,” my mother said at the time, “so if they want him back now, they can have him.”

For three generations, my family has chosen to be black in proud defiance of the forces of white supremacy. My mother didn’t even know her father was a white man until she was five or six. And though my grandfather yielded to the physician’s insistence that his children be listed as “white” on their birth certificates, he also refused, twice, to send them off to places where their family history would be unknown and they would “pass” as white in white society.

In early-twentieth-century America, less than half a century after ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which abolished slavery and removed the constitutional basis for race-based deprivation of the rights to citizenship and suffrage, the carefully constructed system of Jim Crow segregation saw to it that race remained a marker defining and determining social destiny. Particularly in the South, racial identity established your station in society: where you could go to school, whether or not you could vote, where you could live, and whom you could marry. A combination of law and custom kept racial divisions clearly defined, with no room for ambiguity and no place for an existence outside tightly defined racial boundaries. If you didn’t follow the conventions establishing your racial identity, you faced legal and other, often violent consequences.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Mississippi was once the most oppressive of the Southern states, one that defended racial segregation through both the rule of law and the rule of the mob. From the murder of the innocent black youth Emmett Till in 1955 to the 1964 Freedom Summer slayings of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the historical record of the civil rights movement in Mississippi is one punctuated by violence amid steady denials of the destructive realities of racial oppression. As part of Mississippi’s efforts to disenfranchise, segregate, and control African Americans across the state, more than 500 black citizens were lynched between 1882 and 1968, more than in any other state in the union. Mississippi’s white residents relied on intimidation and outright terrorism—whether through organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and its more genteel variant, the White Citizens’ Council, or its state-run spy agency, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—to prop up what was then known as the “Mississippi way of life,” a system rooted in segregation and white supremacy. “The Message from Mississippi,” a state-sponsored propaganda film, told the world that segregation promoted “mutual respect and cooperation among the races” as well as a “law-abiding way of life.”22x“Message from Mississippi,” Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, transcription, c.1960, The University of Southern Mississippi Digital Collections, Accessed May 1, 2018.

The story of the struggle to dismantle that system is now widely known and even officially celebrated, if often in quite selective ways. The civil rights movement is now such a part of Mississippi’s cultural narrative that the state recently created its own civil rights museum. Unlike the prosegregation propaganda films Mississippi taxpayers once funded, this institution is dedicated to unearthing the realities of Mississippi’s tangled racial history. It even takes on the old state-sponsored anti–civil rights propaganda, with exhibits showing how the state consistently sought to link all efforts to advance African American civil rights to communism and other supposedly un-American threats, in an effort to sow fear among white Mississippians during the McCarthy era.

While the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum celebrates the achievements of the movement, it also reveals the fragility of those achievements. As the exhibits make clear, white supremacy was written into the laws and very symbols of the state, including its flag, which continues to incorporate the Confederate Stars and Bars. The story told by the museum—with photographs and the names of lynching victims as well as objects such as the Enfield rifle used in the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers—also reveals how much Mississippi still must do to atone and make reparations. Yet the story many Mississippi politicians want to tell is how much we have overcome rather than how much more we still have to overcome. “From this day forward, let our transgressions be left to the past,” proclaimed Governor Phil Bryant at the opening of the museum in late 2017.

But in Mississippi and the United States, our transgressions with respect to race are not in the past; they are not even past yet. A half-century after the end of the civil rights movement, there has been a shift in the power dynamic in Mississippi. And that shift, both in the state and across the nation, is thwarting frank conversations about where we stand with racial progress in this country.

After a period of racially balanced governance from 1980 to 2000, Mississippi has more recently entered a second phase of disenfranchisement, much like the one that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Thanks to Republican gerrymandering of state senate and legislative election districts and the imposition of voter ID laws that suppress minority voting, a Republican supermajority in both houses of the state legislature has effectively eliminated the influence of the (largely black) Democratic minority. In Mississippi, the violent struggle for voting rights during the civil rights movement once served as a reminder of the need to maintain a multiracial governing coalition. Now, that same civil rights narrative is being used to justify de facto resegregation in the state, notably in the public schools.

At a rally this past January organized by Empower Mississippi, a school-choice advocacy group that supports publicly funded vouchers for use at private schools, Governor Bryant likened the fight for public-to-private education options to the fight for integration in the 1950s and 1960s: “Brown vs. Board [of Education] changed the laws in the land,” Bryant declared. “You’re fighting today for the same belief. Your civil right, your civil liberty to take your child and enroll them in a school of your choice—not one that the federal or state government is telling you to put them in.”33xQuoted in Kate Royals, “Bills to Expand School Choice Pending as Parents Rally at Capitol,” Mississippi Today, January 23, 2018, And if choosing your school means moving your white children into almost entirely white schools on tax dollars—thereby further depleting public funds that support schools to which most black children have access—well, Bryant as much as said, that’s your right. This newfound use of the language of the civil rights movement has effectively blunted the movement’s limited achievements, turning the struggle for integration and real equality of educational opportunity into a series of consumer options.

Which brings me back to the statue of the Confederate soldier I see each morning. Next to the statue sits an interpretive plaque that outlines its complex history, noting how the monument was erected “to promote an ideology known as the ‘Lost Cause,’” and that it also served as a rallying point for the opponents of integration of the university. “This historic statue is a reminder of the university’s divisive past,” the text points out. But the statue is large and overpowering, and the interpretive plaque is small and sits in the statue’s shadow. In the end, the monumentalized misinterpretation of history looms far larger than the words that attempt to explain its broader social and political context.

“Postracial” America

Race is an absurdity, having long ago been discredited as a valid biological category and, in the Brown decision, a defensible legal one. Yet as a means of defining and separating people, it retains its power. That power can’t be undone simply by pretending it doesn’t exist, or even by telling African Americans that they should desist from “race-holding” as an excuse or crutch. How do we ignore the power of racialist thinking when we see it exploited by cynical politicians who ignore facts and try to convince white voters—often in coded ways—that their economic woes are largely attributable to blacks and other minorities who are getting more than their share in a zero-sum struggle for economic advancement and opportunities? “We make up selves from a tool kit of options made available by our culture and society,” writes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. “We do make choices, but we do not determine the options among which we choose.”44xKwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 107. For my part, I can’t help seeing the ways race played, and continues to play, a role in my life. Yet at the same time, I recognize how a racial identity can be limiting and burdensome, particularly when it is based on, and helps to perpetuate, hoary myths and outright lies.

A decade ago, when pundits and others were declaring the arrival of “postracial” America, I was busy investigating my family history. While seeking to understand the world my grandparents knew, and to examine their lives in relation to broader views of race in America, I repeatedly saw how mythological thinking affects the ways we in this country talk about race. My hope was to bridge the racial divide by talking with the same white family members who had once shunned my mother and her siblings. The entry point for most such conversations is what two people have in common, and since we held a shared ancestry—albeit one fraught by the racial divide—I thought the connection might move us beyond the usual hurdles.

But even with our shared history, with genealogy charts, wills of common ancestors, and other documents that revealed our family ties, the fact that my side of the family identified as black kept us apart. Race—whether biological pseudoscience, myth, or legal construct—prevented many of my white relatives from seeing me as family. Despite having lived through the changes wrought by the civil rights movement, my white relatives and I had interpreted those changes in different ways. Yes, we could sit together now without hostility, in fact quite amicably, but there were still differences between us that were rooted in our different cultural perspectives. One relative even said she saw no problem with the law that determined where my grandfather was buried—and admitted she agreed with such laws, particularly those that designated the descendants of interracial marriages as illegitimate heirs. Nor did she feel she had said anything wrong in asserting as much. While I had hoped to have a breakthrough, my quest ended only with a sense of loss and longing. We were relatives, it seemed, on paper only.

In our conversations, my white Richardson relatives sought to exempt themselves from any complicity in the errors of the past. Just by agreeing to meet with me, they felt they had taken a giant step. But something one of those relatives said brought home to me just how flimsy and possibly even chimerical our supposedly “postracial” moment in America was. It came while we were discussing the upcoming presidential election, pitting John McCain against Barack Obama. My kinsman looked straight at me and, without seeming to imply any invidious parallel, guilelessly declared, “I’m voting for Obama, but I’m voting for the white side of him, not the black one.” Race, it seems, can run even thicker than blood.