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