Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When black or white is gray

At the gym in the morning, I have taken to listening to NPR instead of music on my iPod. I like the intellectual stimulation and find it makes my workouts go a lot faster. With music, my mind wanders. With NPR, it's engaged.

Often times, I will hear something on NPR that really makes me think, or just a story that is so interesting that I say to myself "I have to go home and blog about this..." but then life takes over and I rarely remember to.

This morning, however, a particular story that is part of a series called "American Lives", was so incredibly fascinating to me that I had to share.

Here is a teaser...

   " Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born in Georgia just months before that state seceded from the Union, moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. There, she met a man named James Todd. He was light-skinned, handsome, had a good job for an African-American man in that time — a Pullman porter. They hit it off, and eventually married. They had five children and a house in Brooklyn. Their story would be unremarkable if not for one detail: Nothing James had told his future wife was true. James Todd was really not black ..."    Read more here

If you're anything like me, right about now you're saying to yourself "How the bejeezus can a woman marry a man and then not know the color of his skin? Surely she would notice THAT!?" And indeed, it's a reasonable question. And even more reasonable given that THIS is a photo of said James Todd:

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

However, author of the book "Passing Strange", Martha Sandweiss, goes on to explain that, after the Civil War, many Southerners got worried that they would no longer be able to identify a "slave" just by the color of his or her skin any more. So, one of the solutions they came up with to help them categorize folks was to say that, if one of your eight great-parents was black, you were black, no matter what color your skin. (I wonder how many of us would be "black" these days, based on THAT categorization?)

This made it possible (although extremely rare, for obvious reasons) for a white person to claim they were African American.  Later, Ada and James' daughters, although brought up as African American, both married white men, made possible by each sister "swearing" for the other, that they were, in fact, white. Yet their brothers, when registering for the draft in World War I, were placed in all-black regiments.

I've always been the kind of person who is unobservant to race and this just makes me smile. At the end of the day, race itself is just about a society's label for someone based upon a number of cultural, economic, or societal factors, not really about anything genetically significant.

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