By Lise Funderburg
The year that Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old black teenager—was lynched in Greenwood, Mississippi, for supposedly) whistling at a white woman, my black father married my white mother. It was I955.
From my father’s side, only his mother and older brother drove up from Georgia for the simple wedding, held in the side chapel of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church. My mother’s parents, in Chicago, didn’t come at all. There was some talk about her father still recovering from an operation—then again, he wasn’t exactly thrilled when he heard my mother was about to marry a black man. “I want to crawl inside a hole,” he had said.
My mother’s father lived for only four more years. Before he died he came to like my father. They shared the same work ethic, and it seemed clear to Grandfather that his new son-in-law was going to provide for my mother, my two older sisters and me. Rumor has it that although my maternal grandmother never said anything outright against my father, in the beginning she was overheard telling friends that he was German.
As children, my sisters and I felt none of their discomfort. Our grandfather was gone before my first birthday, and our grandmother, who lived to be one hundred, never said or did anything to co suggest that we didn’t belong. On our father’s side, too, there was never a suggestion that our membership in the family was marginal. That message we got elsewhere.
For as long as Blacks and Whites have chosen to settle down and marry in this country, they have confronted the question: But what about the children? More often than not, this is posed in warning rather than out of curiosity. Underneath lies a widely held assumption that the racial divide between white and black is vast and unbridgeable. And so while two independent adults may be considered free to deal with the folly of their choice, they are appealed to on behalf of the undeserving offspring who will presumably suffer the results. Children of such unions are born into a racial netherworld, the conventional wisdom continues, destined to be maladjusted, “tragic mulattoes”—the perpetual victims of a racially polarized society.
For all Americans, not just the biracial ones, nothing about life or identity is so clear-cut or guaranteed—certainly nothing that has to do with race. Such sweeping generalizations reflect the laziness of a society that, if given the choice, will often oversimplify rather than appreciate complexities and coexisting realities. Over the course of my life, I had never heard that question—What about the children?—asked of the children themselves. At least I hadn’t seen it asked without the assumption that there was some inevitable tragedy to be revealed.
As one of these children, I was hungry to know how others negotiated the tightrope between black and white—and whether or why some felt there never was any tightrope in the first place. I hoped that in talking with dozens of other biracial people, taking down their stories, I might get to reconsider my own ideas and questions about who I am and where I fit. I didn’t believe we all fit the tragic mulatto mold, but would other biracial people agree? What, if anything, would I actually share with people who also had one black and one white parent? How profound were the differences between those of us, like my sisters and I, who “looked” white and those of us who “looked” black (or somewhere in-between, frequently mistaken for Puerto Rican or Greek or Sicilian or …)? What would we have in common?
Each question points to the ways all of us— from every race and culture—look at race. On what axis does a person’s sense of his/her racial self turn? Were my hair to be as curly as my father’s, were my skin tone to appear in real life the way it often (curiously) does in photographs, would the world react to me differently? Would my life have taken a different road? How much of my person and my sense of race have to do with my appearance, with the particular combination of black and white that I am, my skin color, my hair texture, my blue eyes? How much of it has to do with the people my parents are, who their parents were, the locations of our generations on the time line of American history, the coincidence and impact of myriad choices they and I have made? And how much comes from outside, from history and society and other forces that we may not even realize are at play?
It was time for me to ask these questions, in part because our numbers are growing; lately, I have practically felt that expansion. To find real numbers that corroborate my observation has been another matter altogether.
Some population experts and multiracial support networks estimate that there are at least one million mixed-race people in this country (of all mixes, not just black and white). The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) tabulates births by race and reports that birthrates of children with one black and one white parent have been climbing. In 1991, 52,232 such births were recorded, compared to 26,968 in 1981, and 8758 in 1968, the year the center began keeping track. The NCHS grand total for these* births, from 1968 to 1991, is 616,850. Beyond the year of birth, no demographics group tracks the total number of black/white biracial people in America.
Why not? One reason may be that although racial identities are classified and considered for many reasons in this country, dividing people along this line is widely held to be insignificant—just as the U.S. census does not include categories for left-handed people with brown eyes. No one disputes that the characteristics exist, but they are not thought definitive. The closest that most questionnaires and forms come is “other”—an open-ended throwing-up-of-the-hands by social scientists and bureaucrats. Adding to the sense that biracial identities are illegitimate is the fact that most people with one white and one black parent, when given the opportunity to label themselves, have historically chosen (or been forced to choose) one parent’s identity, and that most likely has been and continues to be “black.”
Confusion surrounding race stems from the illogic used to define it. Slavery laws and social practices set a precedent—which survives to this day among many Whites and Blacks—of regarding anyone with a trace of African blood as black. Some states codified it as the one-drop rule or code noir (black code). In others the classification was mathematical, climbing back the branches of the family tree in fractions—to one-sixteenth, one thirty-second—to one’s great-great- or great-great-great-grandparents. Less formally, in many instances, race was simply in the eye of the beholder. The “eyeball test,” as it became known, took into account hair texture, eye color, and shape of nose, ears, lips, body and skull. Testers could be school administrators, bus drivers, policemen, strangers—anyone who felt obliged to separate white from black. When my parents went to city hall for a marriage license, die clerk glanced at my father and checked off Caucasian. My father corrected him.
In some instances, the knowledge (or mere rumor) of African ancestry has been equally determinative, even without corroborating physical “evidence.”
A paradox of the one-drop rule is that it is never a two-way street. The theory that any amount of “black blood” makes a person black has no corollary within other racial groups, especially not whites. One can be black and have “white blood” (even to the point of having a white parent, as many people in this book do), but one cannot have “black blood” and be white. People who do choose to live as white be knowing that they have black ancestors are considered to be “passing.” Mixed-race people at have passed (or “crossed over”) for different to reasons over time. When segregation and Jim Crow laws were still on the books, many kept secret their black roots in order to take advantage of economic opportunities. Some would leave their black community in the morning, go to work as a white person and then come home each night. Others, like my grandfather, passed while in the military, not always intentionally, but because they didn’t correct the cursory judgment a recruiter had made.
Some passed to escape the genuine risks and hardships of being black. To pass entirely into a white world required severing community and family ties, and often the most practical way to do this was to move far from home. Families would sometimes cooperate, mourning the passing relative as if he or she had died. Tolerance of passing eventually disappeared, replaced by black pride and calls for unity: passing came to signify cowardice.
I pass every day of my life. This is not my choice, my desire—it is my hair, my eyes, my skin. Just after completing an interview for Black, White, Other, for example, I stood on a subway platform in Oakland, California, waiting for a train. When it pulled up, I reached the door alongside two other people, one of them an African-American girl who couldn’t have been more than eleven. Barely above a whisper, eyes downcast, she threatened, “You just better wait, peckerwood.”
She spoke so softly that at first I didn’t register what she’d said. When it sank in, twenty-two years dropped away and I was back on the Number 31, the public transit bus that took me from my suburban elementary school to my West Philadelphia neighborhood each day. I was about eleven years old then, too, and one day a black girl my age leaned close the entire forty-five-minute ride, whispering in my ear as she tugged one of my braids. “You better tell me where you get off, cracker,” she said, “’cause I’m gonna get off with you and kick your butt.” I stared hard at the pages of my book until she got off, one stop before mine. Just a month ago, a strung-out man—probably homeless, perhaps mentally ill—came up to me on the street, “Give me a quarter,” he demanded. “Sorry,” I said, and kept walking. “Well then, fuck you, .white bitch!” he said. That’s mulatto
“This is a culture that doesn’t do well with ambiguity,” said one woman I interviewed. Indeed. When biracial people choose to embrace both racial heritages, they meet with confusion and criticism from both camps. When white-appearing biracial people tell white people of their black heritage, sometimes the white person will say reassuringly, “I never would have known.” Sometimes they exclaim, “You’re kidding!”
My sisters and I, like some biracial people, had home lives relatively uncomplicated by the subject of our race. We were loved by our parents and relatives, never challenged by them on our racial allegiances or entitlements. Outside the family, we have found both black and white people with whom we exchange love and respect, people who may be interested in this odd inheritance, but are not threatened or offended by it. Still, many people have felt threatened and offended by our mixed heritage, by the fact that we look white but take pride in being half-black. The camouflage of our skin is disturbing to them, irreconcilable. They—white and black alike—think we’re kidding, we’re lying, we’re confused.
I had a professor some years ago—a black woman—who said matter-of-factly that to be born black in this country is to be born with a hundred-pound weight on your back. “The question is,” she said, “how will you carry it?” To be biracial, it seems to me, is to be born with a weight that is anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty pounds. The question remains: how will each person carry it?