The following is an excerpt from The Allure of Blackness among Mixed-Race Americans, 1862-1916 by Ingrid Dineen-Wimberly (October, 2019). The book is part of the Borderlands and Transcultural Studies series, a venue for the scholarly study of borderlands—of the encounters, intersections, and collisions between peoples and cultures. Dineen-Wimberly is a professor of history at University of LaVerne, Point Mugu. She is the coeditor of Shape Shifters: Journeys across Terrains of Race and Identity (Nebraska, 2019).
I teach American history. There is a moment that takes place in every class, a moment unlike any other I have experienced while teaching history. It occurs when first I utter the word “race.” Heartbeats quicken, eyes meet, a nervous silence fills the room. No one, including me, knows where the conversation will lead. The quiet time that exists between my first mention of the word and the statement to follow is almost reverent. It is in this moment, as I look at the rows of squirming students who sit before me, that I am stilled by a quiet anguish. My eyes connect with the exhausted, the resentful, or the hopeful student who believes that maybe this time he or she will have a chance to right some past injustice or indiscretion. It is a visceral snapshot of America’s inability to reconcile with its own racial past.
The moment renders a historic discomfort, far older than the students who carry its burden. The suspense is intensified by the difficulty students experience while they search for any visual cues that might tell them something about my racial identity—for it may appear ambiguous. I must admit I have had this experience not only with students but with scholars as well. On one of the many trips I took to conduct research for this book I was asked by a brilliant archivist from a prestigious East Coast university, “Excuse me, may I ask what you are?”
I knew she did not want to know about my profession, my gender, or my religion. Nor did she want to know about my country or state of origin, as we had covered that territory the previous day. Adorned with a smile, I said, “I’m Black.” To which she replied: “Really? Are you sure?” As if to get a better look, she tilted her head slightly. With the same smile, I said, “Yes, really.” Suddenly an older woman of African American descent, having overheard our conversation, came out of her office. Her willingness to intercede was palpable, like a relative who might rescue one sibling from another. She stood between us and proclaimed, “See—I told you! I knew she was Black.” It was bizarre and yet quite moving. I saw in her eyes a grandmother who desired to protect me. One could feel the enormity of the moment.
I handled the inquisition with the dignity and grace it called for, as I am particularly sensitive to the historic racial pathology out of which this type of conversation emerges. It was an amazing exchange. There we were, three generations of women all identified as Black, each having different experiences and looking different from the others. I felt empathy for each of us. The archivist, aware of the awkwardness her question produced, offered measured amends: “Well, no offense—I just wanted to know.” I opened my arms, lifted my voice, and assured her that I really didn’t mind. I pointed to the paintings that hung on a wall directly behind her. One was of Dr. Mordecai Johnson and the other, Frederick Douglass, both of whom shared a mixed-race ancestry similar to mine. I explained that my father was Irish and commented, “Our people have always been mixed to some degree or another; I suppose we have been having this conversation for some time.”
I relish those awkward occasions because everyone, including me, is suddenly mindful of the limits on their understanding and even their misconceptions about how race functions in America. But when these types of conversations happen in the classroom, I usually offer a caveat about how to analyze race with integrity. If, for example, we are to discuss race relations during the nineteenth century, I often explain to students that we are not necessarily talking about ourselves. Rather we are learning about people who typically survive only as ghosts in the archives whom we then might study. I ask them to avoid carrying twenty-first-century ideals back into the past, and thereby to respect the dead. Interestingly, when I suggest that we study a particular period on its own terms, students tend to lower their own defenses, sit back with a sense of ease, and cease to hide their preconceptions. They begin to talk.
The Black-White paradigm continues to dominate the study of U.S. race relations. The vast majority of college students in the U.S. have a sense of the terror and tragic history of slavery; as such, they usually want to start the conversation there. Their comments echo the binary division of racial roles, which assigns authority to those who are White-identified and submission to those who are not. The conversation, if undirected, often results in any one of the following archetypes. The most common image is that of the White master in charge of deferent Black slaves. If the period under discussion is extended to include the twentieth century, students might describe sturdy, working-class Whites of various ethnicities who struggled to make it while they competed with the massed victims of Jim Crow. Without question, a discussion about Black Americans during the twentieth century will include mention of Black artists, singers, and athletes. They might recall icons of Black celebrity like Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, or Hank Aaron. They might even remember a few beloved Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, or Zora Neal Hurston. But most assuredly they will round off the discussion with the coming of a King—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who would set the world straight in matters of race.
It is shamefully apparent that within the American education system, public storytelling has taken the place of a thoughtful, in-depth understanding of American history. After twelve years of education, most students enter universities with, at most, an unsophisticated understanding of racial processes in the U.S. Their basic impression is that, in the beginning, which is defined as the early 1600s, poor White colonists came to America, killed Indians by either war or disease, enslaved Africans, and then eventually felt bad about those deeds. According to this narrative, since a commitment to freedom lay at the very basis of American identity, the master class imbued with such ideas felt compelled to make amends. Once the Africans were freed from the horrors and brutality of human bondage, their lives were gradually improved by a sort of noblesse oblige. Black American progress culminated with full equality as a result of the civil rights movement. A slightly different version of the same scenario may include some discussion of the embittered autonomy engendered by the Black Power movement and epitomized by Malcolm X. This reduction of the African American experience to a few images is quite common. During any of these exchanges, one could almost hear the old Negro spiritual, made popular by Louis Armstrong in 1938, playing faintly in the background:
Nobody know the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody know the trouble I’ve seen
It is all quite disconcerting. What concerns me most is how little highly educated and otherwise informed people know about the complexities of the racial formation process in the United States. There is a tendency to exaggerate the centrality of White people in all aspects of U.S. history and to cast Black people as without power, in a position merely one step above the so-called noble savage—the Indigenous American. Even more disturbing, Black Americans are often depicted as one-dimensional, passive victims who would have remained in chains had it not been for the goodwill of constitutionally minded White men of compassion. Rarely does anyone question how we came to define people as Black or White. A middle ground, a mixed identity lying between the races, is rarely imagined.