On the blog Mixed Race America, Jennifer ponders the question "how much does mixed race matter?"
We believe that racial categories are stable--we fit people into one of the slots on the racial pentagram (white-black-Latino-American Indian-Asian American) or hexagram (add Middle-Eastern/Arab). Multiracial people defy this kind of easy categorization.
[Aside 2: Although it can and should be argued that there's really nothing easy about racial classification systems and that they've always been flexible and liable to change]
Yet, as the Harris-Perry example above and our own president, Barack Obama, demonstrates, even when someone has parents of two different racial backgrounds, one may identify not as bi- or multi-racial but with the minoritized racial category. And it's probably not a coincidence that both of these very public mixed-race/black-white figures identify as African American, given the ways in which our country has treated (and continues to treat) people who identify as or are visibly identifiable as black.
The title of this post, "How much does mixed race matter?" has to do with whether or not having knowledge of someone's mixed-race background matters in terms of how this person is regarded. Now that I know Melissa Harris-Perry has a white mother and a black father, does that change my opinion about her and her show? Now that I know that Alex Wagner is half-Asian, does that change how I view her commentary on MSNBC?Like Jennifer, I grapple with this question about mixed race identity. As a parent to a child who in this present, historical iteration of racial categorization is considered mixed, I wonder what the conversation about mixed race identity means to the broader reality of persistent racial inequality and antiblack bias. In the face of such inequality, what does the mixed identity mean and why do we care so much about it?
As I consider these questions, I am reminded of a post Ta-Nehisi Coates shared on his Atlantic blog during Confederate History Month. The image above, of a group of emancipated slaves from Louisiana, at was included with Coates' post.
In honor of Confederate History Month, I present a group of emancipated Louisiana slaves. The following letter was written by Colonel George Hanks, who commanded a Union Corps composed entirely of black troops. Hanks was attempting to raise money for the education of freed slaves:
To the Editor of Harper's Weekly:
The group of emancipated slaves whose portraits I send you were brought by Colonel Hanks and Mr. Phillip Bacon from New Orleans, where they were set free by General Butler. Mr. Bacon went to New Orleans with our army, and was for eighteen months employed as Assistant-Superintendent of Freedmen, under the care of Colonel Hanks. He established the first school in Louisiana for emancipated slaves, and these children were among his pupils. He will soon return to Louisiana to resume his labor.
Rebecca Huger is eleven years old, and was a slave in her father's house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearance she is perfectly white. Her complexion, hair, and features show not the slightest trace of negro blood. In the few months during which she has been at school she has learned to read well, and writes as neatly as most children of her age. Her mother and grandmother live in New Orleans, where they support themselves comfortably by their own labor. The grandmother, an intelligent mulatto, told Mr. Bacon that she ad "raised" a large family of children, but these are all that are left to her.
Rosina Downs is not quite seven years old. She is a fair child, with blonde complexion and silky hair. Her father is in the rebel army. She has one sister as white as herself, and three brothers who are darker. Her mother, a bright mulatto, lives in New Orleans in a poor hut, and has hard work to support her family.
Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky. Three out of five boys in any school in New York are darker than he. Yet this white boy, with his mother, as he declares, has been twice sold as a slave. First by his father and "owner," Alexander Wethers, of Lewis County, Virginia, to a slave-trader named Harrison, who sold them to Mr. Thornhill of New Orleans. This man fled at the approach of our army, and his slaves were liberated by General Butler. The boy is decidedly intelligent, and though he has been at school less than a year he reads and writes very well. His mother is a mulatto; she had one daughter sold into Texas before she herself left Virginia, and one son who, she supposes, is with his father in Virginia. These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December, and were taken by their protector, Mr. Bacon, to the St. Lawrence Hotel on Chestnut Street. Within a few hours, Mr. Bacon informed me, he was notified by the landlord that they must therefore be colored persons, and he kept a hotel for white people. From this hospitable establishment the children were taken to the "Continental," where they were received without hesitation.Charles Taylor, who Colonel Hanks describes as a "little white boy" with the appearance of "the unmixed white race," was "twice sold as a slave" by his "father and owner." Despite his mixture and "visible whiteness," Charles Taylor was trapped by a system of forced labor and exploitation as visibly black children were. In the face of the structural reality of slavery what did Charles Taylor's being mixed mean?
Wilson Chinn is about 60 years old, he was "raised" by Isaac Howard of Woodford County, Kentucky. When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans. This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters "V. B. M." Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp. Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.
Augusta Boujey is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children.
Mary Johnson was cook in her master's family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master. The occasion was that one morning she was half an hour behind time in bringing up his five o'clock cup of coffee. As the Union army approached she ran away from her master, and has since been employed by Colonel Hanks as cook.
Isaac White is a black boy of eight years; but none the less intelligent than his whiter companions. He has been in school about seven months, and I venture to say that not one boy in fifty would have made as much improvement in that space of time.
Robert Whitehead--the Reverend Mr. Whitehead perhaps we ought to style him, since he is a regularly-ordained preacher--was born in Baltimore. He was taken to Norfolk, Virginia, by a Dr. A. F. N. Cook, and sold for $1525; from Norfolk he was taken to New Orleans where he was bought for $1775 by a Dr. Leslie, who hired him out as house and ship painter. When he had earned and paid over that sum to his master, he suggested that a small present for himself would be quite appropriate. Dr. Leslie thought the request reasonable, and made him a donation of a whole quarter of a dollar. The reverend gentleman can read and write well, and is a very stirring speaker. Just now he belongs to the church militant, having enlisted in the United States army.
A large photograph of the whole group which you reproduce has been taken, and cartes de visite of the separate figures. They are for sale at the rooms of the National Freedman's Relief Association, No. 1 Mercer Street, New York, or I will send them by mail on receipt of the price: $1 for the large picture, 25 cents each for the small ones. The profits to go to the support of the schools in Louisiana.
If you'd like to weigh in on this question, feel free to do so here in the comments section or over on Facebook and Google+. The floor is open.