We found out this week that the NAACP’s city director in Spokane, Washington is a white woman who has been pretending to be black for years. In fact, Rachel Dolezal has invented an entire mythology for herself complete with an ersatz family history and an incident of racially-charged hate mail that she appears to have faked.
Americans have a strange relationship to the notion of race. We tend to think of it as an immutable, empirically verifiable condition, but that is not the case. Ask a geneticist to define race and they will probably stare at you in confusion. Race is a cultural construct that evolved in our country as a way to justify and sustain slavery. It is not much inherited as imposed.
The disconnect between our racial assumptions and the real world has produced an endless string of odd outcomes down through the centuries. The Dolezal incident is perhaps a good excuse to go on a tour of some of the more counter-intuitive, strange, or ironic stories to emerge from our tortured relationship with race:
– It took time for the connection between “blackness” and slavery to congeal in American culture and law. A story from early colonial Virginia provides a glimpse of a time before that connection had been forged.
A slave from Angola named Anthony Johnson completed his contract around 1635. Lifetime slavery had not yet been established as an institution. Johnson obtained property and became a slave-holder himself, even owning white slaves. We know of him primarily from a suit he filed in the 1650’s to regain custody of a runaway slave.
– During this period, thousands of Irish were shipped to North America and the West Indies as slaves, including somewhere between 10,000 and 60,000 who were sent to the sugar plantations of Barbados.
– Many laws were passed in the Colonial period to create a presumption that dark-skinned people were slaves. On the other hand, there was never any law that expressly protected whites from slavery. That created a hole that anyone could theoretically fall into. A petition to the North Carolina legislature in 1800 survives to demonstrate this point.
In a strange twist, a white woman named Laura had been raised as a slave. When her situation was discovered a petition for manumission was submitted to the legislature. No action was taken on her petition, leaving her and any of her potential offspring to remain in bondage.
– Right through the height of the plantation era, there were a handful of freed blacks who managed to not only hold slaves, but to own them in significant numbers. It was a tenuous and irony-filled situation to be sure, but it did occasionally occur. As late as 1860, William Ellison, a freed slave in South Carolina, owned 63 slaves and a highly-profitable plantation. He was one of the wealthiest men in the state and a fervent supporter of the Confederacy.
– For poorer whites, slavery loomed as a constant potential threat if they could not definitively prove their heritage. The strange case of a white woman named Alexina Morrison demonstrates the problem. In 1857 in Louisiana, she sued to prove that she had been abducted into slavery. Her trial was a bizarre spectacle and the court case was interrupted by the Civil War. Technically, her case remains open and unresolved, a fitting irony.
– Radio and recorded music exploded as popular entertainment in the period after World War II. A unique niche developed around “race records,” recordings by black entertainers.
Despite their growing popularity, major outlets would not sell or play them, limiting the earning potential of writers and performers. A producer at Sun Records in Memphis made a name for himself by reproducing black hits with white artists. He got his big break when a handsome young white singer named Elvis Presley recorded “That’s Alright Mama.” The song had originally been written and recorded by Arthur Crudup, a black blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. Crudup continued to work as a field laborer and bootlegger and died in poverty. Mr. Presley, on the other hand…well, you may have heard of him.
– In 1961 John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me. The book was an account of his experiences traveling the in the Jim Crow South under an assumed black identity.
– In 1991, a successful white rap performer who called himself “Vanilla Ice” earned scorn for manufacturing a rough and tumble “urban” biography. He claimed “I’m from the streets. That’s where I learned to dance and rap.” Those “streets” were primarily in the affluent Dallas suburb of Carrollton. Mr. Van Winkle was eventually shaken-down by early Hip-hop pioneer Suge Knight. By turning the Sun Records model on its head, quite literally, Knight may have marked the end of an era in white financial exploitation of black art.
– A recent genetic study demonstrated an interesting fact about racial identity in the US. Across the southern states, between one in seven (South Carolina) and one in ten (Georgia) of each state’s white populations carry enough black ancestry to have qualified as black under those states’ Jim Crow laws. It may be unusual for a woman like Rachel Dolezal to try to “pass” as black, but passing as white was a crucial and successful survival strategy for millions of Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.
Rachel Dolezal’s case is certainly odd, but placed in the context of our racial history it isn’t all that remarkable.
As a Saturday Night Live performer, Eddie Murphy made a living alternatively ridiculing and capitalizing on stereotypes of African-Americans. A short film he made for the show spoofed Griffin’s Black Like Me. Here’s an example of what Rachel Dolezal was giving up by deciding to live as a black woman, according to Murphy:
Enjoy Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s original version of “That’s Alright Mama.”