Skip to main content

Biracial, and also black

By Martha S. Jones, Special to CNN
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
"My mother was of a darker complexion. ...My father was a white man," abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in the autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." "My mother was of a darker complexion. ...My father was a white man," abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in the autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave."
HIDE CAPTION
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
Famous, biracial and black
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Professor Martha Jones was struck when multiple students noted their mixed race identities
  • Their stories prompted her to share that she, too, is biracial
  • You can be biracial and black, Jones writes

Editor's note: Martha S. Jones is a professor of history, law and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan. She is writing a family memoir on mixed-race identity. This is the second piece in a Black History Month series that explores evolving African-American identity. The first looked at the 'white' student who integrated the University of Mississippi. The next, on February 19, will answer your questions about being biracial and also black.

(CNN) -- My winter 2010 seminar began the way I start every class. I made introductory remarks about themes and requirements for my course on the history of race, law and marriage in the United States.

"Now," I prompted, "let's go around. Tell us about yourself and why you chose this course."

Professor Martha Jones
Professor Martha Jones

This introduction was routine. But what I heard was anything but the norm: "My mother is black and my father is white." "I'm in an interracial relationship."

Ordinarily, I am silent, listening and taking notes. But by the time I heard a third student say "I am mixed-race, from a mixed race family," I had set down my notebook and was perched at the edge of my seat.

"Me, too," I heard myself say. And with that, I knew that the class would be anything but routine. Until that moment, I had always told a neater story about my identity. I was, simply put, black. And about my mother being white? That had been irrelevant for me and my "one drop rule" generation.

My students had another perspective.

Everything about my family was mixed up. My mother was from the North, of the working class, and a German Catholic who only glimpsed Protestant kids across the lines of East Buffalo's fractured terrain. My father was from North Carolina, a child of the black middle class and a Methodist with a bishop for an uncle who refused to preside over their interfaith nuptials.

They later joked that this difference -- Protestant versus Catholic -- was the ruin of their marriage. But it wasn't. He was black and she was white, and their 1957 union was prohibited by law in North Carolina, where my father was raised.

CNN documentary examines racial identity
Mark Whitaker: One man's search for family identity
Being black and 'Ambiguous' in America
Growing up black and middle-class

When they moved our small family from Harlem to a predominantly white suburb, there they met Jim Crow: red-lining, restrictive covenants and recalcitrant neighbors. Once the bomb threats passed, we spent years in awkward isolation.

My parents were social pariahs while we, their three children, were regrettable unfortunates. I don't recall the moment in 1967 when the United States Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia. My parents were in the midst of a trial separation, making celebrating our family difficult to do.

But even in sunnier moments, my family rarely acknowledged the social fact of our biracial identity. It was the era of the one drop rule, a view of race that deemed a person with any African ancestry, however remote, to be black.

We were Negroes -- later black, then African-American -- and nothing about our mother's whiteness or our own ambiguous bodies altered that.

"What are you?" schoolmates queried. I can't say that we were asked this more often than other children, but I know that no response elicited more vitriol than the clarification that we were black. The moniker "Casper" (as in ghost or spook) stuck, some backyards were off limits and occasionally fists flew.

Still, we held fast to our one-drop identities.

America largely believed itself organized around a racial binary. It was good to know where you stood, even if it was an awkward fit.

Much of my adult life was guided by the view that, however others might misapprehend me, I was black. And in my circles were friends and colleagues with whom I shared the one-drop identity.

Yes, we had a parent who was not African-American. But that was a quiet fact, one that our bodies might admit but our voices rarely uttered.

Why was that? Perhaps foregrounding a nonblack parent might lead to the charge that we were distancing ourselves from the stigma of blackness. Perhaps we'd be perceived as trying to pass for something that we were not. Perhaps we'd be viewed with suspicion, our loyalties questioned in a world that so often pitted black against white.

Mostly I think we were black because it fit, because it felt right, and because racial identity as a social construction is rooted in more than the fact of one's paternity.

And under the regime of the one-drop rule, I never knew there was an alternative.

Until I had that "me, too" moment in the classroom.

There, I was confronted with student stories that sounded not very different from my own. The mixed race origins of their families had also required a sorting out of identity. They talked about the dynamics of family estrangement but also of love that defied ideas about a color line. They wrestled with social scenes: friendship, dating, and dormitory life where race still seemed to matter. They fretted about checking boxes for college admissions.

But something was different.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

As I listened to their stories, it became clear that my students were not adherents to the one-drop rule that had given my generation its place in the national matrix of race.

Yes, they were African-American. This was reflected in their choices of sororities, churches and political organizations. At the same time, they were mixed-race people. Their personal narratives were about lives spent moving back and forth and in between.

And they militantly refused to check just one box.

Our numbers are growing. During the 2010 census, more than 9 million Americans reported that they were more than one race, an increase of 32% from 2000.

It is the possibility that we can be black and be something else that my students urged me to confront.

If I abandoned the one drop rule, who might I be? Both, neither, something else?

Today I agree with my students: All of the above.

How do you self-identify? Has that changed over your life? Share your experiences in the comments, on Twitter @CNNLiving or on CNN Living's Facebook page.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Living reflects your life. From advice for modern parents to the freshest news in food: It's all here.
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
They get no tips and none of the glory, but if they didn't show up, the restaurant would go up in flames.
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
sandra mellott
They're not sexually attracted to other people. But why don't people believe or understand them?
Being an addict's mom: "It's just a very, very sad place."
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Fall brings a wave of new young adult novels, including Carl Hiaasen's first teen novel and the latest from "Pretty Little Liars" author Sara Shephard.
Kendall Jenner is trying to find her own footing in the high-fashion world without her polarizing siblings and parents.
updated 5:40 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Colleges promote affirmative consent in sexual conduct by encouraging students to seek an enthusiastic "yes."
Tommy Hilfiger home
At his Miami home: "If it's not shagadelic or groovy, it's not coming into the house."
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
cara reedy
Cara Reedy was born with dwarfism, and that's all that some people can see.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT