I wouldn’t even attempt to parse the political motives behind the flap over whether Senator Harry Reid (D, NV) should resign his seat because of his alleged comment that Barack Obama was a strong candidate to be the nation’s first black president because he is fair-skinned and speaks well, all reported in Game Change, by Time magazine reporter Mark Halperin and New York magazine writer John Heilemann.
But there is no question that the “controversy” has raised discussion about the relative advantage of race mixture among black people and the tangle that is race identity in the US. On radio talk shows and the Internet chatter, among black folks there is consensus of the truth of what Reid said, but there is also roiling debate about what it means within the race.
Americans of mixed racial heritage have for some time grown restless with categories that force them to choose a single racial identity. In the black community, the notion of biracialism or multiracialism has irked some not just because of worries about watered-down race identity but because of legitimate concerns about watered-down numbers in the US Census and everything that flows from it.
But like it or not, Americans are slowly grappling with notions of a post-race nation, which doesn’t mean that distinctions will disappear but that they cannot be so finely drawn as in the past.
In 2006, I reviewed Mixed, an anthology of short stories by people of mixed racial heritage that went beyond the mythology of the tragic mulatto to examine how complex this thing called race can be. That same year I reviewed When White is Black by John A. Martin, forced to ponder his complicated racial heritage (black, white, and Seminole Indian) when his mother died and the confused coroner had to ask about her race. There is appearance (and the temptation to quick categorization) and then there is genealogy. The genealogy part hasn’t always been easy because so much race mixing among blacks had been unacknowledged – illegal even until the famous Loving case that ended anti-miscegenation laws.
My husband Vernon Ford and I have reviewed several books on the subject: sharp examination of the “one drop” rule in What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America; changes in laws against race mixing in What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America; the curious case of a white man – a wealthy and prominent one at that – who reversed the typical flow of blacks passing for white to surreptiously pass for a black Pullman porter for the love of a black woman in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. My favorite on the subject is Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The author, Clarence E. Walker, argues that Jefferson and Hemings are rightly the “founding parents” of the nation, signifying how long and deep race mixing is in the American bloodline.
In all this brouhaha about Reid’s comment, and criticism of President Obama for not doing more than accepting Reid’s apology, I wonder what more he can do. Americans like to talk around race and I can’t imagine them genuinely welcoming a president – particularly a black president – actually talking about it. But I’d hate to see us lose this teachable moment and not at least educate ourselves on the topic.