yesterday’s history

When I started reading this article I thought, “This is about to be some ‘tragic mulatto’ b.s.”  Much to my surprise, it isn’t really.  I think Sarah played the part of the tragic mulatto very well, and got exactly what she wanted and deserved.  I wonder if the congregation’s response would have been different if “Pinky” hadn’t been quite so pink, but maybe “Brownie” instead.  Just a thought.  I also like this piece of our history because once upon a time, in a former life in which I considered myself black, I was a nanny and I worked in Brooklyn Heights and I walked by that church every day and was very drawn to it.  Part of me knew… And part of me was so clueless.

On This Day in History: June 1
Rev. Beecher’s Freedom Auction

by Vernon Parker


On June 1, 1856, Henry Ward Beecher, minister of Plymouth (Congregational) Church, and an ardent supporter of the antislavery cause, held a public “auction” of a young mulatto slave named Sarah to dramatize the evils of slavery.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “she had been brought from a plantation near Staunton, Virginia.” When Sarah was called to the pulpit, she … “walked slowly, head bowed, and took a seat near the famous minister. She lifted her eyes, stared at the spellbound audience, and burst into sobs. Her plight tugged at the heart of the most stolid Congregationalist as Beecher’s inflamed rhetoric described her life. Daughter of a well-known white citizen, she had been put up for sale by her own father. The slave dealer involved contacted Beecher through a mutual friend and they struck a deal allowing Sarah to go north with the promise of either her return or the full manumission fee.”

The mock auction raised sufficient funds to purchase her freedom and buy her a modest home in Peekskill, New York.

The following is an excerpt from James H. Callender’s book Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights: “As the anti-slavery agitation increased, Mr. Beecher thundered his invectives against the slave-owners of the South, and many of the leading men of his church were said to be directors of the famous ‘Underground Railroad’ by which fugitive slaves were passed along from the South across the border to Canada. It was at the close of one of his most powerful sermons that Mr. Beecher said he had a little matter he wished to present to the congregation. No one had any idea as to what he was going to say and the people waited in profound silence.

“He then suddenly burst forth, ‘Sarah, come up here!’ As the audience gazed, a little mulatto girl arose in the body of the church, ran up the pulpit steps and took Mr. Beecher’s hand. Turning to the assembled multitude, he said — ‘This little girl is a slave, and I have promised her owner $1,200, his price for her, or she will be returned to slavery. Pass the baskets.’ A scarcely stifled sob arose from the almost three thousand present. Bills of all denominations, jewelry, and watches and chains were flung in the overflowing baskets and when the total was counted, Mr. Beecher announced, amid thunders of applause, that Sarah was free, and enough remained to strike the shackles from the limbs of several others.”

A tintype of Sarah, also known as “Pinky,” the young mulatto slave whose freedom was “auctioned” by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.


Thank you, Lee, for turning me on to this little “gem.”  Horrifying sums it up well.  I don’t know what content I find most horrifying.  I’m picking up lots of “tragic mulatto” and “jezebel” (the cover page photo!) innuendo though those specific terms aren’t used.  In fact, the passers don’t have to be mulatto at all.  As I’m constantly told, as a nation and a people we’re all mixed and there are plenty of “black” people that are lighter than some mulattoes such as myself.   I do like this notion of “one honest goal: the elimination of the invisible color boundary which for so many years unfairly kept him from his rightful place in the sun.”  We’re still workin’ on it.


…it seems well-nigh incredible that some five million Negroes have turned their backs on their own race and are passing as white. For almost a quarter of a century, this fantastic lie has been lived by large groups of Negroes with no sign of abatement despite the strong gains that have been made by the champions of anti-segregation.

In the year 1960 alone more than 60,000 negroes are expected to “disappear”, cross the invisible color line into the world of whites. These are not just dreamed up figures. They are actual facts. Just as it is a fact that no one ever reports a Negro to the Missing Persons Bureau unless they are absolutely sure the missing human isn’t passing.

Many shocking incidents were brought to light some years back in a sensational book, ‘Black Metropolis’ by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton. The authors claim that many “white negroes” as passers are called— hold strong positions in the white world as physicians, scientists, and public administrators—despite the fact that many such jobs are also held by Negroes unashamed of their race.

The late Walter White, himself a Negro, and one of the prime movers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, once attempted to clarify the problem of passing. He said: “Negroes naturally resent the loss of some of the brilliant minds which would be an asset to them in their grim struggle for survival. But if any Negro believes he will be happier living as a white and thereby escape the barbs and handicaps of prejudices, or if he believes he can use his ability and training to greater advantage on the other side of the racial line, most Negroes wish him well.”

When it comes to passing, although most Negroes today refuse to condone it, they will not tell on one another. Most seem to understand the reasoning that prompts lighter-hued members of their race wanting to cross over.

“We know there are stronger anti-discrimination laws than ever before,” they will tell you, “but when a negro has a white skin, he seems to have a compulsion to live the way of the people who have so long opposed him. He doesn’t seem to realize that scientists have proven that the very people who condemn him might not be in a position to do so.”

A scientist like those mentioned above is Dr. Caroline Day, of Atlanta University, who wrote in her famous Harvard African Studies: “The grim joke of the whole matter is that for 150 years and more the Negro has been absorbed and his descendants are constantly rubbing elbows with some of the very ones who are discussing them.”

Even the fact that people, who believe all passers are eventually found out because their children are sure to be black, are merely deluding themselves, hasn’t deterred the practise of passing. Science took the inherited color theory apart a long time ago, with the aid of such eminent savants as Amram Schienfeld, Dr. Ernest A. Hooten and the late Dr. Edward M. East, who theorized thus; “If one of the parents is pure white, the baby cannot he darker than the darker parent. If they both have Negro blood, the baby may be slightly darker than its parents hut the chances are against it.”

With the legalization of racial intermarriage approved in some 22 states, nobody has been able to upset their theory – though, obviously, chances to do so have been many.

Yet the “passers” themselves seldom worry about theories. The “permanent passer”, going over the line, never comes back. He prefers to end his days living a big white lie; and women passers who marry bear children and keep their secret for life.

Only under unusual circumstances, such as the one that befell the wife of a prominent socialite, does a sensational exposure ever occur. This was the Leonard Kip Rhinelander case, which rated lurid headlines when the socialite playboy sought to have his marriage to Alice Jones set aside. Rhinelander claimed his wife was colored and failed to tell him so. In her defense, Alice stripped to the waist and bared her breasts to the jury, thus providing the sensation-seeking New York Graphic with a classic composite-photo of this closed door session for its front page.

Besides the “permanent passer”, the “segmental passer” stands without guilt or censure. The “segmental passers” lead a dual life; whites by day, Negroes by night. You’ll often find them in jobs where opposition to Negroes is strong but secret-Some are telephone operators, receptionist, typists, clerks in large corporations and in department stores, where, though some Negroes are employed the unspoken policy is “Enough is enough.”

On Broadway, particularly, the Negro girl has a tough time getting a chorus or showgirl job. There is a story current of a Negro showgirl, allegedly passing as white, who was recognized by a popular Negro singer, but he refused to reveal her secret. He also reportedly wouldn’t talk to the girl, not because of her “passing” but because of her more than passing interest in a white socialite-playboy who met her nightly.

“Obviously she hasn’t learned yet that mixed marriages are no longer looked on with horror,” a Negro artist told INSIDE STORY, “so she’ll go on living her lie and, in the long run, probably find her heart broken because she feels she can’t reveal her secret to the man should he want to marry her. Life will never be easy for her. She not only sometimes has to listen to blasts against her race, but worry every moment about being exposed.”

While there’s no way of truly gauging the number of passers operating, some estimate is arrived at by studies of census reports, immigration records, vital statistics and information from other sources. Yet this does not take into account the ‘’segmental passer” or the passer who, in the past, was known as an “occasional” a reference to light-hued Negroes who occasionally went downtown to segregated areas and, as a lark, spent their money on white entertainment.

Actually, when it comes to “passing”, the shocked might as well face these facts: Passers not only go through life as white, they have children who look (and are) white. Any anthropologist will tell you that if a person has one-sixteenth or less of Negro blood—it is impossible to determine his or her ancestry.

Yet, the practice of passing still continues, much to the chagrin, not necessarily the shame, of the Negro who believes in living as he was born. To such a Negro, there can be only one honest goal: the elimination of the invisible color boundary which for so many years unfairly kept him from his rightful place in the sun. The passer, working in the movies, working as a white actress or a showgirl, or a model or a clerk, or a receptionist doesn’t think of this. He’s thinking of himself. Or herself. And that, to a good many Negroes, is a “shameful secret!

grateful for the choice

I mailed my Census form yesterday.  I must say that after all the hype, I was totally underwhelmed by the experience.  I checked the two boxes.  I can’t say it brought me any great feelings of validation.  I guess I thought they’d be asking some questions that went beyond race.  I also thought that “Negro” would be the only African American classification term offered since there was so much buzz about the word being used in 2010.  At any rate, I enjoyed this article.

More than black or white

By Annette John-Hall

Inquirer Columnist


For Kathrin P. Ivanovic, racial identity means a whole lot more than just black or white.

Her makeup runs the gamut.

“My mother is German and my birth father is African American with Cuban ancestry,” says Ivanovic, 29, director of development at the Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that services immigrants and refugees.

“Plus, my adopted dad is white, and I’m queer. Unfortunately, they don’t have a box for that.

“. . . I call myself a mixed chick.”

But when her 2010 U.S. Census form arrives in the mail this week (the 10-question form is being touted as the shortest in census history), Ivanovic will be satisfied to check black and white – which is really how she sees herself anyway.

Since the 2000 census, for millions of Americans like Ivanovic, “check one or more” will apply.

There is plenty to choose from, with the number of racial and ethnic categories at 63. In the 1990 census, there were only five designations offered.

It can be dizzying. If you’re, say, Asian, you can check any combination of Asian American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Guamanian, or Chamorro, Samoan, as well as write-in categories for Other Asian or Other Pacific Islander.

In addition, you can also note if you’re of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. That’s because since 1970, Hispanic was no longer recognized as an overarching classification.

Still with me? (And here I thought having Negro on the same line as the black or African American box was confusing.)

But I’m all for it, especially if it paints a more genuine picture of who we are – all 300 million of us. Doesn’t matter if only 2 percent of Americans were identified as more than one race in 2000. Nowadays, we’ve got more multiracial and multiethnic couples and children than ever before, which means the percentage is sure to increase this year.

Which in turn enables the government to allocate funds more equitably. Census data are used in everything from determining the number of congressmen your region gets to the assessing the amount of funding for your town’s bridge project to supporting health centers.

Race data also have driven the nation’s civil rights laws (how many people were denied the right to vote, how many were discriminated against in housing, for example) and are still used to monitor inequalities in health and education.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Truth is, the U.S. Census was historically more of an oppressor than an advocate, especially when it came to African Americans.

Racial count

From the time census data were first collected in 1790, when enumerators listed categories of free men and slaves, whites used the census to diminish African Americans.

“You can see why they had a slave category,” says MIT professor Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. “Southern slave owners wanted the least amount of information, thinking it would help abolitionists. And abolitionists wanted the most amount of information [to make their case].”

Throughout the 19th century and until 1930, census counters used categories such as quadroon (one-quarter black), octoroon (one-eighth black), and mulatto (half black) to describe any person who had a discernible amount of African American blood.

Like they could tell just from looking.

Even after 1930, Southern laws imposed the “one-drop rule” to its census enumerating, meaning they were to count as mulattos anyone who even looked remotely black – a mandate loosely applied by census counters nationwide.

“They used it for racial social science,” Nobles says. For example, they used census data to prove skewed theories (arguing, for instance, that biracial people – “the tragic mulatto” – were somehow weaker and suffered from higher death rates), which in turn helped legislators make the case against interracial marriage.

But even as the categories have expanded, some today are pushing for a separate, generic multiracial designation.

Ralina L. Joseph, a professor of communications at the University of Washington, worries that even though the data will show us as more diverse and multihued, they could be misinterpreted once again.

“I don’t want people to read the numbers and think that racism is over, that this is a post-racial moment,” says Joseph, who is biracial. “We should hope that people who are disenfranchised through race, class, and poverty levels should be identified as such.”

Some sociologists even insist that racial designations have no place on a census form, if it is indeed as simple as an objective count.

But in a multiracial, multiethnic society where even the president is a self-described “mutt,” Kathrin Ivanovic is grateful for the choice.

“I am mixed. It’s how I view the world, and in some ways it’s how the world views me,” she says. “To not be able to identify that way is dishonest to me personally.”

“The Census Taker” (1870) Harper’s Weekly

keith bardwell, please read this article

Just to catch you up to speed.  By the way, don’t worry about us.  We are doing just fine.  Thank you for your grave concern.  That you would go to such lengths as interfering with God’s blessing of love and devotion (I know, I know- only to certain couples) just to spare us a lifetime of confusion and exclusion is sweet.  But no thank you.  Times have changed, my friend.  I mean, you do seem to think of yourself as a kind of a friend of the mulattos.  A really ignorant and misinformed friend.  I see how it could happen.  For years (white)people were taught that race-mixing was wrong.  And if those people were desperate not to feel really racist, that belief was justified with feigned concern for the “spurious issue” which would result from interracial couplings.  That coupled with the “tragic mulatto” propaganda that has been bandied about the country since way back in the day… Well, I can see how you may have been lead astray.  I hope you can open your mind now.  After the couple of weeks I imagine you’ve been having, you really have no excuse.

w onesie

Are Mixed-Race Children Better Adjusted?

By JOHN CLOUD Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009

That Americans like answers in black and white, a cultural trait we confirmed last year when the biracial man running for President was routinely called “black”.

The flattening of Barack Obama’s complex racial background shouldn’t have been surprising. Many multiracial historical figures in the U.S. have been reduced (or have reduced themselves) to a single aspect of their racial identities: Booker T. Washington, Tina Turner, and Greg Louganis are three examples. This phenomenon isn’t entirely pernicious; it is at least partly rooted in our concern that growing up with a fractured identity is hard on kids. The psychologist J.D. Teicher summarized this view in a 1968 paper: “Although the burden of the Negro child is recognized as a heavy one, that of the Negro-White child is seen to be even heavier.”

But new research says this old, problematized view of multiracial identity is outdated. In fact, a new paper in the Journal of Social Issues shows that multiracial adolescents who identify proudly as multiracial fare as well as — and, in many cases, better than — kids who identify with a single group, even if that group is considered high-status (like, say, Asians or whites). This finding was surprising because psychologists have argued for years that mixed-race kids will be better adjusted if they pick a single race as their own.

The population of multiracial kids in the U.S. has soared from approximately 500,000 in 1970 to more than 6.8 million in 2000, according to Census data quoted in this pdf. In the early years, research on these kids highlighted their difficulties: the disapproval they faced from neighbors and members of their extended families; the sense that they weren’t “full” members in any racial community; the insecurity and self-loathing that often resulted from feeling marginalized on all sides. That simple but harsh playground question — “What are you?” — torments many multiracial kids. Psychologists call this a “forced-choice dilemma” that compels children to claim some kind of identity — even if only a half-identity — in return for social acceptance.

But the new Journal of Social Issues paper suggests this dilemma has become less burdensome in the age of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. The paper’s authors, a team led by Kevin Binning of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Miguel Unzueta of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, studied 182 multiracial high schoolers in Long Beach, Calif. Binning, Unzueta and their colleagues write that those kids who identified with multiple racial groups reported significantly less psychological stress than those who identified with a single group, whether a “low-status” group like African-Americans or a “high-status” group like whites. The multiracial identifiers were less alienated from peers than monoracial identifiers, and they were no more likely to report having engaged in problem behaviors, such as substance use or persistent school absence.

The writers theorize that multiracial kids who choose to associate with a single race are troubled by their attempts to “pass,” whereas those who choose to give voice to their own uniqueness find pride in that act. “Rather than being ‘caught’ between two worlds,” the authors write, “it might be that individuals who identify with multiple groups are better able to navigate both racially homogeneous and heterogeneous environments than individuals who primarily identify with one racial group.” The multiracial kids are able to “place one foot in the majority and one in the minority group, and in this way might be buffered against the negative consequences of feeling tokenized.”

In short, multiracial kids seem to create their own definitions for fitting in, and they show more psychological flexibility than those mixed-race kids who feel bound to one choice or another.

Fortunately, all these questions of racial identity are becoming less important, as we inch ever closer to the day when the U.S. has no racial majority. One of these days, after all, we will all be celebrating our multiracial pride.
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