My three-times great-grandfather, Britton, is listed in the census as “mulatto” as are his wife and children, including my great-great grandfather James Henry. They were free people of color. My first “Cumbo” ancestor here in the U.S. was a freed slave named Emanuel. Britton and James Henry are his direct descendants.
Then, when James Henry becomes an adult, he is listed in the census as “white” as are his wife and children. Meanwhile, his siblings – Junius, Noah – are still listed as “mulatto.” My great-great grandfather was “passing.”
Just that term carries so much weight – the idea that people would want to, need to “pass” as white – I don’t even know how to put that in terms I can understand, probably because I’ve never tried to “pass” as another race, probably because the thought has never even occurred to me to try. But also because the idea is so absurd to me – that one group of people can assign such value to their skin tone as to be able to oppress, even own, people who they deem to be of a different skin tone – I can’t grasp that intellectually even as I see it lived day to day.
I’m stuck because these very concepts of race are so arbitrary. The idea that Britton is mulatto because he has both black and white (and probably Native American) ancestors in close proximity to him geneaologically, the idea that I am “white” because all my close ancestors identified as white – these are absurd concepts. And yet, they are not just concepts, they are realities with very hard-edged consequences.
My great-great-grandfather James Henry moved away from his family – just a couple hundred miles away – and took on the designator of “white.” I can only assume he did this deliberately. I don’t yet know why he made the choice when his siblings didn’t. A specific catalyst, something in his particular temperament, a desire for “better” for his children when “white” always meant “better.”
I’m trying to write my way through these questions, and they are heavy. They weigh down the ink and push it deep into the pages – the black ink on white paper – these designators do not fade away.
My family, weighted with questions and history and surely pain. Black, white – it’s never that easy.