All Boxed In
Nannie gave me my first lessons–and anxieties–about race. My great-grandmother was pretty damn light. So much so that I remember being nervous during grandparents day at Weisser Park Elementary School. Kids’ grandparents would show up sometime in the afternoon and sit in on our classes. We’d introduce them to our fellow classmates and perform poetry or songs on our recorders–terrible renditions that only a grandparent would love. I recall being simultaneously excited and lightweight shook at the thought of Nannie and Papa showing up to my class, and I knew it had everything to do with a very light-skinned black woman claiming to be kin to my little brown self. I just knew that one of my white classmates would question how we were related.
Perhaps this anxiety stems from the one of two times in my life I can recall Nannie being visibly upset with me. One ordinary afternoon, I was sitting on her lap and decided that there was no more perfect time to ask why her skin was white. (Yes, that’s the term I used.) Nannie got upset, and I knew then that what I said had hit a nerve so deep that I’d never get an answer from her. I shut up about it, and never mentioned Nannie’s complexion to her again. It was much later when I discovered what it meant to be “mixed” or “biracial” and the integral role blackness played in those designations, or one’s inability to be described as such. I’m almost sure the issue was clarified in a school lunchroom when a classmate, technically mixed, offered the quick and dirty version of the one-drop rule.
Of course, if Nannie had been born, say, 70 years later, perhaps she would have wished to check a box that would have identified her as “more” than colored–the term she’d often use to inquire as to if the person I was talking to her about was black. On the first U.S. census that Nannie would’ve been included on, 1920, she could have been identified as mulatto, or having at least some white “blood.” Yet since Nannie had been adopted as a baby by two black parents, my guess is they counted her as black, and kept it moving. Not that mulatto would have been an appellation Nannie could have held on to for long. After the 1920 census, all the mulattoes became Negroes: equally disenfranchised. It would be eighty years before the government would formally hear the voices of mulattoes 2.0, now known as the mixed-race, wanting a separate category–again.
What many members of this movement might do–and actually did–in pleading their case for the “right” to check more than one box is retroactively, anachronistically identify Nannie as biracial. The presumption, of course, being that hypodescent, or having a child’s identity rest solely upon that of the most racially subordinate parent, is an insufficient descriptor. Although “multiracial” is not an official, separate category on the census–that effort failed in 2000–the government now allows folks identifying as mixed-race to check more than one box, thereby permitting people like Nannie to have (governmental) access to and legally claim whiteness (or something else vehemently not black) in ways they haven’t had since 1920, and further legitimate that effort by taking black historical figures and recasting them as biracial.
And that’s fine, I guess. Who am I to tell another person which box(es) to be “confined” by, even if it is just for a governmental project that presumably employs the results to disperse federal funds and whatnot to American communities? I suppose what rubs me wrong in this move towards post- and multiraciality and this latest round of obsession with the American mixed-race, is how narrowly we have to construct blackness in order to justify the desire to check more than one box. I emphasize blackness because the relationship between black and white has been–and continues to be–central to the way race in this part of the New World was established, and must remain the conduit through which we continue to understand it in an American context. But I digress. Black identity, if anything, is inherently mixed-race. Nannie can attest to that. Furthermore, black identity is the exact opposite of racial identity based upon biological constructions, which is what mixed-race relies upon at its core, i.e. My parents are of two different (biological) racial backgrounds, therefore I’m mixed-race. Blackness is not about science, if you will. It just strikes me as odd that a govermental form employed to enact social policy marks an occasion for many to express what they presume is their unique biological diversity.
Maybe all this is extra box checking is the reason why I’m not all that offended by the revivification of the term Negro for this year’s census. I think endeavoring to check as many boxes as one can may be more of a sign for us to pretend that we’ve somehow moved beyond this tricky, complicated thing we like to call race. Mixed-race is ostensibly mulatto sans tragedy, because some of us no longer have to be stuck in the tar. The tar, that’s part of what Negro is about. Many folks have expressed outrage because the term Negro reminds one, for example, of Portugal’s heavy involvement in the slave trade (hence the term), colored only signs, and other forms of Jim Crow. And maybe that’s why I don’t mind Negro so much, because in this political climate, in this culture of racial amnesia, I want to remember the historical context the name carries with it. So much so that I will request that the NAACP not bury it during their annual conference this year. I don’t want to romanticize Jim Crow here. What I do want to do, however, is point out that perhaps it’s important for us to remember that as we relish in our recent “successes,” we’re not that far from the back of the bus, from maintaining our humanity under the seemingly never-ending process of dehumanization by powerful forces outside of us, especially when such traditional family values are being espoused on cable news everyday.
But that’s not all blackness is. I may be be biased, but black folks, in my estimation, have always been so much more than a perpetually denied, downtrodden people. There’s a pretty rich life down here in the land of hypodescent; some of my favorite black people were Negroes. I think Nannie got upset with me not because I reminded her of not being able to access her biraciality, but because I hadn’t yet learned to associate her with that rich fabric of blackness. I was strictly relying on my reading of her body. And it’s hard to read a chapter book when you haven’t quite finished the primer. Now that I’ve perused a book or two and learned that it’s not blood or the perpetual state of denial that defines blackness, if I have to pick a box, the black one, or even the Negro one–in certain cases–is cool with me. No need to check out. Not for me, at least.