How Diversity Will Alter Black History 

A changing population will help shed more light on America’s multiracial past. 

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(The Root)—This is part 3 of a three-part series. To see the previous stories, click here and here.

Time was, the social construct of the one-drop rule made United States history either black or white. The rule emerged from the South as a way to facilitate slavery and implement Jim Crow segregation. But while the courts and the civil rights movement have dismantled legal segregation, vestiges of the one-drop rule still linger.

But now, 7 million Americans self-identify as multiracial, quickly changing the meaning of who is black, white, Asian, Hispanic or other. For some, it raises questions about how history is perceived by future generations, black history specifically. Will there still be a need for Black History Month?

“We’ve been biracial or a multiracial country since the 17th century,” Bernard W. Kinsey told The Root. He and his wife, Shirley, are touring their Kinsey Collection, a national museum exhibit of African-American art and history dating back to the 1600s.

“America is the only country in the world where having one drop of black blood still makes you black,” Kinsey continued. “We operate on this notion of color as a basis of identity in America. I’ve been to 94 countries, and no other country operates quite like America does with this notion of color.”

Douglas A. Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, told The Root that a multiracial America will only bring to the surface what has been hidden for centuries.

“All American history has always been multiracial, at least certainly since the early 1600s,” Blackmon told The Root. “It’s not a question of whether there has been a multiracial history, but whether it’s been acknowledged or specifically understood.

“It’s even something today that people tend to be confused about,” Blackmon continued. “At family reunions, there would be white people who are descended from a particular plantation or farm with the same last name as a lot of the African Americans there. I frequently will say that it may be a bit of a mystery today exactly who is related, but back in 1865 everybody knew who was related to whom. The multiracial history was suppressed, especially during the segregation era. Now we have this openness to current multiracial ethnicity that allows for a more honest reckoning of long-standing multiracial issues.”

John Hanc recently wrote in the New York Times about just that. Rock Hall, a Georgian mansion in suburban Lawrence, N.Y., was the former home of Josiah Martin, a sugar planter who built it in 1767. He moved to the American colonies from Antigua after living through a slave uprising. The historic house museum, Hanc says, has a new story, including tales about the lives of slaves and domestic workers who have previously existed in the shadows.

“Their part of the story is now coming into clearer view—and it appears to have been a more complex role than one might have imagined,” Hanc writes. “Evidence collected by Chris Matthews, a professor of anthropology at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and Ross Rava, an independent scholar, suggests both a greater interconnectedness between family and slaves and at the same time, a limited autonomy for the Africans. The result of their nearly decade-long digging was published this month in the Long Island History Journal, a scholarly publication, and it depicts Rock Hall as what professor Matthews calls an ‘Afro-European creation.’ ”