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.’ ”
To be sure, as historians uncover more findings like those at Rock Hall, America’s multiracial history will continue to be pushed to the fore.
“How does that affect perceptions of the past?” Blackmon said in response to a question about a multiracial America. “It certainly mitigates against the idea that there is some power so great and so genetically ingrained that there is a sort of insuperable divide between black and white in the way that people see history. It’s harder to see things that way when you acknowledge that there is a whole lot what would be called black blood running in the veins of a lot of white people, and there’s even more European blood running in the veins of African Americans. That is what current-day genetics tells us—that we even have more of a shared history than we might think.”
As the definition of race broadens or changes, Kinsey says, it is incumbent upon African Americans to collect and preserve their individual family histories.
“It’s your responsibility to collect your own history,” he said. “We created a program called S.O.S., or Save Our Stuff, because we as a people throw away more of our history than any other group I can think of. We don’t value who we are, and we don’t believe we are worth anything. Part of that is because we don’t have any lineage or connection to our past. One of the things we stress during our talks is this notion of holding onto your family history, taking photographs, putting names on the backs of pictures, recording videos of grandparents to capture these stories about the past that is so fragile and easily lost to memory and more importantly to death.”
Kinsey argues that libraries and museums hold some black history, but it is essential for families to collect their own stories.
“No one is going to hold onto the Kinsey family story but the Kinseys, because no one cares about the Kinsey family but us,” he said. “So what we’re stressing is that you start with your own family and then you branch out to what my wife, Shirley, says is our collective history, which is the broader history.”
Indeed, more and more, African-American history is on display at prominent museums across the country. Besides the Kinsey Collection, there is Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City’s Harlem and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which is slated to open in 2015.
And prominent scholars continue to chronicle black history, shedding more light on the brutal era of slavery in the United States. The Root’s editor-in-chief, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s trenchant six-part documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, recently aired on PBS and covered what he calls “the full complexity of the black experience.”
Gates’ other PBS series, Finding Your Roots, and the Tracing Your Roots series at The Root have helped reveal the multiracial heritage of several celebrities, including comedian Wanda Sykes and actor Johnny Depp.
Blackmon doesn’t believe that black history will disappear or will become watered down, especially the history of slavery.
“It doesn’t mitigate against how evil it was that white people were doing these terrible things to people of color,” Blackmon said. “Something even more interesting to speculate about is that eventually we’re going to be a country of light-brown people one way or another. Eventually that’s going to be the case. White people ask, ‘When we can stop talking about slavery? When are African Americans going to stop being so hung up about slavery? When is this conversation going to finally be over? I look at them and say, this conversation will finally be over when we are all light-brown. It’s a long ways off, but it’s going to happen.”
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root.