“Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.”
– James Baldwin
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
– Toni Morrison
“Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
– Woodrow Wilson
In the sweltering humidity of July 1919, within the cooling walls of the Douglas County courthouse, a two year old boy with golden hair named Francis Dwyer crawled around on a courtroom floor, oblivious to the centuries of wars being fought through him. He had not yet become conscious of any concepts beyond toys, mommy and daddy, and food. And although the limestone structure kept him safe from the summer heat, Francis’ life was in turmoil, because even though he couldn’t understand at the time, he was witnessing the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and quite possibly the dissolution of his existence as a white child.
The stakes in the battle were opaque: in order to win an annulment to his marriage, baby Francis’ father, Francis Senior, had to prove his wife, and therefore also his son, were Black people. That would mean Clara was a Black woman living as a white woman. In order to win a divorce from her husband for falsely labeling her a ‘negro,’ Clara Dwyer had to prove she, and therefore baby Francis, were in fact white. That would mean Francis Sr. was abusive, especially because at the time, a white woman accused of being ‘tainted’ with ‘negro blood’ would have her entire life as she knew it destroyed in one fell swoop, as well as that of her children and entire family, by extension.
The nature of the court conflict is as bizarre as it is illuminating, as well as confusing. It raises questions about the concept of race that are perhaps unanswerable. Its murkiness makes it one of the clearest places to unpack what race is, and isn’t, in American society. The concepts of ‘whiteness’ and ‘Blackness,’ are not easy to define. When I ask students in my classroom what ‘white’ means in the term ‘white people’, their most common answers are usually ‘a color,’ or ‘your ancestry,’ or ‘an ethnicity.’ While none of these answers are necessarily wrong, they’re also not entirely correct, or correct even in the slightest.
Whiteness could mean color alone, but most white people aren’t albino, and therefore the color white as we know it is not what the standard definition of the term means. Most white people are peach, tannish, or olive colored – not white. Whiteness could mean ancestry alone, and we could divide race along geographical lines between Europe and Africa, but then we’d be pretending as if the Mediterranean didn’t exist at all, and that the two continents somehow had a barrier that served as a magical wall between them, leaving no grey area for racial lines to be blurred over the sands of time. Do any of us really believe there is some definitive biological divide between the people of Southern Europe and Northern Africa? Would any of us truly argue that the Strait of Gibraltar represents a solid line dividing whiteness and Blackness?
The truth is that race doesn’t exist biologically at all, but rather merely as a social construct. In other words, it doesn’t exist inside our bodies in any way, shape, or form, but exists all throughout our imaginations and within the very fabric of our societies. It resides in the ethers of our history, our politics, our laws, our economies, our conscious and subconscious everyday lives. And even though it’s something that has been fabricated in our imaginations, we can’t expect to avoid the issue by becoming ‘color blind.’ The old white proverb ‘I don’t see race’ is a cop-out of epic proportions, because the toothpaste is already out of the tube, and pretending it’s not there does nothing to solve anything. The claim is disingenuous at best, a gaslighting mechanism at worst. It’s like telling a person of color that you don’t recognize an essential piece of their identity, because it makes you uncomfortable to talk about. Not a good look.
Sociologists have created a mountain of evidence proving people do in fact see race in every moment they encounter people of different racial categories. Unless you live in an uncontacted tribe such as those found in the Amazon, your mind has been formed within a heavily racialized society, and you’ve been bathed in racial narratives since birth. So we can’t *not* see race. It’s there every time people walk into a room, whether it’s at the forefront of our minds or somewhere in our subconscious, and it’s best to simply acknowledge this phenomenon is real, then do what we can to grapple with it.
No therapist would ever advise people to pretend their issues away, although abusive husbands might try to persuade their victimized wives to pretend away their abuse. Such is the nature of the conflict between the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘All Live Matter’ crowds, the former of which is an attempt to point out a specific problem in American society and give voice to an oppressed demographic, the latter of which is an attempt to silence those same voices and cover up the problem. It’s a way of looking at Black people who are begging us to see their continued struggle in a world designed to work against them and saying, “shut up,” without saying those words specifically. As the great wordsmith Talib Kweli once said, you wouldn’t go to a cancer awareness rally and scream “all diseases matter,” yet that’s precisely what’s happened in the 21st century.
In order to understand how we got to this point, and how baby Francis ended up in his absurd situation, we have to begin at the beginning. While humans have been placing each other into various tribal categories for all the hundreds of thousands of years of our existence, sometimes noting skin tone in these categories, the modern concept of race as we know it is a fairly recent invention. Traveling to ancient Rome, one would struggle explaining the concepts of ‘Black people’ and ‘white people’ to anyone living there, even if you spoke their language. Although Romans enslaved many human beings, this enslavement was not based on racial concepts that would be familiar to us today. Whomever Rome conquered became fair game for enslavement, including people we would deem as being white today, and at the same time many Roman leaders were people we would describe as being Black. The Roman term for Sub-Saharan African peoples was ‘Aethiope,’ and the term carried no social weight to it at all, because the Roman Empire never experienced the wave of race-based slavery the Americas did through the more recent era of European settler colonialism. So the Roman worldview didn’t consist of the race-based lens that so dominates across the world today.
If one is looking for the true origins of modern racial constructs, 1492 and beyond is the best place to start. Modern racial constructs were conceived in the midst of post-Columbian Trans-Atlantic slavery, in which African peoples were particularly targeted for enslavement and forced into new horrifying lives, and new traumatized identities, in the New World. White enslavers methodically dismantled African tribal identities, separating people from their own ilk in order to minimize the chances of an uprising coordinated by friends who speak common languages, and to destroy any sense of humanity or self-love that might remain after the trauma of the disturbingly cruel trip across the Atlantic. The new identities forced onto these African peoples placed them into the bottom of a social hierarchy that diminished their basic humanity and their agency as free human beings, stripping them of power in a near absolute sense.
As the 18th century American colonies stewed into revolutionary fervor, the number of enslaved African peoples living within them shot through the roof, inspiring white intellectuals of the day to pen new theories about how to make sense out of it all. The most commonly accepted birth of the ‘official’ new racial hierarchy is in Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s seminal 1775 book, ‘On the Natural Varieties of Mankind,’ in which Blumenbach placed humans into five racial categories. His new categories were ‘Caucasian’ (white), ‘Mongolian’ (yellow), ‘Malayan’ (brown), ‘American’ (red), and ‘Ethiopian’ (black). Although Blumenbach’s text visually represented the various races horizontally, as opposed to a hierarchical totem pole or triangle, his text clearly indicates his belief in the superiority of the white race over all others, so it is useful to place the image into a triangular hierarchy, as Stephen Jay Gould did in his groundbreaking 1981 book, ‘The Mismeasure of Man.’
In order to justify the usefulness of the rearranged version, Gould cited Blumenbach’s own clear language about a racial hierarchy:
I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian… which makes me esteem it the primeval one. This diverges in both directions into two, most remote and very different from each other; on the one side, namely, into the Ethiopian, and on the other into the Mongolian. The remaining two occupy the intermediate positions between that primeval one and these two extreme varieties; that is, the American between the Caucasian and Mongolian; the Malay between the same Caucasian and Ethiopian.
Although his work appears anthropological, and therefore nonreligious, Blumenbach’s era of science had not yet separated itself from Christian-based dogma that still dominated every sphere of thought at the time. He followed a logic shared by many of his peers which posited that the white race originated in the Caucasus region, and that Adam and Eve were Caucasian. Under this popular ‘degenerative hypothesis’ on the origins of race, the various non-Caucasian races were therefore the result of biological degeneration, due to poor diet and climate conditions. In this sense, whiteness was literally associated with godliness, since the Bible states Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. This would account for and justify rules made to benefit white people at the expense of everyone else, and who is anyone to argue with God himself, anyways?
From this new racial and racist hierarchy, anthropologists fleshed out endless variations of it, using pseudoscientific techniques such as phrenology to measure the innate physical and mental capacities of each race. This elaborate set of ideologies penetrated every corner of the earth as the ‘Age of Exploration’ gave way to the Age of Imperialism, and was written into the social fabric through an endless deluge of academic, literary, political, and legal texts. The official view of human races spread into the ether just as the Founding Fathers were penning their famous texts, declaring the rights of (white) men to be to be free from tyranny. Blumenbach’s ideas were then used to justify the creation of a white supremacist state based largely on the concept of his racial hierarchy, as wealthy white men of property and power justified the vastly unequal society they were creating through the popular pseudoscience of their time.
Thomas Jefferson, a man credited with writing much of the great American language on the concepts of freedom and liberty, also enslaved human beings. One of his enslaved humans was a teenage girl whom he repeatedly raped and impregnated, keeping her in a secret room near his bedroom to be used as he pleased. It doesn’t matter what the standards of Jefferson’s society were at the time, or if that society lacked the same concepts of sexual assault we have today – Sally Hemings could not consent because she was in practice a piece of property he owned, legally more like a couch than a human with her own agency and rights, and therefore we must call it rape. No other word will suffice, and any Stockholm Syndrome she may have suffered does not negate the point either. Although Jefferson felt some moral qualms about owning slaves, he denied the better voices of morality in his head and ultimately justified his enslavement of human beings using the concepts presented by Blumenbach. In his 1781 ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ Jefferson wrote:
… let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may posses different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct…
Just five years prior to ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ when the authors of the Declaration of Independence declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” they were referring specifically, and only, to white male landowners. Everyone else was denied the right to vote, including poor white men, who were only granted the ballot through the 19th century populist battles of Jacksonian Democracy. White men of all classes had the right to vote by 1840, including those without property, yet all other demographics would have to continue their fight for a voice at the ballot.
The Founding Fathers therefore intentionally created a system that was racist, classist, and sexist, as the upper crust of wealthy white men hoarded wealth amongst themselves and abused those upon whose labor they relied for the creation of that very wealth, then justified it through the use of intellectual, rational, Enlightenment ideals. These were the concepts deified in the Crystal Palace and all the subsequent world’s fairs, the intellectual seeds of white supremacist-based global imperialism and settler colonialism that permeate through our imaginations to this day.
As always, with racism comes xenophobia. On the issue of citizenship, the Founding Fathers deliberately stated in the Naturalization Act of 1790 that the pathway to citizenship would be limited to “any alien, being a free white person” who had resided in the United States for at least two years. This law clearly rejects the citizenship of European indentured servants as well as all foreign-born people of color. While all European people were considered white, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (British), ‘Nordic’ (Scandinavian), and ‘Teutonic’ (German) white people were by and large considered superior to other European groups, which made up the so-called ‘hyphenated Americans’ who came from Ireland and all the nations of eastern and southern Europe. It was immigrants from these areas that made up the largest portion of indentured servants in the U.S. So within the category of ‘white’ there were subcategories considered inferior or superior based upon which geographic region one’s ancestors came from. Like in the complex maze of racial categories created by the Spanish and Portuguese throughout Latin America, the racial hierarchy of the United States was never destined to be as simple as Blumenbach first conceived it.
As with whiteness, Blackness has contained subcategories of its own. With most enslaved African peoples coming from West Africa, the diverse phenotypes shared by people of the African continent were not visibly represented in the enslaved population, and therefore most of the enslaved people shared similar physical features, including skin tone. However, as these people procreated with people of other racial categories, a new racial strata took shape. Babies born to white fathers and Black mothers, the majority of whom were conceived through the act of rape, proved especially daunting to categorize. Were they Black? White? Neither? Both? What about their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren? If enough whiteness was added, could Blackness become erased from the genetic line entirely? If so, at which point? Through this confusion, the terms ‘mulatto,’ ‘quadroon,’ ‘octaroon,’ and ‘hexadecaroon’ were employed, in order to describe those who were one half, one fourth, one eighth, and one sixteenth Black, with the rest of their ancestry being white.
As a general rule, the closer one was to whiteness, the more privileges one had within the hierarchy of enslaved people. Lighter skinned slaves would be given lighter work around the house, as opposed to the back-breaking labor done out in the fields. It must also be stated clearly here that white enslavers who raped and impregnated their slaves most frequently *enslaved their own children,* or sold them off so their white wives would not have to live with the evidence of their husbands’ infidelities. The lightest skinned Black women, particularly those deemed pretty, might even be sold off to become another white enslaver’s sex slave, a fate that would have been presented to her as an opportunity to live a relatively pampered life, or at least treated better than most of her peers, alongside her repeated rape. This system of abuse gave birth to the concepts of ‘house slaves’ and ‘field slaves’ that pitted Black people against one another in an endless cycle of colorism that continues to this day.
Throughout the 19th century, as race mixing became increasingly common, popular novels and plays told ‘tragic mulatto’ narratives in which lighter skinned Black people were torn between racial identities. Abolitionists frequently used these tales as a way to appeal to Northerners in the cause to abolish slavery. The implication was clear: these people are almost like you. They were almost white, and therefore easier to empathize with than their darker skinned peers. In addition to serving abolitionist propaganda, these tales also flew off the shelves, not unlike how tabloid rags continue to sell today, and how Jerry Springer and General Hospital have so captivated generations of Americans – so there was a profit motive as well, based largely on voyeurism into the tragic lives of the enslaved ‘other.’
The most popular form of these stories came in the form of the tragic mulatta, in which lighter skinned women were usually depicted as being attractive, and frequently as sex objects who were torn between racial worlds. She was used as a vehicle to explore the psychological, sociological, and political confusion the people of the United States were experiencing at the time. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ended his 1842 poem, ‘The Quadroon Girl,’ with a slaver taking away a beautiful Black woman to be his sex slave:
His heart within him was at strife
With such accurséd gains:
For he knew whose passions gave her life,
Whose blood ran in her veins.
But the voice of nature was too weak;
He took the glittering gold!
Then pale as death grew the maiden’s cheek,
Her hands as icy cold.
The Slaver led her from the door,
He led her by the hand,
To be his slave and paramour
In a strange and distant land!
Abolotionist Lydia Maria Child, famous for writing the poem ‘Over the River and Through the Woods,’ also published a popular book in 1842 called ‘The Quadroon.’ In it, the tragic mulatta (or tragic quadroon as it applies in this story) named Rosalie has a common law marriage with a white man named Edward. Together, they have a daughter named Xarifa. When Edward wants to pursue a career in politics, he leaves Rosalie to marry a white woman, since he would never stand a chance winning any elections while presenting a quadroon woman as his partner. Rosalie eventually dies, and then when Xarifa grows older she is discovered to be the product of an illegitimate partnership between a white man and a Black woman, and therefore Black herself. Xarifa is sold off into slavery, after which she commits suicide, producing the template for all subsequent tragic mulatta tales.
Again, even as the relationship between Rosalie and Edward is presented as a romance, the power dynamics involved mean Rosalie was never afforded the agency for true consent. If we have no issue calling statutory rape by its name, even if an underaged person claims they agreed to sex, due to the power dynamic involved, then it should be easy to apply that same logic to enslaved women and their captors. During the era of American slavery this sort of rape was not necessarily condoned, but was also not really condemned. As with lynching, it was carried out somewhat in full view of the public, with mixed race children resembling their rapist fathers inhabiting plantation houses along with the rest of the white family, and the rest of the enslaved people who made up each plantation community.
Thomas Jefferson fathered six children through his rape of Sally Hemings, and while this secret remained up until relatively recent times, there were more than a few whispers about the matter beginning at least as early as 1802, when the affair was first exposed by one of Jefferson’s enemies. Although accusations flew, Jefferson had made sure to be discreet enough to keep the issue at bay. He had kept his rape at least semi-hidden from the public. And because he only kept Hemings as a sex object, never once trying to present her to the public as either his mistress or common law wife, he was able to weather the storm of accusations and remain president for two full terms.
Due to the fact Hemings was never granted official legal status as Jefferson’s wife, she and her children were never granted the privileges that come from being the family of a president. Therefore, they posed no threat to the established racial order. The color line was kept intact so long as Black people weren’t allowed access to the social, political, economic, and legal benefits that would have come from marriage to a white man. However, because they and many of their descendants were so light skinned and European-looking in various other phenotypes, many of them went out into the social ether and ‘passed’ as white. In order to live life passing as white, Black people were forced to abandon all ties to their Black families, friends, and culture, lest they be discovered.
Harriet Beecher Stowe explored the concept of ‘passing’ in some detail in her classic, best selling novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ In this tragic mulatto narrative, an octoroon woman named Eliza and her mulatto husband, George, find out their son is going to be sold to a particularly cruel enslaver, and decide to flee North, where they can live their lives passing as white people. Stowe described Eliza as being “so white as not to be known as of colored lineage, without a critical survey, and her child was white also, it was much easier for her to pass on unsuspected.” When George enters a bar full of slave catchers, he passes without detection, even as an advertisement for his capture describes him:
Ran away from the subscriber, my mulatto boy, George. Said George six feet in height, a very light mulatto, brown curly hair is very intelligent, speaks handsomely, can read and write; will probably try to pass for a white man; is deeply scarred on his back and shoulders; has been branded in his right hand with the letter H.”
Stowe elaborated on George’s appearance, and his attempts to maximize his whiteness through both physical and social racial cues:
… George was, by his father’s side, of white descent. His mother was one of those unfortunates of her race, marked out by personal beauty to be the slave of the passions of her possessor, and the mother of children who may never know a father. From one of the proudest families in Kentucky he had inherited a set of fine European features, and a high, indomitable spirit. From his mother he had received only a slight mulatto tinge, amply compensated by its accompanying rich, dark eye. A slight change in the tint of the skin and the color of his hair had metamorphosed him into the Spanish-looking fellow he then appeared; and as gracefulness of movement and gentlemanly manners had always been perfectly natural to him, he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted—that of a gentleman traveling with his domestic.
Here, Stowe hints at the blurring of racial lines which occurs between Southern Europe and North Africa – a Black man might actually be Spanish and a Spanish man might actually be Black. She also points us to the fact that ‘whiteness’ isn’t limited to biological markers, as George’s very styles of movement, of speaking, of overall personality also play essential roles in allowing him to pass undetected even in the lion’s den of slave catchers whose professional lives depend on their ability to spot Black men trying to pass as white. In this context, the ridiculousness of categorizing humans into different races is revealed to us, as the ambiguity of blurred racial lines wins out over the hard drawn racial concept originally hypothesized by Blumenbach and his ilk. The fact that George can enjoy himself as a white man in the company of the men sent to detect his Blackness indicates that the entire hierarchy has been absurd from its inception, built on nothing more than a house of cards.
Yet even as paper-thin the conceptual structure of race is, the spoken and unspoken rules of racial color lines were enforced as if they were built of granite, and tragic mulatto tales reflected this fact. In an 1859 play called ‘The Octoroon,’ two white men fight over a beautiful Black woman named Zoe. George, the protagonist, is in love with Zoe and also happens to be her first cousin, as she was conceived through his uncle’s rape of an enslaved woman. George’s uncle had supposedly granted his Black daughter freedom before his death. The antagonist, Jacob, is in the process of removing George and his family from their plantation, due to financial difficulties. He plans on making the plantation his, and because he has documentation that Zoe was never formally freed by her father, he also plans on forcing Zoe to be his sex slave.
Despite having an opportunity to marry a wealthy white woman who is after him, and thus save his family’s plantation, George only has eyes for Zoe, the tragic mulatta. When Zoe is put on the auction block to be sold off to her soon-to-be serial rapist, George attacks Jacob, only to be held back by his friends. Then when Jacob is discovered to be guilty of a murder that occurs earlier in the play, the audience becomes aware that George will be able to keep the plantation, and ‘be with’ Zoe, who is presented as reciprocating his love for her. Before the message that she will no longer be sold off to Jacob reaches her, Zoe drinks a vial of poison, choosing to die rather than live as Jacob’s sex slave. The news that she won’t be sold off to Jacob finally reaches her as she is slowly dying, with George by her side, completing the tragedy. The play is very much an American Romeo and Juliet tale, but instead of portraying star-crossed lovers being torn apart by warring families, George and Zoe are star-crossed lovers being torn apart by warring races.
The Octoroon might seem overly salacious, an exaggerated fiction meant to shock and titillate audiences, but it’s a fairly realistic depiction of racial politics of the time. One need not look further than Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson for a revealing account of how these politics played out in real life. After inheriting his father’s property, including the people he had enslaved, Johnson openly carried on a relationship with Julia Chinn, an octoroon woman. Although Johnson and Chinn couldn’t legally be married, it is believed they performed a secret ceremony that would have been illegal at the time. Johnson referred to her as his wife, and together that had two daughters. When he was away, often for months at a time, Chinn managed his estate in every sense, including his finances and the daily routines performed by the rest of Johnson’s enslaved labor force. She even hosted a dinner party of 5,000 guests in honor of the Marquis De Lafayette, one of the major figures in the American and French revolutionary wars.
Johnson himself was a decorated veteran of the War of 1812, laying claim to the American victory over British and Native American forces at the Battle of the Thames. Johnson claimed to have personally killed the great warrior Tecumseh, making him quite the star in his time. Following the war he served as the chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, then went on to serve in the Senate. While Johnson pushed against the expansion of slavery, and eventually the Missouri Compromise, his own Black daughters received the finest education and wore the fanciest clothes money could buy, enjoying some of the social-political status that the strict color lines of the time strictly forbade. They even carried Johnson’s surname, a potent signifier of power and privilege attached to their prestigious war hero father.
Here the lines between race, politics, romance, marriage, and rape converge into a perfect storm of grey matter. Chinn and her daughters were legally Johnson’s property, yet she was presented as his wife, and they as his daughters. Because Chinn was legally his property, it’s clear that she could not fully consent, as was the case with Sally Hemings. Through this lens, Chinn was made to be a sex slave with the highest status possibly afforded to an enslaved person at the time. She was given the keys to wealth and power, but only under the command of the white man who had the ability to snatch it away from her at any given moment, and who ultimately refused to emancipate her, indicating a power dynamic that simply fails to meet any standard of true romance based upon love and mutual respect. Without documentation of Chinn’s own personal thoughts and feelings about the matter, we are left to speculate about how she viewed the complex situation. If she felt love for the man who kept her in bondage, could it have really been anything more than Stockholm Syndrome?
When Julia Chinn died during a cholera epidemic in 1833, Johnson began raping another woman he had enslaved. When she left him to be with her common law husband whom she had been with before her rape, he had her tracked down, seized, and put up on the auction block to be sold deeper into the South, a punishment frequently threatened by white enslavers who viewed themselves as benevolent masters, as opposed to the monsters in Alabama and Louisiana. Johnson then proceeded to take that woman’s sister as his third ‘wife,’ indicating Johnson’s fixation on controlling Black women and then trying to push them into white society as both his slaves and his dear wives, a bizarre type of contradiction among many that frequently occurred in the racially confused United States.
By the time Johnson ran for vice president alongside Martin Van Buren in 1836, Julia Chinn had been dead for several years, and one of her daughters had also become a victim of cholera. That didn’t stop Johnson’s political opponents from vile, racist attacks on her and her children. In one attack, Johnson’s war hero status was turned against him in a cartoon called, ‘Carrying the War into Africa,’ which implies Johnson’s vitality as a soldier had been used to impregnate an African woman, and represents his common-law marriage to Chinn as a violent conquest into what was viewed as the savage continent. Visually, Chinn is represented as a runaway slave with dark skin and short, coarse hair, an exaggeration of her African phenotypes used for maximum anti-Black effect. She also speaks in stereotypical African American English Vernacular, stating, ” Let ebery good dimicrat vote for my husband, and den he shall hab his sheer ub de surplum rebbenu wat is in my bag.”
Finally, a slogan is presented to set up a sexually deviant situation between Julia Chinn, Richard Mentor Johnson, Martin Van Buren, and the American populace. The word ‘pluck’ here is used as we would use the word ‘fuck,’ and the word ‘dick’ is used in the same way it is today, referring to a penis. The slogan, “She plucks dick – and Dick plucks you – and Van plucks dick” suggests that through Chinn’s sexual contact with Johnson, and Johnson’s vice presidential candidacy with Van Buren, she and the men she has tainted with her sexuality will fuck the American people, if Van Buren is elected to the presidency.
In another 1836 cartoon, ‘An Affecting Scene in Kentucky,’ Johnson is shown holding his head in agony as a copy of a newspaper that attacked his relationship with his now deceased wife falls from his other hand. In his speech bubble he says, “When I read the scurrilous attacks in the Newspapers on the Mother of my Children, pardon me, my friends if I give way to feelings!!! My dear Girls, bring me your Mother’s picture, that I may show my friends here.” His daughters hold a portrait of their dead mother. One of them says, “Here it is Pa, but don’t take on so,” and the other says, “Poor dear Pa, how much he is affected.”
The joke here is quite simply the fact that Johnson had a Black family and didn’t try to hide the fact. In the slave era South, white men who took Black women as sex slaves were given a pass so long as they went along with the rest of society in pretending such a thing never happened. The enslaved woman and the children she bore of her enslaver posed no threat to the established color line, and therefore the practice posed no threat to the racial hierarchy. Johnson’s crime, therefore, was not in impregnating a woman he enslaved, but rather in publicly acknowledging her and their children’s existence. He hadn’t even granted his Black family their freedom, yet his refusal to hide this family functioned as a sin against American society, a moral code based in hard-drawn color lines that only blurred when people like Johnson deviated from the nation-wide denial mechanisms that kept interracial families in the dark, conveniently hidden from view.
Johnson’s nomination as vice presidential candidate was fraught with skepticism. Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice John Catron predicted, “the very moment Col. J. is announced, the newspapers will open upon him with facts, that he had endeavored often to force his daughters into society, that the mother in her life time, and they now, rode in carriages, and claimed equality.” Although Van Buren won the presidency with 170 electoral votes, Johnson came up one point short of winning the vice presidency, with only 147 of the 148 he needed. Southern political forces had refused to endorse a man who so blatantly crossed the establish color lines of American society. In the end, Johnson was elected vice president by a Senate vote, marking the only time in history such a process was needed to pass the torch of executive power in an election year.
When Johnson passed away in 1850, his estate was divided between his brothers. His surviving daughter was left with nothing, being an illegitimate child in the eyes of the law. Even though Julia Chinn was educated and literate, and her common law husband often spent half of any given year away from his plantation while she managed it, it appears that no letters between the two survive. In fact, what would have been Richard Mentor Johnson’s archive of letters and other documents that might serve as a memory of the man appears to have been destroyed. Professor Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, who is currently working on a book about Julia Chinn, hypothesizes Johnson’s brothers purposefully destroyed these items, in order to suit their financial needs as well as to scrub their family ties to a Black woman and her children. And just like that, the story of a vice president and his Black family was largely buried in the annals of American history.
A decade after Johnson’s death, the United States was plunged into the Civil War, and emotions were high. Many Northerners resented the war, as evidenced by the bloody New York Draft Riots in the summer of 1863, in which mobs of enraged white people, bitter at the prospect of being forced into fighting what they viewed as a rich man’s war in the cause of abolition, slaughtered over a hundred Black people in the streets of Manhattan. During the riot, a white mob set the Colored Orphan Asylum on fire with children inside, looted it for all its goods, and watched it burn to the ground. Luckily, the children were able to escape before being consumed in the flames.
Most of the New York mob consisted of Irishmen who faced competition for low paying, physically demanding jobs on the docks, from Black men. Capitalists often pitted hyphenated European American laborers against African-American (notice that Black people have been hyphenated as well) laborers, playing on racism as a way to keep the workforce from uniting into larger, multiracial unions. If white working class Northerners were willing to slaughter Black people in the streets and burn Black children alive, how could they be convinced to support the Union and abolitionist causes? Abolitionists went to work brainstorming ideas.
Then in 1864, as the Union consolidated its control of the Mississippi River following General Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, and General Sherman’s war machine geared up to slit the Confederacy’s throat with one final push across Georgia, new questions arose regarding what to do with the millions of freed Black people who were now in a state of limbo between their old and new lives. How would they assimilate into white society? Where would they work? Where would they be educated? New Orleans, the jewel of the South, was under Union control, but what would the future of its inhabitants look like after the entire Southern economy was uprooted and millions displaced?
At least a few abolitionists sought to answer these questions, as well as to build support for the Union and the cause of abolition, by taking the tragic mulatto tale to another level and appealing directly to whiteness itself. In an effort to raise money for the schooling of freed Black children in the South, eight newly emancipated people, five children and three adults, were taken on a tour of the North where they would humanize the Black population of the South. The catch here was that four of the five children were so white-passing that white Northerners would be hard pressed to tell them from their own kids. The chosen eight were professionally photographed, and the resulting photos were sold individually, with profits going directly to schools for Black people in New Orleans.
Harper’s Weekly then ran a story about the eight newly ‘Emancipated Slaves, White and Colored’ in 1864, as a way to promote the campaign. The angle here was simple, yet carries all the complexities of race within it: appeal to white Northerners by showing them formerly enslaved children who looked just like their own. Shamelessly, the progressive Yankees wrote, “These are, of course, the offspring of white fathers through two or three generations. They are as white, as intelligent, as docile, as most of our own children.” Therefore, white progressives of the time were willing to depict Black people as human beings, but still had to work within the framework of the racial hierarchy, and therefore the unstated premise of the message is that whiteness and humanity are quite nearly the same thing. In other words, the message was not that Black people are human, but rather that Black people are capable of reaching towards whiteness if given the chance, and therefore of reaching towards full humanity, which is whiteness.
Following the Civil War came decades of brutal Jim Crow-era racism, and such racism was never confined in any way to the South. Tragic mulatta tales continued titillating white audiences, but now that Black women had been legally freed from bondage, what would the nature of their relationships with white men be, and how would those relationships be viewed? One telling example of how acceptable such relationships were, half a century after the Civil War, comes out of Cincinnati in 1904 when the mother of a white man who was set to marry a quadroon woman attempted to intervene, prompting threats of suicide, which she whole-heartedly condoned.
According to the Cincinnati Times-Star:
The boy’s mother had been to see the quadroon and had pleaded with her to refuse. The girl says she told him of his mother’s objections. He drew a revolver and said that he would kill himself. “I don’t care to live if I can’t have you,” he said. The mother of the girl, Mrs. Sulser, grabbed the revolver away from Adams…
… His gray-haired mother with the tears rolling down her cheeks, talked of her boy Tuesday morning. “We shall move away from here,” she wept. “I have cried and cried till the tears won’t come any more. I can’t bear the thought of my boy marrying a colored girl. We are going to sell out and go somewhere where no one knows us. I sent Willie word that he has broken his father’s heart and mine. I sent the girl word I’d do something she wouldn’t like if she married Willie. I’m afraid I’ll just go madlike if I think about the thing much longer. I wish that Willie had killed himself that time he tried to kill the girl and himself. I’d rather attend his funeral than have him marry this girl. Oh, the disgrace of a disinherited son married to a colored girl.”
Such virulently racist views continued to be widespread, as propaganda surged nationwide as a way to push back against the multicultural messages pushed by progressives who envisioned a mixed race future for the United States. In the years leading up to the moment when baby Francis Dwyer Jr’s racial identity was put on trial inside the Douglas County courthouse of Omaha, the most successful white supremacist narrative of all time was making waves into American popular culture. Hollywood’s first blockbuster smash hit, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ played to sold out audiences week after week, month after month, in the increasingly popular silent movie theaters popping up across the nation..
The groundbreaking film broke into new cinematic territory, yet also featured a classic tragic mulatta character in the form of house servant Lydia Brown, played by actress Mary Alden in blackface. In a scene near the beginning of the film, the main villain, abolitionist Austin Stoneman (based largely on Thaddeus Stevens), discusses politics in his library with Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner. Lydia overhears the dialogue and is turned on by the power emanating from the room.
Then as Sumner makes his way out the door, he sees Lydia. She pretends to drop his hat and then bends down to pick it up in a suggestive manner.
When she tries to physically touch Sumner, in an effort to seduce him, he pushes her away and makes his way out the door. Infuriated, Lydia spits out the door towards him as he walks away. The lustful mulatta can’t control her sexuality or her rage, those savage qualities so frequently associated with Blackness. These qualities are the ones that slavery kept in check, kept in their proper place by Southern society, and now unleashed following the North’s victory in the Civil War.
Turning from lust to rage, and rage back to lust, Lydia falls to the floor in agony, a cat in heat without a mate. She rubs her breasts and licks her paws, the tragic mulatta in full blown meltdown over the sex she desires with powerful white men.
Lydia then hatches a plan to get what she wants. When Stoneman enters the room, she tells a sob story about how Sumner tried to assault her, invoking sympathy from Stoneman, who consoles her in his arms, and in that moment of physical touch, realizes his own attraction to his Black house servant. Lydia is therefore the character with true agency, pulling strings behind closed doors through powerful men, all through her cunning, her sociopathic willingness to falsely accuse powerful men, and her raw sexual powers that weak men like Stoneman stood no chance against.
But it isn’t just the individual characters of Lydia Brown, Charles Sumner, and Austin Stoneman who are playing roles here. These characters represent archetypes that symbolized entire sections of the American population at the time. Stoneman represents white progressives in the North who envision a multiracial society in which the hard-drawn color lines established through the racial hierarchy become blurred. Lydia’s sexuality is therefore political, a way to infiltrate the white power structure and destroy it from the inside. She is a fifth column designed to destroy white civilization as we know it, and weak men like Stoneman will be to blame when it all comes crumbling down. As ridiculous as that sounds today, such fears were very real a century ago, and ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was wildly successful as a propaganda piece pushing that fear to its extreme, embedding it into the national psyche.
It might be assumed that Southern revisionist propaganda portraying Black people in such blatantly racist ways, and the KKK as heroes on a mission to save the nation from Black savages, would have only been popular in the South, where generations of bitterness and entrenched racism kept emotions highest. However, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and its hateful message spread far and wide into every major city in the U.S., including Omaha. On December 26th, 1915 The Omaha Bee reported on the film’s lingering success:
The Birth of A Nation’ will close its long engagement at the Brandeis theater with the two performances today, matinee and evening after having exceeded by weeks the longest previous local run, being presented from ten to twenty times as long as the average theatrical attraction which comes to Omaha. Including tonight’s performance it will have been given at eighty-five consecutive performances, or twice daily during the six weeks and one day of its engagement. This long engagement was made possible through the fact that it is unquestionably the greatest, if not the only great picture ever produced, and every patron left the theater with the intention of telling everyone he knew to be sure to go and see it, and over 85,000 of them did so, or about one in every four persons in Omaha, Council Bluffs, South Omaha and the surrounding country.
The mainstream narrative surrounding Black women and white men was thus set into its insidious form over a century of lurid tales told in novels and theater productions, framing Black women as jezebels intent on destroying men, destroying marriages, destroying families, destroying the color line, destroying the racial hierarchy, destroying white American society at large. In cities like Omaha where the population of Black people had remained relatively small, these narratives were all most white people had to go on in terms of understanding or making sense of who Black people were, and what they intended to do as they made their way from the rural South into the urban North.
In the context of ‘The Birth of A Nation’ and other popular tragic mulatto narratives, Francis Dwyer’s accusation that his wife Clara was actually a Black woman in disguise became a scandal of epic proportions. If his accusations were true, Clara and her son represented a clear violation of the color line, an infiltration into the white power structure, and a literal crime against society. Omaha’s miscegenation laws had for decades barred white people from marrying people with one quarter or more “negro blood,” and in 1913 the law was amended to ban marriage between white people and those with “one eighth or more negro, Japanese or Chinese blood.” Therefore, if Clara and Francis Jr. really were Black, then the child would be deemed illegitimate and stripped of all the sociopolitical capital that came from whiteness, a future his mother was not about to submit to if she had any say on the matter.
But how had a white man been duped into marrying and procreating with a Black woman in the first place, and how did he come to believe his wife and son were not white, as he had previously believed?
Only months after ‘The Birth of a Nation’ dazzled the city of Omaha, Francis Dwyer Jr. was born, and the attending physician told Francis Sr. that his son was almost certainly Black. Francis then signed up to fight in World War 1, served in France where he had plenty of time to think about his domestic situation back home, and upon his return decided to move into legal proceedings against his wife. Because of his Catholic faith, he sought to annul the marriage rather than divorce, on the grounds that his wife was more than one eighth Black and had lied to him. Clara countered with divorce actions of her own, citing abandonment as her rationale. Hanging in the air during the first days of courtroom proceedings was the prospect of testimony under oath from Clara’s father, Douglass P. McCary, whom Francis’ lawyer anticipated would not deny his Black heritage under such a legal microscope. In the opening stages of the trial, Douglass was nowhere to be found, adding to the tension building up around Omaha’s racial soap opera.
Newspapers ran the Dwyer story nationwide, capitalizing on its salacious nature at every turn. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported under the headline, ‘Golden Haired Boy White, Mother Says’ with a subheading that spells out exactly how entrenched anti-Black racism has been in the United States:
The article then goes on to lay out some details of the case:
Science has been called into the Omaha District Court to decide whether Francis Dwyer, 2 years old, with golden hair and blue eyes, is a negro or a white boy – wether or not he has reverted to the type of some distant ancestor. His parents grandparents, and great-grandparents were white and they have never been suspected of having a drop of negro blood.
On the outcome of the case depends whether the little fellow will be raised as a negro or a white boy. While the trial is in progress, Francis plays around the courtroom.
At the same time his mother, Mrs. Clara McCreary (sic) Dwyer, the defendant in the case, who is seeking to purge herself and her child of the charge of “negro,” strongly denies she has a drop of negro blood.
To the birth of the child, Dwyer told the court, he had never dreamed that his wife was part negro or that any of her ancestors had been negro. Miss McCreary was born in Omaha and has lived here all her life. She went through the schools as a white girl, all her associates were white. McCreary has lived in Omaha more than 25 years. Part of the time he was a mail clerk in the post office and at present is foreman in one of the big packing houses in South Omaha. His race has never been questioned, nor has that of Mrs. McCreary.
…. Dwyer’s family makes the statement that, if the child is given them to support, they will rear it as a negro child, not as a white boy. “We do not intend that he shall be brought up as a white boy, to marry some white girl,” they say. “He shall be a negro, shall live among negroes and shall be known as a negro.”
Francis Dwyer seemed especially adamant about clearing his name from any suspicion that he might raise his son as a white boy, placing particular emphasis on the idea that he would never risk harming a poor innocent white girl who might be fooled into marrying him. His concern appears to be in saving face in white society, lest he be viewed as a race traitor, a deviant like Richard Mentor Johnson who challenged the racial hierarchy and thus brought shame upon his family. The Lincoln Journal Star focused one of their stories on Dwyer’s insistence on keeping the color line intact:
Before diving into some of the more bizarre details of the Dwyer case, it is important to provide some family history, as the stories leading up to the birth of Francis Jr. offer a case study in American racial politics. Clara’s family origins trace back to Natchez, Mississippi, where her great-grandfather Robert McCary was born enslaved to a white cabinetmaker and a Black woman. Robert had a sister and a younger brother. Although born enslaved, Robert was educated and brought up to understand the ways of white society. In accordance with their father James McCary’s will, Robert and his sister were freed in 1815, and Robert inherited a substantial piece of the estate, including slaves of his own. Although relatively rare, it was not unheard of for the elite of Black society to enslave Black people of their own in Mississipi.
As a free Black man of wealth, property, and means, Robert had entered into what was called the ‘blue vein’ society of Natchez, a club of upper class Black people made up of mulattos, quadroons, octoroons, and other variations of potentially white passing Black folks. Many of those who made up this blue vein society took on all the manners of dress, speech, and overall habits of the Southern white aristocracy, including the enslavement of other, mostly darker skinned, Black people.
Only a month after the Dwyer court case hit newspapers across the nation, a Black journalist named Horace R. Cayton Sr., who published his own journal, Cayton’s Weekly, out of Seattle, editorialized on the issue. In his writing, Cayton offers valuable first-hand insight into the complexities of race and the concept of passing for white, as Clara Dwyer had done. In his piece titled, ‘They Turned White,’ he recalled being invited by a friend to visit Natchez, where he was taken to one of the “most select social functions” in the area. Walking into a room full of blue vein elite, Cayton recalled, “a voice clear and distinct sarcastically exclaimed, ‘Well, I wonder what the n***er wants here?” He went on to expose the story behind Clara’s true ancestry in great detail:
“Though in complexion I was between a mulatto and a quadroon, yet I was the darkest person in that room, and there was no doubt as for whom the insult was intended… I fully realized that I was in a strictly blue veined colored society, where darker persons were not wanted and such societies, be it remembered were more or less common in the South, owing to the concubinage of white men and colored women – master and slave – and there was nothing to do but to make the best of the ugly situation which I endeavored to do.
As time rolled on many of those white colored folks realized that they were entirely too white to be black and, by designation, too black to be white… and so they began to scatter and seek other places to cast their lots, where they could throw off their color handicaps. The north, east and west soon contained many blue veined colored persons from Natchez, Mississippi, some of whom I have periodically met or read of in the newspapers… Even in Washington City they had little or no trouble in turning white and I am told many of those I knew well and with whom I mingled socially in Mississippi, on going to the national capital married ‘marble fronts’ and would now know me no more.
As I now remember, among those to whom I was introduced on that rather eventful bulletined party evening, so far as I was concerned were Douglas and Wallace McCary, two magnificent specimens of the genus homo, not quite so fair in complexion as the most of those present, but with shapely features and raven black hair that gave them much the appearance of Spaniards…
… Like most of the young men of the blue vein colored society of Natchez, both of the McCary boys became political proteges of John R. Lynch, the only colored congressman from Mississippi, and for some years Doug’s name often appeared in public print in connection with that of Mr. Lynch, but… after leaving Washington City and going to Omaha he dropped out of sight and so continued until the following excerpt was flashed over the wides some days ago:
“Omaha, Ne., July 18 – Douglas McCarry, the father of Mrs. Clara Dwyer, was the star witness in District Judge Troup’s court in the hearing of the suit of Mrs. Dwyer’s husband, Francis P. Dwyer (white) to have their marriage annulled on the ground that “Negro blood flows in her veins….”
… I have no criticism of Mr. McCary and his family for turning white, even though the had a strain of colored blood in them, but it does seem to me that in going into court to establish his anti-Negro blood he was put on the defensive with the odds very much against him. In turning white, however, Mr. McCary did no more than did scores of others of his social circles and such may be found from Natchez to Seattle, with the most of them doing it…
… I have not written this story for sinister motives, but to give the public some idea of how general is the mixture of white and colored bloods even in the far West, where the colored is so limited that the slight mixture would not be noticeable in a thousand years. I think I can point out a hundred or more families in Seattle, who in the South or East were designated as colored, but who in Seattle are classed as white. In my opinion any white colored person that is so white that it requires an expert to tell whether he or she is colored imposes on the colored folks when he or she says, “I am colored.”
God works in mysterious ways. His wonders to perform and He seems to have adopted the Douglas McCary way to work out His color scheme in the United States. The amalgamation of races in the United States will be the ultimate outcome of this human juggling that has been going on since 1620, when that Dutch trading vessel landed twenty black persons on the shores of this country and sold them as slaves. I am of the further opinion that Mrs. McCary was a white woman and also of the opinion that Mr. McCary, Senior, was one-quarter Negro, and I base my conclusions on the fact that his boon companions were John R. Lynch and other prominent colored men of Natchez and vicinity of like color as himself and on the further fact that his sons in their childhood and youth and even in their early manhood days associated with colored girls and boys and colored men and women exclusively, all of which has come out in the divorce proceedings.
Notice how confusing the language of this man, who understood race as well as anyone at the time, appears to be when confronted with the contradictions of hard color lines in a nation full of blurred color lines. He states that “white colored folk” were “too white to be black” and “too black to be white.” These terms and descriptions perfectly encapsulate the ridiculousness of the racial hierarchy at its very core, exposing the false premises upon which they were constructed. At what points do whiteness and Blackness start, and at which points do they end? While the language appears confusing, Cayton himself offers some clarity on the matter when he states that one quarter “Negro blood” definitely makes one Black, but one eighth can represent a break in the color line where a person can now be considered white. He even goes so far as to say that people with such light skin as Clara possessed “impose” on Black people when they claim to be colored. But in the wild west of racial constructs, these kinds of imagined biological markers were almost entirely subjective, up for debate and arbitrarily drawn by different judges in different states. There was no national standard by which to measure race because there were no clear answers about where whiteness and Blackness begin or end.
Cayton discusses more than biological measurements as the markers of race in his analysis as well. His case that Douglass McCary was Black depended on a ratio of whiteness to Blackness, but also rested on the fact that he associated with Black politicians and businessmen, and his children associated with other Black children. Even as Douglass McCary was described as Spanish-looking, he was racially, at least to some degree, simply the company he kept. This line of reasoning was standard at the time, as evidenced by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s reporting that Clara “went through the schools as a white girl” and that “all her associates were white.” Thus, even as race was still considered a biological fact rather than a social construct, American society still knew, at least at a subconscious level, the truth that it is largely based on social markers.
The history shared by Clayton offers a glimpse into ideas of race a century ago, and opens up the McCary family of Natchez for further examination. While Robert and his sister were granted their freedom, their younger brother Warner was not. Even more astonishingly, Warner and any of his potential future offspring were commanded in James McCary’s will to be “held as slaves during all and each of their lives” in servitude to his mother and siblings. It is difficult to imagine how and why anyone would ever sentence one of his children, and an entire line of his descendants, into a life of slave labor for his other children, but such is nature of the almost impenetrable social, political, and psychological formations that came out of the American system of enslavement.
Warner was having none of it. He escaped to New Orleans and worked there for a few years before embarking on a journey across North America, and across racial and ethnic barriers, creating a legend in the process. Warner eventually met a white Mormon woman, Lucy Stanton, and together they posed as a Native American couple, traveling state by state as performing artists. Warner was talented in multiple instruments, but was particularly brilliant with a flute. By the time they arrived in Nauvoo in 1845, Warner had transformed into Okah Tubbee, the half-Black son of the great Choctaw Chief Mushulatubbee, and was sealed to his wife under Mormon tradition. Entrenching himself amongst Mormon leadership, he was baptized by Orson Hyde, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Then in February of 1847, he appeared at Winter Quarters in what is now North Omaha, where he exhibited his wide-ranging musical talents for Brigham Young himself.
Not long after his arrival at Winter Quarters, the mysterious traveling musician started creating waves of controversy. One Mormon official recorded in his notes, “Heard report that the N***er Indian McCarry was holding private meetings over the River. first entering into a Covt. of Secrecy.” At this stage in the Mormon story, following Joseph Smith’s death, a power vacuum led to many competing factions scrambling for followers. McCary capitalized on this tension by claiming to be a prophet who could appear in the form of characters from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, including Adam of the Old Testament. He also formed his own tradition of ‘sealing’ husbands and wives together by sleeping with the wives ahead of time in his tent, a practice that did not go unnoticed by Young and his followers.
When Brigham Young and other Mormon elders summoned McCary for questioning, he told them of the racist taunts he constantly endured, mostly directed at his marriage to a white woman, and defended himself from accusations that he was of African descent, noting how straight his hair was. He also employed humor in effort to put his interrogators at ease, playing on his skills as an entertainer that had been his bread and butter for many years. On the issue of race, Young said, “Its nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh,” and, “we don’t care about the color.”
Although he had enjoyed the enigmatic performer’s music and claimed to be completely unconcerned with his race, Young’s future actions spoke louder than any lip service he gave to the idea that Mormon leadership was colorblind. McCary was eventually chased out of town at gunpoint and the Mormon Church banned Black men from joining the priesthood, a doctrine that remained in practice until the ‘revelation’ in 1978 that God finally wanted to accept Black priests. Brigham Young, facing accusations of adultery around the same time that Warner McCary was ruffling feathers at Winter Quarters, redirected attention away from himself by actively pursuing this anti-Black policy. At a moment when his authority and power were under attack, Young also displaced his own personal rage onto the shoulders of Black people, a pattern of behavior that appears over and over again in the racial narrative of the United Staes.
Following his expulsion from Mormon circles, Warner McCary continued pushing his Okah Tubbee identity, performing with his flute in full Choctaw regalia (or at least his variation of it) in front of sold out audiences on the East Coast. P.T. Barnum helped manage him for a time. He even published a book, ‘A Sketch of the Life of Okah Tubbee (Called) William Chubbee, Son of the Head Chief, Mosholeh Tubbee, of the Choctaw Nation of Indians,’ which promoted his image as a true descendant of an Indigenous legend. Eventually, however, Warner McCary’s identity was exposed and his reputation tarnished. His celebrity had become large enough that people who remembered him from his southern origins began speaking out about his true identity, and the confidence man from Natchez was suddenly no more – he disappeared from the historical record.
While it might seem easy to pass judgement on Warner for appropriating Indigenous culture and fabricating his racial identity, it’s important to also put his story into context. During the Second Great Awakening, religious sects popped up from spots across the nation, each with some sort of cultish leader promising eternal truths, salvation, and entertainment. Joseph Smith convinced his followers he had found a golden tablet with ancient hieroglyphs that he was able to transcribe by placing magic seer stones into a hat, and Warner McCary persuaded people he was an Indian prophet. At the time, peoples’ imaginations were wide open, seeking leaders to show them answers to the mysteries of life, and perhaps a bit of escapism from a bleak existence where the infant mortality rate was still sky high and life in the New World was cheap. The world was wide open for a man born enslaved to become whomever he wanted to be, to create his own legend, and Warner seized upon the opportunities he saw.
Selling his identity as a ‘red man’ also served to highlight Warner McCrary’s troubling relationship with race, and the fluidity of racial constructs in general. It’s impossible for any of us to step into the mind of a man born enslaved to his own mother and siblings. What questions did he ask about this absurd situation growing up? What answers were given? If his identity as a ‘slave’ or a ‘free man’ depended entirely upon which words his father decided to jot down onto a piece of paper, then how solid is human identity in the first place? It isn’t hard to imagine young Warner picking apart the idea of identities every minute of his life, deconstructing his own identity, and then taking it upon himself to reverse the odds that had been stacked against him, wrestling control of his racial, social, and political identity away from his father and using new ones to his advantage. He became ‘red passing’ for as long as he could mange it, as a survival mechanism in a world designed to work against him, and who could blame him?
In the same sense that Warner flipped the racial tables in his favor by becoming ‘red,’ his relatives went out into the world and became ‘white’ to create better lives for themselves. This process often involved abandoning all friends and family that might tie a white passing person back to Blackness in any way. In the case of Douglass McCary, this meant moving to Omaha and presenting himself as a white man, which he had successfully done since at least 1905, when he was first listed as a white man in the official city directory. But just as in the case of his brother Warner, Douglass’ past was threatened to be revealed through the course of his daughter’s very public court case. Francis Dwyer and his attorney assumed that under the spotlight, and under oath, Douglass would simply admit to being a Black man, rather than risk breaking the law by lying about his true heritage.
When Douglass McCary finally made his way into the court room, however, he flat out denied any and all traces of Black ancestry. He said his grandfather was a slave owner with red hair, that is father was also a slave owner who served as county sheriff and postmaster of Natchez, and that his maternal line consisted only of purely white women. The major point used against him was the fact that before his arrival in Omaha, he had worked for the defunct Capital and Savings bank in Washington D.C., which was operated by and for Black people. He admitted working for the bank, but as a white man working in a Black institution. Interestingly, he claimed not to remember if he had listed himself as ‘white’ or ‘colored’ when he registered for a civil service position. The judge apparently bought his story, hook, line, and sinker.
But Douglass’ story did not go unchallenged. Of all the details in the Dwyer case, perhaps the most fascinating was how Francis Senior became convinced his wife and son were Black in the first place. The ‘science’ brought into the courtroom, mentioned earlier in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, consisted of a single physician who was presented as an expert on the latest scientific discoveries about race. According to the article:
Dr. A.A. Holtman, expert in obstetrics and heredity, present when the boy was born, was called as a witness to testify concerning reversion to type as well as of the birth of Francis. The doctor told the court that, while the child has a suspicious profile, he would not state positively that he was a negro. He cited cases showing that negro blood may become manifest in the offspring of a union for 16 generations and that a fair-skinned child may be followed by one of just the opposite competition.
“On the same principle that the child of a family, which for generations may have been upright and honest, without a taint of criminality, may develop into a criminal of the most degenerate type, so, where there is negro blood, the taint may not show through a number of generations, but suddenly an apparent full-blooded negro child may be born,” the doctor told the court. “The records show that negro blood can come out where there has been a negro parent as far back as 16 generations.”
“Is that a general rule?” Dr. Holtman was asked by Attorney Yeiser, acting for Dwyer.
“It is the exception, not the rule,” was the answer.
Here, Blumenbach’s ‘degenerative hypothesis,’ already a century and a half old by 1919, was alive and kicking in the Douglas County Courthouse, and presented as solid, objective truth. The racial hierarchy is spelled out in Holtman’s choice of language, which implies that any trace of Blackness in the bloodline might pop out of a woman’s womb in the form of a Black child, a reversion from the state of white humanity to Black savagery. In fact, all the language associated with Blackness that appeared throughout the case carries negative connotation: ‘tainted,’ ‘degenerate,’ ‘suspicious,’ ‘criminal.’ And while mainstream newspapers in 2019 would never print this type of language in reference to Black people, these are the kinds of signifiers that still spark into a chain of mental images today when people are presented with Blackness. The choice of language is more subtle, and yet the implications of savagery and criminality still lurk, just below the surface, or sometimes even right in plain sight.
Sometimes it’s not just language, but imagery as well, that implies criminality and Blackness are synonymous.
Like Brigham Young 70 years before him, Dr. Amadeus A. Holtman, the testifying physician and supposed expert on race, could also be viewed as a white man who felt his power being threatened lashing out against those even less powerful than himself. After a whirlwind and controversial marriage of his own (him being a Protestant man marrying his Catholic wife Alice against her family’s wishes) Holtman found himself the victim of a sociopathic spouse. His wife Alice, as it turned out, was apparently abusive at best and murderous at worst. And depending on who you believe, as bizarre as it sounds, Holtman ended up either dying of natural heart failure, being poisoned by Alice for money, or being somehow murdered by Hindu priests.
When Holtman suddenly went ill and died in 1926, Alice thought she would be receiving his $42,000 estate, equal to over $600,000 in 2019. They had signed reciprocal wills just a few years earlier promising that in the event of the other’s death, they would receive the full amount of their estate. Her own estate was worth $10,000, which was a hefty sum for a woman to call her own back in those days. She was, after all, a society woman and member of the Omaha Board of Education, which was otherwise dominated exclusively by men. However, the day after signing the reciprocal will, Holtman rushed to another lawyer and signed a second will, which he kept secret from Alice, granting $20,000 of his estate to his two sisters and brother, all living in Minnesota.
Upon learning of the second will, Alice became enraged and the battle for A.A. Holtman’s will went to court, unleashing a fury of scandalous details about one of Omaha’s leading physicians and his powerful, prominent society wife. Through the course of the court proceedings, Holtman’s siblings testified that Alice was abusive to their brother. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there were “endless stories of gun play, of hair-pulling, clothes-tearing fights, of threats by Mrs. Holtman to ‘put a bullet hole between her husband’s eyes,’ of quarrels and combats without number.” The siblings testified they had heard Alice threaten their brother, “You will leave me all your money, or I will shoot you,” and “I don’t have to take dictation from you; I will kill you first”, as well as the decidedly poetic “Some day I will put a bullet hole through your head and you will wake up and find yourself dead.”
The Post-Dispatch article goes on to describe Alice Holtman’s character and highlight some more of the witness testimony against her:
For a long time she has been known as a rather fiery person, quick to fight and willing to fight to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences, if she thinks she is right… (Once) she engaged in an argument with a young member of the School Board and threatened to slap his face in public. When he kept up his barrage of sarcastic remarks she did try to slap him, and was only restrained by intervention of the chairman of the board…
John W. Cooper, first administrator of the Holtman estate, was the first witness and he started the hearing off in sensational style when he told of the circumstances under which the doctor made his secret will. A few hours after making the reciprocal will… Dr. Holtman came to his office and told how he had been forced to draw it under his wife’s threat to shoot him… the doctor was trembling, highly excited and worried. He then told how Mrs. Holtman had summoned him to read the doctor’s will a few hours after the latter’s death: how he had dissuaded her from that “for the sake of appearances,” how she had clashed with him later over the will and threatened to shoot him…
Holtman’s siblings also claimed he was constantly in a state of paranoia that his wife would follow through with her threats to kill him, potentially in his sleep.
But Alice’s apparent suspicious behavior did not end with these accusations. Following Holtman’s death, Alice and the siblings put up their own armies of medical experts to examine the body and determine the cause of death. Some doctors said there was evidence of poison in his stomach, although there was no consensus as to exactly how much, and some thought there was no poison at all. The Post-Dispatch noted there were “so many conflicting statements by so many prominent physicians that the county attorney’s office decided there was not enough evidence to convict anybody of anything.” In the end, it was reported that Holtman had died of natural causes, although the circumstantial evidence alone surrounding the death was reason enough to be skeptical. Doctors claiming to have found poison in the stomach makes the story even more fishy. To top it all off, Alice fought and won to have the body cremated, while the siblings were trying to have the body re-examined.
Although Holtman’s siblings didn’t outright accuse Alice of murdering their brother, the insinuation was there. But from here, the plot only thickens. Apparently the Holtmans – Amadeus, Alice, and at least some of his siblings – were also into clairvoyants, spiritual mediums, and related fields of practice. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, one of the siblings testified that Alice had told her husband and others that “a clairvoyant had informed her that her husband would die within five years, that she would get all of his property and become a rich woman, that she would then marry a dark haired man and live to be eighty-five.”
But Alice and her lawyer, named Baker, had accusations of their own to throw back at them. According to Alice, when she married Amadeus in 1903 against her parents’ wishes, she was already a fairly well off woman who was taking a penniless man off the streets, in order to help put him through medical school. The Lincoln Journal Star relayed part of Alice’s claims against her husband:
In withholding the second will, Holtman “deceived her and kept himself in a position to reap the benefits of getting her property if she died first”… and that “it is apparent from the evidence and his early career as a street fakir, selling ready made fortunes at a dime a throw, an ordained spiritualist medium and an electric healer by the laying on of hands.”
Another Journal Star article reported:
At the time of Doctor Holtman’s death there were rumors afloat that he was a close friend of a Hindu philosopher and they had arranged to try communication after death.
Baker asked John Holtman if he had stood at the head of the coffin and commanded the corpse to “rise up and speak,” but Holtman denied it…
Ida Holtman… denied that she was a spiritualist and said there was a medium having the same name in her home town of St. Paul.
Alice also reportedly said she believed her husband “had been killed by Hindu priests at midnight..”
So in essence, A.A. Holtman’s siblings had a mound of evidence that Alice was a violent, abusive spouse who was capable at the very least of threatening murder, and Alice’s response was that her husband and his siblings were… associated with Hindus. In the end, of course, the siblings won their case. The judge ruled that the reciprocal will was made “at the urgency” of Mrs. Holtman and “with no intention on the part of the testator to bequeath his property thereby,” and “in order to preserve undisturbed his relations with Mrs. Holtman,” and that the second will “embodied his real intentions.” Alice took the case to the Nebraska Supreme Court, reportedly not giving a damn if it cost her the entire $40,000 fortune she stood to gain, and lost again there.
And yet, there are those strange details about A.A. Holtman being a “street fakir” who associated with a “Hindu philosopher.” At the time this would have been associated largely with street performers who are now forever embedded into American memory as mystics who might read your fortune, communicate with the dead, or in the case of Hollywood imagination, appear as a fun novelty game at a carnival and turn a young boy into a grown man.
While the Holtman siblings denied any and all associations with such practices, there is simply too much smoke for there not to be a fire. Of course being associated with Hinduism and/or mysticism in no way means someone is criminal, but back then it was regarded with heavy suspicion, and Alice was desperate to fend off the attacks on her character, so she pulled out the one thing she had on her husband, which was his association with something foreign. And even though the judge would have likely ruled in favor of the siblings regardless, Alice and Baker missed evidence they could have used to strengthen their case, had they known where to look.
In the Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1925, Amadeus A. Holtman’s name appears next to the name of a man who was a well known Eastern philosopher. And although the man was actually Sikh, the term ‘Hindu’ was used as a catch-all phrase at the time to describe anyone from what is now India and the surrounding area, so the accusation against Holtman wouldn’t have been incorrect in the eyes of judge and jury.
Thind was a Sikh man who immigrated to the west coast of the U.S. in 1913 from the Punjab region of what is now Northern India, in order to go to college. When World War 1 broke out, he enlisted in the Army, becoming the first American soldier to wear a turban. In 1918 he applied for citizenship in Washington and was granted it, only to have it revoked a few days later by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The following year he applied again, in Oregon, and was granted citizenship a second time, only to have it revoked again by the same immigration officer. His case ended up going to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922, which became the battleground in defining where whiteness begins and ends, and the issue of race was debated by the highest authorities in the land. Thind was therefore on the front lines of the battle over racial politics in the United States, and his friend A.A. Holtman brought this same conflict into the Douglas County Courthouse through the Dwyer family drama.
Thind’s Supreme Court case came on the heels of another case of racial politics, Ozawa v. United States, in which a Japanese born man argued for his citizenship on the basis that he was a white man. As noted earlier, the Founding Fathers made the first naturalization code in 1790 based on white supremacy, granting a pathway to citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had lived in the U.S. for at least two years. In 1870, the law was amended to include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” as a way to assimilate the millions of Black people who had recently had their legal status changed from property to human beings. So Ozawa argued that he was white because Japanese people fit within the definition of “free white people,” another indication of how many questions were floating around racial identities at the time.
The Supreme Court ruled against Ozawa:
(The original intent behind the 1790 Act) was to confer the privilege of citizenship upon that class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified. It is not enough to say that the framers did not have in mind the brown or yellow races of Asia. It is necessary to go farther and be able to say that had these particular races been suggested the language of the act would have been so varied as to include them within its privileges….
… Manifestly the test afforded by the mere color of the skin of each individual is impracticable, as that differs greatly among persons of the same race, even among Anglo-Saxons, ranging by imperceptible gradations from the fair blond to the swarthy brunette, the latter being darker than many of the lighter hued persons of the brown or yellow races. Hence to adopt the color test alone would result in a confused overlapping of races and a gradual merging of one into the other, without any practical line of separation…
… The determination that the words ‘white person’ are synonymous with the words ‘a person of the Caucasian race’ simplifies the problem, although it does not entirely dispose of it. Controversies have arisen and will no doubt arise again in respect of the proper classification of individuals in border line cases. The effect of the conclusion that the words ‘white person’ means a Caucasian is not to establish a sharp line of demarcation between those who are entitled and those who are not entitled to naturalization, but rather a zone of more or less debatable ground outside of which, upon the one hand, are those clearly eligible, and outside of which, upon the other hand, are those clearly ineligible for citizenship…
… The appellant, in the case now under consideration, however, is clearly of a race which is not Caucasian and therefore belongs entirely outside the zone on the negative side. A large number of the federal and state courts have so decided and we find no reported case definitely to the contrary. These decisions are sustained by numerous scientific authorities, which we do not deem it necessary to review. We think these decisions are right and so hold.
The opinion was penned by Justice George Sutherland, who had been on the Supreme Court for only a few days at the time. One might notice the definition of ‘white person’ is presented as ‘of Caucasian race’ but no clear definition of ‘Caucasian race’ is stated. This is Sutherland and the U.S. Supreme Court kicking the can further down the road, because they simply don’t know how to pick it up. What is white? Caucasian. What is Caucasian? That’s up for debate, but scientists say it’s definitely *not* Japanese.
This confused, and confusing, language from the Supreme Court reflects decades of fruitless efforts by American officials to draw clear racial lines. As evidenced by the language of the ruling, race is not merely color. Officials at Ellis Island had seen this fact clearly enough that when they started making a ‘List of Races or People,’ and saw that race can’t be reduced to color or nationality, they started thinking of race in terms of ethnicity, or “people who maintain recognized communities.” Yet even this lens is flawed, as it merely points out social ties, when race was still being thought of as a biological fact rather than a social construct. The can kept getting kicked around, and anyone trying to pick it up found that immediately upon touch, it slipped right out of their hands, so they kicked it again.
Only months after handling the Ozawa case, Justice Sutherland took on Thind’s, where he was once again facing an Asian man claiming whiteness. This time, however, was even trickier than before. Although Thind was from India and wore a turban, he could lay claim to ‘pure Aryan blood’ through popular pseudoscience of the time linking ancient Indian civilization to Classical Greece, the Roman Empire, and the modern civilizations sprouted by Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon peoples, including the American Empire. It was this same line of thinking that had Hitler taking an ancient symbol from Asia, the swastika, and applying it to his vision of a new world that traced its origins back through Rome and Greece, all the way back to the Aryan peoples of ancient India. Of course, Hitler and his Nazi peers lifted many of their ideas from American white supremacists, including the creators of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ who tied the KKK to a glorious Aryan past.
Within the Aryan conceptual framework, Thind insisted not only that he was white, but also that due to the rigidity of the caste system in India, he and his people in North India were more purely white than most white Americans, who had a well known history of raping the Black women they enslaved. He even went so far as to claim disgust at the prospect of Aryan Indians marrying darker skinned Indians of lower castes, stating “The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint.”
Thind therefore didn’t argue against the white supremacist American naturalization policy, but rather that high-caste Aryan Indians, the descendants of those light skinned people who conquered the darker skinned Indigenous peoples of India, and the originators of the Indo-Aryan languages that branched off into European languages such as English, were in fact white, and/or ‘Caucasian.’ While the linguistic links were valid, the racial ones were harder to identify, as there was no accepted method for measuring the biology of whiteness, or Aryanness, or Caucasianness. So Thind took the social construct route, maintaining that the linguistic ties between India and Europe alone were enough evidence to signify his whiteness.
As with the Ozawa case, Justice Sutherland denied Thind his status as a white man. But this time he kicked the can in an even more ridiculous manner, writing:
“Caucasian” is a conventional word of much flexibility, as a study of the literature dealing with racial questions will disclose, and, while it and the words “white persons” are treated as synonymous for the purposes of that case, they are not of identical meaning — idem per idem.
In the endeavor to ascertain the meaning of the statute, we must not fail to keep in mind that it does not employ the word “Caucasian,” but the words “white persons,” and these are words of common speech, and not of scientific origin. The word “Caucasian” not only was not employed in the law, but was probably wholly unfamiliar to the original framers of the statute in 1790. When we employ it, we do so as an aid to the ascertainment of the legislative intent, and not as an invariable substitute for the statutory words. Indeed, as used in the science of ethnology, the connotation of the word is by no means clear, and the use of it in its scientific sense as an equivalent for the words of the statute, other considerations aside, would simply mean the substitution of one perplexity for another…
… The words of the statute, it must be conceded, do not readily yield to exact interpretation, and it is probably better to leave them as they are than to risk undue extension or undue limitation of their meaning by any general paraphrase at this time. word is popularly understood. As so understood and used, whatever may be the speculations of the ethnologist, it does not include the body of people to whom the appellee belongs. It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.
Here, Justice Sutherland acknowledges again that the concept of whiteness and the definition of ‘Caucasian’ remain unclear, so instead of defining what whiteness is, he states what it clearly *isn’t.* Only this time, he goes a step further than he had with Ozawa, arguing that because the framers of the original naturalization law had no idea what race was, it’s best to continue not knowing because the original law was “written in the words of common speech, for common understanding, by unscientific men.” So in a nutshell, Sutherland wants us to stop trying to pick the can up entirely, because it’s too slippery. It’s best to just stick with the ignorant, racist policy that was originally written by men who were entirely ignorant of what exactly whiteness was, even as they created an entire nation and empire based upon it.
United States vs Thind solidified and expanded a cluster of anti-Asian federal policy, including the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, to include Indian people, thereby opening the door for the Immigration Service to revoke citizenship of many more people from the region in and around India, who had gained their citizenship through smaller, local channels in previous decades. Between World War 1 and World War 2, over 3,000 of these people made their way back out of the United States, and those who stayed were forced underground, where many picked up on the art of practicing street mysticism and spiritual lecturing, including Thind himself, who turned to preaching metaphysical philosophy, as well as his white supremacist racial ideology, around the nation in 1924. It was under these circumstances that A.A. Holtman encountered the ‘Hindu philosopher’ his wife attempted to use against him in her battle for his estate.
While the date on the copyright that first connects Holtman’s name to Thind’s has them meeting in 1925 at the very latest, the first documented evidence that Thind visited Omaha is from the Omaha World Herald in 1926. In this article, Thind and his ex wife Inez Pier Buelen, whom he had married and divorced before two years together, argued about marriage and race. When Buelen heard he was speaking in Omaha, she had come to silence any criticisms he might have of her, and the former lovers ended up spilling their marital drama out through an eager World Herald reporter. Their spat was reported in some detail:
“I left him about a year after we were married,” Mrs. Thind related. “He told me he was of white blood, but I learned that he was Oriental to the core. His subtle Oriental ways were unbearable to me. It got so that I became ill when he was near me.”
When told of her announced plan, Dr. Thind drew himself up haughtily, “I am white,” he said. “I am a Hindu of high caste, and told her so before we married. I was a naturalized American citizen once, but the United States supreme court revoked my citizenship on the grounds that I was an Asiatic. It was not because my blood is not white.
From the looks of their marriage photo published in January 1924, a year after the court ruling against him, the relationship was never meant to last anyways. And from the words fired off in the World Herald article, Thind never stopped believing he was in fact a white man, which would have made for interesting dinner conversation for the average white American, and must have sparked the interest of Dr. A.A. Holtman whenever it was that their paths first crossed. The two men obviously shared an interest in race, and perhaps helped to shape each other’s racial worldview.
Through the course of his traveling lectures, Thind eventually obtained citizenship in 1936, but not as a white man. He married a white woman in 1940 and continued lecturing, publishing books, and it can be assumed making the case to whomever would listen, that the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong, and that he was in fact, white.
Judges were faced with the near impossible task of determining clear racial lines in a world full of blurred ones, due to the fact that race is a social construct, and not a biological fact. In the Thind case, it was ruled that non-scientific, common sense knowledge would place Indian people of any caste outside the realm of whiteness. In the Dwyer case back in Omaha, Judge Troup ended up ruling against the father in scathing terms, granting Clara her divorce on the grounds of abuse and abandonment. According to the Lincoln Journal Star:
District Judge Troup refused to annul the marriage of Francis P. and Clara Dwyer, asked by the husband on the grounds that his wife had at least one-eighth negro blood in her veins.
“The evidence has failed to show not only that this defendant has one-eighe (sic) negro blood but that she has any negro blood in her veins, or any of her family have it. It follows as matter of course that the plaintiff’s cause of action is dismissed,” said Judge Troup, in giving his decision.
The court denounced in strong terms the physcian (sic) who first suggested that mother and child had negro blood.
“There is no evidence of anything but complete and perfect happiness in this home until the birth of the child, and until the most reprehensible and cruel act of the physician who delivered the child,” said the judge. “After the delivery he took aside the father and asked if there was any negro blood in the child, thus putting the horror in the mind of the husband that he had married a negro. What matter was it to that doctor if the child was as black as the ace of spades?”
… This little child was in the court room. In all the fifteen years of my experience in this court, there has never been in the court room a more beautiful and attractive child than this little one, whose whole future the father would no propose to blast by this action.”
Here, Troup once again implies that Blackness is inherently negative, that the child is not Black and highlighting the child’s whiteness, it is implied, through words such as “beautiful” and “attractive,” in contrast with what can be assumed is ugliness that might come from the ‘taint’ of ‘negro blood.’ Following Troup’s decision, the Dwyers proved to be elusive in terms of the historical record. Eric Ewing, Executive Director of the Great Plains History Museum in Omaha, suggests that Clara and Francis Jr. must have skipped town following the courtroom drama, as suspicion of her Black ancestry would have carried into her life regardless of the outcome of her case. If anyone has information about Clara Dwyer or Francis Dwyer Jr., or any of the McCary family, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(I would also like to shout out Mr. Ewing here for reminding me to wrap up the Dwyer case by including its final outcome, which I had forgotten to do in my rush to finish this piece. Critiques are not only welcomed but sought after, so anyone who wants to offer thoughts or criticisms, please feel free to comment or email me and I will take it all into consideration.)
The issues explored in this piece should make a few things quite clear, especially the fact that the racial hiearchy, color lines, and racial identities themselves are based on the false premise that humans exist in biologically separate races. We are one species with a beautiful variety of phenotypes that make us look different, including skin tones, eye colors, hair colors, hair textures. But these differences do no not exist in our brains, and as far as human consciousness goes, we are our brains. Any sort of statistics white supremacists throw out regarding differences in IQ, levels of criminality, addiction, violence, etc. are the result of external forces bearing down upon different groups of people over centuries. Go anywhere in the world and you will find that poverty causes negative human behaviors, not race.
It’s also clear that when you get down to it with a microscope, race is one of the murkiest spaces in the modern human experience. The Supreme Court of the United States could not define race a century ago any more than we can clearly define it today. Opening up the history and sociology of race, one finds an onslaught of complexities that can be staggering enough to make people choose to look the other way, rather than face it head on and sift through its almost endless layers. As the great emcee Nas put it, “people fear what they don’t understand, hate what they can’t conquer.” And yet we are faced with race every day of our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It’s there in our politics. In our schools. In our relationships with friends, family, neighbors. It’s in the grocery store, in the mall, in the church, in the school. It’s in our minds, working through us in ways we still don’t fully understand, and therefore it’s up to us to dig in and explore the rich history available to us.
For white people, it’s easy to dismiss such analysis as the product of unwarranted ‘white guilt,’ and people will constantly accuse those of us who call out racism where we see it as being ‘white knights’ and ‘social justice warriors’ who are hell bent on our own self-hatred, and of spreading self-hatred. To these people I will only say that it’s not our fault for making the world this way, yet it is our responsibility to try and understand it, and then to work towards dismantling it, within ourselves and within the white power structures that still dominate our society. Congress is now more racially diverse than it has ever been, and yet is still overwhelmingly white, male, and Christian, and it’s important to note that even if our political structure was proportionate to the demographics of the nation, that alone would still not reverse the centuries of trauma and oppression that still affect people of color in millions of way, seen and unseen, to this day.
One will likely ask, ‘well what do you propose is the solution,’ to which I will respond that I don’t have all the answers, but the first step in any sort of real solution is education. And by this I don’t mean liberal feel-good education about how far we’ve come since the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, but rather deep, sustained, gut-wrenchingly painful education that explores all the nooks and crannies of this thing that simply won’t go away, this beast that roams so freely, yet so seemingly invisibly, through our lives even in 2019.
The myth that MLK was a docile yet forceful Christian leader who only preached colorblindness and warm ideas about white kids and Black kids playing together, where we judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, is perhaps the most dangerous one we could possibly tell ourselves moving into the future. Advocates of color blindness pull out this sanitized version of MLK and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech whenever they want to shut down any and all discussions about race and racism. It’s a way of keeping blinders on, rather than exposing all the ugly monsters of our past and present that lurk in our closet, under our beds, looming over us and within us through our lives.
MLK was not a man who sought to make people simply feel good. He understood that in order to deliver the medicine, there must first be the pain of the prick. He cited Socrates, who advocated being a ‘gadfly’ that stirs society up into action by making it uncomfortable, the opposite of the character so many people have made him out to be. A 1968 poll had 75% of the American people disapproving of him, indicating the shocking degree to which his life and message have been stolen, rearranged, and repackaged for people to use against the very life he lived and message he preached. If we truly value MLK then we need to follow his example and make things uncomfortable by shining light on the terrible, and terribly confusing, truths about race and racism that we still live with. Education is not sufficient in and of itself, but it is the necessary first step towards forming a more just world for our children and grandchildren to inhabit.