by Kimberly Bernita Ross
My grandmother Bernice was born in New Orleans in 1918 to a Black mother and a White father at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. Her mother, Roseanna, a maid in a White home, had a relationship with her employer’s son. Grandma Bernice was born with blue eyes, straight hair, and white skin, and was raised by a brown-skinned mother in the Jim Crow south. Her life was marred with instances of social confusion, isolation and abuse from others because society was not prepared to handle racial ambiguity. To say however, that Grandma Bernice was merely the iconic tragic mulatto, as depicted in 19th century American literature, like Nella Larsen’s novels, Quicksand and Passing, would simplify her experience and bypass an opportunity to analyze racial identity. These depictions, at times, reduce struggles with racial identity to individual human drama, divorcing this inner conflict, from the racist society that created it. Today, at a time when some people seem to have race fatigue, the truth is, as we continue to become a more cosmopolitan world, it would be to our collective advantage to become more race savvy, beginning by looking at the past. My grandmother’s story reveals the impact of state imposed identity and how in the Black community, racism and Jim Crow still overshadow our relationships and perceptions of racial identity.
Grandma Bernice’s early life was enveloped in mystery because it was too painful for her to talk about, even to her own children. As adults, my father and my eight aunts and uncles pieced together details of her life, only then realizing how the turmoil of her youth affected her adult years in debilitating ways. Only after talking to my father and my aunt, did I realize the true impact that my grandmother’s appearance had on her life. Talking to my family about my grandmother revealed a world of loneliness that I was not prepared to hear.
During the Jim Crow era, the one-drop law determined that any person with Negro blood was Black, even if he looked White. In an interview on CNN, Dr. Yaba Blay, of the (1)ne Drop Project, explains how, “The one drop rule historically… was really instituted to protect Whiteness. It was a way for the White majority to name and cite who was White.” Therefore, the one-drop rule controlled racial boundaries and upheld a society predicated on White supremacy. My grandmother for all outward appearances looked like a White woman, and could have passed for White like the protagonists in Larsen’s novels. Many Black people of mixed ancestry did in fact pass, to live a life free of oppression. And yet, my grandmother never attempted to leave the Black community, but in many ways she did not have a community that ever fully accepted her.
The (1)ne Drop Project acknowledges how the Black community still grapples with color difference, “…when met by people who self-identify as ‘Black,’ but do not fit into a prototypical model of ‘Blackness,’ many of us [Blacks] not only question their identity, but challenge their Blackness, and thus our potential relationship to them.” For my grandmother, her appearance defined all of her relationships with friends, family and her community. According to my aunt, Grandma’s friendships with Black women outside of her home were especially complex because they often resented her color, equating it with a better life. My aunt explained that, “Black women always thought she had it easier because of how she looked, but they didn’t understand that her life was not easy at all.” My aunt shared with me how Grandma’s friends would give her money, pressuring her to buy them merchandise from White only stores. Grandma Bernice feared she would be discovered as Black and sent to jail. Perhaps it was seen as a privilege to be able to pass, but Grandma Bernice was breaking the law just by setting foot in these stores and was terrified. There was nothing glamorous about straddling the color line in a volatile, racialized society.
Grandma eventually moved to California where she lived in a low-income housing project in West Oakland with four children from her first marriage and five more children she had with my Mixed-race grandfather, Robert Ross. Their family of nine children of all colors endured what my father understatedly calls challenging times. While Grandma Bernice’s relationships with Black women grew more complicated, the neighbors by contrast loved my grandfather. “They hated her” my aunt shared, “They hated her because of her looks but they loved my father because he was considered handsome for the exact same reasons, his mixture. So Mama became very isolated.”
The family’s circumstances grew worse when the youngest child, my uncle, contracted polio during the national epidemic of the 1950s. Some people blamed her for bringing the disease into the neighborhood. The pressures of my grandmother’s life were eventually too much to bear and without a proper sense of community she became emotionally withdrawn and depressed, eventually experiencing a “nervous breakdown.” My aunt recalls, “I remember she was hanging clothes on the line to dry and then she collapsed. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital and my father had 48 hours to find someone to take care of the children or child protective services was threatening to take them away from him. We were all separated and placed with different relatives until my father could figure out what to do.”
For six months my grandmother underwent psychiatric treatment. My aunt attributes much of Grandma’s struggles in life to a fractured existence in a racist society. She reflects, “We as Black people don’t talk about our pain, or the psychological problems that come with our color issues.” It was because of these very issues that my grandmother suffered in silence and seclusion in a society deeply divided by race.
Growing up in these conditions my aunt says that she, herself, became tough and bitter because she did not relate to White culture, but had difficulty with Black folks in her neighborhood. “I always felt like if people just got to know me they would like me. I knew Mama had endured so much growing up and I was dealing with the exact same problems. People would tell me I was going to grow up and be just like Mama. It took me years to deal with the issues I had with my heritage.” Not only did she have broken relationships with Black women, my aunt felt that Black men did not see her for who she was, “I could see these guys just looking past me, and only looking at my color, like I was a trophy. It was a game to see if they could get me. I just wanted them to see the real me. It was so complicated.” As for White men, she jokes, “In those days, you weren’t even allowed to be attracted to White men.” Today, my aunt says that she has made peace with who she is and her color. She accepts all of who she is despite what the law once said. “When I fill out forms, I check Black and White, because that is my heritage, both my parents were Mixed and that is how I feel. I love who I am.”
In the Black community today, skin color still negatively impacts relationships. Light skin privilege in American society has damaged trust between Black people as we still contend with the past. Every time we engage in these battles we endorse racial hierarchy instead of celebrating racial diversity. The law in the United States has always broadly defined Blackness yet today, concepts of racial identity are evolving. Racial identity seems to be contingent on many circumstances and state power is no longer chief among them. I am happy to see that one of the aims of the (1)ne Drop Project is, “to see Blackness as a broader category of identity and experience …[and] to see ourselves as part of a larger global community.” I think it is especially important for Black people to begin to understand the commonalities we share with Blacks worldwide. Accepting a diversity of experiences and acknowledging different identities is not necessarily a negation of Blackness; and by contrast, claiming Black exclusively, when one does not fit “prototypical” Blackness, is not a rejection of ones other heritages either. Racial identity is complex, fluid, and contextual and the best thing we can do to evolve with it is to simply listen and learn from people’s life stories.
Kimberly Bernita Ross is from Oakland, California. She is a doctoral student in the African American and African Studies program at Michigan State University. Kimberly is specializing in Women’s and Gender Studies through MSU’s Center for Gender in Global Context. Her research interests include: Black and African feminism, representations of Black women in media and literature, visual culture, and globalization’s effects on gender relations in Africa. She is currently researching gender relations and women’s contemporary activism in South Africa.