Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Race as a Construct

Recently I finished Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha Sandweiss.

It was the story of  Clarence King, a nineteenth century geologist and explorer who met and married a woman of color.  He lived with her, unbeknown to almost everyone, as James Todd, a pullman porter.  They had five children together.  It was a fascinating story, although with few first person sources.  It's unknown just how much King's wife, Ada, knew of his deception during their married life. 

What was compelling to me was the ease at which a person could cross the color line; and how fluid the construct of race was (and is).  King may have been a blond haired, blue eyed man, but at the time,  Plessy vs. Ferguson had declared that although someone was even one-eighth black; they still needed to obey segregation and were considered black (of color).  So a person could be considered black and not have any black or African American features. King lived in hotels in New York, and the theory was that as a porter, he would have traveled a great deal.  He was able to deceive everyone into not knowing where he was at any given time. 

Throughout it all, I was inspired by Ada's courage.  Here is a woman, probably born into slavery, who found the courage to leave her home (in GA) and to work in New York.  After King had passed away (leaving her destitute), she found a way to provide for her family.  King had never changed his will to provide for her and their children.  They did have a common law marriage - offiated by a minister of the A.M.E. with many witnesses - but no marriage license. 

He supposedly gave money to a friend to put in trust, but it appears as though one of the conditions from the trust was that she not go public with the relationship.  She went to nine lawyers to sue for the inheritance that King had left her, had meant for her and their children - and in the end she was not successful.  From that experience and some of the other experiences of her children - it's clear that race was at times in the eye of the beholder.  Two of their daughters were able to marry and "pass" for white (marry white men), while a son was labeled at "black" during his military service.
Because of this narrative, I was thinking about mormonism and race. Brigham Young said some incredibly racist things in his time.  He was pretty clear in his denunciation of inter-racial marriage; saying that both parties should be killed.  And as my non LDS readers may or may not know, the LDS church refused to give the priesthood (any authority) to black men until 1978 (or allow couples to marry in the LDS temple).  Here is another  informational link. 

So I wonder if there were mormon or LDS members before 1978 who attempted to "pass".  Who were not open about their racial heritage, because of the racist limitations the LDS church put on full church membership.  What does "passing" mean anyway? 


Lexi and Jordan said...

Interesting. I also wonder what was considered black. Was it only African Americans? I was always shocked that any African Americans were members. I am guessing some were happy to “pass.”

I was surprised a few years ago when I learned that many African Americans didn't think that Islanders in the Caribbean who move to the U.S. should get some of the same benefits as they do (scholarships, etc). I still don't understand why since their ancestors were also slaves brought from Africa. I guess it has to do with missing the civil rights movement, but I am not sure.

kuri said...

There were "white" slaves in America as well.

Aerin said...

FFG - I'm assuming that the LDS church held the same attraction for African Americans as many immigrants - a very American religion with (seemingly) a way to move up the social ladder.

I have also heard about the distinction between African Americans and those descended from the Caribbean. I have never understood it either. But I assume it's much like some of the distinction between Latino countries (Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc.).

snoring solutions said...

I have also heard about the distinction between African Americans and those descended from the Caribbean.nteresting. I also wonder what was considered black.