The construction of ethnoracial identity within situational contexts: A study of triracial family histories

The construction of ethnoracial identity within situational contexts: A study of triracial family histories

University of Pennsylvania
263 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3270863
ISBN: 9780549087526

Samuel M. Lemon, Director of Master of Science in Strategic Leadership Program
Division of Continuing Adult and Professional Studies
Neumann University, Aston, Pennsylvania

Presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Education

Based largely on data collected from oral history interviews, this study examines the construction of triracial ethnoracial identities (African American-Caucasian-American Indian). Here in-depth narratives and analyses of two triracial family histories surface the complex, dynamic, and interactional social contingencies that act on individual and family psychologies to share ethnic identity; these processes are illustrative of the anthropological construct of situationality. In the role of a participant observer, the author reports the history of his own family, the Ridleys of Media, Pennsylvania, which he compiled from the family’s oral tradition, genealogies and archival documents, and the U.S. Census. His narrative revolves around three prominent family members on his mother’s side: Cornelius, a venerated, light-complexioned ancestor who escaped from slavery on an antebellum plantation in southeastern Virginia, and “passing” as white fled north to Pennsylvania on the Underground Railroad in the 1860s; Josefa, a mysterious, legendarily clairvoyant woman from the Danish West Indies, who married into the Ridley family in the 1880s; and Maud, the author’s remarkable maternal grandmother, whose story begins in Media, Pennsylvania, in the 1890s. The author’s narrative history of the Harveys, another triracial family of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, well known to the author, offers illuminating points of comparison and contrast with the Ridleys. Concepts and arguments drawn from the fields of cultural theory, social history, and Southern literature provide the theoretical framework for the study.*

*This dissertation is a compound document (contains both a paper copy and a CD as part of the dissertation). The CD requires the following system requirements: Adobe Photoshop; Roxio; CD Now.

Table of Contents

  • 1 Introduction
    • 1.1 Background of the researcher
    • 1.2 Mulatto identity versus Native American identity
    • 1.3 The Original Impetus to Construct a Family History:
    • A Grandmother’s Inspiration
    • 1.4 Purpose, Significance, and Conceptualization of the Study
    • 1.5 Research questions
    • 1.6 Families selected for the study
    • 1.7 The Harvey Family
    • 1.8 The Ridley Family
    • 1.9 Supporting Families Tangentially Included in this Study
    • 1.10 Notes for Chapter One
  • 2 The Nexus of Ethnoracial Identity and Culture
    • 2.1 Etymological Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity
    • 2.2 Difficulties in Discerning Ethnic and Cultural Differences
    • 2.3 Methods Used in the Study
    • 2.4 Interview Script
    • 2.5 Notes for Chapter Two
  • 3 Culture, Ethnicity, and Assimilation: A Literature Review
    • 3.1 Historical and contemporary examples of the construction of culture
    • 3.2 The Great Melding Pot: Perspectives on Immigration and Globalization
    • 3.3 New country, new culture, new people
    • 3.4 Notes for Chapter Three
  • 4 New People: Triracial Families and Their Traditions
    • 4.1 The Harvey Family: background
      • 4.1a Mrs. Lee Ethel Gregory Harvey
      • 4.1b Life in the North for the Harvey Family
      • 4.1c The Children of Dr. Reginald and Mrs. Lee Harvey
      • 4.1d LeRoy Harvey
      • 4.1e Reginald Olive Harvey, II
      • 4.1f Robert Bruce Harvey
      • 4.1g Bonnie Lee Harvey Elliot
    • 4.2 The Ridley Family
    • 4.3 Situational Variables in the Construction of Ethnoracial Identity
    • 4.4 A Gift and a Curse
    • 4.5 Ridley Family Belief System
    • 4.6 Experientially Based Beliefs
      • 4.6a Helena Ortiga Miller
      • 4.6b Tomas Ridley Ortiga, Sr.
      • 4.6c Josepha Ortiga Allen
    • 4.7 Samuel M. Lemon
    • 4.8 Notes for Chapter Four
  • 5 The Self-Determination of Ethnoracial Identity: Findings
    • 5.1 Importance of Oral Tradition
    • 5.2 Ethnoracial identities are constructed within situational contexts
    • 5.3 Conflicts in Cultural Perspectives
    • 5.4 Self-determination of ethnoracial identity
    • 5.5 Crossing Ethnic Boundaries
    • 5.6 Conclusion
    • 5.7 Notes for Chapter Five
  • Index to Photographic Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices (on compact disc)
    • Ridley Family Photographs and Documents
    • Harvey Family Photographs
    • Oye Family Information
    • Genograms: Ridley and Harvey Families


In late July 2006, my next-door neighbor, Gilbert, a quiet and dignified black man with graying hair and a large and spirited extended family, invited me to his backyard barbecue to celebrate his sixty-first birthday. Although I had made a prior commitment for that same evening to attend another barbecue (an asada, in Portuguese) at the home of my Brazilian neighbors across the street, I felt that it would be rude of me not to stop at least briefly at Gilbert’s house for a spare rib or bottle of beer. Although we are acquaintances rather than friends, I have known Gilbert’s family since they moved to my hometown of Media, PA, from the nearby city of Chester, about forty years ago. They are one branch of a larger family that includes cousins who live in Media who were among my childhood friends and classmates. And because my family has lived on the same block where I currently reside for over eighty years and on the same street for over one hundred and thirty years, we have strong communal ties and have always felt a social obligation to attend community events whenever we are invited. However, this invitation gave me some vague sense of trepidation, the reasons for which I could not pinpoint. My neighbor, Gilbert, although a man of very few words, has always been polite to me. But he readily admits that some of the members of his extended family who still reside in Chester are often ill-mannered, and he refers to them disdainfully as “Chester niggers”

As I walked around the side of Gilbert’s house and approached the gathering, I heard the quiet rumblings of imaginary thunder in the distant regions of my mind. I chided myself for having qualms, and reassured myself that this was just a party I was visiting briefly. But I sensed that something unpleasant was about to happen. Upon entering Gilbert’s back yard, I spoke to several individuals sitting under a canopy that shaded them from the still hot, late afternoon summer sun. I recognized a few of his guests as members of his family, and another as a neighbor who lives two doors down from me. By virtue of their cool stares and lack of an audible greeting, the rest of the group seemed to view me as an uninvited guest. I also noticed that there were no white people present. As a person of color, I immediately notice the racial or ethnic composition of any large group, as it gives me clues about the nature of the event and the social and cultural dynamics at work—all of which are helpful in assessing and navigating an unfamiliar social situation.

Normally, there would be one or two white people—often, one male and one female, though not necessarily related—conspicuously present at Gilbert’s parties. But on this occasion, they were conspicuous by their absence. I didn’t see Gilbert in the crowd, so I asked his daughter if he was around. When she called for him, he came out of the house and we exchanged pleasantries. He then invited me to sample some of his array of could still hear that quiet, distant, imaginary thunder.

Gilbert’s daughter, a tall, slightly muscular, dark brown woman in her late thirties with a charming smile, led the way. As I stepped into the house, she introduced me to a group of mostly middle-aged black women who were enjoying the air conditioner on this steamy ninety-five degree day. I recognized one woman as Gilbert’s girlfriend—a stocky, serious, street-tough woman in her late fifties, from Chester. His girlfriend and I exchanged casual hellos. Next, Gilbert’s daughter introduced me to another woman who looked resembled the girlfriend enough for me to assume that they were sisters, explaining to the woman that my brothers and I had grown up in this neighborhood. She exclaimed in a very loud voice tinged with derision, “Oh you mean, them ‘yallow’ [sic] brothers who used to live up the street?”

I was taken aback by her verbal slap and had a visceral reaction to it. I punctured the sudden pregnant pause in the room with an assertive, visibly annoyed and equally voluminous, “Yeah, that’s right.” I shot a glance at Gilbert’s brown-skinned daughter across the room, who was smiling an uncomfortable smile of embarrassment. I replied to her smile with a classic rolling of my eyes, which she appeared to enjoy and gestured to me that it was the appropriate response to the offensive remark. Though it was difficult, out of respect for my host, I succeeded in controlling my anger. But I was seething as I exited the room with the racial insult still stuck in my craw. Passing by the food table, I picked up a massive beef rib and moments later found myself absent-mindedly gnawing on it—sitting at a table under the canopy, chatting with my host, who was unaware that anything awkward had just occurred. After making customary small talk, I excused myself, wished Gilbert a happy birthday, and headed for the cultural comfort of my Brazilian friends, in whose multiracial culture of origin, or so they tell me, this incident would probably never have occurred—because most people in Brazil consider themselves mixed-race. As I crossed the street, still seeing only the ignorant woman’s face in my crosshairs, I muttered quietly to myself: “It never ends. It just never f— ends!”

This incident was just the most recent in a lifetime of similar disquieting experiences—actually, many lifetimes of such experiences—in the history of my family, always posing the same question: “Why? Why do they say these things to us?” This deeply personal and perennial question has in large part prompted my interest in the construction of ethnoracial identity within situational contexts. Why have so many of our African American neighbors routinely treated us with such disdain? This vexing question once inspired me to write the following poem entitled, Who Am I? during my early teenage years—circa 1963.

Who am I?
My skin is light,
Why not black
Why not white?

Where are my roots?
And were they born,
To hold African spear
Or English horn?

Perhaps I am,
The bubbling foam,
Some inward ocean
Washes home.

The quandary and frustration regarding the challenges of racial hybridity are palpable in this poem. The last three lines of verse may at first blush seem simplistic. However, the metaphor refers to the desire to be genetically restored to one original racial identity prior to miscegenation—i.e. either black or white—rather than to be forever condemned to the racial limbo inhabited by mixed-race people in America. Regarding the personal construction of ethnoracial identity, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this very query when he stated “Every man must ultimately confront the question of ‘Who am I?’ and seek to answer it honestly. One of the first principles of personal adjustment is the principle of self-acceptance. The Negro’s greatest dilemma is that in order to be healthy he must accept his ambivalence. The Negro is the child of two cultures—Africa and America. The problem is that in the search for wholeness all too many Negroes seek to embrace only one side of their natures… The old Hegelian synthesis still offers the best answer to many of life’s dilemmas. The American Negro is neither totally African nor totally Western. He is Afro-American, a true hybrid, a combination of two cultures.”…

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