“African and Cherokee by Choice”: Race and Resistance under Legalized Segregation

“African and Cherokee by Choice”: Race and Resistance under Legalized Segregation

American Indian Quarterly
Volume 22, Numbers 1/2 (Winter – Spring, 1998)
pages 203-229

Laura L. Lovett, Associate Professor of History
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Zora Neale Hurston once boasted that she was “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.”‘ In the same breath, Hurston confessed that she was of mixed blood, but differed “from the party line in that I neither consider it an honor or a shame.” This difference from “the party line,” as she referred to African American perspectives on Native American ancestry, must have been especially striking to Hurston because she had helped to document race mixture during her brief stint as a research assistant to anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Hurston participated in a 1928 study of the ancestry and physical traits of African Americans, which surveyed 1,551 Howard University students and found that 27.2 percent claimed to have some Native American ancestry. Herskovits reports that he went to great lengths to adjust for the “distinct prestige value” of having Native American ancestry within African American communities, but neither he nor Hurston explained why Native American ancestry would have bestowed prestige.

Herskovits’s study was aimed at a long tradition of scientific research on the nature of racial difference. Strongly influenced by the work of anthropologist Franz Boas, Herskovits wanted to explain the achievement of those African Americans with lighter skin and European features in terms of the dominant system of values in American culture. Since the 1860s, Social Darwinists and later hereditarian eugenicists had sought to explain racial differences in terms of the value of innate biological traits possessed by what were considered to be separate and distinct races. Indeed, the perception that all characteristics were biologically determined and maintained in bloodlines, which were then regulated by “blood quantum” standards, formed an important part of how family identity was constructed. Herskovits questioned the biological framework of “racial integrity” by appealing to cultural and social differences to explain differences ascribed to races. However, this scientific attack did not work its way into American racial ideology for quite some time. In the interim, people renegotiated what were understood to be scientific racial categories in various ways, pointing to places where biological classificatory schema denied the historical realities of interracial relations…

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