Why Race Isn’t as ‘Black’ and ‘White’ as We Think

Why Race Isn’t as ‘Black’ and ‘White’ as We Think

The New York Times

Brent Staples

People have occasionally asked me how a black person came by a “white” name like Brent Staples. One letter writer ridiculed it as “an anchorman’s name” and accused me of making it up. For the record, it’s a British name—and the one my parents gave me. “Staples” probably arrived in my family’s ancestral home in Virginia four centuries ago with the British settlers.

The earliest person with that name we’ve found—Richard Staples—was hacked to death by Powhatan Indians not far from Jamestown in 1622. The name moved into the 18th century with Virginians like John Staples, a white surveyor who worked in Thomas Jefferson’s home county, Albemarle, not far from the area where my family was enslaved…

…As with many things racial, this story begins in the slave-era South, where sex among slaves, masters and mistresses got started as soon as the first slave ship sailed into Jamestown Harbor in 1619. By the time of the American Revolution, there was a visible class of light-skinned black people who no longer looked or sounded African. Free mulattos, emancipated by guilt-ridden fathers, may have accounted for up to three-quarters of the tiny free-black population before the Revolution.

By the eve of the Civil War, the swarming numbers of mixed-race slaves on Southern plantations had become a source of constant anguish to planters’ wives, who knew quite well where those racially ambiguous children were coming from.

Faced with widespread fear that racial distinctions were losing significance, the South decided to define the problem away. People with any ascertainable black ancestry at all were defined as black under the law and stripped of basic rights. The “one drop” laws defined as black even people who were blond and blue-eyed and appeared white.

Black people snickered among themselves and worked to subvert segregation at every turn. Thanks to white ancestry spread throughout the black community, nearly every family knew of someone born black who successfully passed as white to get access to jobs, housing and public accommodations that were reserved for white people only. Black people who were not quite light enough to slip undetected into white society billed themselves as Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, South Asian, Native American—you name it. These defectors often married into ostensibly white families at a time when interracial marriage was either illegal or socially stigmatized…

Read the entire essay here.

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