Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America and the Use of Legal History to Police Social Boundaries

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-16 20:34Z by Steven

Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America and the Use of Legal History to Police Social Boundaries

Michigan State Law Review
Volume 2011, Issue 1 (2011)
pages 255-261

Kristin Hass, Associate Professor of American Studies
University of Michigan

“‘Being black is not the only reason why some people have not been accepted . . . .’”

In 1980, Lena Santos Ferguson first sought membership in one of the thirty-nine D.C.-area chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). After three years and a great deal of struggle, Santos Ferguson was begrudgingly granted a limited membership-at-large. This meant that she was not a voting member and did not belong to any local chapter—the center of DAR activity. Despite having the same well-documented genealogical documentation that granted her nephew easy entry to the Sons of the American Revolution, Santos Ferguson met fierce resistance from local and national DAR bodies.

A few years earlier, in 1977, Karen Farmer had, in theory, broken the racial barriers of the DAR when she became the first African American to be accepted for membership in the organization. But, Farmer’s acceptance in a Detroit chapter did not help Santos Ferguson. It probably hurt; together Farmer and Santos Ferguson may have looked like a trend.

In 1984, when the Washington Post ran a front-page story under the headline “Black Unable to Join Local DAR,” the organization’s president general, Sarah King, had a very revealing response to the problem of Lena Santos Ferguson’s membership. King said, “‘Being black is not the only reason why some people have not been accepted into chapters . . . . There are other reasons: divorce, spite, neighbors’ dislike. I would say being black is very [far] down the line.’” This, of course, does not deny that being black is a reason for blocking admission to the DAR; it just claims that it might not be the most pressing reason. For King, the distance between a reasonable request and Santos Ferguson’s attempt to join “the society” is indicated by her insistence that “‘[b]eing black is not the only reason.’” It is as if she was unable to understand that this statement still assumes that being black was reasonable grounds for barring someone from membership.

Certainly King did not deny that African Americans had served in the Revolutionary War. In fact, in the first Post story, she mentioned the Rhode Island Reds and told the reporter, “‘See if you can find me one . . . . We want them [blacks], but I do think the lines should have integrity and legitimate descent. I don’t think you can have it any other way.’” This language, of course, was highly charged. “‘Integrity and legitimate descent’” did not refer to high-quality genealogical research; instead, it referred to the antebellum legal mechanisms by which African Americans were denied the right to marry. Further, it evoked this legal history to continue at the end of the 20th century to deny African Americans access to the kind of full cultural citizenship that the DAR worked to police. In 1979, two years after Karen Farmer successfully joined the DAR, the society revised its application process to include an added requirement—proof of marriage going back each generation. In 1984, the DAR National Congress proposed going one step further by amending the bylaws to include the language that only “‘legitimate’” descendants were eligible for membership. This would have serious consequences for African Americans wanting to join.

The DAR’s interest in rules—and in this intense policing of the boundaries of its membership—was new. From its founding in 1890, at the start of the first great memory boom in the United States, until the 1940s, the greatest obstacle to membership was the invitation of two sponsors. The rules about establishing a paper trail for a direct (not a “‘legitimate’”) lineage were far looser. It is also worth noting that the DAR requirements for membership understand service in the Revolutionary War rather broadly. Its definition includes civil service, political service, and what the DAR calls patriotic service, which includes: “[m]embers of the Boston Tea Party”; “[d]efenders of forts and frontiers”; “[d]octors, nurses, and others rendering aid to the wounded (other than their immediate families)”; “[m]inisters who gave patriotic sermons and encouraged patriotic activity”; and among other things, “[f]urnishing a substitute for military service.” Under the 1984 rules, then, you could join the DAR because your relative sent a slave to fight in his place, but you could not join the DAR if you were a descendant of that slave because he would have been unable to be legally married and therefore unable to produce “‘legitimate’ descendents.”…

…The DAR’s insistence that all women worthy of membership in either society were the products of legally sanctioned marriages harkens back to a past in which sexual racial mixing, or amalgamation or miscegenation, was not only not a topic of polite conversation, but was also a subject of great anxiety, especially for white women invested in defining a national family in particular highly racialized terms—a past in which it was unthinkable for someone like Lena Santos Ferguson to ask for membership, a past in which shame was the only imaginable response to the kind of relationships that would lead a person like Santos Ferguson to think that she deserved to be recognized as part of the national family that the DAR helps to name and shape.

Of course, the DAR’s policies and logic did not go unnoticed in 1984. Both Santos Ferguson and the Council of the District of Columbia initiated legal action and the major newspapers followed the story. A reading of the response to the Santos Ferguson case in the Washington Post reveals both a clear indignation about the prejudice Santos Ferguson faced and an avoidance of the obvious lurking question of miscegenation. Only one op-ed piece in the Washington Post directly addressed this question. Historian Adele Logan Alexander writes, “What is ignored (by the DAR and in Washington Post articles as well) and seems almost impossible for white Americans to accept, discuss, or articulate, is miscegenation.” She continues, “[n]o, formal marriages between slaves were not permitted prior to the Civil War, but more important, marriage and even cohabitation between the races was forbidden by law in most states from colonial times. In many jurisdictions these bans remained in force until 1967.” For Alexander, what needs to be said is that:

No other people on earth display greater variation in skin color, facial structure or hair texture than we do, yet white America hesitates to admit why this is so. Certainly in our country’s early history some few black men sired children by white women, but more commonly we twentieth century black Americans are descended, somewhere along the line, from black women who were sexually coerced by white men.

Alexander is interested in this obvious, unspoken truth in the context of the DAR. She writes,

[t]he tough question then is not so much whether the DAR members accept the handful of black women who will join the organization and who, for the most part (other than skin color) will greatly resemble the present members in education and background . . . but rather how they will deal with these women whose presence must continually remind them of the illicit, coercive and often violent acts of their mutual forefathers to whose valiant patriotic deeds their organization is dedicated.

Peggy Pascoe’s brilliant 2009 What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation and the Making of Race in America offers a dense web of explanatory tools for understanding how laws about marriage have been mobilized to police the boundaries of not only marriage itself but of ideas about what constitutes full cultural citizenship and who should have access to it…

Read the entire article here.

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