Last weekend's royal wedding in England was a beautiful thing to behold. Many have likened it to Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Social media is abuzz with millions who witnessed it; perhaps because Meghan Markle, who is of mixed racial heritage, didn't diminish her African heritage rather, she celebrated it. When talking about her mixed heritage, race isn't something she leads with, but she’s clearly comfortable talking about it. She tells a story of growing up and having her mother pick her up from school; how her friends would often ask — “who’s that black lady? Is she your maid?”
A self-described feminist and egalitarian Meghan has proudly supported many causes for those who are marginalized. Her wedding ceremony spoke volumes for her character. Likewise, kudos must be given to Prince Harry and the royal family for allowing her to express it. Maybe they’re more progressive than I thought.
While more and more celebrities like Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Sade, Drake, Vin Diesel, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are celebrating their multicultural heritage today, this was not always the case — particularly those black celebrities who could “pass” for white.
Racial “passing” occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group, usually a person of color or multiracial ancestry assimilating into the white majority group. Anyone who’s ever seen Meghan would know she qualifies to pass.
Carol Channing did. The star of Hello Dolly and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes lived her entire life passing for white. When she was 16, she discovered her paternal grandmother was black, but Channing didn't reveal this fact until she was 81. Rachel Welch, who was born Jo Raquel Tejada to a Bolivian father and a white mother, also hid her Latino heritage to further her career.
Passing for white yielded privileges which were not afforded to nonwhites in their day — privileges like better accommodations on the train, better seats in the theater, immunity from insults in public places and even lynching. But it came with a heavy cost.
In her book, "A Chosen Exile," historian Allyson Hobbs tells a story of a cousin who had been living as white in California, since she'd graduated from high school. “She was black, but she looked white,” Hobbs said. “Her mother decided it was in her daughter’s best interest to move from Chicago to Los Angeles and to assume the life of a white woman.”
In California, the young woman passed as white. She married a white man, and they had children who never knew they had black blood. Then, one day, years later, her phone rang. It was the woman's mother with distressing news. Her father was dying, and she needed to return home immediately to tell him goodbye. The cousin replied, “I can't. I'm a white woman now.” She missed her father's funeral, and never saw her mother or sibling again.
“Leaving your black identity behind,” said Hobbs, “robs you of the ability to answer honestly the question black people have been asking each other since before emancipation: “Who are your people?”
“The family jokes, the oral history every family has, and passes down, those things are lost to the people who pass for white,” Hobbs said.
The question “who are we” is profound. Are we our race, our culture, our ethnic group, or some other affirmation? Dr. Martin Luther King believed we should not be judged by the color of our skin, rather by the content of our character.
Yet, the question of race for many blacks in America was determined by the so-called "One Drop Rule." The law adopted by most Southern states originated during slavery and reinforced under Jim Crow, said if an individual has one single drop of “black blood” in their ancestry, then that individual is black regardless of his or her appearance.
In the early 1900s, being “black” or “colored” had drastic practical consequences even for whites.
The story is told of John Kirby who was the son of Big John Godbolt. Godbolt was one-eighth African and seven-eighths European. That meant Big John was legally classified as “colored” under South Carolina law. But John Kirby's mother was white which meant John Kirby and his siblings had less than one-eighth African blood and were legally not “colored.” Instead, having only one-thirty-second African blood they were legally coded as “white.”
Kirby grew up, married a white woman and had children. Each of their children was now one-sixty-fourth African and of sixty-three sixty-fourths European extraction. The Kirby family attended an all-white church. The children were smart and well behaved as their family enjoyed a stellar reputation. Kirby owned more than 300 acres of land in Dillon County, making him eligible to vote without having to pass a literacy test. By all accounts, they were pillars of the community except for one thing.
John Kirby was guilty of associating with “colored” people and allowing his children to do so too. One of his neighbors started a petition saying the Kirby children were not “clear blooded” and should be expelled from the white school they had otherwise peacefully attended for several years. Based on that petition the Kirby children were kicked out of the school.
In more recent history, Harry S. Murphy, a black man, was assigned as an ROTC cadet to the University of Mississippi in1945 by a commander who assumed he was white. For a year, Harry had a ball at Ole Miss; he ran track, dated white girls and was known as a terrific dancer. Years later, when the university fought to keep James Meredith from registering as its first black student, Harry gleefully broke the news: “Ole Miss was fighting a battle they had no idea they'd lost years ago.”
Last week’s royal wedding debunks the absurdity of racial purity and embodies a growing multicultural movement that insists on people's right to recognize all of their ethnicity.
Steve Williams is an award winning journalist who lives in Georgetown. His columns are published regularly in the Georgetown Times and South Strand News.