EP 6: Know Your Genes: Complexion & Personal Identity
Updated: May 21, 2020
Season 1 Foundations
Episode 6: Know Your Genes....Complexion & Personal Identity
Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play & More!
When tracing your ancestry, it’s important to Know Your Genes. On this episode of American Origin Stories, we will examine the very personal concept of racial identity through the lens of returning guest Sharee Meridith, her grandfather’s legacy, and the history of race and skin color in America.
Race is complicated.
It isn’t real in a scientific sense – there’s no race gene. But, it’s incredibly real socially. Humans believe in racial groups, and thus, race has power. It has the power to wage wars, incite violence, forge bonds, and justify exclusion. It even has the power to make people deny their past, their families, and sometimes even a piece of themselves.
Race is a social creation that correlates with societal power. In the United States, the racial hierarchy has consistently placed whiteness in a superior position, leaving other groups below in an order that sometimes changes. However, given the history of slavery and the resulting racial oppression, Black Americans have consistently been on the bottom of this hierarchy.
Despite the consistency of the hierarchy, it is difficult to cleanly categorize people with a concept that is as fluid as race – especially given interracial sexual relationships that existed during slavery. Therefore, mixed raced people were and continue to be forced to fit into these preconceived racial categories. And as a result, Black people exist on a spectrum of physical appearance and genetic composition.
To grapple with this, society has attempted to create rules. As a foundational matter, “Black” has historically encompassed those with ANY African ancestry – also known as the One Drop Rule. Simply having some or even most European lineage was not enough to make a person white if that person had any trace of African heritage.
Professor of sociology, F. James Davis, summarized the concept as follows:
"It should now be apparent that the definition of a black person as one with any trace at all of black African ancestry is inextricably woven into the history of the United States. It incorporates beliefs once used to justify slavery and later used to buttress the castelike Jim Crow system of segregation. Developed in the South, the definition of "Negro" (now black) spread and became the nation's social and legal definition. Because blacks are defined according to the one-drop rule, they are a socially constructed category in which there is wide variation in racial traits and therefore not a race group in the scientific sense. However, because that category has a definite status position in the society it has become a self-conscious social group with an ethnic identity."
But American history is full of people "passing" for white. In other words -- convincing society that they are white, despite have one drop or more of African ancestry.
Recall, for instance, the case of Morrison v White, where a woman known as Jane Morrison claimed that she was white despite an enslaver testifying that she was his property and of African descendant. She was successful in her plight largely because of her appearance. Her pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes made the court quite skeptical that she could possibly be an enslaved negro.
To be clear, it was dangerous for a person of African descent to present themselves to the world as “white," but some found enough value in the privileges associated with passing that they risked their lives and sometimes their loved ones to do so.
Despite many people's ability to blend into white society even with African ancestry, the black community had long since been understanding that people of African ancestry came in all shades. And thus, people in these communities were more aware that someone may look white but be black for all intents and purposes.
That brings us to Sharee Meredith, our recurring podcast guest.
In episode 1, Know Your Why, Sharee shared the personal story of learning that her grandfather, a man believed to be a fair-skinned Black American, was genetically 98% Scandinavian. The news that her grandfather would be considered by many to be white was a thought-provoking, if not altogether unsurprising revelation.
Sharee's grandfather (born around July 16, 1913) and grandmother.
Sharee and her family had long-since thought that there was more to her grandfather's story than was known. At a young age, her grandfather was adopted by a black woman who was not his biological mother but there was scant information about the details surrounding him going into her care. Who were his biological parents? Why did they give him away? How did his adoptive mother find him? Family folklore attempted to answer some of these questions, but mostly, there was nothing concrete to explain his complexion or his family history.
It wasn't until after his death that Sharee's uncle decided to take a test to learn more about his father. And from these results they learned that Sharee's grandfather had predominantly European ancestry.
But, her grandfather lived as a black man - he was raised by a black woman, married a black woman, raised 6 black children, and embraced black culture. So if he can live as a black man with 98% European ancestry, what then is blackness?
During slavery and in the Jim Crow era, white people were determined to keep distance between whiteness and blackness – the power dynamic and racial hierarchy required it.
The one drop rule ensured that any trace of blackness in your family tree kept you from the privileges of being white, but there was more subcategorization created to explain differences between black people.
In 1815 Thomas Jefferson – yes he’s in the mix yet again –created a formula, a pseudoscientific method of identifying what to call certain groups of black people based on their believed mix of African and European ancestry.
Let the first crossing be of a, pure negro, with A pure white. The unit of blood of the issue being composed of the halt of that of each parent, Will be a/2 + A/2. Call it, for abbreviation, h (half blood).
Let the second crossing be of h and B, the blood of the issue will be h/2 + B/2 or substituting for h/2 its equivalent, it will be a/4 + A/4 + B/2 call it q (quarteroon) being ¼ negro blood.
Terms for this "calculus of color" included phrases like:
Even negro blood….
These terms were not merely "innocent" categorizations. They supported sex slave trades where women were sold and purchased for the explicit purpose of being used for sex by slave masters and their sons (not for their house or field labor). Fairskinned women were favored over darker, or "pure negro" women. And, the mechanical codification of race was used as an attempt to retain control and dominion over black people as Jefferson and other slave owners became frightened by the slave rebellions in modern-day Haiti (which had a large contingent of mixed race people at the helm). So, these terms have histories rooted in the perpetuation of sexual violence and racial dominance.
Yet, Sharee's grandfather born 1913 and his granddaughter born in 1990 were both called "mulatto" in their lifetimes drawing back to the dark origins of these calculated (and dehumanizing) terms.
Sharee's family has struggled to fully process the information of her grandfather's genetics, but Sharee was inspired by the revelation to begin her research into their family history. Yet, instead of focusing on Scandinavia or European ancestry, she turned to genealogy.
Definition of genealogy:
1: an account of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or from older forms 2: regular descent of a person, family, or group of organisms from a progenitor (see PROGENITOR sense 1) or older form : PEDIGREE 3: the study of family ancestral lines 4: an account of the origin and historical development of something
Sharee has been working for the last few years to learn all that she can about her family history through available records, genealogy centers, and any other useful sources.
Hear the full story on Episode 6 of the American Origin Stories podcast! Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play, and more!
Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition by F. James Davis, PBS Morrison v. White