Thanks to the crap storm created by Rachel Dolezal I have spent a lot of time questioning the legitimacy of the project that I have basically devoted my life to over the past few years.
A few years ago I discovered that my family used to be black. Up until the turn of the 20th century my mother’s family was considered non-white…something that continued to haunt us well into the 1920-30’s as well. My maternal grandparents have an ancestor in common. Said ancestor was my grandfather’s great grandmother, and my grandmother’s great, great, grandmother.
Her name was Susan and she was the daughter of a slave. Susan was born in Spanish East Florida in 1817 and died in the state of Florida in 1906. Susan’s story isn’t just about my family’s struggle, but the struggles of quite a lot of old Florida families.
Susan existed during the period when we were still trying to define the concept of race. Susan’s father was born a slave, but was purchased and freed by his “white” (although the term didn’t really exist yet) father, along with his mother and older sister.
This wasn’t really an uncommon thing at this point in Florida’s history. It seemed almost trendy to have a slave or free black concubine in your youth, then settle down with a nice elite girl when you got older. Other men, however, chose not to do the part where you settle down with a nice white girl. John Fraser, Zephaniah Kingsley, and George J. F. Clarke (Susan’s grandfather), all had African wives. Going over the baptism records from the time before Florida became a state, having fully recognized children with women of color, both free and enslaved, was not unusual. In contrast to what was happening in the newly formed United States at this time, having children with a wealthy white man could be a very lucrative choice for the mother and the children.
Susan came from that culture, but wasn’t able to live in it. By the time Susan was grown, Florida was a US territory, and she was a black woman. And that’s where things get complicated.
As far as Susan’s skin color went, she was “white”, but her father was a slave so that made her “black”. The largest part of Susan’s life was defined by her blackness. She had some privileges. Her business was listed in the white section of the city directories, and she went by Susan Rossignol as often as Susan Clarke.
But she was never allowed to legally marry either of the men she had children with because they were “white” and she was “black”. She was charged the black taxes and was forced to have a white guardian represent her. As long as any of her children lived with her, they were considered black, but they all held white jobs and became white once they no longer lived in her home.
She was a pioneer who helped establish a little backwater called Palatka Florida. She was there through two Seminole Wars and a Civil War. She was the matriarch of a small community of people of color who lived along the St. Johns River. She was a slave owner, although the slaves were officially held by her white guardian/un-husband Louis Rossignol. She had some measure of additional protection from the first man she had children with, Archibald Cole; who fully recognized the mixed race children he had with Susan.
Both of the above men had enough social (and financial) standing to keep Susan and her children mostly safe from the racism that was growing around them. The children were able to marry white spouses even though the community knew them as black. Their businesses were considered white businesses. Even after the Civil War they were still fairly well protected. But that changed in 1879.
By the end of 1879 both of Susan’s men had died. From then until the day she died in 1906, Susan was no longer in between. Up until 1880 Susan was listed on census records as “mulatto”. But in 1880, her record shows her as black, along with her daughter and a grandson who is living with them. Basically, the reason for the sudden shift in her race comes from men who lost everything after the Civil War using her, and families like hers, as a way to recoup their losses. Not being able to marry also meant not being able to inherit. And not being white meant not having the legal right to complain about it either. She was one of quite a lot of old Spanish families who were stripped of everything that should have been theirs by greedy, racist, whites.
When Susan was black she was a prominent, wealthy, respected, and well liked woman. But the price of white was everything. Her family once owned 33,000 acres of good Florida land. By the time Susan died, not a single bit of it was still in their hands. And ten years later her family is forced to try and erase her completely…or risk death at the hands of the KKK.
Because I know Susan’s history I now know what my current level of privilege cost. I know what it cost to be white. I will never “identify” as black because (aside from my having light skin) it would be an insult to everything that was lost to make me not-black. I’m not stupid, I know that when people look at me they see white. And I know that gives me some automatic privileges.
I love my (great, great, great) grandmother Susan. I love her blackness because it was what shaped her. It also shaped my history and the history of my home state. Opening myself up to that history also opened my eyes to the greater struggle of black Americans. For Susan, for what she lost, I make an even greater effort to understand. To be an ally. I don’t always get it right, but I still try even after I am told I got it wrong…and this might be one of those times.
My intention is to open up a part of Florida’s history that has been long forgotten. Susan is my vehicle. She deserves to be heard.
But after Rachel Dolezal I worry that I may just be trying to bank on blackness. Can I even mention it if my whole life has been spent living in light skin? I’m going to tell her story even if I don’t make a dime from its telling. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to make at least a little off of Susan’s story. Does that mean I’m selling her blackness? That I’m exploiting her?
She might have had light skin but she was still black. I love my blackness because it’s Susan’s. I love that I can say my grandmother was black, and it doesn’t lose me a job or get me pushed out of my community, or force me to drink from another water fountain, or get my house dynamited. It’s not right to keep hiding the legacies of people like Susan. If we were all willing to love our blackness, instead of hiding it or ignoring it, (or worse, appropriating it) maybe we could do a lot more good.
Everything I’m thinking here is great in theory. But now that I’ve seen what happened with Rachel Dolezal, I can’t help but wonder:
Am I really just doing the same thing? Am I exploiting Susan’s blackness, my blackness, for my own gain?
Is it even possible? Can I love my blackness if I’m white?
(The title and theme of this post was shamelessly appropriated from something that community organizer, Deray Mckesson posts to twitter fairly often: “I love my blackness. And yours.”)