Can I Love My Blackness If I’m White?

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.”) 

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About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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One Response to Can I Love My Blackness If I’m White?

  1. 3/5/17

    I am not certain if your question is meant to be rhetorical or a straightforward question. Allow me to correct a portion of the story of your ancestry. When James, Susan’s father, was born, his father, George Clarke was in the process of raising the money to buy Flora, the woman he loved, and the mother of his children. George had already purchased and freed his their first child, Felicia. Felicia was living with his mother, Honoria, who was raising her. When George went to buy Flora, he asked John Leslie if he could also purchase his son James. Leslie refused to sell James, as boy slaves were of greater value (not to mention Leslie and his wife had lost 3 children. His wife had become an alcoholic and his life was a mess). George, not to accept rejection, at some point during this period went back to Leslie’s home and stole his son. How do we know this? Leslie becomes angry with George (who had been apprenticed to Leslie for nearly 3 yrs stated that Clarke was a thief and lyer and not to be trusted. For George’s part, he declared he had learned nothing from Leslie and discontinued any association with him. James was the only child of George and Flora’s eight children to remain a slave until just before 1821 when George realized the need to purchase his freedom (although papers have yet to be found) and to legally have him marry Mary Dulcet (a European) to protect him from being sent to some plantation.
    I wish there were pictures of Felicia or one of the eight children. I would welcome seeing what their color was. Looking at Susan, I suspect that the next generation, most of that generation looked “white” Now some of these people, of course, married free people of color so the shades of color varied from family to family, but for the most part these were people who looked “whiteish”
    Those family members who remained in the St. Augustine, Fernandina, St. Mary’s Georgia, Palatka areas would have been known to the local people and because there were so many family members (most generations produced six to eight children); they were a tribe. George JF Clarke left a will that provided each of his children with 1/8th of his 33,000 plus estate. The US Treasury Dept. presiding Judge (I don’t have his name) in 1846 refused to release the estate money (and properties) to the family because “he expressed his disdain for the children of informal Spanish era interracial unions.” I wish I knew a “historical” lawyer (if such a thing exists) to determine if descendants have a case here. After all if it is true that we are a nation of laws, than it would seem that the laws were not followed here, rather this was a rejection based on bias rather than law.
    Anyway, I would think that you (anyone) who either discovers or who has known they have Africans in their ancestry should honor that ancestry without fear of changing who you are. Lets face it people identify us based on how they see us. My mother spent her entire adult life putting down she was African American only to have some people (particularly in the medical profession) change her data and relist her as white.
    Finally, I should note, none of these problems would exist had Spain continued to control Florida. All this empirical black and white identification is an American phenomenon and it has destroyed families, confused individuals, and caused historians to rewrite history. I can’t complain because it is more work for me as I write books and do lectures rewriting and retelling history (or correcting US history).

    Like

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