Fade to Black: Once Upon a Time in Multi-Racial America
December 8, 1994
li va dî négresse pas
“Just put a
mulatto on horseback,
and he’ll tell
you his mother wasn’t
—Creole proverb, as translated
by Lafcadio Hearn, 1885
NEW ORLEANS — It was late and the show was finished. We were hungry and drunk. Adolph said Mulé’s was probably closed by now but he knew a place to eat on the other side of town. “Maybe you’ll see some of them over there, too,” he said. Adolph is a scholar of African American history and politics, and he was raised in New Orleans and knew how they looked and where they ate. They liked Mulé’s, a seventh-ward diner that serves the best oyster rolls in the city. The other place, Adolph said, was also good for observations, but far below seventh-ward culinary standards. It turned out to be an all-night fast-food joint, lighted too brightly, with a listless crowd of party people waiting in broken lines for some uninspired fried fare.
For a moment I forgot entirely about them and they. I wanted to try an oyster roll but there were none left, so I ordered a chicken sandwich “dressed” with lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise. The woman at the cash register seemed bored by my enthusiasm, and sighed, and in response I noted her skin color. She was dark. I turned my head and checked out two sleepy-eyed girls in the next line. They looked tired in their frilly prom dresses; their skin was waxen, the sad pale finish of moonlight. I knew — oh, I hesitated a moment, because I could see how a hasty eye might have thought them white, but I knew. Turning to Adolph I whispered “creole” and made giant drunken nod in their direction. Adolph looked and confirmed it: they were, in fact, them.
And they were us, black like us. I bet that virtually no one in the crowd had any trouble spotting the girls’ African blood, and not only because we happened to be standing in an establishment that catered to black people, and not only because the girls did not look scared or determined not to look scared, as white girls in such situations usually want to. We all knew because we all were in some elusive sense family, and family can — or imagines it can — recognize itself, detect itself, see its own self no matter the guise.
So there stood the girls, their tired moonish looks telling us everything. Now I really eyed them and discerned the secret layer of brown just underneath the surface of their faces and arms. With practiced accuracy my eyes took in the other hints: a certain weightiness of hair, a broadness of lip, a fullness of hip and nose. (When I was a child it was something of a sport to fish for evidence of our presence, to seek ourselves in the faces of “whites” such as Alexander Hamilton or Babe Ruth.) Each detail made plain the girls “blackness” as surely as a look in the mirror, and gave me the old sense of triumph, until a moment passed and I remembered why we could never really be the same: we were in New Orleans and these girls were creole and I am not.
Adolph, you hold the key to this story. The reason — you and I are family, but you are on the other side of the creole difference, a strange distinction made of nothing but stories and lies, lies and stories, the forces that conjure family. While you and I would both like to think of the creole tale as one more plot line in the black story, because that’s all it is, really, we both know that true believers say creole is a separate thing altogether; you and I know how they say Look at us. How they say Watch us go. How they enjoy being them, and not us.
Them and us. How strange. I realize now that we have never talked about the differences in our looks, your light and my dark. Neither of us, I suspect, has consciously avoided this discussion. It simply hasn’t been an issue: there are so many things to talk about — why waste time on such foolishness? But there it was, during the trip down home to New Orleans; there was the difference stuck in our faces. It broke our silence, compels me to speak on the absurd — let me first describe our looks with as cold an eye as I would any character.
I have chocolate brown skin, generous lips, the kind of ordinary kinky hair many black women still get mad at. I wear a goatee and sometimes glasses. I am 30 years old and I’m not in great shape because I don’t like working out. You’ve got a couple of decades on me, but you’re probably in better condition. I don’t recall seeing too many gray hairs on your head last time I saw you, though your hairline is ebbing. Your hair is straight and heavy like a South Asian’s; your skin is amber brown, your features are round but strong: You’ve even been mistaken for a countryman by several natives of India. But you are black, definitely, and creole.
We’ve been friends for several years now, and though there is no explaining friendship, there are a few reasons I want you to know I see. We both love to watch people do their hustles. We laugh at the same absurdities, and mostly get hurt by the same absurdities. We have similar politics, and we aren’t sell-outs. (Which is not normal, which is why the sell-outs call us cynics). There is a lot more, of course. The stories of people’s affections are oceanic in number and complexity. In this way we are very ordinary.
But the subject at hand is the black and the brown. Surely this is one of the stories that makes us up, as it makes up every other African American, and with any examination, every white or Asian or Latino or anybody else on these shores. Though we haven’t talked about our own colors, you and I have talked about how much social meaning is attached to shade difference, even today. You’ve lived it and tried to forget it because the debate is absurd. I don’t like tracking that stuff inside, either. I’ve cracked jokes about those confessional pieces describing the pain of being dark, or the pain of being light, or the pain of being mixed and in-between — seldom is anything real said. We’ve laughed about how white people eat up that stuff, but for the moment I will stop laughing because I’ve decided to put in mind that conflict, between the black and the brown, and to follow the story of creole.
Before this trip to New Orleans I had never used the term creole to describe Adolph, and I am not certain I am comfortable with calling him one now. But his family would be considered creole, and I guess that makes Adolph them, even though he doesn’t call himself one, and even though he always refers to creoles in the third person, and nearly always with an edge of sarcasm.
After I told him I was coming to New Orleans, Adolph offered to show me some of the creole world. I know he wasn’t entirely comfortable in the role of native informant. He didn’t do very much talking about them; mostly he said cold ironic things, and observed me observing them. When I returned from the city I found a couple of the books Adolph had suggested: White by Definition, by Virginia Domínguez, and Creole New Orleans, a collection of essays edited by Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. These and other books, articles, studies, interviews illuminated the social history of New Orleans, and pointed me to other sources that were also helpful. But as I read I began to sense a familiar silence, and I realized that nearly every piece I found danced around the issue of how and when precisely black creoles developed their peculiar consciousness of shade. I was forced to read very closely, to fill in the holes myself. The bulk of the story, however, is thoroughly documented.
Creole begins as criollo, the name African peoples enslaved by New World Iberians in the 16th century gave to Africans born here. The term did not remain in black hands for very long; Spaniards and Portuguese in the colonies soon took to calling themselves criollo. Some of them even argued that the word exclusively indicated white nativeness, and that only natives of pure European ancestry could use the term.
The first appearance of creole probably occurred in the late 16th century on the French island of St. Domingue, now called Haiti. Creole made its way to Louisiana soon after the territory’s founding in 1682. Here it signified nativeness, plain and simple. French colonial policy early on encouraged mixing with the Choctaw and other local peoples; inevitably there were plenty of interracial unions in the territory. The offspring were called creole; all locally born children shared the name: children of the Germans, Acadians from Canada (called Cajuns), Spanish occupiers, immigrants from Cuba and St. Domingue and other French Caribbean islands as well as French children of French arrivals. Even African slaves, who commingled with Indians as frequently as whites did, and mixed with the whites as well, were permitted to identify their children with the term their forebears had invented.
None of this, of course, should encourage the reader to think of Louisiana as any sort of racial haven. Louisiana began as a white idea and remained one: Choctaw kindnesses were repaid with genocide, most Africans were shipped in as chattel slaves, and Europeans walked the land as rulers, just as they did everywhere else. What did make Louisiana, and especially its port city, New Orleans, different from the English colonies or the eastern seaboard was the way it understood race mixture. Though white Americans also had sex with Africans and Indians, they usually denied its result. Anyone with “one drop” of African blood was by the American schema defined as black, and everyone else was effectively white.
Things were marginally more flexible in New Orleans. Concubinage, facilitated by regular “quadroon balls” where white men met and picked from a parade of mixed-race females, and interracial plaçage, a form of common law marriage, were tacitly permitted until the turn of the 20th century. Children of these arrangements were frequently manumitted; they and people of Native American or partial Native American ancestry composed the overwhelming majority of the class of people called gens de couleur, or “colored people,” and were by recommendation of Louisiana’s Black Codes formally considered neither black nor white, but a third race.
New Orleans’s tripartite racial order resembled that of many of the islands in the Caribbean. From Cuba to Haiti to Brazil to Jamaica, European settlers used the amount of white blood perceptible in black bodies as a measuring stick to distinguish among Africans, handing people with discernibly “mixed” ancestry more rights and privileges. Historians suggest the appearance of this logic usually corresponded to the ratio of black people to white owners: the higher the number, the higher the frequency of miscegenation, the more reason to embrace the third category. Jamaican slavers, for example, borrowed the Spanish nomenclature for their mixed-race progeny: alone among the English colonies, Jamaicans recognized legal differences among sambos and mulattoes; quadroons and octoroons.
In New Orleans there were the gens de couleur, the colored people. Their semi-official thirdness began to wane, however, when Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Americans flooded into New Orleans, and old-time creole residents initially reacted by reasserting their local heritage. Both colored and white creoles continued to speak their gombo French (patterned after the Creole spoken by Haitian blacks); prepare their gumbo dishes derived from French, African, Indian, and Spanish cuisines; practice their Catholicism, and often its syncretic counterpart, hoodoo. Neither culture nor cultural nationalism would prove sufficient, however, to stave off the political and economic onslaught of the U.S. By the 1850s, white creoles had altered the way they used the name in order to fit the contours of American racial dualism: gens de couleur were pushed into the Negro category, and creole was said to refer only to white natives. The denials got louder as civil war approached, and even louder with the postwar enactment of the Jim Crow system.
It may be impossible to pin down precisely when gens de couleur started to call themselves creole, but the shift was well on the way when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff, was a very light-complexioned “colored” resident of New Orleans. In 1892, a group of eminent citizens of color, the Comité des Citoyens, selected him to test the Separate Car Act passed two years earlier. On the seventh of June Plessy tried sitting in a “whites only” coach and was denied entry. He was hauled to court, where he claimed his entitlement to “every right, privilege, and immunity secured to citizens of… the white race,” and he lost by a vote of 7–1.
The court’s ruling confirmed America’s commitment to “separate but equal” apartheid, and it implicitly leveled distinctions between the traditionally free coloreds and the blacks they derisively called “Americans”; it penned all African descendants into the same caste, regardless of class, color, or prior condition of servitude. Domínguez’s White by Definition notes that Louisiana lawmakers reinstituted old rules outlawing sexual unions between Negroes and whites a little more than a decade later; by 1910 legislators specifically classed together all “person[s] of the colored or black race.” In doing so, Louisiana either changed or noted the change in the meaning of “colored.” Now, “colored people” of Indian or partial Indian ancestry would legally be “white”; one drop of African blood made any “colored” person black. There weren’t enough people of Asian background around to foul up this tidy dualism, and so it was finished: New Orleans harbored no more semiofficial third races.
Suddenly the gens de couleur found themselves invisible to the law. Not only had New Orleans’s whites denied their claim to creole heritage; the state had officially robbed them of recognition of their relatively middle-class status as artisans and, in a few cases, as members of “polite” society. Homer Adolph, Plessy lived, I think, in their weird purgatory — this may be an injustice to him since he left almost no letters, notebooks, or any other record of his thinking. Nor does purgatory seem a likely residence for a man who legitimately can be thought of as the Rosa Parks of his day.
The in-between zone inhabited by the gens really had no name at all. Plessy is a Rosa Parks both for blacks and these suddenly nameless people, who began to call themselves creole for a new reason: to hold on to their difference from Negroes. While many of the freedmen spoke gombo and also called themselves creole, they were mostly of the countryside, and as such were not real competitors for the term. And the assumption of the term creole was not conducted in a particularly loud way; many people who qualified for the designation rejected it. Some simply crossed the color line; others embraced a Negro identity and were among the most progressive black Reconstruction leaders. Between these extremes, however, lay a mean — it is the reason that Plessy’s light complexion and his support among the colored Comité matter.
“The petition for the writ of prohibition averred that petitioneer was seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every right, privilege and immunity secured to citizens of the United States of the white race…” (italics added)
How perfectly Plessy’s ambiguous averment matches the phenotypal difference of the gens, how nearly indiscernible the averment is. Plessy quietly says his looks put him outside the Negro race and render him ineligible for white privilege. Is it off base to imagine a jurist’s concluding that the gens should be extended certain privileges based on this middleness? Perhaps this was the Comité’s secret hope. Yet all of the historians I read were careful not to go on about shade consciousness as a historical force. Maybe they are being too polite, or maybe they haven’t the documentation to speak with any precision. The historians stress that the light/dark distinction is a crude way of looking at New Orleans’s history; John Blassingame, for instance, almost reluctantly reports in Black New Orleans: 1860–1880 that “social classes grew up around color primarily because a mulatto was generally a free man (77 percent of the free Negroes in 1860 were mulattoes) and a black man was almost always a slave (74 percent of the slaves in 1860 were black). In fact, color was closely correlated with status: 80 percent of all blacks were slaves and 70 percent of all mulattoes were freemen.” He goes on to assure readers that class is a hidden issue, and that color consciousness was more apparent than real — surely he is right on the first count, but what can he possibly mean by “real”? I do not mean to pick on Mr. Blassingame, but color was a real force in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. The evidence is in the attitude for which creoles have been known all century: their scientific adherence to skin color cultivation, their exclusive Mardi Gras balls, their “light as a paper bag” tests for marriage and parties, their Jelly Roll Morton crosstown condescension to Louis Armstrong — the theme of this culture can be heard in the bittersweet lilt of Homer Adolph Plessy’s plea.
Adolph, after you hipped me to Plessy’s whispered basso notes, I read the case again. I italicized the key line because I know we would have been able to discern the us in Homer Adolph Plessy, as we did those girls with skin the color of moonlight — and then I was struck by the odd fact that poor Plessy shares a name with you. This coincidence can only be overdrawn, of course, but there it is, an obvious line of connection, conjured by the two syllables. A-dolph, a name. A-dolph, a story. The tale entices me; it draws my hand and drags the rest along, makes my brain note again the difference in your skin, your nose, your hair — the creoleness they once were supposed to signify. How much of Plessy’s love song shapes you? Obviously I know a person does not have to be creole to understand his ambivalence, but I also suspect it helps, if only because creoles, by definition, have more claim to the tale.
My question — it noises up that silence you and I have been maintaining. But let me force your hand for a moment. One way to watch their attitude in action, you said, is to crack open a creole friend’s family photo album. The friend might show you the family photos from two generations ago and you’d spot a shot of an elderly woman with African features and brown skin and when you asked who she was, the friend would probably deny knowing her.
You did the dialogue.
“What d’you mean, ‘I don’t know who she is’? You know that’s your grandma.”
“No, it’s not.”
“So who’s this white man?”
“A friend? You know that’s your grand-pa!” We laughed at that — many creoles would not admit it, you said, because the white man probably had not acknowledged the others in the photo, which means that the family was technically illegitimate.
“Growing up in New Orleans,” you told me later, “it would be impossible to see race as anything but socially constructed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” For the better part of this century, creole blacks in New Orleans retooled the third race concept denied them by American tradition. They invented an ethnic group, distinguishing themselves from other light-skinned middle classes in America by their intense devotion to the plan. The visible signals — Plessy’s mixture of colored blood “not discernible” — these were the basic ways to tell one’s people from people who were not. Family were the visible ones, the ones with whom you constructed your social networks, your family, your identity.
You are definitely visible to the creoles. I know that the details of your family’s history might at first glance seem to obscure you to them: your grandpa was Cuban and you and he used to speak Cuban Spanish, and you and he and the rest of the family are not really of New Orleans soil. I know, too, that your amber brown was considered too dark for at least one party, that at least one creole doorkeeper told you the paper bag said No. But I also know that no one fits any family template precisely; you and the rest of us are a mess of stories, and besides, the creole story is fading even as I write, getting less and less real, fluttering away, and the physical signals that kept you in the photos are shifting meaning. Still, you are the key to this story — not because of who you are, but because of how you are still perceived.
“DI MOIN QUI VOUS
DI VOUS QUI VOUS YÉ.”
WHOM YOU LOVE, AND
YOU WHO YOU ARE.”
as translated by Lafcadio
ADOLPH WANTED, A LITTLE sentimentally, to make sure I visited the old haunt he’d been praising, Mulé’s. It is located on one of the seventh’s many quiet corners and has plain looks — some simple chairs and tables, three gambling machines, and a Sunday afternoon yellow light, the color of old newspapers. We chose not to sit at the long, old-fashioned counter because there were too many of us; instead, we put together several tables while Adolph told us how Fats Domino used to park outside, and how everything on the menu is good.
To believers, Mulé’s is one of the places where creoleness can be located, caught, taken like wild game. I entered as a skeptic, but I couldn’t help wanting to taste the culture: I had the gumbo, I tried my friend Jeannine’s trout po’boy, I sampled some of Adolph’s oyster roll. The food slipped down with the simple gravity of blood, and Adolph drew family pictures on the cave wall — he told how his father used to take him to drink here years ago, he chatted about the color of Fats’s Cadillac, and then he said to Alison, a friend, “There’s your uncle,” pointing out a yellow guy sitting at the counter with hooded eyes and long silver hair. Alison is family: “Stop!” she said, laughing, her eyes coolly measuring the yellow man — “Stop!”
After the meal we took a tour of the neighborhood. It was the middle of a weekday, and most everybody who could be employed was away. Not too long ago an average working resident of the seventh was an artisan; the neighborhood remains working class, but these days many of the people who know the ward best are middle-class beneficiaries of affirmative action, like Alison. She worked with the municipal administration and grew up in a nearby subdivision, spending a lot of time in the area as a child: “I know you’re going to be sensitive when you write about us,” she told me without blinking. Then, “You understand I mean New Orleans when I say us?”
As we walked, Alison and Adolph reminisced; Jeannine and the rest of our group played audience. I left their private narratives to take in some dark green shade trees, and pastel-colored, squatting houses with big windows and small porches. Old women with pale skin sat in wire chairs looking light as dust, watching things crumble — they seemed to say the crumbling wasn’t something white people had done. When the gens de couleur seized creole at the start of this century, descendants of “white” creoles all but stopped using the name, mostly because its hint of miscegenation would not go away. By then, use of French and gombo was on the wane too, since America had won the culture war.
Alison was pointing out which of the houses we were passing are “creole cottages.” They look like the other homes except they have annexes out back. Alison said the family matriarch and patriarch would live in the main house and maybe a daughter would get married and move into the annex. Family would be all around. Two blocks past Mulé’s, we stopped in front of Corpus Christi Church, once the largest black parish in the nation. The church also runs a grammar school; one of several in the area where many creole parents still send their children. Adolph started putting down St. Augustine’s, a favored high school, and talking up his own alma mater, Xavier Prep, another favored one. How small, I thought, the larger creole family is, and how plainly the Church is in its blood. Alison remembers how her grandmother used to bless a loaf of bread, and now sometimes she finds herself making a cross in the air before she cuts a slice. She also tells a story about an elder she knows who was asked by a black ecclesiastical council to come meet the Pope. “I’m not black,” he’d said, and refused to go.
For most of this century, creole more or less effectively walled off the Negroes, but the civil rights movement changed everything. Africanness became beautiful. Negroes secured voting rights, and, subsequently, promises of affirmative action. When creole children took to calling themselves black, the wall cracked wide.
We turned a couple more corners, then found ourselves in front of the headquarters of former mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP). It is built of plain cinder block, with no frills, with a nondescript sign staring out above its single door. It has the look of a political clubhouse in the old and effective and regular sense. Adolph and Alison started talking about the election and about Marc Morial, the brand-new mayor. I’d seen his cipherous eyes gazing dimly from poles, newsstands, building walls all over the city, and I’d wondered how precisely his straight hair and his skin color had helped him win. All three nonwhite mayors New Orleans has elected would have been called creole 30 years ago. The first was Marc’s father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, an aggressive proponent of pan-black coalescence. His successor Barthelemy was much more a traditional creole, and his COUP organization played a big role both times he won office.
Only close observers of New Orleans politics can say with much precision how being creole helped those men, but it’s pretty clear that young creoles were in the best position of any black people to take advantage of post-’60s affirmative blackness. To a great extent this was a matter of class, the vestigial advantage they had enjoyed since slavery. Creoles worked the right jobs, went to the right school, attended the right affairs. Creole politicos were also family to the people in COUP and it’s forerunners, the best organized nonwhite political machines in New Orleans, nearly always based in the seventh. Some of the more progressive public figures during the civil rights upheaval were, of course, men and women of creole background, such as Dutch Morial. But there was always an ambiguity in their activism. Like Plessy and his Redemption-era comrades, creole progressives in the ’60s ran the show. The leading black reform organization of the civil rights period, in fact, was self-consciously named the Citizens Committee, after Plessy’s Comité des Citoyens. The name was a nod to noncreole blacks and to their emerging political demands, but it also indicates who was in a position to reach out to whom.
Now, noncreole demands would seem to have won out: public claims to a racial thirdness would ruin the chances of any candidate in the eyes of black or even white voters, scant few of whom still try to retain the rights to creole — not even homeboy Barthelemy would dare shout out his creoleness. We walked on as Adolph and Alison continued talking, and laughing, and Jeannine and the group continued playing audience. I privately finished the thoughts the pale women had inspired a few minutes ago: creole has become a set of meals and prayers and words, feebly pushed through the lips like an old password.
The Census Bureau presently puts American residents into four racial boxes: White, Black or Negro, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaskan Native. There is a box for people in these categories who want to identify themselves as Hispanic, e.g. Black Hispanic or White Hispanic. (There is also a box labeled Other.) None of these labels can possibly account for the vast ethnic variety within each category — Arabs share White with people from Argentina and Norway; natives of India share “Asian” with Japan’s Ainu and Jamaica’s Chinese — and as a result each category is being contested from within by subgroups who feel misplaced. Today, one of the loudest of these subgroups proposes a new category, multiracial, for people of racially “mixed” ancestry.
Multiracial has the potential to explode the black and white dichotomy that underwrites American thinking on race. This thinking, of course, depends on a potent fallacy — namely, that “race” is a biological reality more or less reflected in appearance. One is given a race by one’s biological parents; one’s race can also be determined by close examination of hair, nose, etc. It is no secret that most African and Native Americans are, by application of such race logic, mixed-race; it’s also true that many white Americans have some African or Indian ancestry. Most Latinos are mestizo, of Native American, European, African, and often Asian heritage; many Asians, the fastest growing ethnic group of new Americans, marry outside their race (38 per cent of Japanese American women do, for example). A large and rising portion of America could, on the basis of these facts, legitimately claim ancestry from two or more racial groups, and soon choose to identify as biracial or multiracial.
“Mulatto” was used as a Census category until 1920, but it functioned primarily as a biological description, and to some extent an indication of class, not as the radical marker of difference suggested by black and white. With several isolated exceptions, most notably southern Louisiana, no third racial category with comparable political significance has ever existed on these shores; both “Native American” and “Asian” describe peoples who have been considered — with some ambivalence — outside white American civilization (as precursors in the former case, and as strangers in the latter). Africans, while also outsiders, have long been considered of the society, a result of their status as slaves. The record of this dialectic is embedded in the common tongue: racial or race have come to signify, for most Americans, black. This is especially true in today’s neo-Redemptive climate — read The New York Times or Social Text, tune into WABC or WBAI, watch the reports on CNN or ABC or CBS, and listen closely when the nation’s leaders discuss race. The concept remains one of several stigmata peculiar to blackness despite the rapid growth of various non-African, colored populations (especially out West), and despite today’s fashionable nostalgia for late-’60s black pride; despite these trends, most people who think they have a choice avoid the stigma at all costs.
Advocates of the multiracial category contend that mixed people simply have the right, and even responsibility, to acknowledge their parents. The sentiment has the attractive glow of a returned prodigal. Such acknowledgment, however, rests uneasily on the very claim of biological race difference multiracialists disdain most; the claim to “multi” depends on the reality of “race.” This is almost never said plainly. Usually multiracial-identified people fog up their hardest assertions with existential sighs about culture and home: I feel both… why shouldn’t I choose both? The sighs may be heartfelt, but they also are an evasion, most clearly exemplified by the wigglings of African-derived multiracialists. Since too many Negroes these days quote Du Bois on feeling a cultural twoness, these multiracialists can only assert that their doubleness means possession of a black parent and a white one. Which in fact is very slippery, because their doubleness is not meant to exclude all people whose parents’ parents or parents’ grandparents are black and white. Their claim ultimately rests on the rather suspicious bedrock of apparent biology: either they feel black and look too white, or more commonly — though this is almost never explicitly said — they feel white but look too black.
Whatever its ultimate revolutionary potential, multiracial as currently theorized depends on what the eye sees, or rather, what the brain and the eye see, not what the brain thinks. For this reason, at least in the short term, multiracial threatens to depoliticize blackness, and to further politicize lightness. If the term catches on, black will seem even more than now to be a natural description of the darkest members of the race, rather than a broad political formulation for all descendants of African American slaves. Of course, there has long been the loose association between light and high status, and dark and low status. But tomorrow those members crudely called yalla or redbone or mariny or fair — they would not remain shades of black.
What’s really at issue, then, is not whether someone in a café calls himself biracial or multiracial; it’s the concept’s institutionalization. In the current formulation, the lightest of black people would become less racebound, and less burdened, and higher, as sanctioned by the golden hands of natural law. (There is more than a passing resemblance to the neoeugenicist theories of people like Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.) We have seen this in South Africa, and America, in the early decades of this century — it is the sad and familiar logic in Plessy’s song about discernible blood.
“They say we can tell each other,” whispered Alison, a little mysteriously, when I asked about the code. “There’s briquet,” she said, explaining the word they once used for black people whose hair and skin are red as a brick. Briquet is a little more derogatory than American terms such as redbone, but it is used to describe creoles and noncreoles alike. She also defined passant blancs, the word for people who pass as white.
Alison didn’t mention passant noirs, another term. I asked about griffon. Adolph had joked about the word that afternoon. It is what they call certain noncreoles, and it alludes to the griffin, the mythical animal with a terrible face.
“Adolph,” said Alison, smiling. “That’s fam-ly business,” It was a joke. I got the feeling Alison didn’t want to offend me, because her measuring eyes darted away. Later she confessed she only learned the term a couple of years before, because the language really is going away. I couldn’t hear what Adolph mumbled, but I told Alison what I understood griffon to mean: someone who’s light-skinned and black, with African features.
I wanted to know the code because I wanted to learn how to spot a creole face. I was a little skeptical that anyone could actually distinguish a creole from a light-skinned noncreole without the aid of context, but now I was as prepared as an outsider could be. Adolph and everyone I talked to agreed that the Jazz Fest would be another fine place to observe them. For four days in a row my friend Jeannine and I wandered about the festival grounds. It was much too big an event for our liking. There were bands from Mali and Haiti and Mississippi, and jazz bands and blues bands and reggae bands and rock bands and funk bands, spread over 33 balding acres near the city’s center. But we didn’t like herding with the crowds of aging white hippies, summery-looking tourists from Latin America, college kids who listen to blues, and, on Saturday and Sunday, black working people. I preferred to focus on the dim scent of filé and other cooking spices, and the watery taste of coast in the air. The smells kept us hungry, so we would line up in the queues for paper bins of crawfish étouffée, or shrimp remoulade, or barbecued chicken. Then we’d retire to the ground to watch the crowds we eschewed perform, checking out the way they talked and ate and dropped their mess like babies.
Once or twice I ventured, stupidly, to ask people whether they were creole they said No or Partly or Huh, so I soon conducted my observations on the sly, trading messes with Jeannine, whose mom is black and pop is white. She grew up among whites, but usually she calls herself “black,” though she’s a decidedly perfect candidate for the “multiracial” category.
Jeannine didn’t think the creoles Adolph had identified looked like her, and I agreed, though neither of us could pinpoint the difference. At first we weren’t sure we could distinguish them from any of the other light brown people on the festival grounds — style was little help. Olive-toned Italians resembled well-tanned Latins and light-skinned black people. They all dressed basically the same; it was difficult to identify any ethnic subgroups because no one dressed in a particularly ethnic way, and everyone was eating the same food, and everyone was mingling.
But by the second or third day Jeannine and I had several theories about the creoles of New Orleans. We speculated that there was something distinct in creole genes — Choctaw blood, for example — that marked them somehow. Then we remembered that Native America was a source of many Americans’ ancestry, especially Latinos. And some of the creoles did resemble Jeannine. The next day we decided that there was an ingrown flavor to creole faces, and then we were not sure about that, and on the third day we decided that our theories were no good.
That night we all went to a concert downtown in a ballroom at the municipal convention center. Tito Puente was the main attraction. It took some time for him to arrive, so we drank and spied the other colored people. The crowd was composed of mestizos from all over the Caribbean basin — their faces, their hair, their body shapes a match with New Orleans creoles’. I took in the white and yellow and tan and red faces, the colors of birth and vomit, fertility and death, the grunted beginnings and ends of human biology: these people seemed as racially various as the secret face of God.
It was the multiracial category, with a Spanish accent — there was plainly no way to discern a New Orleans creole in this crowd. The irony is that most these people wouldn’t have called themselves creole. They were Cuban American and Guatemalan American and El Salvadoran American and Panamanian American; they were middle-class and frequently, according to the Census Bureau, they thought of themselves as white. To my satisfaction, they proved creole’s irreality beyond a shadow of a doubt. But I began to wonder why I was so certain that these people comprised the multiracial category. I looked again and my secret god vanished. Now I could see in the faces their sweaty African and Native American and Asian progenitors, and the white people who’d worked those people hard: I recognized the muddied face of the traveling European. His colored children — they are what is summoned when multiracial is used: his children look the way the end of racial history is supposed to look. (Too bad this history is much bigger than European travelogues admit; too bad race is a mere illusion, biologically; too bad various “races” have traveled and blended and even made the European.) They are America’s fetishes for mixture, for creolization. The better part of me embraced the idea that the people in this room really weren’t any more multiracial than any of the other light brown people on the fairgrounds today, or any of the lighter blacks and the dark Italians I’d seen, or any of the most white or most Native American or most Asian or the darkest of black people, including me.
For good measure, I asked Adolph if he could pick out the creoles, just as I had when I’d asked about those girls with the moon in their skin. He couldn’t. Soon Puente arrived and the real music commenced. Jeannine was sitting to my left, and the guy to my right was named Preston: He had light skin and fairly thick lips and a fairly wide nose and so forth. I asked Alison — is he griffon? She squinted. “Ummm,” she said, with some exaggeration, figuring. “Yes. But only if he was acting like he wanted to be creole.”
The next morning I woke up at nine and checked out the fourth day of the festival; Jeannine and I wandered around and around and listened to the noise. Eventually, I let the race questions slip to points unminded. In the afternoon we ran into Alison again. She had discovered something important — Preston had a creole parent or grandparent from Baton Rouge. When Alison laughed, I laughed. She said she thought she’d known.
Adolph, I didn’t forget about my family that night. My sister is light with broad features. You two have met, but you don’t know how much she favors my mother. They are both light — my mother says her father had a ‘lot’ of Indian in him. In the photograph she keeps in the basement he looks creole.
Mom told me that several of his brothers and sisters were so light they lost the mossy accent and turned Jewish or Italian or WASP, and vanished into the white world. Mom’s mom was as dark as navy blue, and she couldn’t hide her slave history. We don’t name the rest of the races that made her, but you can bet she had some other tribes inside. My mother, and my sister, and me we are black and mixed. And Mom is light with broad features. That night I wanted to ask whether she and my sister would be griffon.
I remember looking to my left at Jeannine. It is true that race did slip to points unminded the next day, but at the table I saw the black mother and the white father in Jeannine’s skin and features; her face held my attention like a dead body does, and I felt a certain guilt and the stealthy approach of nausea, the result of trying to name her, place her, pin it down — was she griffon? Was she black? Was she multiracial? Where was the evidence of us?
I thought of a brotha I know whose skin is very dark, and then I could see him at the table. I could hear him, too, accusing me — I felt for a second like a Negro banker hunting for a suitable wife. Of course this was an easy comparison. Everyone knows that the powerboys who choose “suitable wives” are sick about this sort of thing, and everyone knows that the young Negroes in the theater on 125th Street who laughed when Alva Rogers was on the screen in Spike Lee’s School Daze are sick, too. You and I know that the equation between femininity and light skin is ubiquitous in the culture, as is the equation between light skin and intelligence, and light skin and beauty. Negroland’s self-described iconoclasts, especially, the boys, are no less sick this way.You’ve seen brotha writer and brotha artist and brotha filmmaker walk more proudly holding the hand of the Mulatto Ideal. And why not? In the movies, or on television brotha man’s semen always produces a mulatto child, no matter the skin of the mother. At bottom, light skin and white features and multiracial make males in Hollywood happy, and most employers in America happy, and many social planners and other futurists, too; I had to wonder whether the same story fashioned my desire.
I took refuge in the way the story failed to determine my sense of my own body. Each day this “I” of mine faces the mirror; I blindly see me, and fail to wonder enough what the brownness means to others. Usually I even forget that old refrain: “the darker the berry the sweeter the juice,” its equation between dark skin and blackness, the way it insists that one’s fidelity to the race rises directly with an increase of melanin. I suppose my being dark makes it relatively easy to see through that old affirmation; I know it is not as easy for lighter sisters and brothers, who are often made to feel as if they should pay us in blood for their skins. But I think a more fundamental reason is that I, like most everyone else, don’t really like to live racially. No one I know takes much pleasure in trying to measure how racism shapes his or her life; no matter how much folks celebrate or hate being black, they ordinarily forget about it. Who has the time when thanking God that the newborn is not deaf, when worrying about why the tax man is phoning you at work, when marveling at the way the sun lights up the metal on the scaly top of the Chrysler Building? Of course, there are those moments when you and I are forced to shoo away unimaginative opinions about who we are: the veteran cop, the prospective landlord, the Afrocentric professor often make judgments that follow tired and expected patterns. But most of the time I, like you, dispose of such takes the moment they enter the skull, because I live here.
Which is not to deny that I know how the templates others try to fit me into look — when I am lazy or tired or feeling especially proud I use them, after all, on other people. I only have to think about dancing and sweating with a room full of us to concede that I know why masked balls are so exhilarating; I know how seductive is the convenience of those templates. Like when I was watching those multiracial people at the concert that night. Or when I conjured that brotha, who only is, after all, a part of my self. The differences among what that face’s brown skin and Jeannine’s golden skin and your amber skin mean do not escape me, or you; templates of race and shade shape our perceptions to a greater or lesser extent, for better or worse.
It is a fact of life not entirely native to the States. Adolph, you and I always groan when we hear the testimonies, but check out this one: I recently met a brilliant brown woman with blue flames in her eyes. She and her family are from South Asia — she is very brown, “the brownest,” she testified, “in her family.” Then she added, “And the ugliest.” Of course she was quite beautiful, but that is beside the point. What matters is that her dark appearance somehow separated her from the rest of her family. This is easy to overstate because she loves her family and they love her. But it must be pointed out that neither class nor culture, but shade, made the difference between being us and being them.
Back to the table, to Jeannine. I stopped wondering; as I gazed at Jeannine’s face, I stopped letting the difference matter — I simply put the template for shade, its terrible story, in another corner of the vast unminded place. I turned to consider your face, Adolph, and I also succeeded in putting creole away to see you as I ordinarily see you, the way I see myself when I look at the mirror: as a self. As one of that us.
What of this us? Black and white fail to describe the apparent biology of the women with moonlight in their skin, or you. Black and white also fail brown South Asians, and other Asians — that’s why it is said that other racial categories with the weight of white and black are inevitable. One of my friends, a brother named Hsiao, insists those categories already exist. He adduces serious evidence. Out West, Native Americans have long been a third or first race, depending on your point of view. So are Asians and Latinos — more than 40 per cent of Latinos choose Other on their Census forms, rather than Black or White.
Yet that hasn’t shaken my belief that no racial categories in America have the metaphorical weight of white and black, and that multiracial’s bid for acceptance depends on its being a synthesis of the two, a real third. “My friend,” answers Hsiao, “Native Americans and the rest have their own multiracial conundrums. Black and white doesn’t necessarily enter the picture.” He chides me: “You shouldn’t measure the rest of us with a black racial yardstick.” I remind him that the American conversation about race largely elides Native Americans and people of Asian descent, and Latinos. Does anyone really believe that yellow and red and brown suggest “race” to Americans with the sad power of the dialectic of black and white?
Adolph, you know that historically the American contract has tried to assign the majority of its people a relative blackness or a relative whiteness — the legacy, once again, of slavery. Italians and Jews, for instance, were not considered white at the beginning of the century. Of course, American ideas about white citizens and black slaves do not address the citizens Hsiao has in mind, but that doesn’t prevent the nation from attempting to fit them, in a fumbling way, into the paradigm. Watch the difference between the way Filipinos and Japanese are regarded, or the way Indian Mexicans and European Mexicans are treated, or the way Southern Italians and Northern Italians still think of themselves — watch closely, and you will see the difference between the have-nots and haves, and you will see the difference between Slave and Citizen, and you will see the difference between black and white.
You are the key, Adolph, because the category you will be asked to consider joining, multiracial, really could be a revolutionary “third.” It could help individuals bring much of their private selves into a less racialized, less confining place in the public world. This is true, of course, only if anybody could call themselves `, sort of as a way to sit out the other categories. The first target should be the dialectic of black and white.
Multiracial’s adoption would probably have some terrible effects on the affirmative activity neocons like to harp on — fair voting and fair employment and fair housing laws would need recalculation if a sizable number of people abandoned Black. If, however, the term applied only to visibly “mulatto” people, the resulting “light flight” could be worse. The reason is class. Whether one assumes that the black middle class looks like the creoles do — that working-class and poor people are the dark ones or that the present generation of self-identified “biracial” adolescents is, mostly middle class, a light flight represents loss of middle-class people. (The first assumption is not as true as it once was, the second is probably accurate.) The poorest African-Americans would be left to weep in the mud.
But a less naive version of multiracialism could, in the long run, ease their pain. Think of it as an “Other” box with a name, a better way to protest the strange and muscular American instruments called race and class and culture. If half-Ainu, half-Dominicans could share a category with half-Finnish, half-Sicilians and plain ole ordinary South Carolinian Negroes as dark as my grandmother’s blue — this would trip up calculations that place whole ethnic and cultural groups in either of the dialectical castes, or the Others. A smart multiracialism would disrupt the facile and naturalized notions of class that American racialism encourages and focus attention on class as a material phenomenon, and, ironically, on the individual herself.
Such a category might help change the stories you and I resist, and use, in calculating the worth of other people. And ourselves. You are the key, Adolph, because they will want people who look like you, people acceptable in most creole photo albums, to be the representative face of the slot; its poster child. But that would simply keep the same old racialism, black and white with edges softened to a purr, intact.
One of the last nights I was in New Orleans, Adolph took a bunch of friends to a bar in the seventh called Pampy’s. It was the kind of speakeasy you find in black neighborhoods all over the country. There was a jukebox against the wall playing r&b songs; the walls were seasoned with posters for local concerts and handwritten signs about “house rules”; the drinks were poor. A gang of dressed-up people in their forties sat on stools at the bar, hungry, bathed in an encouraging red light. Even so, I could guess everyone’s complexion, including the guy sitting at the other end of our table.
Gary was just a little bit darker than the light-skinned girls at the beginning of my journey, and I was already pretty certain he would call himself creole — no, by now I knew he’d say he was. Still I asked Gary and the woman sitting next to him both said Yes. It turned out that they were lovers. She was darker than he, the syrupy brown of coffee with extra sugar mixed in, brown like me, so her claim surprised me a little. But I didn’t say anything out loud. Maybe, I reasoned, she’s a genetic specter; even the best cultivation fails sometime.
I could tell that Gary was a nice guy, though his looks made it hard to take him seriously. His face was almost perfectly flat; its most active feature was his mouth, a messy thing. He wore his dental bridge a little too high on the upper gum, which would have been alright if his incisors didn’t hang down the way they did. Each time he opened his trap he looked like a clownish Dracula, and even though he spoke with considerable honesty and earnestness, it was hard not to laugh.
Gary had grown up nearby in a project where poor creoles lived along with noncreoles. That equation of higher class and lighter skin — not necessarily. Class status didn’t, however, seem to cause Gary much anxiety. Now in his late twenties, he was a waiter at a downtown hotel, and from the looks of it, doing fine. His girlfriend didn’t really talk much, except to say again that she was creole. I asked one more time about the differences between creoles and other blacks. “Sometimes they like to blame us for looking good. We look good,” he said, in a sincere drawl. I noticed that Gary’s eyes were a little too high on his face and his hair was a little too low; I considered how the difference between looking inbred and not is a question of millimeters.
“Like my hair. I got good hair,” he continued, smiling in the generous red light. He pulled a comb smoothly across his scalp. “Not like yours.” I recalled something Adolph once told me about them: the first questions people ask when a baby is born is what kind of hair, then what color is it, then does it have two heads or whatever. Gary was a nice guy, and he didn’t especially mean anything by “good hair” or “like yours”; he was just repeating the things he’d heard: he was saying Look at me — can’t you see?
I could only laugh. A few minutes later Gary and his girlfriend left. I recounted the scene to Adolph, and he just doubled over laughing about how the nigga was so low class he didn’t even know enough not to say that absurd shit. So that’s why you’re laughing? I thought as I laughed, too — it was very, very funny. I stopped when I remembered that Gary had been very kind to utter his family’s open secret, its story of itself, and I realized the smugness of my own laughter. Then, I sensed with horror the oldest future, its familiar story: Our family is better than yours.
Research assistance: Elizabeth Morse, Valerie Burgher, and Anna Flattau
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 4, 2019