I recently finished reading A Rap on Race, the book-length transcript of a conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, recorded in
the summer of 1970. As I noted over the weekend, it’s a fascinating book, and I’m going to be posting excerpts off and on for the next while. Here’s the first, from the third page of the book:
MEAD: I recall a boy whose father married again, married a woman who had a son about the same age. They weren’t related, of course, they were stepbrothers. And then that father and mother, the father of the first boy and the mother of the second, had a child. And the first boy said, “Now I feel differently about it. We have a brother in common.”
BALDWIN: Ah, that makes a great deal of difference.
MEAD: You see, this is true in a sense. Because as far as I know — and this is all any white person in the United States can ever say — as far as I know, I haven’t any black ancestry. But you’ve got some white ancestry.
BALDWIN: Yes, yes.
MEAD: So we’ve got a brother in common.
BALDWIN: So we’ve got a brother in common. But isn’t the tragedy partly related to the fact that most white people deny their brother?
One of the crucial ideas that I try to get across to my students, when we’re talking about how race was constructed in the United States, is that it was designed to be a one-way valve. Whoever you were, whatever your race, you could produce black kids by having them with a black partner, but if you were black you couldn’t produce white kids by having them with a white partner. Race flowed in the direction of blackness, never the other way.
And this was, of course, a matter of politics and economics, not of biology or genetics. If the child of a white slaveholder and his black slave was white, that child would be free, and have a claim on the slaveholder’s estate — an estate which would include that child’s own mother. For this and a hundred other reasons, American racism could not operate in the absence of the one-drop rule and its many variants, and so that rule had to be invented.
Racism depends on white people denying their brothers (and their sisters). So much of American history flows directly from that fact.