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When White Is Black

1 rating: 3.0
A book by John A. and Jr. Martin

An early morning phone call announcing his mother's accidental death and the coroner's inquiry regarding her race set Martin pondering the complicated mixed-race heritage of his family. His mother, who appeared white, was mixed, with white, black, and … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Jr. Martin, John A.
Publisher: River's Bend Press
1 review about When White Is Black

Family, Race, Identity and the Curse of the One-Drop Rule

  • Mar 29, 2007
  • by
Family, genealogy, and racial categorization is explored in this family history and sociological look at race in When White is Black by John A. Martin Jr. In 1969, Martin, a former social service agency director, received a call in the early morning hours at his home in Berkeley, California, informing him that his mother, Eulalie, was killed in an accident. Just before the Alameda County coroner ended the conversation with Martin, he asked him what race is your mother? For though, she appeared to be white, the coroner questioned her living in a black neighborhood. Martin attempted to explain his mother's racial make-up as predominately white with Negro and Indian but accepted reluctantly that as a result of the one-drop rule, she would be classified as a Negro in death, as she was in life.

Thus began Martin's contemplation regarding the racial ambiguities of his mother's family that had plagued him most of his life. Martin methodically details the genealogy of both sides of his maternal lines of mixed-race people, beginning with his mother's paternal white ancestors who were from France and England. Martin's roots stemmed from Houston and Galveston by way of New Orleans. His family tree lists his ancestors with designations of mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, black, Choctaw and Seminole Indian. Beginning with the 1850 U.S. Census and through 1920, the government attempted to identify thousands of mixed-blood peoples with the term of mulatto. For one census year, 1890, the terms, quadroon and octoroon were added in an attempt to identify the percentages of African blood that existed in those who were not "white." Those designations were abandoned because of the unreliability of these labels and the census resorted back to using mulatto for all mixed black and white people until 1920.

Mama Peachey's family (Martin's mother's mother) passed for white until she was almost an adult. She told her children that they were different from darker-skinned Negroes and taught them to disdain, loud, ignorant, foul acting colored people. She told all five of her girls to be proud of their exotic good looks and to seek colored men who were educated and from other mulatto families as they would have better opportunities. In California, where Martin moved as a toddler, his mother and grandmother would regale the family with stories of being mistaken for white on the bus and putting those who made disparaging remarks about blacks in their place. After Eulalie's death, Martin and his brother would reminiscence about the times people would stare at them on the street when they were with their beautiful mulatto mother and how the teachers were always surprised when this white-looking woman showed up to claim her children, letting those teachers know her children were not the average Negroes and they were to be treated with respect.

Martin details the pain of living with a tortured mother who became an alcoholic. He left diverse Berkeley to go live with his father in Houston for a year during high school where he found the segregation of the 1950s Jim Crow Texas stifling, despite the black middle- class lifestyle his father's status afforded him. Though Martin never verbalized that his mother's alcoholism was attributed to her racial persona, he inferred that living in a nation where race is a prominent factor was a constant source of frustration. Martin also muses how ironic that his mother broke off an interracial affair with an Italian American man because of race, given the gradation of whiteness in her own family.

In the final analysis, Martin advocates for the abolishment of the one-drop rule and embracing a multiracial nation. It is his belief that white parents of mixed-children children should lobby the government for broader racial categorizations. Additionally he contends African Americans are opposed to a multiracial identification because it decreases their numbers. He thinks that although many blacks have mixed-blood they acquiesce to the black label out of a sense of loyalty that is misguided.

It was a walk down memory lane as Martin described landmarks of the Bay Area, particularly establishments in 1940s and 50s San Francisco, Berkeley and Downtown Oakland. This was a good look at identity and race with well-documented sources. I would recommend to those who research genealogy and have an interest in family history in a social construct.

Reviewed by Dera R. Williams
APOOO BookClub

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