Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

How Race Is Made/how Change Is Made

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

How Race Is Made/how Change Is Made

Article excerpt

Mark M. Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. 208. Cloth $29.95.

Jennifer Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. 330. Cloth $49.95; paper $19.95.

In How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation and the Senses, Mark M. Smith maintains that to effectively counter racism, we need to understand the nature, origins, and sources of racial imagery. Smith believes that we need to understand how race and racism are made, constructed, peddled, and marketed in all of their sensory forms--not just by sight. This is a two hundred year story about how southern whites manufactured sensory stereotypes about people of African descent and how African-descended people in turn challenged those images. However, the greatest impetus for bringing other senses into play came during the great age of "passing" from 1880 to 1925, when it became more difficult to identify African Americans by sight alone. After the end of slavery, whites found it increasingly difficult to make quick identifications as African Americans left the farms and moved into urban areas. The "one-drop" rule is cited as evidence that whites were struggling to decide who was black and who was not, using a criteria other than visual identification. "Put simply, many whites were worried that blackness was in danger of becoming whiteness." (1)

In my book Unbank the Fire: Visions for the Education of African American Children, several chapters detailed the life stories of my parents, Cleo Ingram Hale and Rev. Phale D. Hale. (2) My mother, her sister, brother, and father were light-skinned enough to pass for white. My mother was born in 1922 and graduated from Spelman College in 1944 and obtained a masters degree at Ohio State University. While reading How Race Is Made, I was calling my mother constantly seeking corroboration for the issues Smith presented. Not only did Smith provide scholarly evidence to support his arguments, but many of his points were validated by my mother's experiences.

On the subject of "passing," for example, one of Smith's informants observed, "There is such a cultural difference between Negroes and whites that the lighter-skinned 'Negro' is soon detected when he opens his mouth to speak." (3) My mother's brother moved from Atlanta to New York City after serving in the Merchant Marines. He began passing for white in the military and decided to continue after his discharge. However, he decided to take speech therapy to rid himself of his southern accent and probably aspects of his "Negro dialect." Smith noted that, "It is not surprising that 'passing' is much more frequent in the northern cities, where the individual can more easily lose all contact with his past and where the penalties for discovery are not so great." (4) My parents had to be very careful when they visited my uncle in New York so as not to reveal his "true" identity. Eventually, my uncle married a brown-skinned African American woman (whose skin tone was very close to that of his mother) and lived the remainder of his adult life as an African American.

There were many points Smith made that reflected circumstances in my mother's life. Her father, who had blue eyes and looked like a white man, was a chauffeur (in uniform) for a wealthy white Atlanta banker. My grandfather's light-skinned sisters were employed as the cook and the maid for white families in the same upper class circle. My mother worked as a babysitter for the children of another prominent white Atlanta attorney who employed her aunt as a maid. My mother reported that whenever she brought the children in from playing to use the bathroom, she used it too. However, the attorney soon had his wife tell her aunt to inform my mother not to use the children's bathroom, but to use the facilities in the basement designated for the black servants. …

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