It Starts to Come Together

Okay… so where were we?

Oh, yeah. My mother was illegitimate.  Breathe.  Breathe again. It’s one thing to grow up knowing you’re the child of a crazy person. It’s an entirely different situation to find out you’re the child of a crazy bastard.   I don’t know why that bothered me so. Mommy carried her father’s name, and she had apparently lived with him for an appreciable period of time. She had – as the old folks would say – been “acknowledged.” She had spent enough time with his family for them to be … cautious … of her.  I had been looking to Mommy to find some legitimacy for my self and her illegitimacy felt almost like a betrayal. She was not who she had said she was. She had borrowed that name. She was someone else.

This new family I had found, the one I had never even considered before: who were these people? First of all, they were identified as mulattoes in the 1930 census. That was not necessarily a surprise, since Mommy had been very fair. I recall a picture of her and my older sister in a family album: the first time I saw it, I asked “Who are these white people?” I knew the other white people in the family album: the Lees, the Strakes, the Hayneses, but these two, not so much. It was not obvious, from a black-and-white photo, that these two belonged to our “tribe.”  Of course, I had seen plenty of baby pictures of my pale self, but (1) I have more Negroid features than Mommy and my sisters and (2) I knew they were pictures of me. Oh, well, I thought to myself: that explains the sun poisoning, huh?

Besides cementing in my mind that I really did need to commit to wearing SPF 200 for the rest of my natural life, the mulatto connection drew me into the intra-racial issues of the African American community in a new way. Thanks to weird science, the Census Bureau, and a totally racialized society, beginning with the 1890 Census, the black population had been broken down into four categories: black, mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon (“Mulatto” first appeared in the 1850 Census), and census-takers were given very specific instructions on how to handle the issue:

“Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word “black” should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; “mulatto,” those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; “quadroon,” those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and “octoroon,” those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.” (Hochschild and Powell, 2008)

The impact of this distinction from outside the African American community is well-documented, but perhaps less well-defined – and understood – is the impact this had within the Community. In short, the “closer” one was to “white,” the better one’s perceived social (but not necessarily actual economic) standing.  As a general rule, there would not have been a lot of  sanctioned octoroon/black unions. Since the “mulatto” was dropped after the 1930 Census this never had a direct impact on my life, but it did provide me another valuable clue about who Mommy was.

Except … that 1930 census record I spoke of earlier? Well, Pearl and Big Mack were identified as “Mulatto,” but Sadie was identified as “Colored.” Since I have no pictures of Pearl or Big Mack I cannot judge whether Mommy looked significantly different from them, but the pictures I have of Mommy lead me to believe the difference probably would have been negligible; certainly nothing a disinterested census worker would have discerned independently.  The only logical conclusion is that one of them had identified Mommy as “Colored.” In her own family, Mommy had been seen as different, as other. The impact this had on a little girl, I can only imagine.

Except I can. I had found the connection.  We had both been the “other;” the “misfit;” the “anomaly.”  Mommy had been “Seyyal,” too.

5 thoughts on “It Starts to Come Together

  1. Very interesting piece. Mark Twain knew how to turn a phrase and spin a yarn. Hope you will stay tuned…in the coming weeks I will share what I learned about my family: I was able to trace my mother’s paternal line back to Butler Island Plantation near Darien, GA.

  2. Pingback: … And Then it Falls Apart | Everblog

  3. Pingback: The Months Just Fly By | Everblog

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