Famous Friday: Martha Jones

I stumbled across an article by Martha S. Jones this week and was really inspired by the personal essay she had written about her enlightened racial identity. As a young activist, I particularly loved the way this woman allowed herself to be influenced by her students. So today’s Famous Friday will feature the second professor to be highlighted here on our PR blog.

Before I share excerpts of her article, let me tell you a bit about this accomplished academic. Ms. Jones is a professor of History at the prestigous Johns Hopkins University and previously taught history and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Professor Jones’ areas of interest include race, law, citizenship, slavery, and the rights of women. She earned a Ph.D. at Columbia and a J.D. from the CUNY School of Law. Prior to becoming a professor, she was a public interest litigator in New York City. Professor Jones has written two books, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 and Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.

Today, Professor Jones serves as Co-President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and was recently elected to the Organization of American Historians Executive Board. She and her historian husband, Jean Hébrard,.split their time between their two homes, one in Baltimore, Maryland and the other in Paris, France.

So back to the article she wrote for CNN.com that really inspired me. It was fascinating to read about Ms. Jones’ epiphany moment about her multiracial identity. As a woman who grew up identifying as black, I felt myself cheering her on as she explained how she learned from her students to embrace her full racial identity.  Below are excerpts so you can enjoy it yourself:

“Now,” I prompted, “let’s go around. Tell us about yourself and why you chose this course.”

This introduction was routine. But what I heard was anything but the norm: “My mother is black and my father is white.” “I’m in an interracial relationship.”

Ordinarily, I am silent, listening and taking notes. But by the time I heard a third student say “I am mixed-race, from a mixed race family,” I had set down my notebook and was perched at the edge of my seat.

“Me, too,” I heard myself say. And with that, I knew that the class would be anything but routine. Until that moment, I had always told a neater story about my identity. I was, simply put, black. And about my mother being white? That had been irrelevant for me and my “one drop rule” generation.

My students had another perspective.

My mother was from the North, of the working class, and a German Catholic who only glimpsed Protestant kids across the lines of East Buffalo’s fractured terrain. My father was from North Carolina, a child of the black middle class and a Methodist with a bishop for an uncle who refused to preside over their interfaith nuptials. He was black and she was white, and their 1957 union was prohibited by law in North Carolina, where my father was raised.

I don’t recall the moment in 1967 when the United States Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia. My parents were in the midst of a trial separation, making celebrating our family difficult to do. But even in sunnier moments, my family rarely acknowledged the social fact of our biracial identity. It was the era of the one drop rule, a view of race that deemed a person with any African ancestry, however remote, to be black.

We were Negroes — later black, then African-American — and nothing about our mother’s whiteness or our own ambiguous bodies altered that.

“What are you?” schoolmates queried. I can’t say that we were asked this more often than other children, but I know that no response elicited more vitriol than the clarification that we were black. The moniker “Casper” (as in ghost or spook) stuck, some backyards were off limits and occasionally fists flew.

Still, we held fast to our one-drop identities. America largely believed itself organized around a racial binary. It was good to know where you stood, even if it was an awkward fit.

Much of my adult life was guided by the view that, however others might misapprehend me, I was black. Yes, we had a parent who was not African-American. But that was a quiet fact, one that our bodies might admit but our voices rarely uttered.

Why was that? Perhaps foregrounding a nonblack parent might lead to the charge that we were distancing ourselves from the stigma of blackness. Perhaps we’d be perceived as trying to pass for something that we were not. Perhaps we’d be viewed with suspicion, our loyalties questioned in a world that so often pitted black against white.

And under the regime of the one-drop rule, I never knew there was an alternative. Until I had that “me, too” moment in the classroom.

There, I was confronted with student stories that sounded not very different from my own. The mixed race origins of their families had also required a sorting out of identity. They talked about the dynamics of family estrangement but also of love that defied ideas about a color line. They wrestled with social scenes: friendship, dating, and dormitory life where race still seemed to matter. They fretted about checking boxes for college admissions.

But something was different.

As I listened to their stories, it became clear that my students were not adherents to the one-drop rule that had given my generation its place in the national matrix of race. Their personal narratives were about lives spent moving back and forth and in between.

And they militantly refused to check just one box.

Our numbers are growing. During the 2010 census, more than 9 million Americans reported that they were more than one race, an increase of 32% from 2000.

It is the possibility that we can be black and be something else that my students urged me to confront. If I abandoned the one drop rule, who might I be? Both, neither, something else?

Today I agree with my students: All of the above.

– Karson Baldwin, Project RACE Teens Co-President

Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins University