All in the family
It's getting hard to tell who's "white" or "black"
By Jack E. White
Reading the papers last week, I came across an intriguing story about the first reunion of Thomas Jefferson's descendants since a high-tech paternity test established that our third President fathered at least one son by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. It got me thinking about my own white relatives and my strained relationship with them.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. While I can't imagine spending eternity at the side of a slave master, some of Hemings' descendants want to be buried in the family cemetery at Monticello. But some of the 700-member all-white Monticello Association don't want to let their black relatives in, even as corpses. They weren't even planning to invite Hemings' 33 known descendants to the reunion until Lucian Truscott IV--a writer who seems to have inherited more of Jefferson's spirit than the rest of the Monticello Association put together--threatened to show up with a gang of black cousins and disrupt the entire affair.
Truscott told the Washington Post that "white people are scared to find out who their relatives are." That's silly. Hemings' descendants are not only upstanding citizens, a lot of them aren't even "black." For example, there are members of the Westerinen family of Staten Island, N.Y., who trace their lineage to Hemings' youngest son, who moved to Ohio after being freed from slavery and started passing for white. Dorothy Westerinen, who has known all this for only a few months, says, "I'm very proud to share a black lineage." I'm so proud of her, I'm tempted to buy her an N.A.A.C.P. life membership.
The only time I ever had contact with one of my white relatives was two decades ago, during a visit to the North Carolina town where I was born. I was driving past a business run by the white grandson of my black grandfather's white daddy, when a mischievous impulse overcame me. I went in and asked to speak to the owner. When he appeared--a frail-looking older man--I bellowed, "Cousin!" and told him I had come for my share of the family business. The old boy nearly fainted.
That episode, like the flap over Jefferson and Hemings, is a reminder that in a country with so many mixed-up genes, telling who's "black" and who's "white" isn't always easy. Black folks play a game called Name That Negro, in which we try to guess which well-known folks passing as Caucasians are really light-skinned blacks. During the impeachment trial of President Clinton, for example, a lot of us joked that one of the Republican House managers fit the profile so well, he should avoid driving through New Jersey.
But all the people who have been killed in the name of nonexistent "racial purity" are no laughing matter, nor is all the energy we spend fighting over what separates blacks from whites instead of what they have in common. It would be easier to heal the racial breach if we took Truscott's lead and treated it as what it is: a quarrel among cousins.
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Cover Date: May 24, 1999
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