Memoir and the Construct of Race

My maternal grandfather loved to tell stories to whoever would listen. His stories were all based in fact and never ventured into the realm of fantasy. He never tried to catch our attention with a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He just told about the past, as he knew it or had heard about it.

So when he told me that we had African ancestry, I believed him. I grew up thinking that my white family was, in fact, “part black. I found this information fascinating. Maybe it was one of the seeds that led to me studying history and race in literature.

Imagine my disappointment when I got my DNA results and found zero African ancestry among my genes. Could Grandpa have been wrong? Could he have lied to me? I think he told the truth as he understood it. My theory: one of his cousins was married to an African-American man for a brief time, and that meant that her ex was now part of our family. Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.

Now think of growing up as a white girl in mid-century America, with a father given to racist expressions, and only learning as an adult that your mother was (legally) a black woman passing as white and keeping the secret from everyone! That is the case for Gail Lukasik who wrote a memoir, White Like Her, about her search for the truth about her mother’s roots.

The woman on the cover of the book is Gail’s mother.

Gail’s story was first showcased on Genealogy Roadshow, and afterwards Gail, a mystery writer, began to write this memoir. The book details the genealogical research she and others did to find Gail’s family’s quintessentially American story. I was fascinated in the story because I am so interested in family history, American history, genealogy, and mysteries. What a great text to introduce to those who do not know the one-drop rule and other stupid laws in the history of Jim Crow.

I did wonder a few times if some people might be put off by the who begat whom, but it’s presented in a very cohesive and interesting way. I’m not sure how the book is structured, although her appearance on the show is the glue for a large portion of the book–and then the final section is about meeting her “new” family members and building a relationship with them. What one comes away from the book with, more than anything, is that race is a construct, not a real thing.

This book reminded me of another book I read over ten years ago. Carol Channing’s memoir Just Lucky I Guess might seem to be as far from the story of introverted Gail Lukasik as possible. But it’s not because very early on in the memoir, Carol lets her readers know that she has biracial heritage. The way she found out was kind of shitty. When she was leaving for college (at the impossibly young age of sixteen) her mother told her that she was “part Negro” because her father was black, born in Georgia. Her mothers says she is telling her now “‘because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby.'” Then she made some statements about the large size of Carol’s eyes and her dance ability that were racist, at least by today’s standards. This happened in 1937.

Although a few readers rob Carol Channing of a star or two in their reviews of her book because the book is uniquely structured, I think the structure follows Carol’s personality. I found it an enormously fascinating and satisfying read. You can’t help but adore Channing after listening to her voice for any length of time. What a warm, witty, sweet, generous person. I had no idea until I read her memoir that her ancestry was biracial. After all, she made her living as a blonde! I wonder how many others don’t know this part of the Carol Channing story. If you want to be charmed, read Just Lucky I Guess.

I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day. I had two travel days, and I couldn’t write, but made up for those omissions on the other days. Woot! #amstillwriting A little poetry, a couple of short creative nonfiction pieces.


Filed under #AmWriting, Book Review, Family history, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

73 responses to “Memoir and the Construct of Race

  1. Sounds intriguing.

  2. So interesting that this comes after we saw “Passing Strange” yesterday.
    (The idea of passing, I mean.)
    I had hoped for African ancestry, too, in my DNA, but no. 🙂
    Both of the memoirs sound interesting. It reminds me of articles I read–and I’m pretty sure there’s a book–about a black German woman who discovered that her grandfather was a Nazi.

  3. These sound like fascinating memoirs Luanne. Keep on with the writing 🙂

    • Both of them give you the feeling when you’ve finished that you’ve learned something important about life as we know it. Thanks, Andrea–you too!!!

  4. Never would have have known that about Channing.

  5. I bet a lot of people would be surprised to find out what’s in their gene pool. We’re really more alike than different.

    • That was mentioned, in a way, by Gail Lukasik. She said there are a lot of white people walking around in this country with a black ancestor or two–and they don’t even know. Have you ever seen that video that was going around the internet a few years ago where people who hold negative views of other “groups” of people are given DNA tests and they discover they have ancestors from the other “group”? Everyone should realize how alike we are. Even my kids who are Korean which we think of as being quite homogeneous–their DNA shows Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. in addition to Korean genes.

  6. Juicy book commentaries! I know my racial background (Italian/German) but, having been adopted at age five by NOT blood-related people, I count my adoptive family as imprinting me with a more meaningful heritage. Though I can’t relate to what it would have been like to be raised by people with my DNA, I’m fascinated by the quests of others.
    Thanks for another great post, Luanne!

    • I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, Elaine, about the connections I’ve made with adoptees through the DNA / stuff. And as many as are looking for birth relatives there are just as many who are doing the family trees for their adoptive families because we really are all one. Nothing like making the connections to show how we are so alike in our various and interesting differences.
      By the way, do you read Robyn’s adoption blog? I wasn’t sure if you follow her or not. She’s got a piece up today about a Southwest Airlines commercial and adoption. I really liked it, but wondered what you thought about it.

  7. I’m hearing a lot about Jim Crow laws these days and really must spend some time finding out about them – even though I know it will make me cringe….. I got my new computer yesterday and am back on line – whoot-whoot as you would say 🙂 Both the books sound fascinating! I think I saw Carol Channing once – I was a child and she toured ‘Hello Dolly’ If it wasn’t her it was a voice that strongly resembled hers and I have always believed it was her. Another thing to check out I think, Thank heavens I have a computer again 😀

    • Yes, they will make you cringe. I particularly like to read the stories of people who went through it themselves because it makes it more vivid. Carol Channing is such an incredible icon.
      I just read something interesting when I was looking for how many times she performed Hello Dolly (5,000!). Get this: “Channing hadn’t revealed that she was part black until 2002, but eight years later she backtracked on Wendy Williams’s talk show. She explained that she doesn’t know for certain if she’s part black or not because when her mother claimed her father was half black, she was angry at him and may have wanted to get back at him for something. Plus, the census records from 1890, which should hold the key to her father’s parentage, were destroyed in a fire, so that portion of Channing’s heritage may always remain a mystery.” I think somebody needs to take a DNA test!

  8. Both of the memoirs sound very interesting, Luanne. I’m happy to read that you’re squeezing in that writing time…keep at it!

  9. Sounds like a great read. Might be nice as an audiobook for one of my long drives.

  10. Luanne,

    This is a very well done post. It seems to me that, without tendentiousness, you have driven an important point home.

    It comes in the seventh paragraph! “Race is a construct, not a real thing.” So true.

    Remember how in high school English we were told that the topic sentence must be at the very top? In the opening paragraph. Well, you built up to it. When one gets there, the point seems to already have been demonstrated and made. Good work!

    I have added this quote — from you — to my post:

    “the absurdity of racial categorizations (a glaring example)”

    at the TOP

    because it says what I have been trying to say.

    Regarding what you grandfather said: that you had African ancestry. This sort of thing seems to happen all the time. See my post:

    “Some things that happened never happened.”

    What seems to happen is that people take a kernel of fact and embellish it. It kind of like polishing a precious stone. No doubt, as you say, your grandfather “told the truth as he understood it” and did not intend to deceive. But, the fact that one of your grandfather’s cousins was married to an African-American man does not prove descent.

    Yes, people do tire, usually, of hearing who begat whom, and, more fundamentally, most people are not that detail oriented. When I tell my relatives about discoveries I have made about my ancestry, their eyes glaze over. It’s not just a list of ancestors and progeny. I have discovered, things like where they lived when they first emigrated, what boat they came on, what colonial wars they fought in, relatives who ran afoul of the law or church elders, a few ancestors who were active in anti-slavery campaigns in New England, and so on. Doesn’t matter. These details seem interesting to me. They rarely received with interest or even acknowledged by my relatives.

    • I replied to you about the construct of race on your site. I’ll write more here later. Perry is causing trouble :/.

    • Back to the genealogy/family history research. I don’t quite understand how uninterested most people are in their own family history. Maybe it is related to how bored many people are by history. And yet history affects them more than they will ever realize. When I ask family members questions from the past so that I can record family stories, they don’t remember places they visited relatives, names or stories they heard. And they don’t remember, I believe, because they didn’t care.

  11. Lovely post, Luanne. I’m glad to hear you are writing.

  12. I’ve read this one, which is nice, because when I read your reviews, you just make my TBR bigger and bigger! 😛

    • LOL! OK, what did you think of it? Did you mean Gail’s book? And have you read the Carol Channing one?

      • I read White Like Her and I loved it. Not read Carol. Imma take a pass on that one.

        • You think. But you’d probably be wrong. Carol is so damn likeable. Not like her “image,” but a real person with a sweet and powerful personality. One person she totally hated: Nancy Davis Reagan. Anyway, yes, I really like White Like Her. I saw some places where work could have been done, but honestly, the job of writing a genealogy memoir is daunting that it’s amazing what she was able to pull off. And the topic! And what she finds out!

  13. So interesting, Luanne! Some members of my father’s family have speculated that we have African blood in our ancestry also, and I am considering doing the DNA thing. Is that the one you used? If not, which one do you recommend? My grandmother also thought she had Indian blood (Native American). I am eager to find out! Thanks for the reading recommendations!

    • Wow! Maybe your family does–or maybe it’s a story that many families share! OK, so, I did Ancestry and also 23andme. Then I put the results on FTDNA, My Heritage, and Gedmatch. That way I get matches all over the place. Only problem is, I found out recently that my ancestors are considered very new and so I have much fewer matches than people whose ancestry has been in the US for a long time. Yours could be the same? Anyway, which one? First of all, find out the prices and when they have deals. The holidays was a discount period you missed–and I missed too because I am going to ask my uncle to test. The best way to maximize your DNA matches is to put up a family tree of sorts, so Ancestry is better for that than 23andme. But 23andme will give you your MTDNA as well as your regular (I THINK). MTDNA is the one that goes mother to daughter to daughter to daughter forever. It shows where your female line originated. Email me if you want more info. 🙂

  14. Thanks for the good information, Luanne! I will do a little research and figure out what to do. I saw kits at our local CVS from as well as a few other businesses. I did not take the time to read the boxes, but I will do that also. I have never heard of 23andme, so I will look them up. 🙂

  15. I had hoped to find Native American blood in my DNA, in part because my mom had once said that my father was supposedly Native American. Sad to say, zilch on the Native American ancestry. It would have made sense since so many of my family (my mom’s side included) populated parts of north New York that had also been (and still are) populated by the Iroquois. But perhaps my story is the same as yours … perhaps someone related to my dad was married to or had a relationship with a Native American and people just extrapolate from there. I envy the resources you have to your own family histories. I saw my mom this weekend and asked her about my dad’s family; the fact that his dad made shoes and was not a farmer like so many others. She couldn’t remember what he had done. Only that he was quite large and he drank too much. It really saddens me that there is such a black hole where my father’s history should be in my life.
    I’m going to take a pass on these two books you mention only because I already have TOO much reading to do! I had heard about Gail’s book and it does sound fascinating. I love Carol Channing, although I haven’t read her book. I saw her once, about 40 years ago, when a group of us from college went to NYC and took in a Broadway show. It was “Hello, Dolly” and Carol was in it, of course, We had great seats and I could see how she interacted with the other actors. She was very encouraging and patient when any one of slipped on their lines. I mean, can you imagine working with Carol Channing?! She was so gracious and entertaining.

    • OK ok, don’t put them on your list haha! It’s interesting to think of how our family stories come to be what they are, isn’t it? OOOOH, new writing idea: take the stories that weren’t true and work with them! What do you think?

  16. This is all so interesting to me (I can’t imagine it not being so, but isn’t that so typically human?). Your experience of perhaps having an African American ex-cousin-in-law is making me search for a different explanation for my story—we were always told of our Native American ancestor on my mother’s side, my grandmother’s grandmother. She had a name. And a tribe. And the county where she lived. And stories about her. But the test came back nada on Native American. So I began researching her. All the facts still added up and traced right back to me. So what to believe? The DNA test (I only took the cheap one) is statistical probabilities, so I wondered if I was in the low probability. Your post makes me wonder if she could have been reported as a “mother” when she was not the blood mother. As you say, one way or another, she was in “our family.”

    • These possibly apocryphal stories about African or Native American ancestry in white families seems to be very prevalent. It is possible that the DNA just doesn’t “show up,” but it’s probably more likely that in a lot of cases there is another explanation for the stories. What is almost more interesting is WHY our families have wanted to pass on this information. What was so important to our white families about not being “100%” white?

      • Yes, I’ve read lots of articles on why folks want it to be true (much of it not very flattering.) Yet, I have to deal with “my” Chickasaw ancestor being buried in the family cemetery, and her linage tracing—from son to daughter, on and on—to my grandmother, who took the legacy of this ancestor to heart and modeled her behavior on it. Truly strange. But I guess the gap allows space for my imagination to work. 🙂

  17. Wonderful post, Luanne. I especially liked this paragraph:
    Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.
    Both books sound great. 🙂

    • Carol, why do I never see your blog posts in my reader? Are you blogging? Is there a way I can get an email when you post rather than the happenstance of when I check my reader?
      Yes, they are wonderful books. And my grandfather was an amazing man!

  18. Luanne, I have no idea why you don’t see my blog posts in your reader. Sometimes it could be that you are no longer following my blog for some technical reason. But I am blogging less, although I try to post at least one every ten days or so. I just posted one yesterday. 🙂

  19. Reviews that make me want to read both books and have put them on my reading list. In reality, it is my understanding that we all came from Southern Africa. She is Mitochondrial Eve, whom we are all descended on our maternal side. For more info see
    Glad to hear you are writing Luane. Is it a memoir?

  20. Thanks for this lovely, engaging post, Luanne! I did read somewhere recently about Carol Channing’s ancestry being part-black, and it was fun to hear your take on her memoir. Plus, I loved this: “I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day.” Yay! Wonderful!

  21. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man. Now you’ve really made me miss mine.

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