Tag Archives: one drop rule

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.

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