February 23, 2015
This essay started innocently enough. I read and shared a Facebook post declaring that President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother was mulatto. Which, in our racially driven American society (the “one drop” theory) would make Eisenhower Black as well.
I decided to do a little research on this and opened up Pandora’s Box—Big Time. First, there was the incredibly heated response—from Black people—to this specific idea that Eisenhower (may have) had Black ancestry, ranging from “Just because his mama was part Black doesn’t make him Black” to “He couldn’t be Black because he was vetted before he became president” to “Who cares, anyway?”
That the idea raises such hackles in people is a sure sign that it means something to people, whether positively or negatively. In my mind, it is a huge part of the Conversation on Race that we need to have. I’ll address this a bit later.
But let me start with this little theory: Maybe Barack Obama isn’t the first Black President of the United States!
There is speculation that he is “merely” the sixth. The other five being: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge! This list does not even include Bill Clinton who, by virtue of his “cool” saxophone playing on late night TV when he first ran for president (and other characteristics), was dubbed by some (and, certainly, sarcastically) the first Black president.
It is not my intention to delve into all of these speculations, even though whole books have been written about them. I invite you to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. However, the Jefferson theory caught me by surprise; I was aware of his Black mistress (Sally Hemmings) and children, but I’d never heard of any of his ancestors being Black. Jackson, Harding, and Coolidge also threw me for a loop. I have seen and heard plenty of speculations about Abraham Lincoln, though, including the supposed “whitening” of his profile on the penny versus his appearance in some photographs.
I do want to talk a little about the Eisenhowers, before branching out to a couple of stars of stage and screen (one of whom is definitely Black) who chose to “pass as White” in order to attain their star status.
The Eisenhowers: “Evidence” of Blackness?
In her wedding photo, Mrs. Ida Eisenhower certainly looks Black or mixed race. Also, to my eye, two of D.D.E.’s brothers “look” mixed in some photographs, particularly in younger photos I viewed: Earl D. (an electrical engineer and, briefly, legislator, died in 1968); and Milton S. Eisenhower, known here in Baltimore, Maryland as a former President of Johns Hopkins University; he died in 1985). Even D.D.E. looks Black in a photo of him at West Point.
So what makes me identify them as Black? For one thing, there’s something about their complexion that looks darker, even in black-and-white photos. And there are facial features: the broad noses, the hair texture of Earl and Milton, and even the thickness of their lips in younger photos.
One thing is for certain: There is no way that any of these illustrious people could have attained their positions, given the times they lived in, if their “Blackness” were known. They would have had to pass as white.
The Actor Joseph Cotten was Black!
How do I “know”? Because my father always told me so. My dad had served in the military with a cousin of this actor, who swore it was true. And whenever I saw Joseph Cotten in the movies, there was something about him—again, a slightly darker complexion than most White people have; again, the broad nose and fuller lips; and that curly blonde hair, almost nappy at the nape. Also, there was something about his demeanor that seemed to transcend the roles he played, suggesting that he didn’t “belong” or that he was hiding some dark secret.
Of course, in the official biographies of Cotten, there is no mention of this. In fact, he came from a family of privilege, from Virginia, a major crossroad of the slave trade. But even in his childhood photos, there’s something “different” about him.
Carol Channing IS Black!
In her 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky, I Guess, Ms. Channing reveals what some in the Black community (myself included) long suspected: her father, though a prominent journalist, became successful by passing as white, just as Ms. Channing herself did. Her father was the son of a German-American father and an African-American mother. Channing says that when she left home for college, her mother told her the truth so she wouldn’t be surprised if she had a black baby.
I always suspected it because of her luscious, large red lips, her huge eyes, her raspy voice, and her propensity for blonde wigs. In fact, she always reminded me of one of my great-aunts, who was similarly light-complected and had beautiful wavy hair that she also hid under blonde wigs.
Passing as White
In my research today, I came across a very interesting article on why fair-skinned Black people once chose to “pass” (http://old.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/20031026stain1026fnp2.asp). It was a necessity in the not-so-distant past. In the pre-integration eras, companies actually used the “paper bag test” to determine whether a Black person was “worthy” to be hired, especially if that person was going to be in the public eye (think receptionists, or telephone operators, for example). If you were lighter than a brown paper bag, you had a better chance of being hired. Unfortunately, this practice also extended into the Black community, with certain colleges, social organizations, and other types of organizations using this test to accept or exclude members.
So, What Does All This Mean?
Recently, there was a commercial for Android with the message that we should celebrate our differences. I heartily agree. We should celebrate the differences because, let’s face it, this world is made up of varieties of human beings. We are not all the same! I’ve seen pictures of African people who look Chinese (“slanted” eyes, prominent cheekbones, thin lips), and Japanese people who look African (broad noses, not-so-straight hair). I’ve seen redheaded White people who look Black— despite their often pale complexion, their red hair is often curly or even bushy. And some of them (like Simply Red) sing “Black!” I’ve seen natives of India who are more ebony hued than some Africans. The Australian Aborigines and some Hawaiians (photographed in the late 1800s) have broader noses and fuller lips than many Africans do (and yet, they are not “classified” as Black because their hair is straighter; i.e., more “Caucasian” looking).
The issue is not that we are different. It is only when we seek to judge each other and to place more value on one culture—or color—than another that we begin to have problems. How is it that Egypt is considered a “Middle Eastern” country, when it is in fact on the continent of Africa?
The bottom line is that we are all human—red and yellow, black, brown, and white. And we all have equal value as human beings.