Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Not So Good Old Days

Via Prometheus 6, I came across this extremely interesting editorial about the lifelong efforts of various individuals to get the better of America's scheme of racial categorization.

Gladys Watt and Lydia Turnage Connolly had been friends for roughly 30 years — a decade of that as next-door neighbors in Greenwich, Conn. — by the time Mrs. Connolly died in 1984 at the venerable age of 99. Mrs. Connolly seemed to have no family; she relied on Mrs. Watt to take her grocery shopping and regularly ate Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners at her best friend's home.

"I never saw a single visitor to her house. Not one," Mrs. Watt told me recently, adding that her friend had been tight-lipped about her origins. When she alluded to her family at all, it was only to say that her father had been "a wonderful man."

Mrs. Watt thought that she knew her friend pretty well. She then stumbled upon a startling secret. Mrs. Connolly had once let the secret slip to strangers but, for most of her life, she had apparently seemed intent on carrying it to the grave.

Mrs. Connolly, who had straight dark hair and swarthy skin, explained her appearance throughout most of her life by describing herself as Portuguese. The disguise began to crumble as she moved into her 90's and became too ill to care for the straight black hair — which turned out to be a wig. When it slipped away, Mrs. Watt recalls, the hair beneath was revealed to be short and coarse to curly. Combined with the darkish skin she had attributed to a Portuguese heritage, it gave her an African-American appearance.

This finally made sense when Mrs. Watt received her friend's meager possessions. They included old photographs, showing Lydia posed with family members. There was also a leather-bound book handwritten by Wallace Turnage, her father. It contained his account of his life as a slave in Alabama.
One can and ought to be profoundly grateful that the struggles of others have made the need to "pass" much less pressing today than it was when Mrs Connolly was growing up; even so, it's still not completely true that the "taint" of blackness is something socially ambitious people no longer need worry about. We'll know that happy day is here only when we see stars coming forward to flaunt their 1/32 black ancestry in the way individuals like Heather Locklear presently do their miniscule Native American heritage.