Tag Archives: African Americans

Summer Reading for Teachers: Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed Race America

Frederick Douglass, himself of mixed race, with his second wife Helen Pitt Douglass, and their neice Eva.

The strength and flaw of an immigrant society is its heterogeneity.

The societies that sprouted across the American continent were not one-note masses of people, but rather a chorus of different voices that, for good or ill, must learn to live together.  For the most part, this mix of people has been a boon to the economic, social and cultural progress of our country.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the concept of races—and their “inherent” differences—has led to an uneasy existence.  Different people can work together, live side-by-side, play together.  Yet romantic relationships and racial “mixing” was far too often considered taboo.

Yet according to Gary Nash, history professor at UCLA and a friend here at the Neighborhood, mixed-race relationships have a long history in America—and just as long a history of fighting for acceptance in a society preoccupied with racial purity.

Like a previous book of his I reviewed, Professor Nash’s Forbidden Love: The Hidden History of Mixed-Race America offers a window into a world most Americans know little about.  In this case, it is the often submerged undercurrent of multiracial family relationships.  Nash paints a wide swath, starting with Pocohantas and ending in the multiracial heritage of our current President.  Along the way, by identifying the lives of extraordinary mixed-race Americans, he shows the currents of race and racial identity that have prevailed in this country.

Nash writes that the early history of the United States showed great promise for an interracial society, or at least one where race was less relevant than it would become centuries later.  Yet due to the settler nature of North America—as opposed to the conquistador/exploitation model of Central and South America—the United States would populate itself with whole families who saw survival, especially ethnic/racial purity, as paramount to their existence.

This obsession with racial purity would prevail well into the first half of the 20th century.  It dictated how white America would deal with millions of Africans, once enslaved and later as free persons.  It also determined the relationship between European settlement and Native Americans who predated them on this continent.  Finally, the need for racial purity would affect how America received millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Nash’s choice of subjects covers many ethnic groups and various periods of American history.  He starts with Pocohantas’ marriage to the Virginia planter John Rolfe, and also includes maritime entrepreneur Paul Cuffe, the Healy family (also discussed in a previous post), Elizabeth Hulme, Peggy Rusk, and of course Eldrick “Tiger” Woods.  In each, their lives are juxtaposed with the rising and ebbing tide of racial rigidity and consciousness in this country, culminating in the election of a multiracial President in 2008.

One particular area that Nash sheds light on is the 18th century Mexican paintings known as “casta” paintings, and how they reflect racial mixture and hierarchy in Spanish America.  These didactic paintings demonstrate the nomenclature of the union of persons of different racial makeup, i.e. a Spaniard and a black woman make a mulatto; a Spaniard and a native woman make a mestizo, etc.  I remember seeing something similar in a textbook on a visit to Ecuador, yet I was astonished at the bewildering permutations—and labels—that categorized the racial makeup of colonial Mexico.

However, this open demonstration of racial mingling did not mean racial equality.  The lack of Spanish females, larger populations of native and black persons, coupled with a Catholic Church that had a more permissive view of interracial marriage meant a more fluid mixing of peoples.  Yet according to Nash, this mixing would not mean the end of racism:

“The offspring of mixed-race marriages could expect a life of discrimination and thwarted ambition.  And those with African ancestry faced more limited chances than those with Indian bloodlines.  Above all, Spanish blood counted the most.” ~ Gary Nash, in Forbidden Love, Revised Edition, page 48.

Unlike his last book we reviewed, The Unknown American Revolution, Forbidden Love makes a remarkably seamless addition to a high school classroom syllabus.  This is largely due to its imprimatur, the National Center for History in the Schools, of which Professor Nash is director.  NCHS works to connect academic scholarship in history with classroom instruction at all grade levels. 

In the case of Forbidden Love, the book was revised from its original 1999 version to both add a modern prospective and to make it more suitable for the classroom.  Although the book bursts with the hefty research worthy of an academic tome, its tone, vocabulary and short length make this material easily accessible to high schoolers.  Even more impressive are the discussion questions located near the end.  Each chapter contains these useful questions to continue discussion and to offer differentiation for various student groups. 

In the multi-racial populations of students in America, research and biographies like those found in Forbidden Love are more crucial than ever.  Many cities have populations where racial intermingling has been the norm for centuries, and are now coming into contact with American populations where interracial acceptance has been halting, at best. 

People like Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, etc. are demystifying what it means to be multiracial in America.  As Professor Nash shows, Americans have been mixing together long before they gained acceptance in the wider society.  Race, says Nash, is an artificial categorization that has no basis in science.  It should, therefore, be natural for humans to accept when races mix and procreate.

It’s a shame it took so long to reach that acceptance.

NOTE: Any teachers and students wishing to read the newest edition of Forbidden Love can order a copy by contacting Marian Olivas, Program Coordinator at the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA — molivas@ucla.edu

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This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

I’m preparing a response to a statement by Sean Penn in yesterday’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, in which he stated that certain reported should be jailed for criticizing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, today we celebrate a moment in American history where people sacrificed for the very freedom that Penn exploits with his anti-democratic venom.

In 1839, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled against the crew of the schooner Amistad, which had left the port of Havana.  They were later captured near Long Island by a naval officer that immediately sent the prisoners to Connecticut.  His intentions were as bold as they were barbaric: Connecticut had not yet officially abolished slavery, and the captain hoped to make a profit from the rebellious Africans.

The ensuing case of the Amistad Africans caused a sensation.  It energized the abolitionist movement in America, and reinforced opposition to the slave trade in other countries.  The main argument was that the initial passage of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, first in the British Empire in 1807, then in the US in 1808, and internationally in 1840.  Therefore, they were obtained illegally, thus never legally enslaved to begin with. Furthermore, given they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take what legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force.

The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, and it rendered its ruling on March 9, 1841.  The Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the lower court’s findings that the Africans were captured illegally and were entitled to fight for their freedom, since they could not be enslaved.  The Amistad Africans returned to their place of origin, the Mende region in present-day Sierra Leone, in 1842.

The Amistad rebellion was one of only two successful slave ship uprisings in American history, and one of only three successful slave rebellions in North America–the others being the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1804 and the rebellion abord the slaver Creole in 1841. 

Attached are clips from the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  It has its problems with historical accuracy, but it shows the time period and the spirit of the events very well.  The first clip is tough to watch, as it depicts the “Middle Passage” of the Africans from their kidnapping in Africa to their voyage onboard the slave ship Tecora towards Cuba.  The second is John Quincy Adams’ speech before the Supreme Court.  It isn’t the exact speech given by Adams, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job conveying the spirit and ethos of the case.

Anything to say about that, Sean?

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Unknown African-American Heroes: The Healy Family of Georgia

February is Black History Month, and the Neighborhood will be highlighting some African-Americans that may not readily come to mind for students. 

First off is a family from Georgia that achieved many notable firsts as African-Americans, even though many Blacks still belittle their accomplishments, due to their mixed lineage and religion.  In 1818, Michael Morris Healy emigrated from Ireland and settled in the “bottom” country of Jones County, Georgia, near the town of Macon.  He would become a successful cotton planter, with 1,500 acres and 49 enslaved Africans.  Among them was a 16 year old girl named Mary Eliza, who Healy took as his common-law wife in 1829.  Even though their “marriage” was illegal, they lived as husband and wife, rearing 10 children.

It is these children, these “bastard” children of an illegal union that are the heart of this story.  Under Georgia law, children of slaves and masters were considered enslaved, and thus prohibited from receiving an education.  The Healys were thus educated in northern schools and abroad, always in strict adherence to their father’s Roman Catholic faith.  Among the nine children were:

James Augustine Healy (1830-1900)

 

 

 

 

 

1. James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) -Though not as documented as his brothers, James did found the Healy legacy of achievement.  He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1849.  In 1875, Healy became the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, as he was installed as Bishop of Portland, Maine.   James oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools.

Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910)

 

2. Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910) – Patrick Healy is a personal favorite of mine, as he is connected to my alma mater.  Patrick graduated Holy Cross in 1850, and then entered the Jesuit order.  The Jesuits, fearing that his race would be an issue in the states, sent Patrick to the University of Louvain, in Belgium.  He became the first African-American to earn a PhD–NOT W.E.B. Du Bois as commonly believed.  In 1866 Healy became dean of Georgetown University.  In 1874, Patrick became president of Georgetown, the first African-American of a major, white-majority university in the United States.  As president, Healy modernized the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He even expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine.  Patrick’s influence was so far-reaching that he is hailed as Georgetown’s “second founder”, after founder John Carroll.

 

Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904)

3. Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904) -Michael, who ditched Holy Cross for a life at sea, did not follow his older brothers’ path to the priesthood.  Michael joined a British ship as a cabin boy in 1854.  In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed Michael’s commission as a Third Lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service, which would later become the United States Coast Guard.  Healy patrolled the 20,000 miles of Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years, earning great respect of the natives and seafarers alike. After commercial fishing had depleted the whale and seal populations, his assistance with introduction of Siberian reindeer helped prevent starvation among the native Alaskans.  He became the first African-American to attain the rank of captain of the Coast Guard in 1880.  In 1882, he became the first African-American to captain a US government ship.  His life inspired Jack London’s novel the Sea-Wolf, as well as James Michener’s Alaska.

All of these men achieved “firsts” for African-Americans, yet few scholars and even fewer African-Americans acknowledge their accomplishments.  The reasons are simple: they often did not openly recognize their African roots, and they were Catholic. 

The Healys were light-skinned: they “passed” for white as long as their lineage was not questioned.  Yet none of them openly denied their mother’s heritage.  Patrick Healy, in fact, was unashamed to acknowledge his African blood if questioned, even though he was president of a college with a large Southern white population. 

The Catholic aspect was part of a general bias against Catholics in America through most of the 19th Century.  In fact, it could be said that the Healys were equally, if not more, held back by their religion as they were by their race. 

Yet regardless of their race or their religion, it was a shame that their achievements have lacked recognition.  This February, let’s hope the Healys attain their deserved place among the pantheon of African-American heroes.

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