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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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The High Price of Fame: Quotes on Celebrity and Stardom

Tiger Woods (AFP via Yahoo! News)

Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, Tiger Woods—quite possibly, three of the most famous people on the planet (and not necessarily in that order).  

That fame, however, does not necessarily bring peace and tranquility.

Tiger Woods may be miffed that his “transgressions” came under public scrutiny, but students of history know better.  Fame has been a blessing and a burden since the beginnings of civilization.  Muhammad’s growing popularity (and opposition) forced him to flee his native Mecca to Medina.  Jesus had a similar brush with fame and popularity, with a more grisly end.  So it should not be a surprise to any celebrity that their lives are under the microscope.

Here in America, celebrity has been valued, as well as criticized, since the colonial period.  Benjamin Frankin was perhaps the first true American celebrity: his fame as a scientist, author, diplomat and all-around American workaholic spread across Europe.  Franklin was also among the first, ironically, to write on the dangers of celebrity.  In 1725, in his Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, he wrote:

“Mankind naturally and generally love to be flatter’d…Geese are but Geese tho’ we may think ’em Swans; and Truth will be Truth tho’ it sometimes prove mortifying and distasteful.”

Later, in his unfinished autobiography he famously wrote:

“Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves.”

In a sense, Franklin is pointing out the paradox of fame in America: we crave attention, yet hate it when others crave attention.  Yet even though we may crave stardom, it’s difficult to mask the underlying truth to our being.

Davy Crockett, the Indian fighter, frontiersman, Congressman and martyr at the Alamo, was another early superstar, according to many historians.  By the 1830s, his frontier persona, thanks to massive marketing through stage plays, books and merchandising, had become a caricature of the real person: an often uneasy celebrity who, like Tiger Woods, often craved anonymity in areas outside of public life.  Crockett once stated that:

“Fame is like a shaved pig with a greased tail, and it is only after it has slipped through the hands of some thousands, that some fellow, by mere chance, holds on to it!”

In retrospect, Tiger Woods has some pretty impressive company, and a certain match for prowess in the boudoir (if the accounts of Dr. Franklin’s escapades are true).  Here are some other quotes about fame and celebrity.

“He who pursues fame at the risk of losing his self is not a scholar.” — Chuang-tzu

“The best people renounce all for one goal, the eternal fame of mortals; but most people stuff themselves like cattle.” — Heraclitus

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.” — Lord Byron

“Fame is like a suffocating castle sieged by the enemy. “ — Mehmet ildan

“All the fame I look for in life is to have lived it quietly.” — Michel de Montaigne

“When once a man has made celebrity necessary to his happiness, he has put it in the power of the weakest and most timorous malignity, if not to take away his satisfaction, at least to withhold it. His enemies may indulge their pride by airy negligence and gratify their malice by quiet neutrality. “ — Samuel Johnson

“No true and permanent fame can be founded, except in labors which promote the happiness of mankind. “ — Charles Sumner

“A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services. “ — Daniel J. Boorstin

“A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized. “ — Fred Allen

“A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know.”  — H. L. Mencken

“The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it’s their fault.” — Henry Kissinger

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