[In honor of Tuesday’s release of my second book, all four posts this week will very briefly highlight one national narrative that I believe would change if we redefined American identity through the lens of cross-cultural transformation. These are very brief glimpses only—not to get all LeVar Burton on you, but if you want to know the rest, read the book! Back to regular posts next week.]
We’ve always had a great deal of difficulty, as a society, responding to the idea—much less the identities—of mixed-race Americans. That’s perhaps especially true of my native South, what with the whole deep-seated, paranoid fear of miscegenation somehow coexisting with the millions of, y’know, miscegenations being committed by slaveholders. But national narratives like the idea of the tragic mulatto/a go well beyond just the South, and include in many instances, for example, mixed-Native American characters such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Cora or Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. And even into our 21st-century moment, I believe (and argue in my book’s Conclusion) that we’ve had a very difficult time acknowledging or engaging in any extended way with Obama’s mixed-race identity—whether we’re talking about the racial slurs from the far right or the proud embrace of the “first Black president” from the left, definitions of Obama’s identity have pretty consistently elided his hybridity in favor of a simpler but significantly less accurate racial singularity.
As the father of a couple of mixed-race boys, I know I’ve got some personal bias here. But my argument isn’t that mixed-race Americans make up a significant percentage of our population—they don’t, although the numbers are certainly growing—but rather that they are hugely representative of our 21st-century status, of what it means to be descended from a heritage of cross-cultural transformation. That their parents experienced such transformations in a more visible or intimate way—and thus that their children carry that heritage on their faces and in their genes—only serves to highlight and amplify a kind of hybridity that I believe is profoundly shared across all American identities. I’ve been getting in drafts of the multigenerational family timelines and histories that my students are writing in a couple classes, and while only a couple of the (more than 60) students are mixed-race, without exception their families and heritages include striking cross-cultural transformations of one kind or another. We’re just a bunch of mutts, to quote Obama himself, and it’s high-time we recognized and embraced the most visible representatives of that national heritage of mixture.
Effect #4 tomorrow,
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