From ‘octoroon’ to ‘other’ 

Pain–and possibilities–arise as the language of race decays

click to enlarge MIXED BREEDS: The decaying language of race.
  • MIXED BREEDS: The decaying language of race.

Lucky for Barack Obama that he was not born in Arkansas.

Had he been, his mother, Ann Dunham, could have been whisked away, tried and sentenced to up to a year at hard labor in the state penitentiary. In 1961, when the president-elect was born, “concubinage,”defined as “the living together or cohabitation of persons of the Caucasian and of the negro [sic] race,” was still a felony here.

The 1911 law prohibiting concubinage stipulated that, “Any woman who shall have delivered of a mulatto child, the same shall be prima facie evidence of guilt, without further proof, and shall justify a conviction of the woman.” In other words, the baby Barack himself would have been all the evidence needed to convict his mother of her crime.

Terms like “mulatto” arose by necessity from laws allowing “Negroes” to be slaves. Since slaves were property, laws were needed to define who was and was not “of the negro race.” Such designations remained essential even after the Civil War, in states where Jim Crow laws established the legal structure for the segregation and disenfranchisement of former slaves. In an effort to enact a formula for determining who would be deemed second-class citizens, Arkansas and many other states adopted what was known as the “one drop rule.”

The rule was a simple calculation that suggested a basis in science. As  Langston Hughes would later complain, it was a formula that allowed discrimination against “anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins.”

Both the science and politics of the time shared an interest in the idea that race was an inherent quality that was passed on and could be measured by blood. A corresponding, though largely unspoken idea was that some people were racially pure, though their offspring could be contaminated if their blood became “mixed” with blood from another group.

Thus, laws banning concubinage and  miscegenation — marriage between people of different “races” — were primarily intended to prevent the introduction of blood from inferior groups into the presumably pure blood of the presumably superior “white race.” (I am inclined to put the word “race” in quotation marks throughout this article, because the traditional understanding of the word, as a biologically identifiable group, has been disproved. Instead, I ask the reader to recognize it as a word that represents an archaic belief, similar to words like “dragons” and “spontaneous combustion.”)

The idea that any people, of any color, might be racially pure, down to their very blood, was so socially powerful that it escaped serious scrutiny, despite the obvious and prolific mixing of peoples from different parts of the world that has occurred throughout history, including in North America. In Arkansas, as in most of the South, maintenance of the social order depended on the “one drop rule.”

And for more than a century, there was no getting around it. In 1896, Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man who said he was of one-eighth Negro ancestry, an “octoroon” in the parlance of the time, complained to the United States Supreme Court because, even though he could “pass” for white, he was prevented from sitting in a railroad car reserved for people of that race. The high court, citing the “one drop rule,” declared that he was clearly “colored,” and that the train's facilities were legal because they were “separate but equal.”


The ‘one drop rule'

The words “mulatto,” “colored,” and even “Negro,” all of which, in earlier ages, would have been applied to Obama, strike a painful note today. They are remnants of a time when perceptions of race were sharp — and when setting down legal definitions of race seemed easy. In 1911, when the Arkansas Legislature passed its concubinage law, it needed only a sentence or two to articulate who was who, racially speaking.


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