In the 1980s I taught an undergraduate student of mixed race; one of her parents was African, the other of European descent. One day she told me how much she resented her parents for having launched her into the world without a clear racial identity, as neither this nor that. At the time, I was struck dumb. The student was fully capable of following through the consequences of such thinking. Would she wish herself out of existence? How bad could it be?
Now well into the twenty-first century, "we" (or at least some of us) like to believe we are living in a postracial society. "We" believed that Barack Obama would lead us to that happy situation, or that, by electing him president of the United States, we had proved to ourselves and the world that we had already arrived there. More recently, as the national mood has soured, images hoisted by some of the president’s opponents—Obama with a bone through his nose, Obama in whiteface—have reminded us that we are not as securely settled in a postracial society as some of us would have liked to think.
In the United States the notion of a superior or at least dominating white majority has, statistically speaking, already washed out to sea, though the change has little to do with the descendants of Africans brought here as slaves. The majority of the US population will soon be minorities. Moreover, social categories of race increasingly fail to match genetic data, as in the case of Wayne Joseph, a black-identified man who discovered through a service of DNA Print Genomics that he was "57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian—and zero percent African." Clearly, we are already living in a postracial society. Our problem is that we don’t do it easily. As Mariah Carey told the London Observer earlier this year, "How many times do I have to tell you—my father was black. My mother’s white. In this country that makes you black, do you understand?"
Rachel, the protagonist and sometime narrator of Heidi Durrow’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is the child of an African-American military man and a Danish woman who met overseas. Rachel spends her early years in the cultural limbo of base housing—happily enough, it appears, until unkind destiny intervenes and she drops into American society, sometime in the 1980s, out of her own peculiarly constructed nowhere. Durrow’s novel contains enough malevolent improbability to tax the suspension of disbelief required by Victorian melodrama. Yet to scoff at its plot lines would be unwise, as the story is said to be based on a true one, and while one cannot know which bits are true, it is certain that truth can be more viciously incredible than fiction.
Unbeknown to Rachel until a long time afterward, her oldest brother, Charles, died in a house fire—before her birth. Later Rachel and her two younger siblings are born, or at least conceived; then her mother, Nella, leaves her father to follow to the United States a man who may be the father of Rachel’s youngest sister. The next catastrophe is the novel’s centerpiece, its details teased out to the bitter end; the mother and all three children take a fall from the roof of their Chicago tenement. Their plunge is the novel’s grim narrative bait, but even grimmer is the underlying question: how bad do things have to get (and how do they get that way) to move a parent to kill not only herself but also her children?
Rachel is the sole survivor of the mysterious fall from the Chicago rooftop, and the most successfully rendered and emotionally convincing parts of the novel concern her adjustment to what is, to all intents and purposes, her afterlife. Rachel is taken in by her father’s mother in Portland, Oregon, a household that includes her father’s sister, Loretta. Grandma "doesn’t say anything about my mother, because we both know that the new girl has no mother. The new girl can’t be new and still remember."
In her previous existence, Rachel apparently reached the age of 11 without her race being a source of tension. In her new life it becomes an acute one. She is living in a black household, no question. Her school is racially mixed, but the black children don’t exactly rush to welcome her. From them she learns that she is "light-skinned-ed. That’s what the other kids say. And I talk white." Indeed, she even speaks a little of the Danish her mother spoke at home, and she has her mother’s blue eyes. The issue is settled on school picture day. "’Such a pretty black girl,’ the photographer says. ‘Why won’t you smile?’"
Late-breaking discoveries of African ancestry have surfaced in American literature before. Such is the plot line of one of Robert Penn Warren’s lesser novels, Band of Angels, which takes place during the era of slavery, and ambiguous racial identity has been a theme for many other Southern writers, such as William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August. The degree of shock and ensuing identity crisis seem to depend on how long the protagonist has lived in ignorance, how gently or roughly the buried past is discovered and how drastic an effect the discovery may have on the material circumstances of the protagonist’s life.
Ely Green was born in 1893, and his seminal work Ely: An Autobiography, published in 1966, presents the discovery in nonfiction. Green was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, a privileged mountaintop enclave and university town: "My father was a white man, my mother a so-called Negress." Though his father did not acknowledge him, his white grandparents paid him some attention, and as a young child Ely lived comfortably in another white household his mother had entered as a servant after being made pregnant by one of her previous employers. At Ely’s baptism, distinguished white people (including the bishop of Sewanee) became his godparents, and Ely played mostly with white children, with little sense that he was different from them: "I hadn’t ever thought anything about race destinction [sic]. I knew little about colored children. The word Negro was rarely ever used, or I just didn’t pay any attention to it," Green writes. His awakening comes rudely, at a local soda fountain; "the dispencer [sic] said: ‘I don’t make drinks for no nigger.’"
In the beginning his white friends defend him, but before long some turn against him, as if a single racial slur had contaminated the innocence of their whole world. "I did not buy this ball for a nigger to kick," one of his playmates tells him. Ely is moved to ask himself and the white Episcopalians who help raise him, "How could God make a nigger, and why?"
After the death of his mother, Green leaves the white world to join his grandfather, a man born in slavery who was a "scavenger," or junkman, in the town. Green eventually travels all over the viciously racist South of the early twentieth century, spending a good while in Texas and eventually serving in an all-black unit during World War I. Totally reversing the experience of his early childhood, he learns to dislike and distrust white people (there were some exceptions, all very hard-earned). Though he could easily have passed for white, he almost never did so; his book is an early monument to black pride.
Bliss Broyard had a softer landing into the discovery of her black identity than Ely Green. The youngest child of the New York Times book critic and editor Anatole Broyard, Bliss was the last to learn that her father was or had once been "black." Her mother was Norwegian, and her early childhood was spent in Southport, Connecticut, the town where Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas were refused membership in the yacht club to which the Broyards belonged. At the end of the twentieth century, Broyard’s discovery of her black ancestry did not threaten her privileged social position in the slightest, and after all it was only One Drop, as the title of her 2007 book on the subject put it.
Bliss Broyard was 23, and her father was on his deathbed, when her mother gave up the secret that Anatole was "part black." At first she wasn’t much impressed, but later she looked up a definition of "the ‘one-drop rule’ that classified as black any American with the tiniest fraction…of ‘black blood.’" She found herself flummoxed by the racial categories on a graduate school application derived from the US Census—"white, black, American and Alaskan Native, Asian and Pacific Islander or Other"—and the direction to check only one box. "I was stunned by the revelation that a person could be either black or white but not both…. And if you chose white over black, then—no matter what you looked like or how you were raised—you were passing or ashamed of the stigma of being black or denying your true self. So the ‘one-drop rule’ still existed."
A less naïve and earnest young woman might have shrugged or laughed the whole thing off and gone on with her life without making more than a curiosity of her one drop. Bliss Broyard climbed several high mountains of research and produced a solid 500-page book, which not only fully details her father’s evolution from black to white, and her own reflections on that transformation, but is also the most thorough and sensitive analysis to have been written in recent years about the Afro-European society of New Orleans, from its beginnings hundreds of years ago to the present. That was the milieu of Anatole Broyard’s origins, where racial identity was not a digital switch and there was a viable third identity between black and white, though it had begun to erode a century before his birth in 1920.
In the French colonies on Caribbean islands and the North American mainland, persons of mixed European and African ancestry were identified as mulattoes or, more politely, people of color. White fathers often acknowledged their children with African women and offered them some material advantages in starting their lives; thus a quite prosperous colored community was founded. The British slave system, on the other hand, followed the one-drop rule. Anyone with as little as a sixteenth part of African blood (one shade beyond any visual evidence in a person’s complexion) was defined as black and thus subject to slavery. Most of the United States operated on the same principle.
After the Louisiana Purchase, interracial marriage became illegal in New Orleans. Therefore, in order to marry a mixed-blood woman, the white Broyard ancestor had to pass for black. Such was the Broyard legal status for the next couple of generations, though on the surface of the skin there was little to show it. Bliss Broyard is also an accomplished fiction writer, and in One Drop there is a poignant dramatization of the moment where her father, then 17, confronted with a Social Security form, changed his race from "Negro" to "White." Anatole Broyard spent the remainder of his youth in an intellectual bohemia where his racial mixture could remain a sort of public secret—seldom mentioned though fairly widely known. By the time he arrived in Connecticut, though, he was so deeply trapped in his white identity that he could not bring himself to confess his one drop to his younger children before his death.
In The Girl Who Fell From the Sky Rachel receives Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks as a gift from her Aunt Loretta’s boyfriend, and later is upset by the chapter titled "The Man of Color and the White Woman." Rachel doesn’t seem to read anything else in the book. Fanon was born and raised in Martinique, where the three-way French race system obtained, but once he left the islands he found himself in a black-and-white world. Portions of Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, analyze how the stereotypes of racist stratification irresistibly resurface in cross-racial romances, in ways that are sometimes satirically hilarious but more often exquisitely painful. These issues are pressing for adolescent Rachel, a pretty girl dismayed that she is desired for what she is rather than who (an experience many women seem to have without any racial overtones). A white suitor coins for her the term of endearment "mocha girl," which Rachel finds seductive until she is revolted by it.
On the surface Durrow’s novel is the Bildungsroman of a colored girl whose problem is digesting a mixed-race identity. It is tempting to conflate Bliss Broyard with the fictional Rachel, but the fact that one was raised white and the other black is not the most drastic difference between them. Rachel’s deepest reaction to her glance at Black Skin, White Masks is to think, "I don’t want to be white…. I want to be nothing."
Blood will out; in Durrow’s novel, the child Rachel’s mother was carrying when she left her black husband turns out to be his, a circumstance that strains relations with the new, presumably white lover in Chicago, who calls the mixed-blood children "little jigaboos." Foreign to stateside racist idiom, Nella must have the ugliness of this epithet explained to her by a third party. There are quarrels nasty enough that the Chicago lover knocks out one of Nella’s teeth.
Betrayal into blackness by the child one has borne is a familiar trope of the "tragic mulatto" genre, which possibly reached its apex in 1900 with Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars. In 1893 Kate Chopin contributed "Désirée’s Baby," a brief but surprisingly durable story that features a maternal murder-suicide. The dire secret forcing itself to the surface of Rachel’s story is that her mother tried to kill her, and successfully killed her two younger children along with herself, because of their racial identity: "On that last day Mor took us up to the roof, she had calculated the difference between what we couldn’t have and her ability to watch us want. The difference between her pain and ours, she decided, measured nine stories high."
To kill not only oneself but one’s children out of the misery inflicted by racism is extreme but not unheard of; however, other reported examples tend to come from slavery time, not our own. Infanticide is the linchpin of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987: having escaped to the North, Sethe assaults her three children and kills the youngest out of terror that the family may be dragged back South to slavery. Sethe’s action appears to be a burst of temporary insanity, inexorably provoked by the horror of surrounding circumstances—and the point is to prove just how bad, during slavery time, things not only could be but in fact were.
In The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley manages to make a similarly extreme action appear (against all odds) supremely sane. His masterpiece of a novel, published six years before Beloved, is considerably more complex than Morrison’s in its approach to history, spanning several generations through the tormented consciousness of a black man of the late twentieth century, who conveniently happens to be a professional historian. Like Durrow’s Rachel, Bradley’s narrator has to comprehend the inscrutable motives behind the apparent suicide of a parent. The crisscrossed trail leads to a gravesite in rural Pennsylvania where a party of fugitive slaves took their own lives—but not simply or solely to avoid recapture. They acted on an African belief (transmitted to them by one of their number, who came to the United States from French Saint Domingue) that death is not death but a translation of state—a belief that Christian indoctrination diluted but did not expunge. "While it was accepted, for example, that the deceased were no longer in contact with the living, they were still believed to be living—they had simply ‘gone home to Guinea.’" In shooting himself on the same gravesite, the narrator’s father may not only have believed but possibly can even convince the reader that he is following his forebears to freedom.
Infanticide among slaves in the United States was comparatively unusual, while under the notably harsher conditions of French Saint Domingue (Haiti today) it was so widespread that laws against it were written and people were arrested and tried for breaking them. One such proceeding is the germ of Evelyne Trouillot’s novel Rosalie l’infâme (2003). In the actual trial, an elderly slave midwife produced a rope belt with seventy knots—each one representing an infant she had released from slavery by taking its life. At the end of Rosalie l’infâme a fictional descendant of this midwife flees slavery for the maroon communities of Haiti’s mountains, vowing to the child she’s pregnant with that "you will be born rebel and free, or you will not be born at all."
So yes, once upon a time it really was that bad, and thanks to writers like Trouillot, we know it. Yet Bradley, more explicitly concerned than Morrison with how history forces itself into the present, won’t let the horrors fade away. His narrator at one point realizes that the African view of the afterlife isn’t necessarily all that comforting; what it might mean is that "somewhere here with us, in the very air we breathe, all that whipping and chaining and raping and starving and branding and maiming and castrating and lynching and murdering—all of it—is still going on."
Likewise, Durrow’s Rachel doesn’t want to let us think that it’s all safely over. It would be unfair to betray the novel’s suspense by revealing exactly what part Rachel plays at the moment when she and her family go off the roof. Some may find it unbelievable, but you’d have to be in her situation—be her, that is—to know for sure.