Declaring your race

In the NYT on the 28th, this piece, “Driven by Love or Ambition, Slipping Across the Color Line Through the Ages” by Rachel L. Swarns, about white people who have declared themselves to be black, with a photo captioned:

Clarence King, a Yale-educated white man who worked as a geologist in the 1800s and dined at the White House, lived a secret life as James Todd, a black train porter with a wife and five children in Brooklyn.

More of the King story:

The railroad carried him to the hot springs of Arkansas, the copper mines of Montana and the gold fields of the Pacific Northwest. Weary, lonesome and ailing, he sent letters of love and longing to his wife in New York City.

“I can see your dear face every night when I lay my head on the pillow,” he wrote. “I think of you and dream of you, and my first waking thought is of your dear face and your loving heart.”

Ada Todd saved those letters, symbols of devotion from her husband, James Todd, a fair-skinned black man from Baltimore who worked as a Pullman porter in the late 1800s, and spent weeks and sometimes months away from home.

His earnings allowed the family to move from a cramped, predominantly African-American section of Vinegar Hill in Brooklyn to a more residential street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to a spacious 11-room house in Flushing, Queens. It was only when he was dying in 1901 that Ms. Todd finally began to piece together the truth: Her husband was not from Baltimore. He was not a Pullman porter. And he was not a black man.

His real name was Clarence King. He was a white man, a nationally renowned explorer and surveyor who dined at the White House and hobnobbed with the elite at the finest clubs in Manhattan. More than a century before Rachel Dolezal burst into our national consciousness, Mr. King was slipping back and forth across the color line, using his work as a traveling geologist to sustain his secret life.

More 19th-century cases, then:

In more recent times, Mezz Mezzrow, the white jazz clarinetist who lived in Harlem in the 1940s, often passed as black, describing his experience as a racial “metamorphosis.”

Ironically, state laws designed to indelibly label people of African ancestry helped to make this kind of passing possible. The laws defined racial identity by blood, not appearance, which made it possible for Mr. King, a blue-eyed, sandy-haired white man, to pose as a black man without being discovered.

Racial identity was — and in many ways, still is — determined by the One Drop rule: even a single black ancestor makes you count as black, even if you look uncomplicatedly like you’re white (and could “pass” as white if you so wished).

As a result: white people can just declare that they are black, if they wish, but black people can’t just declare they are white (unless they can “pass”). Yet another privilege of being white, and one powerfully resented by many blacks.

Now: notes on Rachel Dolezal and Mezz Mezzrow.

Rachel Dolezal. Clarence King, in his guise as a black man, apparently made no effort to alter his physical appearance. (Meanwhile, then as now, the speech of black people varied, overlapping considerably with the speech of white people; King could have been taken for a “well-spoken” black man. And dress is easily altered to fit social identities.)

Rachel Dolezal is more complicated. From Wikipedia:

Rachel Anne Dolezal (also spelled Doležal … born November 12, 1977) is an American civil rights activist and former Africana studies instructor. She was president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Washington, from 2014 until June 15, 2015, when she resigned following allegations that she had lied about her racial identity and other aspects of her biography.

… In June 2015, Dolezal came to media attention when her white parents said publicly that Dolezal is a white woman passing as black. Their statement followed Dolezal’s reports to police and local news media that she had been the victim of nine hate crimes. Dolezal’s critics contend that she has committed cultural appropriation and fraud; her supporters contend that her racial identity is genuine, although not based on biology or ancestry.

Dolezal as a teenager (#1) and now (#2):



Considerable work here to alter her physical appearance. Clarence King passed as black (when he did) out of love for a black woman; Rachel Dolezal’s motives are not so clear, but they certainly involve an intense identification with black people as a group. Which brings me to Mezz Mezzrow.

Mezz Mezzrow. From Wikipedia:

Milton Mesirow, better known as Mezz Mezzrow (November 9, 1899 – August 5, 1972) was an American jazz clarinetist and saxophonist from Chicago, Illinois. Mezzrow is well known for organizing and financing historic recording sessions with Tommy Ladnier and Sidney Bechet. Mezzrow also recorded a number of times with Bechet and briefly acted as manager for Louis Armstrong. He is equally well remembered, however, for being a colorful character, as clearly portrayed in his autobiography Really the Blues, as for his music. The book, which takes its title from a Bechet musical piece, was co-written by Bernard Wolfe and first published in 1946. [See my posting “the old college try” for a quote from this book.]

… Mezzrow became better-known for his drug-dealing than his music. In his time, he was so well known in the jazz community for selling marijuana that “Mezz” became slang for marijuana, a reference used in the Stuff Smith song, “If You’re a Viper”. He was also known as the “Muggles King,” the word “muggles” being slang for marijuana at that time; the title of the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording “Muggles” refers to this.

… Mezzrow praised and admired the African-American style. In his autobiography Really the Blues, Mezzrow writes that from the moment he heard jazz he “was going to be a Negro musician, hipping [teaching] the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.”

Mezzrow married a black woman, Mae (also known as Johnnie Mae), moved to Harlem, New York, and declared himself a “voluntary Negro.” In 1940 he was caught by the police to be in possession of sixty joints trying to enter a jazz club at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with intent to distribute. When he was sent to jail, he insisted to the guards that he was black and was transferred to the segregated prison’s black section.

Mezzrow made no attempt to alter his appearance. A photo:


Mezzrow’s passion for black life and culture turned out to have been contagious. From NYRB on 7/9/15, in “Le Jazz Hot” by Adam Schatz (a review of two books on jazz in Paris), on the French critic Hugues Panassié:

His belief in the musical superiority of blacks was shaped by his friend Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish-American clarinetist who passed as a black man, and who introduced Panassié to the pleasures of Harlem nightlife.

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