Saturday, April 05, 2008
It is axiomatic that Barack Obama would be America's first black President. Well, maybe not. Did Warren Harding flunk the one-drop "test"?
Will Americans vote for a black president? If the notorious historian William Estabrook Chancellor was right, we already did. In the early 1920s, Chancellor helped assemble a controversial biographical portrait accusing President Warren Harding of covering up his family’s “colored” past. According to the family tree Chancellor created, Harding was actually the great-grandson of a black woman. Under the one-drop rule of American race relations, Chancellor claimed, the country had inadvertently elected its “first Negro president.” ...
Well into the 1930s, African-Americans claiming a family link continued to pop up in the press. (One decidedly dark-skinned Oliver Harding, supposedly the president’s great-uncle, appeared in Abbott’s Monthly, a black-owned Chicago magazine, in 1932.) As recently as 2005, a Michigan schoolteacher named Marsha Stewart issued her own claim to Harding ancestry. “While growing up,” she wrote, “we were never allowed to talk about the relationship to a U.S. president outside family gatherings because we were ‘colored’ and Warren was ‘passing.’ ”
Genetic testing and genealogical research may one day prove the truth or falsity of such claims. In the meantime, as the campaign season plunges us headlong into a “national conversation” about race, it’s worth thinking about why that truth has been so hard to come by for so long — about what makes it into our official history and what we choose to excise along the way.
Of course, it is not important to this year's election that Warren Harding might have had relatively proximate black ancestors. The story (which I had once read but forgotten) does remind us that in the United States, at least, we still do not have a coherent conception of racial classification, or even agreement that we ought to have. The legitimacy of any particular method of classification seems primarily to turn on the result that it generates or the burdens and benefits conferred by the answer. In the 1920s, these accusations were considered libelous, at least by most whites (but a reminder that politics may be no more vicious today than in the halcyon days of yore). Today the reaction might be very different. If Warren Harding, who denied these allegations in the 1920s, were running for the nomination of either party this year, we almost certainly would have heard about his African-American great-grandmother. Perhaps, even, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
race is a fluid thing, not being based in any real biological differences (i.e. birds of a feather are still birds, even if they have different colored feathers :) when all the southern europeans emmigrated here in the early 1900's they were not considered "white" either, making wright's attacks on them kind of funny, in a historical way.
It has become standard belief in polite company that race is too elusive and variable to be defined. "There are no races, only clines" I was taught.
But actually there are, and they are only slowly erasing, and that primarily in the Americas. Nicholas Wade points out in his Before The Dawn that it is entirely possible to identify continent of origin (Europe + West Asia = 1 continent) by DNA markers without having to reference anything remotely like skin color.
We might hope many things about what this means in societies, but the data remain: races exist.
In the 1920s, these accusations were considered libelous, at least by most whites (but a reminder that politics may be no more vicious today than in the halcyon days of yore). Today the reaction might be very different.
Hey, good point. Yay for America!