Is Biracial Still ‘Black’?: Mixed in the Media

The English are fierce bulwarks when it comes to preserving the authenticity of their history, particularly when that history is portrayed on television or in film. That’s why there was such a fierce outcry when Richard Gere (an American) took on the role of Lancelot in First Knight; why the country nearly went up in flames when Kevin Costner (another American) dared to depict Robin Hood in Prince of Thieves; and explains why the proletariat stormed the BBC in protest when Russell Crowe – an Aussie! – was cast to reprise the same roll. These roles belong to the English and the English alone, they cried!

Remember that?

You shouldn’t. It never happened. But there has been plenty of noise about a more recent spate of mixed race actors taking on traditionally English (read “white”) roles. These include Angel Coulby as Guinevere in the wildly popular TV series Merlin, Freema Agyeman as Tattycoram in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, and most recently Howard Charles being cast as Porthos in The Musketeers.

Today marks the beginning of Black History month, which means a great deal of my grey matter will be devoted to ensuring my family honors all the heroes and saints that have ensured our freedom sort of thing. Black History has become more and more problematic for me. Last year I discussed my angst about how to teach the subject without imparting anger to my children. In many ways, I think I’ve failed. Their pronouncements on race are not very “inclusive”. I’m working on that.

dubois_subj_mThis year, the source of my anxiety is something very different. Today, as of writing this post, I am wondering: how much of our Black history is actually ‘BLACK’ history? For certain, there is a fair chunk of Black history that is mixed history, rather. Many of the heroes we fete in Black history were biracial, not homogenously Black as we might suppose or have previously been inclined to accept. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were both biracial, and WEB DuBois – founder of the NAACP – was as Marcus Garvey described him “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro…a mulatto.” Yet we refer to them all as “Black” leaders. Could it be that a time will come when we will have to re-write Black history, or at least redefine it in truer terms so that it includes the terms “mixed heritage”, “biracial” and so on? Only time will tell.

Why is this important? First of all, we know that history is generally poorly taught, if it is ever taught at all. History is littered with “facts” based on what is/was popular at the time. Take the assertion that Rosa Parks was the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a city bus. This is untrue (and I’m using ‘untrue’ because it would be rude to say it’s a flat out lie). The first Black woman to give up her seat on a segregated bus was Claudette Covin – a 15 year old unwed mother with dark black skin. She was not an appropriate symbol for the NAACP and the Civil Rights struggle. Mrs. Parks, educated, married, and therefore respectable,  was.

Angel-CoulbyIn looking at world history and how it’s been taught today, I have concerns because I know it’s riddled with half-truths, good intentions and preference. Take England’s history, which the majority of the population (or at least the most vocal ones on the internet) believe to be completely whitewashed. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been people of color living and working in Europe as advisers, artisans and traders – and yes, even lovers – since the mid-1400s, long before the genesis of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. However, the idea of racial superiority is predicated on the idea that Europeans took Africans by surprise, enslaved them, and the rest is “history”. Modern day Europeans (or in this case, the Brits) cannot fathom the idea that a person of color could have lived as an equal in the upper rungs of society. How could King Author (a fictional character, by the way) love a mixed race Guinevere?  And why should the impetuous Tattycoram be half black? And – oh no! – the PC police are at it again with casting a mixed race man as a Musketeer.

Would it surprise you to know that Alexandre Dumas senior, father of the author of The Three Musketeers was mixed race AND was a general in the French army? It shocked the sugar out of me! Why then would it be a leap for a biracial man to portray one of these men of (fictional) valor?

Stacy and I spent by far the most time talking on the subject of what it means to be biracial. I asked her how she felt about biracial representation in the media.

“Would it mean something to you if, for example, Halle Berry had accepted her award as the first biracial woman to win the Oscar instead of the first BLACK woman to win an Oscar?”

I waited. Stacy did not have a direct answer to that question, but she did say it would be nice to have more biracial representation on television and in film.

“I think it would help to normalize it,” she said of being mixed race. “There’s this weirdness and misunderstanding…misjudgment…because it’s like we’re undercover. In the shadows.”

She told me about friends who were not able to go out to eat with both parents because of the hostility presence of a blended family. I again thought about what she said about it being much easier to identify as “Black”, even if she didn’t completely feel that way. And then she told me about a White friend of hers from high school who refused to take her home to visit because his mom “did not like Black people”.

“And this was in the 90’s, mind you. I’m only 30.”

She left it at that, but I understood without her saying that she is just Black: she is just as much White as she is Black.

Of course we talked about Barack Obama and whether he’s the first Black president or not. I let him slide over to her team. He may have an African name, but he was raised by a White mother. That’s as mixed as you can get.

This marks the conclusion of our series on MOM. Tomorrow, if you’ll be watching the Super Bowl, you will see a follow up segment to the Cheerios commercial that had so many people spewing racist vitriol, you would swear were in the age of the phonograph and not it iPhone. Perchance you might come across the Swiffer commercial with the interracial couple (the dad is a White amputee. Let that blow your mind!) dusting the floor and their ceiling fans. And in those images, you will see images of little kids who bear traits from both their parents. My hope is that they and other people – adults and children alike – will be able to stand like my friend Chide did say “I’m mixed race/heritage and proud of it.”

…And then we can all go one discussing the merits of kidney pie.

Do you think Belle ate kidney pie? I can’t wait to add this movie to my collection. Watching women scamper about  in corsets makes me feel SO liberated!