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spring 2006 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Octoroon Like Me
By Brian H. Marston

At the beginning of the year, I sent a cheek swab to DNAPrint Genomics for an AncestryByDNA test. The results came back like this:

83% European
13% Sub-Saharan African
4% Native American

three generations of Marston men Based on the genealogical research I've done, that's about what I was expecting — 1/8 black. There are still some missing branches in my family tree, but I know my paternal great grandpa, Henry Joseph Marston, was born in 1885 in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to Jamaica, Queens in 1907. I inherited not just his DNA but also his first name, which is my middle name. According to the 1920 Census, Henry Joseph Marston was a "mulatto," as was his wife, Elizabeth Damsu Woods, who was born in Panama (hence my bit of Native American ancestry). In contrast to a lot of St. Louis families that have roots in this city that go back many generations, no one in my family, including me, was born here. Half of my great grandparents weren't even born in the United States. Besides Jamaica and Panama, two were born in Russia, two were born in Nebraska and one was born in Brooklyn. My dad's 91-year-old mom still refuses to divulge anything about her dad and says she tore up her birth certificate. She and my grandpa are adamant that there's no reason to go poking into this stuff.

Back in the day, I would have been called an octoroon. Before the Civil War, I would have been subject to slavery if my ancestry were known, although my lighter skin and fine hair might have won me a place in the big house. In 1892, Homer Plessy, another octoroon, unsuccessfully challenged Louisiana's law requiring separate railroad cars for white and black passengers, one of the many Jim Crow laws that sprang up in the South after the war to restrict the newly won rights of African Americans. According to Missouri law at the time, "No person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood shall be permitted to marry any white person, nor shall any white person be permitted to marry any negro or person having one-eighth part or more of negro blood." It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just nine years before I was born, that racial discrimination was made illegal and laws requiring racial segregation were abolished.

In the U.S., the way people assign race to others is all about surface appearance rather than actual ancestry. Anyone who looks the slightest bit black is black, at least to white people. (Mariah Carey and Alderman Mike McMillan come to mind.) This harkens back to the eugenic one-drop rule that emerged in the 1930s: a person with one drop of non-white blood is classified as "colored." That's the theory. In practice, it's more like the one-drop-that-we-know-about-or-can-see rule.

I've never been subjected to racism or labeled as black because I look 100% white. Actually, I've always had the feeling that most black people could tell, at least on some subconscious level, that I'm part black, whereas most white people are completely oblivious. Most black people know someone who was born black but whose skin was light enough to gain access to the world of white privilege. People with African heritage whose skin is a bit darker sometimes claim to be Italian, Spanish, Greek or Native American. At some point, my ancestors "passed" and never looked back.

Nobody in my family ever talked about race, especially our race, when I was growing up. It was just a given that we were white, just like almost everyone else in our West County neighborhood. The only black person I remember ever coming to our house was a guy my dad worked with whom my sister and I called "Uncle Johnny," which is especially funny given what I know now.

Something is wrong, or at least strange, when I can walk into almost any bar north of Delmar and be the only light-skinned person there. Yet, even in segregated St. Louis, there's more racial mixing than meets the eye. According to the PBS special "African American Lives," the average African American is 20% European and 5% Native American. A lot of white people aren't as pure as they think either. For me, racial integration is literally part of my DNA.

If more people really knew their ancestry, it would go a long way toward blurring divisions and resolving long-standing racial issues. For a lot of people, the real story is a lot more complex than those forms that ask you to check "black," "white" or "other." For multiracial people, there is no us versus them. There's just us.

© 2006 The Commonspace