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History in a time of change: Standing in Pauli Murray’s “Proud Shoes”

There’s a moment in Pauli Murray’s book about her family, “Proud Shoes,” where she expresses shock at learning as she dug through genealogical records that one of her great-grandfathers, Thomas Fitzgerald, had indeed once been a slave. Fitzgerald lived most of his life as a free man, but his past had been carefully concealed from his descendants, it seemed, out of shame.

At learning this, Murray wrote: “I would always be in rebellion… until people no longer needed legends about their ancestors to give them distinctiveness and self-respect.”

Murray’s stories still provide ample material for the debates of our time on race, heritage and identity. Gone are the old iron-clad divisions when it comes to race. But the old battlegrounds have been scattered via pop culture to a larger world, resulting in new fights and possibly, new walls.

For instance, if you have a black father and a white mother, are you black or are you white? That is apparently still a much-debated question. When Paris Jackson, daughter of pop icon Michael Jackson, said she is black in a recent Rolling Stone cover story, online chatter immediately first questioned her paternity, then people said she can’t be black because she looks white, she always would be seen as white by the world, and therefore she’s too “privileged” to be black.

It’s 2017, and the black-white boundary line is still where much of the bombshells of this country’s tensions about race, history and rapid change continue to snap off.

These past few years, as the entire country watched as one after another young black teen was killed by police, there was another battle happening in the culture, first with “African-American” scholar Rachel Dolezal, and white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, and recently, in a more subdued way, with Paris Jackson.

It seemed that as we moved from the Baby Boomer era into a new modern era, and old rhythms of life, old ways of working were scattered, there was a fight to re-establish rules and boundaries. On the ground, one of the fears many have had is that someone who has never dealt with the abuses they’ve had to deal with, as well as the internalized shame and low self-esteem, would gain from their heritage, their work, along with the public recognition. That fight was about the preservation of authenticity.

When the Dolezal story broke, people muttered with a snarl of cynicism: “So when is she going to get a book deal?” Dolezal, who lives in Washington state, is a white woman who disguised herself so she could start passing for black and teach Africana Studies. Black people were rightly insulted and called her out for doing the modern equivalent of black face.

In the music world, Iggy Azalea has been the one to incite controversy. Azalea has been called out for being disingenuous in adopting a “blaccent,” one of many moves that has swiftly propelled her rise in the hip-hop world. Maybe she could rap in her own Australian accent, more than one onlooker has commented.

But what was powerful and authentic about Azalea’s persona — and gained her many black fans for a time — was that she was essentially “wedded” to a black form of art, but still telling the cultural stories that were from a white, mainstream point of view. Her videography has crammed potent images all the way from the 1970s through 1990s to present-day. She’s the Vegas showgirl, the diner waitress, the Beverly Hills princess.

Through it all, Azalea’s persona is that of the working girl trying to make her way on the racial line. It’s a persona that has ties to history, an echo of women like Murray’s great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Fitzgerald.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Murray wrote, it was so dangerous to be black that many a white woman married to black men soon came to regret having children at all. In this background, Murray’s great-grandparents Thomas and Sarah Ann Fitzgerald, a black man and a white woman, deliberately chose to raise their children as “black,” even though they could have passed for white. It was a way of keeping the family intact, united in mutual love and affection.

With relish, Murray recounted in her book her great-grandmother’s street smarts, management of the family farm, and her sharp retorts to anyone who questioned her family’s legitimacy.

She had a cryptic answer which made short shrift of meddlers and she passed it on to her near-white grandchildren growing up in the South.

‘If they ask you what you are, just tell ‘em that what they see with their eyes, they can’t carry off on their noses,’ she’d say, snapping off her words like pistol shots.”

Murray drew much more pride from her grandfather’s side of the family than her grandmother’s. Cornelia Fitzgerald came from an aristocratic Southern family with a sordid underbelly. Her mother, Harriet, Murray’s great-grandmother, a slave of white and Native American ancestry, resided at the plantation of the Smith family in Hillsborough. Harriet grew into a beautiful young woman who drew the predatory attention of the two Smith brothers. The first brother chased off Harriet’s husband and assaulted her. Those violent encounters resulted in Cornelia. The second brother fought off his brother to become Harriet’s “protector,” so he could have her for himself. Cornelia and her half-siblings were raised by Harriet and her mistress, Mary Ruffin Smith.

It was a tense, unhappy family of recriminations and constant threats of violence, from Murray’s haunting re-telling. The two women shared in raising the children, but neither could claim full maternal pride. Harriet was in a prison, and Mary Ruffin knew what her brothers were but had no authority, nor perhaps desire, to punish them in the courts or in her society. The aristocratic society to which she belonged would rather cheer for them than cheer for a woman or any good men of the “wrong” background, of any skin color.

The attitudes that led to such a nightmarish situation are still present in our culture. The pop star Kesha, eerily enough, has lived through a version of this exact story. In 2014, Kesha accused her former manager, Dr. Luke, of assaulting her. Afterward, her music label for a time forced her to continue working with him, thereby making her creative output controlled by her abuser.

So although Murray’s autobiography was published in 1956, it’s still a treasure trove of cultural history and emotional clarity. It’s one thing to debate privilege and intersectionalism as abstract concepts. It’s quite another to know what people fought for, and the real value of certain choices.

Is Paris Jackson black or white? Is that the right question? These days, her aesthetic, her self-expression is a punk-hippie blend. It’s a way of scattering all cultural expectations to the wind and identifying only with what’s been established as good things in pop culture: Peace, love, a bohemian sense of wonder about the universe.

Does it matter how Jackson self-identifies? Do interracial people these days really have to choose a side, black or white, white or Asian, Native American or black, Hispanic or Asian?

Toward the end of “Proud Shoes,” Murray finally lets loose her rage on the oppressiveness of skin color, this surface thing, being used to value a person, and the alienation and group-think resulting from it that created so much loneliness and strife.

“Always the same tune, played like a broken record, robbing one of personal identity. Always the shifting sands of color so that there was no solid ground under one’s feet. It was color, color, color all the time, color, features and hair. Folks were never just folks. They were white folks! Black folks! Poor white crackers! No-count n——! Red necks! Darkies! Peckerwoods! Coons!”

“To hear people talk, color, features and hair were the most important things to know about a person, a yardstick by which everyone measured everybody else. From the looks of my family I could never tell where white folks left off and colored folks began, but it made little difference as far as I was concerned. In a world of black-white opposites, I had no place.”

American culture could make the mistake of veering too much the other way. The term “privilege” can be twisted to once again box a person in by how they look on the surface, instead of what their family history and heritage are, or what they want for themselves.

How will this culture allow the space for people who are mixed-race, people who fall in love with the art form of another culture, or even some people who are just desperate to find a place to belong?

Even with so much violence in that plantation in Hillsborough, Murray’s grandmother Cornelia grew up adoring her father, the man who ruined her mother’s life, because he showered her with praise and acceptance and because he treated her not as a slave but as his flesh-and-blood daughter.

Authentic experiences, taking on a persona, building a life for yourself. Isn’t life a blend of everything, not just complete loyalty to memories and heritage, and not a complete forgetting of who you are either? People everywhere, for all time, will grow however they want, wherever they can be happy. That’s just human nature.

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