Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




October 23 , 2008

How much is the relationship—such as it is—between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain affected by the fact that Mr. McCain’s Mississippi ancestors once held African people in slavery? Is the palpable annoyance—barely disguising a seething underlying anger—which the public observed in Mr. McCain’s facial expressions and mannerisms during the recent series of debates an echo of the feelings old maw’se would have felt if one of the nigger house servants had stopped serving the dinner guests one evening and, primly tucking the swallowtails of his formal coat under his ass, sat down at the table to begin carving up a bit of the main course meat for himself?

I don’t have any special insight into the secret heart of John McCain, but, then, neither do Pat Buchanan or Rush Limbaugh have such insight into the heart of General Colin Powell. If they—Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Limbaugh—can presume to ascribe race and ancestry as the main motive of Mr. Powell’s movements, simply because they involve race and ancestry and the history of the black-white tangle in America, then why am I not free to do the same with Mr. McCain?

Such is the nature of America’s racial tarbaby. Left out in the middle of our pathway unattended, it tends to continue to stick to us all, whether we like it our not. We must either embrace it or melt it down entirely. Walking away from it, whistling, while pretending it is not there, quite frankly, has not met with much success.

To the issue of Mr. McCain’s slaveholding ancestry.

As far as I can tell, that history was first uncovered by journalists Suzi Parker and Jake Tapper during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. In an article entitled “McCain’s Ancestors Owned Slaves,” Ms. Parker and Mr. Tapper wrote, in part, that Mr. McCain appeared surprised when they offered him the evidence that Mr. McCain's great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain, a Confederate cavalry soldier during the Civil War, kept more than 50 Africans in bondage on a Carroll County, Mississippi plantation.

"I knew we fought in the Civil War," the reporters quoted Mr. McCain as saying. "But no, I had no idea. I guess thinking about it, I guess when you really think about it logically, it shouldn't be a surprise. They had a plantation and they fought in the Civil War so I guess that it makes sense. … Obviously, I'm going to have to do a little more research."


Was Mr. McCain really surprised by the revelation? I have no idea. But if we take the Arizona Senator at his word, it is a telling comment on the different levels of understandings about America’s racial history between African-Americans and European-Americans. There is not a single African-American I know—not one—who, being told that their family came from Mississippi, would not presume that they had been held in slavery there. Mr. McCain, knowing that his ancestors owned a Mississippi plantation, finds himself “surprised” at how such a plantation was operated.

In any event, and interestingly, the subject seems to have died for a long time with the original article, with no evidence that it was picked up by anyone in the mainstream media.

Until recently, that is, until news outlets began picking up the story again, this time with the addition that Mr. McCain also has African-Americans in his family, descendant from those same plantation “relationships.”

The South Florida Times recently published a story (“Some Of McCain’s Black Relatives Support Obama”) which describe a widely-acknowledged relationship between African-American and white McCain descendants of the McCain Carroll County plantation, including family reunions begun by the African-American side of the family in the late 80’s or early 90’s that have since expanded to include white members of the family as well.

“Some of McCain’s black family members say they are not sure exactly where they fall on the family tree,” the South Florida Times article says, “but they do know this: They are either descendants of the McCain family slaves, or of children the McCains fathered with their slaves.”

(Black) McCain family reunion organizers say in the article that despite the fact that he has been contacted and invited, Senator McCain himself has never attended the reunions, or acknowledged the family connection. The South Florida Times article says that Mr. McCain’s brother, Joe, however, has attended.

The McCain Connection opens up many avenues of discovery—or rediscovery—for us, if we are willing to take the opportunity to walk down them. Let us wander.

Black-white family ties dating back before the turn of the 20th century continue to be treated as something of a shock to the nation, though the fact that we find that something shocking is more attributable to somewhat willful ignorance than anything else. Many Americans now function under the illusion that the black-white divide in the 18th and 19th centuries was a solid wall of brick. It was more of a sieve, in which the racial waters rested in separate compartments, but flowed back and forth at various times.

To see how much it flowed, one needs to go back to the original sources.

In his book “Pitchfork Ben Tillman,” South Carolina historian Francis Butler Simkins gives us some interesting insight. Speaking about the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional convention, the seminal event in which the Jim Crow segregation laws were codified, Mr. Simkins describes the difficulties in late 19th century South Carolina in defining just who was black, and who was white.

“The various distinctions which the constitution drew between the two races necessitated a definition of a person of color,” Mr. Simkins writes. “George Johnstone (a convention delegate), voicing rising prejudices of race, argued that any degree of Negro blood sufficed to define a Negro. But the Tillman brothers (Ben and his brother, George) were more realistic [emphasis added].” ‘There are families now,’ said Ben, ‘who are received [socially by whites] that have negro blood.’ George, after an academic discussion of the alleged scarcity of persons of pure Caucasian blood [emphasis added, again], said that if Johnstone’s definition were adopted, ‘respectable [white] families in Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton and Orangeburg would be denied the right to intermarry among the people with whom they are now associated.’ The words of the Tillman brothers carried weight, for when Johnstone’s proposal was returned from its committee, it defined a person of color as one ‘with one eighth or more negro blood.’ In this form it was adopted.”

The exchange would tend to explode the currently-held myth that any 18th or 19th century product of a black-white sexual relationship was shunned by the white community and automatically folded into the African-American community. It would seem that while it was less publicized, there was considerable movement in the opposite direction as well. In a phenomenon commonly known among African-Americans as “passing,” but which seems to have no name given it by our white brethren and sisters, African-Americans with extremely fair skin, Caucasian features, and straight hair often “passed over” into the white community during the years of slavery and segregation, forever hiding their African ancestry. The practice was so common that one of my cousins, Betty Reid Soskin, talks about an early 20th century clerk in the New Orleans courthouse selling new birth certificates to light-skinned African-American adults with the race changed to “white,” who then left Louisiana and their African heritage behind.

White Americans once took such crossing-over as accepted fact, if not necessarily accepted.

One of the persistent historical rumors about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton—one of the two non-Presidents whose face appears on United States currency—was that Hamilton, a West Indian native, had African heritage. True or not, it was seen as plausible enough in 18th century America that it served as a possible barrier to Mr. Hamilton’s ascendancy to the presidency, which he coveted. The phenomenon was also included—without much fanfare—in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last Of The Mohicans,” generally considered the first American novel.

Anyone familiar with the story knows that there are two young women in the novel, the dark-haired Cora and the fairer Alice, daughters of a British colonel named Munro. But an introduction to the 1986 Penguin edition of the novel by author and historian Richard Slotkin tells us an aspect of the novel modern readers appear to have overlooked.

“The curiously negative suggestions [made in Cooper’s description in the novel] about Cora’s coloring (‘not brown’) prepare us for the revelation that she inherited through her West Indian Creole mother a fraction of Negro ‘blood,’” Mr. Simkins writes. “This racial ‘taint’ is imagistically linked to her superabundant vitality and sexuality, her voluptuousness and her susceptibility to sensuous appeals. She is spontaneously fascinated by Magua and later by Uncas, and the novel is enlivened by the persistent erotic tension generated among these three: the darkened beauty, a potential rapist, and a potential lover.” Alice’s mother, Mr. Simkins explains, was white. “It is Cora—never Alice,” he concludes, “who excites lust or loving desire in the hearts of Magua and Uncas, as if darkness in the blood calls to its fellows.”

(I quote Mr. Simkins rather than from the novel itself, agreeing with Mark Twain that Cooper was a godawful writer and pretty much unintelligible to the modern reader. Anyway, aside from the breezy acknowledgement and acceptance of "black blood" running through early America's white community and the certainty that Cora's creole background would almost certainly never be revealed to her grandchildren or their spouses, thus burying forever the knowledge of her descendants of their black ancestry, the the Simkins analysis is important for its revelation of "accepted" beliefs by some of our white American friends in the early 19th century about the supposed nexus of sexuality and dark pigmentation.)

Meanwhile, if your experience with Mr. Cooper’s novel is only through the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis/Madeline Stowe movie, you will find yourself thoroughly confused by this. Not only has the African subtext been completely removed, but the movie now reverses the roles of the two Munro sisters for whatever reason, with the fair-haired Alice now the object of the Native Americans’ attention, not the dark-haired Cora. Cora's creole background is therefore lost not only to her descendants, but to the general public as well. No wonder we sometimes find ourselves wandering in America’s racial wilderness, unable to make the simplest connections. Asses dragging in the dust, we’re busily trying to erase the pathway behind us as we believe ourselves moving forward down the road. Some of us, at least.

In any event, let the adults amongst us try to move beyond the titillating nature of the McCain revelations—omygod! John McCain’s got black cousins and his ancestors were slaveholders!—and try to use this as an opportunity to begin a discussion and continue our studies to better understand America’s history and its hidden nature.

Immediate media reaction does not leave us immediately hopeful. It appears to have focused on the fact that Mr. McCain’s African-American relatives are voting for Mr. McCain’s opponent—Mr. Obama—as if that should be some sort of shock and that, to the contrary, reporters expected to come up on some dirt road Mississippi country shack to find a black sharecropper lounging on the front steps picking his toes with a jackknife and proclaiming, “Do the vote for ‘dat colored fellow Obama? Naw, I reckon I’m’a go with Cu’n John. Family gots to stick with family, you knows.”

Mercy, as my old editor, Jim French, used to say.

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