This is part one of an interview with E. Dolores Johnson, author of Say I’m dead, A Family Memoir of Race, Secrets and Love, published June 2 by Chicago Review Press. Dolores has additionally published essays on mixed race, racism and identity. This interview was first published on actsofrevision.com. The audio version is on embarkthepodcast.com.
LS: Hey Dolores, thanks for talking with us today. Congratulations on the book.
EDJ: Thank you very much. Yes, the book has been out in the world six weeks, and I’m very excited. It’s getting some good coverage in the media and lots of appearances have happened. So, I hope this audience will enjoy our discussion about it and the issues that are embedded in the story.
LS: Your memoir is a family odyssey of race, love and courage. It traces the story of your black father and white mother, who fled Indiana in the 1940’s because interracial marriage in that state was illegal. You follow four generations of females. But one figure that looms large in your book is your dad. I’d love you to read a passage from the book that talks about your dad and the challenges of being a black man in the United States.
Hear the excerpt from ‘Say I’m Dead’ on the Embark Podcast
LS: Thank you, Dolores.
EDJ: I want to say that the story centers also on my mother. My mother was white, and my father was black. The scene is one where, as an adult, I’m reflecting on the racism that my family dealt with. Racism, because we were black and racism, because we were a mixed-race family. [The incident] takes place in the early 50s. And it’s interesting to note that in 1958, the Pew Research Center did a study that showed that 96% of Americans were against race mixing.
LS: We’ve seen some progress, but we have a long way toward racial equality and acceptance. The timing of your book’s release: a week after George Floyd’s murder, a few days before the 53rd anniversary of the Loving decision, which struck down state laws against interracial marriage. Then, a few weeks ago, the death of John Lewis, one of the last surviving civil rights leaders of the 1960s. We’re experiencing parallels to the protests of the 1960’s, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Yet, there’s so much confusion still, particularly among white people, about racial identity. As children, were you and your siblings aware of what that mixed-race relationship meant to your entire family?
EDJ: Yes, because we were constantly abused because we were mixed race. My father was abused, and I was abused and my brothers were abused because we were black. And [there was] the ‘one drop rule’ in the United States, the informal designation that says if you have one-drop of black blood, you are black.
We were black people, but we were also mixed-race people. As I mentioned earlier, and so we had a double whammy, if you will, as far as racism is concerned. My father was unable to rent a decent place for us to live because people didn’t rent to black people. We lived in a flat in the second house on a one family lot, one house lot and we lived pretty much in darkness because we were overshadowed by big buildings. [Our house] was heated by a potbelly coal stove.
LS: That potbelly stove figures into an early memory of racial bias based on your zip code. Tell us about that.
EDJ: I fell against a red-hot potbelly stove when I was a small child and burned my arm very badly. The skin rose up like burnt meringue off my arm. And we didn’t have a car. My parents called a taxi and explained that it was an emergency to take me to the hospital. And we waited on the sidewalk in the frozen winter of Buffalo, New York. And nobody ever came. Later on, my father had to call around to people who do who had a car to see if someone would take us to the hospital. And he said that the cab didn’t come because the white cap company wouldn’t come to the black neighborhood.
There were so many occasions when my father would come home from work and he would be livid because he was the only black person in his shop. While he was a master welder, they treated him like some lower underling. He never got his correct title or pay and was, you know, subject to the word ‘nigger’ all the time at work. As we grew up, we experienced people who would see our family and shove their children far way, so they wouldn’t touch us who would spit near us…speak nasty things intentionally in our hearing.
LS: I want to address the issue of slavery because I read something in your book that speaks to the interracial relationships between master and slave. You have some lineage, some experience with that within your own family and your own history.
EDJ: I was doing my father’s genealogy, so I went south to meet my great Aunt Willie …We were looking through pictures, and she was telling me who these people were and how they were related to each other. We were building this genealogy chart on her dining room table and she pulls out a picture of my grandmother at about the age that I was when I went for this visit. She holds up the picture and she says, “Well look at that. You and your grandmother are the spitting image of each other because you know, you both have that white side.”
I said to her, “What white side are you talking about?” She said, “Your grandmother’s father was white. You don’t know that?” AndI said, ‘No, I’ve never heard that.’[My great-grandmother] worked on the plantation where all the ancestors were slaves and was raped by a white man on the plantation. I was so revolted. To imagine my great grandmother, who…must have been about 15 being repeatedly abused by this man, and my grandmother being the issue of that. And I said, “Well, my Grandmother must have been ashamed. That’s why she’s never spoken of that to me.” My aunt said, “Well, why would she be ashamed? She didn’t do anything wrong. That’s what white men have always done to black women, and there’s nothing we could do about it.’
So yes, there’s a plantation rape in my background. And as [African American historian and scholar] Henry Louis Gates has stated – because he’s done tremendous work around the mixing of races in America – that the very blackest-looking African American in America is still 12% white. That’s why I say every African American shares that audacious history.
LS: The one drop rule is so insidious because it negates everything else that you are as a person. In a more perfect world race would be something that, you know, could be as incidental as the color of your eyes or your IQ or personality quirks. It could just be one other thing. Yet so much attention has been paid to blackness. Do you find that there’s now a bit more clarity [among white people] about what it means to be black or interracial in this country?
EDJ: The one drop rule…was actually codified. If you look at the US census records, which I have studied all the way back to 1790, you see that the classification of people is, first of all, the category of race. This is the mentality that America has had that’s been embedded in our psyche all along. There were black people and white people. Then there was a category called mulatto, which is half black and half white. But mulattos were slaves, because the slave masters were raping the slave women. That’s how mixed-race people appeared in United States from slave rapes. But the masters had their own children out in the field as slaves, giving them no benefit of their paternity.
…The federal government has been a party to this one drop mentality all along. Now we have a census that has offered the last two counts category where you can actually check off and self- identify as multiracial. And in 2000 was the first time that I was able to honorably recognize my white heritage and my black heritage.
LS: How did you finally come to terms with your own mixed heritage?
EDJ: It wasn’t until I looked at [my father’s geneology] chart of generations of black people that I actually had a light bulb go off. That my mother was my white family all by herself. She had nobody else on that genealogy chart. And that wasn’t right. She had to be from somebody somewhere.
LS: Having written this book and considering what’s going on in our country right now, are you more leaning towards the hopeful side, or the skeptical side of things?
EDJ: I look at the overall trajectory of race in America. And by that, I mean I’ve been a student of African American history all my life and starting from slavery through reconstruction through Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. I was an activist and remain an activist in a number of ways. I see that changing America’s mindset on race is a very tall order. And so many thought it would be conquered during the civil rights movement in the 60s. And that more doors would be open, and progress made. I think that we have been inching towards more social justice in this country, but we have a very long way to go.
LS: A much longer conversation, and one we will continue. In the meantime, what can we do to build a bridge between white people and people of color?
EDJ: There’s lots of books and articles available, but also by talking to and interacting with black people. An opener could be something with people that you work with, who live in your area, who you cross paths with. To say to them I, you know, I haven’t been as aware before as I would like to have been to understand what it is to have a black life in this country. And I wonder if you would talk with me about it. And if you get a positive response to have a conversation, and the number one rule is for you to listen.[You can] back policy changes and politicians who are going to change things like police policies and working to stop voter suppression… If we can have advocates in the legislature, and in key political positions, who will help make these changes, we there’s a much better chance to see things change. People can also advocate for revised American history lessons in schools …It’s time to start teaching that to children…Think about mentoring minority children… making space for other people in your neighborhood, in your jobs, in your schools.
LS: So, start with a conversation. Really listen. And act. One more question. Having done all of this work, do you embrace your white side, in the same way you have your black?
EDJ: I met my white family the expectation of racism and rebuke vanished because they were much more concerned with a loving family relationship than they were about race. And after my mom was reunited with her sister, we had 26 years [together] before these two passed away.I still am in touch with my cousins.
And there’s an understanding that I received through not only my mother’s, but my relatives’ example about what family means, what relationships mean, and how the construct of racism …can be taken out of the equation and we can just be people together. And we can love each other.
To prove that we now have so many more interracial marriages in this country than we used to. [the US Census] shows the growth rate in birth of mixed-race children now outstrips the growth rate in single race children by three to one. So, I think a lot of people are understanding what my family came to understand: that race is not important. Family is and getting along and loving people and giving people the humanity that you want given to you is really what matters.
LS: Dolores, thank you so much for spending time to share your story. Continued success with the book. We’ll meet up next time to talk about publishing in the time of COVID.
EDJ: Thank you, delighted to be your guest today.