This Land Is Your Land

Borders That Stretch from Beijing to Bensonhurst

I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED on that street corner in Bensonhurst. And that corner is precisely where we part company — “I” am not you, un­less you share my heritage and look like me. My “I” is fatally specific: I am a brown-skinned descendant of enslaved Africans, holocausted Chero­kees, and invisible Europeans, and I am despised and feared and envied the world over. Define me black.

Democrats in Bensonhurst and China agree: “Black men better stay out of our gardens.” Most people have forgotten the antiblack Chinese riots before Tianan­men Square; like their Brooklyn counter­parts, the Chinese students, who would be canonized in a few months by an eager U.S. press, shouted the message: “Our women are our turf. You trespass on ei­ther and we will kill you. (Try us.)” When I look at those grainy black-and-­white photographs in the Daily News and the Post of that young boy’s dead body lying on a stretcher, my mind wants to cry but my eyes won’t let me. My eyes are too tired — they’ve seen this shot before and they’re too used to it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725402″ /]

I grew up in a middle-class neighbor­hood of row houses in the Bronx called Eastchester. When my parents moved in, our block was almost all white, but that was in 1968. Most of the children I played with were brown, and only the half-generation just above me was “mul­ticultural”: there was Frankie and Valerie (Italians), there was Jennifer (Jamaican), there was Cindy and Blossom (Chinese), and so on. But in the group just below, there was us — Randy, Rodney, Orchid, Valery, Albert, Carey — and we were all brown.

Do parents whisper warnings in their children’s ears? I don’t know, but I knew early on to stay away from the neighbor­hood next door: they don’t like black peo­ple. I’m not sure when I began to reflect on the warnings’ meaning, and I don’t know when racist words like guinea or wop entered my consciousness, but I do know that I was practically born with a wariness about the middle-class Italian neighborhood next to my own.

Their neighborhood was always cleaner than ours, their houses better kept. (Were their garbage pickups more regular? Did they respect their property more than we did? Did those hallowed white streets just seem cleaner?) My parents drove us to and from the library in their area, be­cause their branch had more books, and people returned them unmarked. My par­ents always bought ice cream chiffon cakes for my birthday parties from bak­eries in their neighborhood and we hired them as plumbing and home-improve­ment contractors because “they put care into whatever they do.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724836″ /]

But something sinister hid underneath all that chiffon, behind those neat flower gardens, within those clean brick houses. And that sinister thing whispered STAY AWAY. Just your green, not your black, thank you. STAY AWAY. When I was about 12, I started hearing stories about brothers getting the shit kicked out of them for dancing too well with white girls. Walking past an outdoor basketball court in their neighborhood, I heard the word “nigger” tossed at me, as if in con­versation. I looked straight ahead and walked on home.

It’s too simple to say that all those folks were racist killers or that Italian neighborhoods per se are any more dan­gerous for black men than other nonblack neighborhoods. On analysis, simple looks are always lies — who’s to prove that the crime in my black neighborhood doesn’t have some subtle black-dissing-black cause, some nigger-ain’t-worth-shit-any­way dimension? But about that American neighborhood next door to mine, we can say this: black means dirty, black soils things, black is unwanted.

There’s proof: Willie Turks, Richard Ocana, Samuel Spencer, Michael Griffith, Derrick Antonio Tyus — and now Yusef Hawkins.

“Them niggers will ruin our clean, fresh women.” Shit is so tired, and so common. Kills a piece of me. Makes me want to holler, but I can’t: too much work to do. Make me want to cry. ■

Next: “Married to The Mob: The Wise Guy Wannabes” by Mark Bauman and Samme Chittum

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Niggers, Negroes, Blacks, Niggaz, and Africans

So it’s me and a few of my friends down in Mississippi in this shack of a juke on a Sunday evening and we’re here to listen and watch the Negroes dance a little while and drink some moonshine and feel the real thing, y’all. Yes: the real thang. The folks I’ve come with are all certified white, A-1 white: Pat, a long-hair from Jackson; Peter, a paleface Rasta from somewhere in South Africa; and a silent peaceful-looking guy with a beard who blends into the scene like a melting ice cube, chilling softly. I don’t know his name, and he’s melting out my mind in the heat of this happy place.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

I check the scene and then myself in my own black mirror wondering, “What you doing here with these whiteboys?” when a well-hipped well-spoken sister scheming for that surplus fitty moves past me at the bar and eyes my longhair friend in the face and says, “You here to observe black culture?” Which could have been directed at me and was, really, because my authenticity was on the line and You are only a guide, nigger, she was saying, like a renegade scout point­ing the cavalry towards the secret camp where black culture is true. So the question put me outside gazing in, and suddenly I was just serving these boys like a salesman and I wasn’t real no more and hadn’t been for a long time. And yes, I had come to see the real black thang.

See, this was a blues juke and the people in it were blues people of the sort idealized in LeRoi Jones jazz history and in all kinds of quasi-Marxist quasi-nationalist pro-lum­pen texts I’d read and felt. And guess what? The guide who’d brought us here wasn’t me — Peter from South Africa had told me about this place, and driven me here, and so I couldn’t even claim any special knowl­edge. This juke was not my secret black secret, or even the black secret of the black community — most African Americans I knew in town hadn’t ever heard of it. Most wouldn’t have come even if they had, I think. The evidence: older folks and espe­cially older women spent Sundays at church, while people my age or younger listened to hip-hop, not blues, and danced and imitated the “real niggaz” from Comp­ton at small, dangerous clubs nearby. In the juke’s dark corners there were no youth, and for a moment I thought that the black culture this woman was selling maybe wasn’t the “real” thing anymore.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

I’ve got a friend named David who works in the local record store and he’s been tell­ing me that N.W.A and the gangsta rappers have cornered this town’s young African market. Down here, traditional blues has lost Stagger Lee’s spirit to hip-hop’s real niggaz. The “real” niggaz, the new Bigger Thomases. David explains that folks do listen to other musics, but the essential mu­sic — the “real” thing — is the nihilist capi­talist hardcore hip-hop rap shit. Forget those Native Tongue suburbanites or those PE-type righteous brothers, nah man, we want the real niggaz even when they’re fronting all that bitch shit because of this: in America, violence and making dollars make for respect and those motherfuckers are getting it. Plus, on the subtext tip, N.W.A and the rest fly impotence like a flag. For truth. Can you relate? We can. And if y’all middle-class Negroes find the niggaz embarrassing just because they’re dirty blackface caricatures from the fields encouraging the worst in us and making whitefolks think worse, y’all better peep this: the empty shelves in David’s store speak big volumes, and they say Bigger Thomas has come back from the big city and he’s real now and hard like an African man should be. It’s a case of competitive authenticities, and among the youth down here, Bigger’s beating the blues.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]

Which put me and my elusive blues es­sence in a seriously strange position. Be­cause the folks in that juke were definitely Field and they were definitely not playing N.W.A on their stereos and they were defi­nitely still the real thing. Certainly as real as the children at the dangerous clubs near­by. One brother must have checked the confusion on my face because he comes up to me with his eyes half-shut and his hand cupped around a beer and he starts asking me why I’m here, kind of nastylike. With his pale self. My friends are leaning against the walls. He cranes his face further into mine. I’m talking to him in my white En­glish and he begins to wear his Ole Miss degree on his chest. I say I’m a writer and I came to see This. He says, What’s this? I say This. He says, What’s your name? and I tell. “Joe,” he says, “My mother always said to me ‘If you want to eat rice, don’t put sugar in it.’ so be careful how you write this place up, Joe.” And I promised I would and I looked him in the eye and he walked off jigging and saying, “These are just peo­ple here trying to have a good time. No sugar, Joe.” And no Stagger Lee.

But the blues was here, and so was the authentic culture the oldtime cult nats had celebrated, that soul of blackness thang and whatnot. I thought. I mean, there I was watching it, and feeling outside the thing, but seeing it, and knowing it was mine, and knowing it wasn’t, too. Like, I knew it was “real” — at least as real as the very real “real” beneath N.W.A.’s obscenities. But damn! I could not claim this blues juke as my “realness” because I was outside: I live outside it now. I live outside this subcul­ture. Yes, y’all — this blues culture may be “real,” and even may be my subculture’s parent — but it’s not me anymore, and that’s all right. I’m still black. As those middle-class Jesus-loving King-following Negroes in town had proven long ago, cul­tural “authenticity” is too slippery to be the basis of anyone”s political identity.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

The bottom line, then, got real plain: we need a clearly articulated theory of coali­tion — political, economic, and cultural co­alition across biological, and class, and cul­tural lines — towards the liberation of African and other marginal peoples. Such a theory would be a new “black” objectivism, a grand theory that would include an expansive and progressive definition of “blackness,” one to describe African folk who choose “blackness,” as well as any fellow travelers. And so: while Coltrane and Professor Griff and Marian Anderson and N.W.A and Jean Toomer and BDP and Sojourner Truth and George Schuyler and Angela Davis and Michael Jackson, Bigger Thomas and Clarence Thomas and Uncle Thomas are all African American, they may not all be “‘black.” Brothers and sisters, if “Afrocentricity” is our new cultural herme­neutic, we also need (as Cornel West and others have been arguing) a broad (black) objectivism for political and material mat­ters. To get past this “realness” thing, and into the real thing. Next go-round we’ll drop Clarence Thomas quickly, and with theoretical confidence. And we won’t con­fuse questions about Michael Jackson’s Af­rican authenticity with the nuts and bolts concern — his political loyalty, his “black­ness.” And if MC Ren says, “I’m not with that black shit, so I ain’t gonna yell that,” we’ll take him at his word, and cut him loose. If “black” the term is to be of any use, it ought to mean something, and not any old African thing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724152″ /]

So there I was in that juke with my big city ambivalent middle-class butt and I had drunk a bit and my white friends were against the walls and I was romancing the blues essence that was and was not there and suddenly I stopped watching and I stopped drinking and I caught the colorless and melted ice cube guy with the beard dancing and I started dancing too.

Next: “What Price Unity” by Julius Lester


The Malcolm X Factor

Looking For Malcolm: The Man and the Meaning Behind the Icon
May, 29, 1990

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

There I was, hanging on the corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, when a low-riding brother and his lady friend strode by, deep in discussion about some­thing very, very, very important. Words and emphasis were, of course, flying every­where, making it impossible to miss this: “That shit was Malcolm.” Meaning, I knew, hype, dope, nice, right, real, as in best. In the ever-evolving vernacular, Mal­colm X has come to mean the real (black) thing, the authentic (black) thing, as close to (black) integrity as close can be.

Just look at all the T-shirts, the buttons, the photographs, the records, the film and video appearances. Public Enemy’s sam­pling him, Spike Lee’s quoting him, Tracy Chapman’s showing him — the young and the black are loving him. Malcolm is to­day’s black hero, a black ideal for turbulent times: the steely mirror image we want our­selves to see. We think we want his words too: Pass the tables on the street and you can hear his words proving some sect’s point; listen to the radio, and Rev Sharpton or somebody else is invoking his name to prove somebody’s truth — our truth — in black soundbites, as black as kente cloth. We wear him this way to celebrate our­selves, because Malcolm was what we want to be — a Black person with integrity in a country that doesn’t value the quality very much, especially when its bearer is Black.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

But there are some hard-to-answer ques­tions floating amid the jubilation. Like: Do many of us know Malcolm story(s)? Like: What does “the real (black) thing” mean to us, anyway? Black Integrity has, after all, a very packed — and vague — significance in our collective consciousness, precisely be­cause we haven’t been able to, and maybe never will, figure out what we want Black to mean. What does Malcolm mean to us? And now we’ve gone and attached our strange notion of Black Integrity to Malcolm’s pho­tograph, and thereby constructed a compli­cated, and decidedly vaporous, memory: Malcolm the Essential Black Man, Malcolm the brown and determined and incorrupt­ible and empty face.

Take a step back and look and see: To­day, 25 years after Malcolm’s murder, home folk promote him as the truest black American that ever lived. So true, in fact, that his aspect has taken on an almost reli­gious significance. No joke: pause for a moment and compare the way many of us consider Malcolm to the way Byzantine churchgoers viewed their religious icons, images that flattened out and hid the per­sonalities of their original personages in order to better communicate an accepted religious message. Just as iconography in a Byzantine church reminds the viewer of a body of stories, rules, morals, et cetera s/he’s already supposed to know, Malcolm’s icon should front a traditional story agreed upon by the community. But the young leaders of our Black tribe have attempted to canonize Malcolm without theoretical, ideological, or religious grounding — with­out, in short, connection to, or reflection on, any community-made story(s) by which to define him.

Today Malcolm is, instead, a religious icon without a religion — a vague memory-­image invoked at gatherings and services and rallies as the epitome of the black fight­ing spirit, and by implication, of Blackness. Making little reference to his place in the flow of history, to the complexity of his ideas (which changed over the course of his life), or to his relationship to political pro­genitors, the community’s voices paint Malcolm X in (un)fairly simple, static terms: Malcolm was an African-style town crier who told the truth. Malcolm played the heavy to Martin Luther King’s softy. Malcolm was grass roots, while the other civil rights leaders were bourgie Uncles. Malcolm was “clear” when everyone else was cloudy. The descriptions tend to sug­gest a Black Integrity, an unexplained, and mostly romantic, concept.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

Any people that considers itself a people needs the kind of figure Malcolm cut in life, a figure whose first fidelity is to the tribe, and upon whose bones the tribe can always hang its clothes. Figures, for example, like the Byzantines’ St. George, who’s reappear­ing all over the Soviet Union’s Russian communities as a symbol of the life of the Russian tribe, showing that it still proudly exists. Use of symbols like Malcolm X and St. George allows members to proclaim themselves without explaining everything: Those who should know, know. You know? But fact is, Malcolm’s iconographic status among black people is, as of this writing, so unexamined by us, so unaccompanied by black story or exegesis, as to be nearly va­cant, and utterly manipulable.

And it’s being manipulated plenty. In these changing times, when my bourgie ho­mies from the Ivy League are in less contact with their poorest brethren than at any point in American history, when cleavages in “the black community” are as wide as they’ve ever been, Malcolm’s image pro­vides a stretched-out, nationalist umbrella for us all. This “unity” hides, rather than acknowledges, our own differences. Ah! but sneaking under that umbrella is oh so se­ductively easy — especially when taking out coverage from the hostile white world is as simple as buying a T-shirt. I own several, but I favor the one a friend gave me: on the front, Malcolm with an AK-47 and the words “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”; on the back, the pronouncement “IT’S A BLACK THING! YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND.” Never mind the fact that Malcolm purchased the gun to defend himself from black Muslim attack — just check out the message, people. The “you” on back is clearly whitefolk, who are being told that they are not part of the club because the club is black. So the shirt’s the badge. Of blackness. So there. Which makes it useful to a bad brown man leading a city just as badly as the bad pink man before him: Flash the Malcolm memo­ry and you’re as proudly black as the im­poverished and angry 20-year-old sister with a fifth-grade education and a baby with a hightop fade in her arms. Yes, yes, y’all, both the mayor and the sista (and her baby) are Black. But, so what?

If we are to treat Malcolm as a symbol of blackness — as, in fact, the Essential Black Man — we basically have to figure (I) what Black means to us, and (2) what Malcolm means to us and what he doesn’t mean. Do we focus on what we think is important about his life, without regard to how he changed over his lifetime? Should Malcolm the icon mean Malcolm’s life story or his politics? Or both? Wrestling with these questions might even help us figure out what we’re saying when we use the term Black. And maybe such discussion will move us away from the dubious religion of “essential Blackness,” and toward thinking that it’s all much harder than that — just as hard, in fact, as pinpointing a meaning to Malcolm X, or to the Black “we,” or to the Black “I.” These concerns are not as aca­demic as they sound.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

In a world where identity is so often a function of national/tribal allegiance, or of the denial of those things, the proclamation of “I am” without a nation, or an agree­ment not to have a nation, is bound to be so confused as to be, well, silly. We can’t know who “I am” is without knowing who we are. And, we can’t do shit without knowing who “I” is.

As it stands, the Malcolm icon assumes all kinds of undiscussed information, beg­ging the question. In these times, is black identity, as represented by Malcolm’s icon, an adequate instrument for negotiating self­-understanding, our survival?

Brothers and sisters, we need to talk.  

But how do we begin? First by checking out the the place where “Black” was con­structed: in white consciousness, in the white conflation of black resistance and black criminality. (The ancestors came here and then became Black.) Up jumped the Boogeyman: the evildoer from the dark side, the angry true-blood black alien who’s coming to get you (whitey), with cruel vengeance. Just look and you see him — and it’s invariably a him — stuck in all kinds of white conjuring, all over the white Ameri­can imagination. See: WhiteFilm’s King Kong and WhitePolitics’s Willie Horton and Whitefiction’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, published just two years after Malcolm X’s assassination. “As a child I had nightmares about Nat,” said author Wil­liam Styron, who was raised in Virginia, close to where the revolt took place. “I grew up with the tale.”

Whereas Malcolm X learned about Nat Turner in prison. In his autobiography, Malcolm talks about what Nat Turner made him feel:

I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slave­-master Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man … Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

A few pages later, Malcolm notes, “It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself — or die.” Imbedded in his telling of the Turner tale is a dramatic rejection of the white construc­tion of Blackness, as well as a number of other radical projects: to resist white supre­macism, to reclaim the right to resist, to put fear in the hearts of white people, and per­haps most surprisingly, to tell the white man about himself. The Boogeyman figure makes, of course, this last desire only so radical — whites, after all, have seemingly enjoyed being thrilled by black anger. Even so, Malcolm spent a good amount of his thought (and time) making whites listen, and they did with much fascination. They could not ignore the Boogeyman actually speaking his mind before them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721674″ /]

White attention and discomfort are the keys to understanding Malcolm’s signifi­cance in black eyes. To put it simply, the principal reasons behind Malcolm X’s suc­cess as a Hector of black self-respect, and particularly, of black male self-respect, were his attempts before white audiences to turn the unwanted Boogeyman into the proud Essential Black Man. “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood,” eu­logized Ossie Davis at Malcolm’s funeral. Later, Davis said, “[He] was refreshing ex­citement; he scared hell out of the rest of us, bred as we are to caution, to hypocrisy in the presence of whitefolks, to the smile that never fades.” Not only did Malcolm tell whites off, he heartily chastized black people for acceding to white ideas about African-Americans. In place of the white­-man’s Boogeyman, Malcolm put forward himself, and the Nation of Islam, as the real examples of the spirit of black resistance, the supposed “heart” of American black identity. In countless speeches, Malcolm announced “I’m a field Negro,” indicating to anyone with ears that he was proud of his resistant and basic blackness, his fightin’ Negro/Essential Black Man-ness.

It’s not surprising, then, that Malcolm’s icon finds its textual counterpart in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A smoothly laid-out, quasi-mythological ac­count of Malcolm’s life, the book resembles the Biblical Saul-to-Paul story — Malcolm as a lost man who finds his way to truth through two revelations: first, the embrace of his black Muslim identity; second, the embrace of human commonality.

“If it were not for that book,” Alex Haley told me, “by now I suspect Malcolm’s life would be a pastiche of apocryphal stories. A jello of stories.” The stories in Haley’s book come from one source, Malcolm X. “One of the understandings that we had from the beginning, and it was followed to the letter, was — and this was his stipula­tion — that the book would not contain any­thing he didn’t want in it. And I respected that absolutely,” says Haley. What resulted is a true autobiography, a life story almost entirely manipulated by its bearer, Mal­colm X, in order “to help people to appre­ciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people.” Malcolm’s project was to make his life, once written down, the prin­cipal testament to Muhammad’s Truth, a combination of holy text and ex-slave narrative.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

And thanks to this strategy, black folks who’re looking to put flesh to Malcolm’s icon (and many don’t even try) have a book that gives them — and particularly the black male — a model for being black. Inevitably the autobiography also suffers from the agenda; tailored to make points, the book ultimately fails as a comprehensive life-­and-times telling. Malcolm knew this, and offered, after his break with Muhammed, to remake the story along post-Nation, hu­manist lines. But Alex Haley vigorously dis­couraged his subject from making changes, suggesting instead that Malcolm tack on the story of his Mecca trip. That addition — a second strategy — confuses the first strategy by recasting Malcolm’s Black Muslim reve­lation in Black humanist light. What, we just have to ask is: what did Malcolm really stand for? Ultimately, the autobiography says too many different things to be politi­cally or religiously pedagogical, in a coher­ent way. And it ends up concealing Mal­colm X.

Read the autobiography alongside Mal­colm’s speeches, or against some of his var­ious proto-biographies, and its holes be­come plain. Just a few days before his death, Malcolm told a Harlem audience about the Nation’s — and his — involvement with the Ku Klux Klan:

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and there­fore lessen the pressure that the integration­ists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered. Now, this was in December of 1960 …

[related_posts post_id_1=”724309″ /]

What Malcolm relates in this passage is deep: In an effort to secure a separate black homeland, the Nation of Islam had taken part in secret negotiations with the Klan, when the group was killing black people. But this important event is absent in our collective (mis)understanding of the man, and in our projection of him. And though it doesn’t invalidate Malcolm’s spirit of resis­tance, it ought to force a rethinking of Mal­colm’s form of resistance: Is the kind of nationalism Malcolm espoused during most of his career naïve, and racist, by nature? Maybe. It’s plain, my people, that facts like these make any simple equations of Mal­colm and Black Integrity very foolish in­deed. And to figure things out, we need more than the iconographic flesh the offi­cial history — the autobiography — supplies.

Brothers and sisters, we have to talk.

What would help is some voices, voices that help us better see the actual man. Though Alex Haley’s epilogue gives an overview of Malcolm’s life and reveals the process of making the autobiography, Mal­colm’s book does not provide a second opinion of the man (how could we expect it to?). Thing is, the black intelligentsia has failed to fill the void, which has led to problems: On the one hand, Malcolm’s flaws — most notably his sexism — go unex­amined, and on the other hand, Malcolm’s legacy gets shaped by those who do choose to write about him. Inside the black com­munity there’s too little critiquing, and out­side of it, there’s more than we can handle.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720797″ /]

Malcolm’s attitudes toward women, for example, are perfect subject matter for a black feminist critique, but the critics are quiet, or being ignored. You only have to turn to Malcolm’s autobiography to eyeball Malcolm’s straight-up anti-woman senti­ments, but rarely are they acknowledged by the community. Listen to Malcolm, for in­stance, on why men visited the prostitutes he befriended as a young man:

Domineering, complaining, demanding wives who had just about psychologically castrated their husbands were responsible for the early rush. These wives were so disagree­able and had made their men so tense that they were robbed of the satisfaction of being men. More wives could keep their hus­bands if they realized their [husbands] greatest urge is to be men.

Men see prostitutes because their wives, with their hen-pecking ways and their disre­spect for mens’ manliness, drive them to it. To this Malcolm later adds, “All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: They are attracted to the male in whom they see strength,” a thought echoed in one of his last speeches. “[The press does] know that if something were to happen and all these [NOI] brothers, their eyes were to come open, they would be right out here in every one of these civil rights organizations mak­ing these Uncle Tom Negro leaders stand up and fight like men instead of running around here nonviolently acting like wom­en.” Again, women are weak. While Mal­colm’s sexist stance was shared by many of his contemporaries, his equating of the in­tegrity of black manhood with the integrity of the race makes the sexism more trou­bling. Is this the kind of thinking we cele­brate when we celebrate Malcolm X? Yes, if we don’t critique the man, and interpret his self-made history. We simply need more critiques.

[related_posts post_id_1=”712954″ /]

And the critiques must come from us, because we already have several non-Black voices framing Malcolm’s textual legacy. Most prominent among them is the Social­ist Workers’ Party, a Trotskyite group that has long embraced African-American strug­gle as revolutionary. In July of 1939, the SWP — with the encouragement of Trinida­dian Marxist C. L. R. James and the blessings of Trotsky himself — had adopted a res­olution entitled “The SWP and Negro Work,” which began: “The American Ne­groes, for centuries the most oppressed sec­tion of American society and the most dis­criminated against, are potentially the most revolutionary element of the population. They are designated by their whole histori­cal past to be, under adequate leadership, the very vanguard of the proletarian revolu­tion.” The document goes on to argue that the SWP must help form this adequate leadership “through the work of the party among the Negroes and in wider fields in­fluencing the Negro masses to recognize in the SWP the only party that is genuinely working for their complete emancipation from the heavy burdens they have borne so long.” In one stroke, the SWP had begun, according to its own literature, “to present the only consistently revolutionary attitude to black nationalism when that tendency began to assume mass proportions in the 1960s.”

Through two decades the party diligently pursued its objectives, and when Malcolm appeared on the scene, they were ready. By covering Malcolm’s activities in their news­paper, The Militant, and, after his break with the NOI, by offering him places to speak, the SWP tried to help Malcolm throughout his career. The party even helped care for his family after the assassination. “Checks came in from all over the United States and [they] just said, ‘Buy milk for Malcolm’s babies,’ ” says Mal­colm’s widow, Betty Shabazz. “No strings attached.” Shabazz eventually signed an agreement permitting SWP’s Pathfinder Press to publish her husband’s speeches, many of which they have faithfully kept in circulation. They’re white, and they’re Marx­ists, and for 25 years they’ve been doing the most of anyone to foster Malcolm’s legacy.

Yo, we black folk should be ashamed. The SWP also does its critical work: in the form of introductions to the speeches Path­finder publishes, in the form of analyses of the man’s politics, in the form of discussion groups about the meaning of his life. They’re making a Malcolm all their own. It should come as no surprise, then, that their critical approach, while recognizing Mal­colm’s anti-white supremacy project, places emphasis on his last year, underlin­ing an increasing openness to the possibility of working with white revolutionaries, and of adopting ideas important to Trotskyites: anti-imperialism, internationalism, militant activism, and political organization. Ac­cordingly, Pathfinder’s flagship text, Mal­colm X Speaks, contains only one speech made prior to Malcolm’s break with the Nation, while their The Last Year of Mal­colm X provides an excellent explanation of the last year’s speeches from their own point of view. Can’t blame them too much; the’re just doing their jobs. And we aren’t.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

Brothers and sisters, we got to talk.

Surely, the words of a man held sacred by the African-American community should be considered by that community, and wrestled with by that community. Where are the Black Muslim speeches Malcolm made prior to his break with Muhammad? There are smatterings published in Path­finder’s books, or they’re out of print, or they (mostly) have never been published. And where are the black biographical maps that would interpret Malcolm’s words­ — and life — from “a black perspective?” Writing in the VLS (July, 1989), scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:

Although over 300 collective black biogra­phies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreat­ed the lives and times of other blacks.

The dearth of frank, black discussions of Malcolm X, is, to put it plainly, scandalous. The crisis of quiet in our community extends far beyond any discussion of Mal­colm X. We simply don’t talk honestly enough to one another — the legacy, perhaps, of always whispering when Massa was around. We’re still afraid of who’s looking. “Edit the negative and hold the line!” cries much of the local, and certainly the nation­al, black press. “Edit the negative!” And as a result, ain’t any national places for black writer/thinkers to lay down thoughts for general consumption. Let’s move toward a black perestroika. It’s a wicked irony that Malcolm’s legacy should suffer from our tendency to keep quiet: He spent, afterall, his lifetime trying to raise his (Black) voice. Ours, too. And so we answer with silence, out of fear (of whitefolks, of blasphemy, of tribal traitorism, of losing the badge, of splitting up the community), and we treat Malcolm’s image as a kind of precious cur­rency, hiding his philosophies and leaving his thoughts largely un-critiqued and unengaged.

If we talk, maybe we can put a story to his face, and maybe we can come up with a coherent meaning — a meaning for today — ­of Blackness. Look around, my people, and deal with it: Black masks just ain’t working right. We got to look at each other, and we got to check out the mirror, and we got to see what we see. Malcolm’s face is a fine place to start: We only have Malcolm, and ourselves, to fear. ■

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Escape From Blackness: Once Upon a Time in Creole America

Fade to Black: Once Upon a Time in Multi-Racial America
December 8, 1994

“Metté milate
enhaut choual,
li va dî négresse pas
so maman.” 

“Just put a
mulatto on horseback,
and he’ll tell
you his mother wasn’t

—Creole proverb, as translated
by Lafcadio Hearn, 1885

NEW ORLEANS — It was late and the show was finished. We were hungry and drunk. Adolph said Mulé’s was probably closed by now but he knew a place to eat on the other side of town. “Maybe you’ll see some of them over there, too,” he said. Adolph is a scholar of African American history and politics, and he was raised in New Orleans and knew how they looked and where they ate. They liked Mulé’s, a seventh-ward diner that serves the best oyster rolls in the city. The other place, Adolph said, was also good for observations, but far below seventh-ward culinary standards. It turned out to be an all-night fast-food joint, lighted too brightly, with a listless crowd of party people waiting in broken lines for some uninspired fried fare.

For a moment I forgot entirely about them and they. I wanted to try an oyster roll but there were none left, so I ordered a chicken sandwich “dressed” with lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise. The woman at the cash register seemed bored by my enthusiasm, and sighed, and in response I noted her skin color. She was dark. I turned my head and checked out two sleepy-eyed girls in the next line. They looked tired in their frilly prom dresses; their skin was waxen, the sad pale finish of moonlight. I knew — oh, I hesitated a moment, because I could see how a hasty eye might have thought them white, but I knew. Turning to Adolph I whispered “creole” and made giant drunken nod in their direction. Adolph looked and confirmed it: they were, in fact, them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

And they were us, black like us. I bet that virtually no one in the crowd had any trouble spotting the girls’ African blood, and not only because we happened to be standing in an establishment that catered to black people, and not only because the girls did not look scared or determined not to look scared, as white girls in such situations usually want to. We all knew because we all were in some elusive sense family, and family can — or imagines it can — recognize itself, detect itself, see its own self no matter the guise.

So there stood the girls, their tired moonish looks telling us everything. Now I really eyed them and discerned the secret layer of brown just underneath the surface of their faces and arms. With practiced accuracy my eyes took in the other hints: a certain weightiness of hair, a broadness of lip, a fullness of hip and nose. (When I was a child it was something of a sport to fish for evi­dence of our presence, to seek ourselves in the faces of “whites” such as Alexander Hamilton or Babe Ruth.) Each detail made plain the girls “blackness” as surely as a look in the mirror, and gave me the old sense of triumph, until a moment passed and I remembered why we could never really be the same: we were in New Orleans and these girls were creole and I am not.

Adolph, you hold the key to this story. The reason — you and I are family, but you are on the other side of the creole difference, a strange distinction made of nothing but stories and lies, lies and stories, the forces that conjure family. While you and I would both like to think of the creole tale as one more plot line in the black story, because that’s all it is, really, we both know that true believers say creole is a separate thing altogether; you and I know how they say Look at us. How they say Watch us go. How they enjoy being them, and not us.

Them and us. How strange. I realize now that we have never talked about the differences in our looks, your light and my dark. Nei­ther of us, I suspect, has consciously avoided this discussion. It simply hasn’t been an issue: there are so many things to talk about — why waste time on such foolishness? But there it was, during the trip down home to New Orleans; there was the difference stuck in our faces. It broke our silence, compels me to speak on the absurd — let me first describe our looks with as cold an eye as I would any character.

I have chocolate brown skin, gener­ous lips, the kind of ordinary kinky hair many black women still get mad at. I wear a goatee and sometimes glasses. I am 30 years old and I’m not in great shape because I don’t like working out. You’ve got a couple of decades on me, but you’re proba­bly in better con­dition. I don’t recall seeing too many gray hairs on your head last time I saw you, though your hair­line is ebbing. Your hair is straight and heavy like a South Asian’s; your skin is amber brown, your features are round but strong: You’ve even been mistaken for a countryman by several natives of India. But you are black, definitely, and creole.

We’ve been friends for several years now, and though there is no explaining friendship, there are a few reasons I want you to know I see. We both love to watch people do their hustles. We laugh at the same absurdities, and mostly get hurt by the same absurdities. We have similar poli­tics, and we aren’t sell-outs. (Which is not normal, which is why the sell-outs call us cynics). There is a lot more, of course. The stories of people’s affec­tions are oceanic in number and com­plexity. In this way we are very ordinary.

But the subject at hand is the black and the brown. Surely this is one of the stories that makes us up, as it makes up every other African American, and with any examination, every white or Asian or Latino or anybody else on these shores. Though we haven’t talked about our own colors, you and I have talked about how much social meaning is attached to shade difference, even today. You’ve lived it and tried to forget it because the debate is absurd. I don’t like tracking that stuff inside, either. I’ve cracked jokes about those confessional pieces describing the pain of being dark, or the pain of being light, or the pain of being mixed and in-between — seldom is anything real said. We’ve laughed about how white people eat up that stuff, but for the moment I will stop laughing because I’ve decided to put in mind that conflict, between the black and the brown, and to follow the story of creole.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

Before this trip to New Orleans I had never used the term creole to describe Adolph, and I am not certain I am comfortable with calling him one now. But his family would be considered creole, and I guess that makes Adolph them, even though he doesn’t call himself one, and even though he always refers to creoles in the third person, and nearly always with an edge of sarcasm.

After I told him I was coming to New Orleans, Adolph offered to show me some of the creole world. I know he wasn’t entirely comfortable in the role of native informant. He didn’t do very much talking about them; mostly he said cold ironic things, and observed me observing them. When I returned from the city I found a couple of the books Adolph had suggested: White by Definition, by Virginia Domínguez, and Creole New Orleans, a collection of essays edited by Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. These and other books, articles, studies, interviews illuminated the social history of New Orleans, and pointed me to other sources that were also helpful. But as I read I began to sense a familiar silence, and I realized that nearly every piece I found danced around the issue of how and when precisely black creoles devel­oped their peculiar consciousness of shade. I was forced to read very close­ly, to fill in the holes myself. The bulk of the story, however, is thoroughly documented.

Creole begins as criollo, the name African peoples enslaved by New World Iberians in the 16th century gave to Africans born here. The term did not remain in black hands for very long; Spaniards and Portuguese in the colonies soon took to calling themselves criollo. Some of them even argued that the word exclusively indicated white nativeness, and that only natives of pure European ancestry could use the term.

The first appearance of creole proba­bly occurred in the late 16th century on the French island of St. Domingue, now called Haiti. Creole made its way to Louisiana soon after the territory’s founding in 1682. Here it signified nativeness, plain and simple. French colonial policy early on encouraged mix­ing with the Choctaw and other local peoples; inevitably there were plenty of interracial unions in the territory. The offspring were called creole; all locally born children shared the name: chil­dren of the Germans, Acadians from Canada (called Cajuns), Spanish occu­piers, immigrants from Cuba and St. Domingue and other French Caribbean islands as well as French children of French arrivals. Even African slaves, who commingled with Indians as frequently as whites did, and mixed with the whites as well, were permitted to identify their children with the term their forebears had invented.

None of this, of course, should encourage the reader to think of Louisiana as any sort of racial haven. Louisiana began as a white idea and remained one: Choctaw kindnesses were repaid with genocide, most Africans were shipped in as chattel slaves, and Europeans walked the land as rulers, just as they did everywhere else. What did make Louisiana, and especially its port city, New Orleans, different from the English colonies or the eastern seaboard was the way it understood race mixture. Though white Americans also had sex with Africans and Indians, they usually denied its result. Anyone with “one drop” of African blood was by the American schema defined as black, and everyone else was effectively white.

Things were marginally more flexible in New Orleans. Concubinage, facili­tated by regular “quadroon balls” where white men met and picked from a parade of mixed-race females, and interracial plaçage, a form of common law marriage, were tacitly permitted until the turn of the 20th century. Children of these arrangements were frequently manumitted; they and people of Native American or partial Native American ancestry composed the over­whelming majority of the class of peo­ple called gens de couleur, or “colored people,” and were by recommendation of Louisiana’s Black Codes formally considered neither black nor white, but a third race.

New Orleans’s tripartite racial order resembled that of many of the islands in the Caribbean. From Cuba to Haiti to Brazil to Jamaica, European settlers used the amount of white blood perceptible in black bodies as a measuring stick to distinguish among Africans, handing people with discernibly “mixed” ancestry more rights and priv­ileges. Historians suggest the appear­ance of this logic usually corresponded to the ratio of black people to white owners: the higher the number, the higher the frequency of miscegenation, the more reason to embrace the third category. Jamaican slavers, for example, borrowed the Spanish nomenclature for their mixed-race progeny: alone among the English colonies, Jamaicans recog­nized legal differences among sambos and mulattoes; quadroons and octoroons.

In New Orleans there were the gens de couleur, the colored people. Their semi-official thirdness began to wane, however, when Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Americans flooded into New Orleans, and old-­time creole residents initially reacted by reasserting their local heritage. Both colored and white creoles continued to speak their gombo French (patterned after the Creole spoken by Haitian blacks); pre­pare their gumbo dishes derived from French, African, Indian, and Spanish cui­sines; practice their Catholicism, and often its syncretic counterpart, hoodoo. Neither culture nor cultural nationalism would prove sufficient, however, to stave off the political and economic onslaught of the U.S. By the 1850s, white creoles had altered the way they used the name in order to fit the contours of American racial dualism: gens de couleur were pushed into the Negro category, and creole was said to refer only to white natives. The denials got louder as civil war approached, and even louder with the postwar enactment of the Jim Crow system.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713843″ /]

It may be impossible to pin down precisely when gens de couleur started to call themselves creole, but the shift was well on the way when the Supreme Court handed down its land­mark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff, was a very light-complexioned “colored” res­ident of New Orleans. In 1892, a group of eminent citizens of color, the Comité des Citoyens, selected him to test the Separate Car Act passed two years earli­er. On the seventh of June Plessy tried sitting in a “whites only” coach and was denied entry. He was hauled to court, where he claimed his entitlement to “every right, privilege, and immunity secured to citizens of… the white race,” and he lost by a vote of 7–1.

The court’s ruling confirmed Ameri­ca’s commitment to “separate but equal” apartheid, and it implicitly leveled dis­tinctions between the traditionally free coloreds and the blacks they derisively called “Americans”; it penned all African descendants into the same caste, regard­less of class, color, or prior condition of servitude. Domínguez’s White by Definition notes that Louisiana lawmak­ers reinstituted old rules outlawing sex­ual unions between Negroes and whites a little more than a decade later; by 1910 legislators specifically classed together all “person[s] of the colored or black race.” In doing so, Louisiana either changed or noted the change in the meaning of “col­ored.” Now, “colored people” of Indi­an or partial Indian ancestry would legal­ly be “white”; one drop of African blood made any “colored” person black. There weren’t enough people of Asian back­ground around to foul up this tidy dual­ism, and so it was finished: New Orleans harbored no more semiofficial third races.

Suddenly the gens de couleur found themselves invisible to the law. Not only had New Orleans’s whites denied their claim to creole heritage; the state had officially robbed them of recognition of their relatively middle-class status as arti­sans and, in a few cases, as members of “polite” society. Homer Adolph, Plessy lived, I think, in their weird purgatory­ — this may be an injustice to him since he left almost no letters, notebooks, or any other record of his thinking. Nor does purgatory seem a likely residence for a man who legitimately can be thought of as the Rosa Parks of his day.

The in-between zone inhabited by the gens really had no name at all. Plessy is a Rosa Parks both for blacks and these suddenly nameless people, who began to call themselves creole for a new reason: to hold on to their difference from Negroes. While many of the freedmen spoke gombo and also called themselves creole, they were mostly of the country­side, and as such were not real com­petitors for the term. And the assumption of the term creole was not conducted in a particularly loud way; many people who qualified for the designation rejected it. Some simply crossed the color line; others embraced a Negro identity and were among the most progressive black Reconstruction leaders. Between these extremes, however, lay a mean — it is the reason that Plessy’s light complexion and his support among the colored Comité matter.

“The petition for the writ of prohibition averred that petitioneer was seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every right, privilege and immunity secured to citizens of the Unit­ed States of the white race…” (italics added)

How perfectly Plessy’s ambiguous aver­ment matches the phenotypal difference of the gens, how nearly indiscernible the averment is. Plessy quietly says his looks put him outside the Negro race and ren­der him ineligible for white privilege. Is it off base to imagine a jurist’s conclud­ing that the gens should be extended certain privileges based on this middleness? Perhaps this was the Comité’s secret hope. Yet all of the historians I read were careful not to go on about shade consciousness as a historical force. Maybe they are being too polite, or maybe they haven’t the documentation to speak with any precision. The historians stress that the light/dark distinction is a crude way of looking at New Orleans’s history; John Blassingame, for instance, almost reluctantly reports in Black New Orleans: 1860–1880 that “social classes grew up around color primarily because a mulat­to was generally a free man (77 percent of the free Negroes in 1860 were mulattoes) and a black man was almost always a slave (74 percent of the slaves in 1860 were black). In fact, color was closely correlated with status: 80 percent of all blacks were slaves and 70 percent of all mulattoes were freemen.” He goes on to assure readers that class is a hidden issue, and that color consciousness was more apparent than real — surely he is right on the first count, but what can he possibly mean by “real”? I do not mean to pick on Mr. Blassingame, but color was a real force in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. The evidence is in the attitude for which creoles have been known all century: their scientific adherence to skin color cultivation, their exclusive Mardi Gras balls, their “light as a paper bag” tests for marriage and parties, their Jelly Roll Morton crosstown condescension to Louis Armstrong — the theme of this culture can be heard in the bittersweet lilt of Homer Adolph Plessy’s plea.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716764″ /]

Adolph, after you hipped me to Plessy’s whispered basso notes, I read the case again. I italicized the key line because I know we would have been able to discern the us in Homer Adolph Plessy, as we did those girls with skin the color of moonlight — and then I was struck by the odd fact that poor Plessy shares a name with you. This coincidence can only be overdrawn, of course, but there it is, an obvious line of connection, conjured by the two syllables. A-dolph, a name. A-dolph, a story. The tale entices me; it draws my hand and drags the rest along, makes my brain note again the dif­ference in your skin, your nose, your hair — the creoleness they once were sup­posed to signify. How much of Plessy’s love song shapes you? Obviously I know a person does not have to be creole to understand his ambivalence, but I also suspect it helps, if only because creoles, by definition, have more claim to the tale.

My question — it noises up that silence you and I have been maintaining. But let me force your hand for a moment. One way to watch their attitude in action, you said, is to crack open a creole friend’s family photo album. The friend might show you the family photos from two generations ago and you’d spot a shot of an elderly woman with African features and brown skin and when you asked who she was, the friend would probably deny knowing her.

You did the dialogue.

“What d’you mean, ‘I don’t know who she is’? You know that’s your grandma.”

“No, it’s not.”

“So who’s this white man?”

“A friend.”

“A friend? You know that’s your grand-pa!” We laughed at that — many creoles would not admit it, you said, because the white man probably had not acknowledged the others in the photo, which means that the family was tech­nically illegitimate.

“Growing up in New Orleans,” you told me later, “it would be impossible to see race as anything but socially constructed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” For the better part of this century, creole blacks in New Orleans retooled the third race concept denied them by American tradition. They invented an eth­nic group, distinguishing themselves from other light-skinned middle classes in America by their intense devotion to the plan. The visible signals — Plessy’s mixture of colored blood “not discernible”­ — these were the basic ways to tell one’s people from people who were not. Family were the visible ones, the ones with whom you constructed your social networks, your family, your identity.

You are definitely visible to the cre­oles. I know that the details of your family’s history might at first glance seem to obscure you to them: your grandpa was Cuban and you and he used to speak Cuban Spanish, and you and he and the rest of the family are not really of New Orleans soil. I know, too, that your amber brown was considered too dark for at least one party, that at least one creole doorkeeper told you the paper bag said No. But I also know that no one fits any family template precisely; you and the rest of us are a mess of stories, and besides, the creole story is fading even as I write, getting less and less real, flutter­ing away, and the physical signals that kept you in the photos are shifting meaning. Still, you are the key to this story — not because of who you are, but because of how you are still perceived.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]



—Creole proverb, 
as translated by Lafcadio
Hearn, 1885

ADOLPH WANTED, A LITTLE sentimentally, to make sure I visited the old haunt he’d been praising, Mulé’s. It is located on one of the seventh’s many quiet corners and has plain looks — some simple chairs and tables, three gambling machines, and a Sunday afternoon yellow light, the color of old newspapers. We chose not to sit at the long, old-fashioned counter because there were too many of us; instead, we put together several tables while Adolph told us how Fats Domino used to park outside, and how everything on the menu is good.

To believers, Mulé’s is one of the places where creoleness can be located, caught, taken like wild game. I entered as a skep­tic, but I couldn’t help wanting to taste the culture: I had the gumbo, I tried my friend Jeannine’s trout po’boy, I sampled some of Adolph’s oyster roll. The food slipped down with the simple gravity of blood, and Adolph drew family pictures on the cave wall — he told how his father used to take him to drink here years ago, he chatted about the color of Fats’s Cadil­lac, and then he said to Alison, a friend, “There’s your uncle,” pointing out a yellow guy sitting at the counter with hood­ed eyes and long silver hair. Alison is family: “Stop!” she said, laughing, her eyes coolly measuring the yellow man — “Stop!”

After the meal we took a tour of the neighborhood. It was the middle of a weekday, and most everybody who could be employed was away. Not too long ago an average working resident of the sev­enth was an artisan; the neighborhood remains working class, but these days many of the people who know the ward best are middle-class beneficiaries of affirmative action, like Alison. She worked with the municipal administration and grew up in a nearby subdivision, spending a lot of time in the area as a child: “I know you’re going to be sensitive when you write about us,” she told me without blinking. Then, “You understand I mean New Orleans when I say us?”

As we walked, Alison and Adolph rem­inisced; Jeannine and the rest of our group played audience. I left their private narratives to take in some dark green shade trees, and pastel-colored, squatting houses with big windows and small porches. Old women with pale skin sat in wire chairs looking light as dust, watch­ing things crumble — they seemed to say the crumbling wasn’t something white people had done. When the gens de couleur seized creole at the start of this century, descendants of “white” creoles all but stopped using the name, mostly because its hint of miscegenation would not go away. By then, use of French and gombo was on the wane too, since America had won the culture war.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

Alison was pointing out which of the houses we were passing are “creole cottages.” They look like the other homes except they have annexes out back. Ali­son said the family matriarch and patri­arch would live in the main house and maybe a daughter would get married and move into the annex. Family would be all around. Two blocks past Mulé’s, we stopped in front of Corpus Christi Church, once the largest black parish in the nation. The church also runs a gram­mar school; one of several in the area where many creole parents still send their children. Adolph started putting down St. Augustine’s, a favored high school, and talking up his own alma mater, Xavier Prep, another favored one. How small, I thought, the larger creole family is, and how plainly the Church is in its blood. Alison remembers how her grandmoth­er used to bless a loaf of bread, and now sometimes she finds herself making a cross in the air before she cuts a slice. She also tells a story about an elder she knows who was asked by a black ecclesiastical council to come meet the Pope. “I’m not black,” he’d said, and refused to go.

For most of this century, creole more or less effectively walled off the Negroes, but the civil rights movement changed everything. Africanness became beautiful. Negroes secured voting rights, and, subsequently, promises of affirmative action. When creole children took to calling themselves black, the wall cracked wide.

We turned a couple more corners, then found ourselves in front of the headquarters of former mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP). It is built of plain cinder block, with no frills, with a nondescript sign staring out above its single door. It has the look of a political clubhouse in the old and effective and regular sense. Adolph and Alison started talking about the election and about Marc Morial, the brand-new mayor. I’d seen his cipherous eyes gazing dimly from poles, newsstands, building walls all over the city, and I’d wondered how precisely his straight hair and his skin color had helped him win. All three nonwhite mayors New Orleans has elected would have been called creole 30 years ago. The first was Marc’s father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, an aggressive proponent of pan-black coalescence. His successor Barthelemy was much more a traditional creole, and his COUP organization played a big role both times he won office.

Only close observers of New Orleans politics can say with much precision how being creole helped those men, but it’s pretty clear that young creoles were in the best position of any black people to take advantage of post-’60s affirmative blackness. To a great extent this was a matter of class, the vestigial advantage they had enjoyed since slavery. Creoles worked the right jobs, went to the right school, attended the right affairs. Creole politicos were also family to the people in COUP and it’s forerunners, the best organized nonwhite political machines in New Orleans, nearly always based in the seventh. Some of the more progressive public figures during the civil rights upheaval were, of course, men and women of creole background, such as Dutch Morial. But there was always an ambiguity in ­their activism. Like Plessy and his Redemption-era comrades, creole progressives in the ’60s ran the show. The leading black reform organization of the civil rights period, in fact, was self-consciously named the Citizens Committee, after Plessy’s Comité des Citoyens. The name was a nod to noncreole blacks and to their emerging political demands, but it also indicates who was in a position to reach out to whom.

Now, noncreole demands would seem to have won out: public claims to a racial thirdness would ruin the chances of any candidate in the eyes of black or even white voters, scant few of whom still try to retain the rights to creole — not even homeboy Barthelemy would dare shout out his creoleness. We walked on as Adolph and Alison continued talking, and laughing, and Jeannine and the group continued playing audience. I privately finished the thoughts the pale women had inspired a few minutes ago: creole has become a set of meals and prayers and words, feebly pushed through the lips like an old password.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

The Census Bureau presently puts American residents into four racial boxes: White, Black or Negro, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaskan Native. There is a box for people in these categories who want to identify themselves as Hispanic, e.g. Black Hispanic or White Hispanic. (There is also a box labeled Other.) None of these labels can possibly account for the vast ethnic variety within each category — Arabs share White with people from Argentina and Norway; natives of India share “Asian” with Japan’s Ainu and Jamaica’s Chinese — and as a result each category is being contested from within by subgroups who feel misplaced. Today, one of the loudest of these subgroups proposes a new category, multiracial, for people of racially “mixed” ancestry.

Multiracial has the potential to explode the black and white dichotomy that underwrites American thinking on race. This thinking, of course, depends on a potent fallacy — namely, that “race” is a biological reality more or less reflected in appearance. One is given a race by one’s biological parents; one’s race can also be determined by close examination of hair, nose, etc. It is no secret that most African and Native Americans are, by application of such race logic, mixed-­race; it’s also true that many white Amer­icans have some African or Indian ances­try. Most Latinos are mestizo, of Native American, European, African, and often Asian heritage; many Asians, the fastest growing ethnic group of new Americans, marry outside their race (38 per cent of Japanese American women do, for example). A large and rising portion of Amer­ica could, on the basis of these facts, legitimately claim ancestry from two or more racial groups, and soon choose to identify as biracial or multiracial.

“Mulatto” was used as a Census category until 1920, but it functioned pri­marily as a biological description, and to some extent an indication of class, not as the radical marker of difference sug­gested by black and white. With several isolated exceptions, most notably south­ern Louisiana, no third racial category with comparable political significance has ever existed on these shores; both “Native American” and “Asian” describe peoples who have been considered — with some ambivalence — outside white American civilization (as precursors in the former case, and as strangers in the latter). Africans, while also outsiders, have long been considered of the society, a result of their status as slaves. The record of this dialectic is embedded in the com­mon tongue: racial or race have come to signify, for most Americans, black. This is especially true in today’s neo-Redemp­tive climate — read The New York Times or Social Text, tune into WABC or WBAI, watch the reports on CNN or ABC or CBS, and listen closely when the nation’s leaders discuss race. The concept remains one of several stigmata peculiar to black­ness despite the rapid growth of various non-African, colored populations (espe­cially out West), and despite today’s fash­ionable nostalgia for late-’60s black pride; despite these trends, most people who think they have a choice avoid the stig­ma at all costs.

Advocates of the multiracial category contend that mixed people simply have the right, and even responsibility, to acknowledge their parents. The senti­ment has the attrac­tive glow of a returned prodigal. Such acknowledg­ment, however, rests uneasily on the very claim of bio­logical race differ­ence multiracialists disdain most; the claim to “multi” depends on the reality of “race.” This is almost never said plainly. Usually multiracial-identified people fog up their hardest assertions with existential sighs about culture and home: I feel both… why shouldn’t I choose both? The sighs may be heartfelt, but they also are an evasion, most clearly exem­plified by the wigglings of African-derived multiracialists. Since too many Negroes these days quote Du Bois on feeling a cultural twoness, these multiracialists can only assert that their doubleness means possession of a black parent and a white one. Which in fact is very slippery, because their doubleness is not meant to exclude all people whose parents’ parents or parents’ grandparents are black and white. Their claim ultimately rests on the rather suspicious bedrock of apparent biology: either they feel black and look too white, or more commonly — though this is almost never explicitly said — they feel white but look too black.

Whatever its ultimate revolutionary potential, multiracial as currently theo­rized depends on what the eye sees, or rather, what the brain and the eye see, not what the brain thinks. For this rea­son, at least in the short term, mul­tiracial threatens to depoliticize blackness, and to further politicize lightness. If the term catches on, black will seem even more than now to be a natural description of the darkest members of the race, rather than a broad political formulation for all descendants of African American slaves. Of course, there has long been the loose association between light and high status, and dark and low status. But tomorrow those members crudely called yalla or redbone or mariny or fair — they would not remain shades of black.

What’s really at issue, then, is not whether someone in a café calls himself biracial or multiracial; it’s the con­cept’s institutionalization. In the cur­rent formulation, the lightest of black people would become less racebound, and less burdened, and higher, as sanctioned by the golden hands of natural law. (There is more than a passing resemblance to the neoeugenicist the­ories of people like Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.) We have seen this in South Africa, and America, in the early decades of this century — it is the sad and familiar logic in Plessy’s song about discernible blood.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718960″ /]

“They say we can tell each other,” whispered Alison, a little myste­riously, when I asked about the code. “There’s briquet,” she said, explaining the word they once used for black people whose hair and skin are red as a brick. Briquet is a little more deroga­tory than American terms such as red­bone, but it is used to describe creoles and noncreoles alike. She also defined passant blancs, the word for people who pass as white.

Alison didn’t mention passant noirs, another term. I asked about griffon. Adolph had joked about the word that afternoon. It is what they call certain non­creoles, and it alludes to the griffin, the mythical animal with a terrible face.

“Adolph,” said Alison, smiling. “That’s fam-ly business,” It was a joke. I got the feeling Alison didn’t want to offend me, because her measuring eyes darted away. Later she confessed she only learned the term a couple of years before, because the language really is going away. I couldn’t hear what Adolph mumbled, but I told Alison what I understood grif­fon to mean: someone who’s light­-skinned and black, with African features.

I wanted to know the code because I wanted to learn how to spot a creole­ face. I was a little skeptical that anyone could actually distinguish a creole from a light-skinned noncreole without the aid of context, but now I was as prepared as an outsider could be. Adolph and everyone I talked to agreed that the Jazz Fest would be another fine place to observe them. For four days in a row my friend Jeannine and I wandered about the festival grounds. It was much too big an event for our liking. There were bands from Mali and Haiti and Missis­sippi, and jazz bands and blues bands and reggae bands and rock bands and funk bands, spread over 33 balding acres near the city’s center. But we didn’t like herding with the crowds of aging white hippies, summery-looking tourists from Latin America, college kids who listen to blues, and, on Saturday and Sunday, black working people. I preferred to focus on the dim scent of filé and other cooking spices, and the watery taste of coast in the air. The smells kept us hungry, so we would line up in the queues for paper bins of crawfish étouffée, or shrimp remoulade, or barbecued chick­en. Then we’d retire to the ground to watch the crowds we eschewed perform, checking out the way they talked and ate and dropped their mess like babies.

Once or twice I ventured, stupidly, to ask people whether they were creole they said No or Partly or Huh, so I soon con­ducted my observations on the sly, trad­ing messes with Jeannine, whose mom is black and pop is white. She grew up among whites, but usually she calls herself “black,” though she’s a decidedly perfect candidate for the “multiracial” category.

Jeannine didn’t think the creoles Adolph had identified looked like her, and I agreed, though neither of us could pinpoint the difference. At first we weren’t sure we could distinguish them from any of the other light brown peo­ple on the festival grounds — style was lit­tle help. Olive-toned Italians resembled well-tanned Latins and light-skinned black people. They all dressed basically the same; it was difficult to identify any ethnic subgroups because no one dressed in a particularly ethnic way, and everyone was eating the same food, and every­one was mingling.

[related_posts post_id_1=”579450″ /]

But by the second or third day Jean­nine and I had several theories about the creoles of New Orleans. We speculated that there was something distinct in cre­ole genes — Choctaw blood, for exam­ple — that marked them somehow. Then we remembered that Native America was a source of many Americans’ ancestry, especially Latinos. And some of the cre­oles did resemble Jeannine. The next day we decided that there was an ingrown flavor to creole faces, and then we were not sure about that, and on the third day we decided that our theories were no good.

That night we all went to a concert downtown in a ballroom at the municipal convention center. Tito Puente was the main attraction. It took some time for him to arrive, so we drank and spied the other colored people. The crowd was composed of mestizos from all over the Caribbean basin — their faces, their hair, their body shapes a match with New Orleans creoles’. I took in the white and ­yellow and tan and red faces, the colors of birth and vomit, fertility and death, the grunted beginnings and ends of human biology: these people seemed as racially various as the secret face of God.

It was the multiracial category, with a Spanish accent — there was plainly no way to discern a New Orleans creole in this crowd. The irony is that most these people wouldn’t have called them­selves creole. They were Cuban American and Guatemalan American and El Salvadoran American and Panamanian American; they were middle-class and frequently, according to the Census Bureau, they thought of themselves as white. To my satisfaction, they proved creole’s irreality beyond a shadow of a doubt. But I began to wonder why I was so certain that these people com­prised the multiracial category. I looked again and my secret god vanished. Now I could see in the faces their sweaty African and Native American and Asian progenitors, and the white people who’d worked those people hard: I recognized the muddied face of the traveling Euro­pean. His colored children — they are what is summoned when multiracial is used: his children look the way the end of racial history is supposed to look. (Too bad this history is much bigger than European travelogues admit; too bad race is a mere illusion, biologically; too bad various “races” have traveled and blended and even made the European.) They are America’s fetishes for mixture, for creolization. The better part of me embraced the idea that the people in this room really weren’t any more multiracial than any of the other light brown people on the fairgrounds today, or any of the lighter blacks and the dark Ital­ians I’d seen, or any of the most white or most Native American or most Asian or the darkest of black people, including me.

For good measure, I asked Adolph if he could pick out the creoles, just as I had when I’d asked about those girls with the moon in their skin. He couldn’t. Soon Puente arrived and the real music commenced. Jeannine was sitting to my left, and the guy to my right was named Preston: He had light skin and fairly thick lips and a fairly wide nose and so forth. I asked Alison — is he griffon? She squint­ed. “Ummm,” she said, with some exaggeration, figuring. “Yes. But only if he was acting like he wanted to be creole.”

The next morning I woke up at nine and checked out the fourth day of the festival; Jeannine and I wandered around and around and listened to the noise. Eventually, I let the race questions slip to points unminded. In the afternoon we ran into Alison again. She had discov­ered something important — Preston had a creole parent or grandparent from Baton Rouge. When Alison laughed, I laughed. She said she thought she’d known.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718384″ /]

Adolph, I didn’t forget about my family that night. My sister is light with broad features. You two have met, but you don’t know how much she favors my mother. They are both light — my mother says her father had a ‘lot’ of Indian in him. In the photograph she keeps in the basement he looks creole.

Mom told me that several of his broth­ers and sisters were so light they lost the mossy accent and turned Jewish or Italian or WASP, and vanished into the white world. Mom’s mom was as dark as navy blue, and she couldn’t hide her slave history. We don’t name the rest of the races that made her, but you can bet she had some other tribes inside. My mother, and my sister, and me we are black and mixed. And Mom is light with broad features. That night I wanted to ask whether she and my sister would be griffon.

I remember looking to my left at Jeannine. It is true that race did slip to points unminded the next day, but at the table I saw the black mother and the white father in Jeannine’s skin and features; her face held my attention like a dead body does, and I felt a certain guilt and the stealthy approach of nausea, the result of trying to name her, place her, pin it down — was she griffon? Was she black? Was she multiracial? Where was the evi­dence of us?

I thought of a brotha I know whose skin is very dark, and then I could see him at the table. I could hear him, too, accusing me — I felt for a second like a Negro banker hunting for a suitable wife. Of course this was an easy comparison. Everyone knows that the powerboys who choose “suitable wives” are sick about this sort of thing, and everyone knows that the young Negroes in the theater on 125th Street who laughed when Alva Rogers was on the screen in Spike Lee’s School Daze are sick, too. You and I know that the equation between femininity and light skin is ubiquitous in the culture, as is the equation between light skin and intelligence, and light skin and beauty. Negroland’s self-described iconoclasts, especially, the boys, are no less sick this way.You’ve seen brotha writer and brotha artist and brotha filmmaker walk more proudly holding the hand of the Mulat­to Ideal. And why not? In the movies, or on television brotha man’s semen always produces a mulatto child, no matter the skin of the mother. At bottom, light skin and white features and multiracial make males in Hollywood happy, and most employers in America happy, and many social planners and other futurists, too; I had to wonder whether the same story fashioned my desire.

I took refuge in the way the story failed to determine my sense of my own body. Each day this “I” of mine faces the mir­ror; I blindly see me, and fail to wonder enough what the brownness means to others. Usually I even forget that old refrain: “the darker the berry the sweet­er the juice,” its equation between dark skin and blackness, the way it insists that one’s fidelity to the race rises directly with an increase of melanin. I suppose my being dark makes it relatively easy to see through that old affirmation; I know it is not as easy for lighter sisters and brothers, who are often made to feel as if they should pay us in blood for their skins. But I think a more fundamental reason is that I, like most everyone else, don’t really like to live racially. No one I know takes much pleasure in trying to measure how racism shapes his or her life; no matter how much folks celebrate or hate being black, they ordinarily for­get about it. Who has the time when thanking God that the newborn is not deaf, when worrying about why the tax man is phoning you at work, when marveling at the way the sun lights up the metal on the scaly top of the Chrysler Building? Of course, there are those moments when you and I are forced to shoo away unimaginative opinions about who we are: the veteran cop, the prospective landlord, the Afrocentric professor often make judgments that follow tired and expected patterns. But most of the time I, like you, dispose of such takes the moment they enter the skull, because I live here.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718447″ /]

Which is not to deny that I know how the templates others try to fit me into look — when I am lazy or tired or feel­ing especially proud I use them, after all, on other people. I only have to think about dancing and sweating with a room full of us to concede that I know why masked balls are so exhilarating; I know how seductive is the convenience of those templates. Like when I was watching those multiracial people at the concert that night. Or when I conjured that brotha, who only is, after all, a part of my self. The differences among what that face’s brown skin and Jeannine’s golden skin and your amber skin mean do not escape me, or you; templates of race and shade shape our perceptions to a greater or lesser extent, for better or worse.

It is a fact of life not entirely native to the States. Adolph, you and I always groan when we hear the testimonies, but check out this one: I recently met a brilliant brown woman with blue flames in her eyes. She and her family are from South Asia — she is very brown, “the brownest,” she testified, “in her family.” Then she added, “And the ugliest.” Of course she was quite beautiful, but that is beside the point. What matters is that her dark appearance somehow separated her from the rest of her family. This is easy to overstate because she loves her family and they love her. But it must be pointed out that neither class nor culture, but shade, made the difference between being us and being them.

Back to the table, to Jeannine. I stopped wondering; as I gazed at Jean­nine’s face, I stopped letting the difference matter — I simply put the template for shade, its terrible story, in another corner of the vast unminded place. I turned to consider your face, Adolph, and I also succeeded in putting creole away to see you as I ordinarily see you, the way I see myself when I look at the mirror: as a self. As one of that us.

What of this us? Black and white fail to describe the apparent biology of the women with moonlight in their skin, or you. Black and white also fail brown South Asians, and other Asians — that’s why it is said that other racial categories with the weight of white and black are inevitable. One of my friends, a brother named Hsiao, insists those categories already exist. He adduces serious evi­dence. Out West, Native Americans have long been a third or first race, depending on your point of view. So are Asians and Latinos — more than 40 per cent of Latinos choose Other on their Census forms, rather than Black or White.

Yet that hasn’t shaken my belief that no racial categories in America have the metaphorical weight of white and black, and that multiracial’s bid for acceptance depends on its being a synthesis of the two, a real third. “My friend,” answers Hsiao, “Native Americans and the rest have their own multiracial conundrums. Black and white doesn’t necessarily enter the picture.” He chides me: “You shouldn’t measure the rest of us with a black racial yardstick.” I remind him that the American conversation about race largely elides Native Americans and peo­ple of Asian descent, and Latinos. Does anyone really believe that yellow and red and brown suggest “race” to Americans with the sad power of the dialectic of black and white?

[related_posts post_id_1=”703365″ /]

Adolph, you know that historically the American contract has tried to assign the majority of its people a relative blackness or a relative whiteness — the legacy, once again, of slavery. Italians and Jews, for instance, were not considered white at the beginning of the century. Of course, American ideas about white citizens and ­black slaves do not address the citizens Hsiao has in mind, but that doesn’t pre­vent the nation from attempting to fit them, in a fumbling way, into the para­digm. Watch the difference between the way Filipinos and Japanese are regarded, or the way Indian Mexicans and Euro­pean Mexicans are treated, or the way Southern Italians and Northern Italians still think of themselves — watch closely, and you will see the difference between the have-nots and haves, and you will see the difference between Slave and Citizen, and you will see the difference between black and white.

You are the key, Adolph, because the category you will be asked to consider joining, multiracial, really could be a revolutionary “third.” It could help individuals bring much of their private selves into a less racialized, less confining place in the public world. This is true, of course, only if anybody could call themselves `, sort of as a way to sit out the other categories. The first target should be the dialectic of black and white.

Multiracial’s adoption would probably have some terrible effects on the affirmative activity neocons like to harp on — fair voting and fair employment and fair housing laws would need recalculation if a sizable number of people abandoned Black. If, however, the term applied only to visibly “mulatto” people, the result­ing “light flight” could be worse. The reason is class. Whether one assumes that the black middle class looks like the creoles do — that working-class and poor people are the dark ones or that the present generation of self-identified “biracial” adolescents is, mostly middle class, a light flight represents loss of middle-class people. (The first assumption is not as true as it once was, the second is probably accurate.) The poorest African-Americans would be left to weep in the mud.

But a less naive version of multiracial­ism could, in the long run, ease their pain. Think of it as an “Other” box with a name, a better way to protest the strange and muscular American instruments called race and class and culture. If half-Ainu, half-Dominicans could share a cat­egory with half-Finnish, half-Sicilians and plain ole ordinary South Carolinian Negroes as dark as my grandmother’s blue — this would trip up calculations that place whole ethnic and cultural groups in either of the dialectical castes, or the Others. A smart multiracialism would dis­rupt the facile and naturalized notions of class that American racialism encourages and focus attention on class as a mater­ial phenomenon, and, ironically, on the individual herself.

Such a category might help change the stories you and I resist, and use, in cal­culating the worth of other people. And ourselves. You are the key, Adolph, because they will want people who look like you, people acceptable in most cre­ole photo albums, to be the representa­tive face of the slot; its poster child. But that would simply keep the same old racialism, black and white with edges softened to a purr, intact.

[related_posts post_id_1=”562262″ /]

One of the last nights I was in New Orleans, Adolph took a bunch of friends to a bar in the seventh called Pampy’s. It was the kind of speakeasy you find in black neighborhoods all over the country. There was a jukebox against the wall playing r&b songs; the walls were seasoned with posters for local concerts and handwrit­ten signs about “house rules”; the drinks were poor. A gang of dressed-up people in their forties sat on stools at the bar, hungry, bathed in an encouraging red light. Even so, I could guess everyone’s complexion, including the guy sitting at the other end of our table.

Gary was just a little bit darker than the light-skinned girls at the beginning of my journey, and I was already pretty certain he would call himself creole — no, by now I knew he’d say he was. Still I asked Gary and the woman sitting next to him both said Yes. It turned out that they were lovers. She was darker than he, the syrupy brown of coffee with extra sugar mixed in, brown like me, so her claim surprised me a little. But I didn’t say anything out loud. Maybe, I rea­soned, she’s a genetic specter; even the best cultivation fails sometime.

I could tell that Gary was a nice guy, though his looks made it hard to take him seriously. His face was almost per­fectly flat; its most active feature was his mouth, a messy thing. He wore his dental bridge a little too high on the upper gum, which would have been alright if his incisors didn’t hang down the way they did. Each time he opened his trap he looked like a clownish Dracula, and even though he spoke with considerable honesty and earnestness, it was hard not to laugh.

Gary had grown up nearby in a pro­ject where poor creoles lived along with noncreoles. That equation of higher class and lighter skin — not necessarily. Class status didn’t, however, seem to cause Gary much anxiety. Now in his late twenties, he was a waiter at a downtown hotel, and from the looks of it, doing fine. His girl­friend didn’t really talk much, except to say again that she was creole. I asked one more time about the differences between creoles and other blacks. “Sometimes they like to blame us for looking good. We look good,” he said, in a sincere drawl. I noticed that Gary’s eyes were a little too high on his face and his hair was a little too low; I considered how the difference between looking inbred and not is a question of millimeters.

“Like my hair. I got good hair,” he continued, smiling in the generous red light. He pulled a comb smoothly across his scalp. “Not like yours.” I recalled something Adolph once told me about them: the first questions people ask when a baby is born is what kind of hair, then what color is it, then does it have two heads or whatever. Gary was a nice guy, and he didn’t especially mean anything by “good hair” or “like yours”; he was just repeating the things he’d heard: he was saying Look at me — can’t you see?

I could only laugh. A few minutes later Gary and his girlfriend left. I recounted the scene to Adolph, and he just dou­bled over laughing about how the nigga was so low class he didn’t even know enough not to say that absurd shit. So that’s why you’re laughing? I thought as I laughed, too — it was very, very funny. I stopped when I remembered that Gary had been very kind to utter his family’s open secret, its story of itself, and I realized the smugness of my own laughter. Then, I sensed with horror the oldest future, its familiar story: Our family is better than yours. 

Research assistance: Elizabeth Morse, Valerie Burgher, and Anna Flattau



Into Thin Air

Here are two questions without good answers: How can a man go on a casual hike in a national park on a warm, cloudless day, and never return? And when can you start mourning a friend who is presumed dead?

Three weeks ago, Joe Wood, a 34-year-old editor with the New Press and a former editor and writer at The Village Voice, went for a day hike in Mount Rainier National Park. He has not been seen since. His disappearance has left a large and diverse community of friends centered in New York’s literary and journalistic circles— not to mention a tight-knit family in the Bronx— suspended between grief and perplexity. As the political scientist Adolph Reed says, “I find myself both straining to accept that Joe is gone and feeling that to accept that is an act of betrayal— and still half expecting to get a call from Joe.”

Wood, who has been writing a book about the African American family, went to Seattle on July 7 to attend Unity ’99, the minority journalists’ convention. It was at the first such gathering, held in Atlanta in 1994, that Wood met Somini Sengupta, a reporter for The New York Times, with whom he lived for several years. But the two separated some six months ago, and had only a brief encounter after Unity ’99’s opening ceremonies. The next day, Wood drove alone to Mount Rainier, entering the park— a receipt would later show— at 12:29 p.m. He apparently told only a casual acquaintance of his hiking plans.

When Wood failed to appear again at the conference, friends were surprised though not alarmed. But when Wood did not return to New York on Sunday, July 11, Sengupta started burning up phone lines cross-country. By Tuesday,
July 13, she had filed a missing-person report. The next day, park officials found Wood’s rental car in a Mount Rainier parking lot.

Park rangers began a search for Wood. Then, on the morning of July 15, they got their best— and, it would turn out, their only— lead: a hiker named Bruce Gaumond recognized Wood in a local newspaper story and called the park.

Gaumond said he had met Wood on the Rampart Ridge trail at an altitude of about 4800 feet on July 8. Gaumond said Wood asked whether the snow-covered trail continued much further. Gaumond told him he’d gone up another five or 10 minutes, but turned around at a dicey-looking snow bridge. Then, said Gaumond, Wood, dressed in a light shirt, wearing binoculars and carrying a bird book in one hand, forged ahead. Gaumond came down. The mountain has yielded no other clues about Wood since.

Standing in the trail clearing where Wood was last seen, it’s easy to understand what might have drawn this avid bird-watcher to the mountain. It perplexes some of his friends that Wood, who had a heart condition but was otherwise in good shape, climbed so high. But the three-hour hike he took is lined with mountain cabbage and the white flowers of dwarf dogwood, and passes through dense forests of western hemlock and Douglas fir— though up where Gaumond met Wood, four- to six-foot-high compacted snow blankets the steep landscape, obscuring the trails.

Indeed, snow is at the center of the mystery. This winter, Mount Rainier was covered by the third-heaviest snowfall in its history. Then, as much as two feet of snow melted in the sunny days following Wood’s disappearance, washing away tracks. Friends who had gathered at the mountain quickly learned a vocabulary of snow-driven danger: melting snow bridges treacherously spanning streams, snow-sided tree wells forming around huge trunks. Still, the temperate weather gave hope.

The Park Service organized search teams of backcountry rangers, firefighters, and volunteers. Squads fanned out across the southwest face of the mountain, scrambling down ravines and walking creek beds. Dog teams covered the trails; helicopters zigzagged the mountainside.

But on Friday, July 16, rain fell, lowering the temperature and searchers’ morale, and making the search more dangerous. By Saturday, as Wood’s father, Joe Sr., his mother, Elizabeth, and his sister, Pamela, arrived at the mountain, leaders of the search team held out little hope that Wood had survived 10 days in the wilderness. Meanwhile, of course, the nation had become transfixed by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s disappearance. And while Wood’s friends lamented the relatively small resources committed to his rescue, calls did come into park offices from Washington governor Gary Locke as well as the White House press office. Rangers, citing improving weather, decided to extend the search one day.

They found no evidence of Wood. At an emotional meeting on Sunday night, July 18, rangers explained their decision to scale back their search. Wood, they said, had likely suffered a catastrophic accident. Had he been mobile, they would have found some trace of him. And had he survived a fall but been immobile, he would have been lying on the ground. Without sufficient clothing and food, hypothermia was inevitable.

The search team’s explanation prompted a mixed response. Wood’s father talked about “dealing with reality.” That day, Sengupta had hiked up to the spot where Wood was last seen, and buried an earring and a ring, so “Joe would not be alone.” Still, alternative theories lingered: what if Wood had been abducted? Could it have been murder?

Any struggle on the mountain, say the rangers, would have produced scents for the dogs to pick up. In the end, they say, the sheer danger of the mountain suggests the most plausible outcomes— two other men have been lost on Mount Rainier in the past two months alone. Park spokesperson Maria Gillett says that rangers will send a helicopter and dog teams back up the mountain when the snow melts, and Elizabeth Wood says, “We’re going to wait to see.”

For many, Wood’s vanishing prevents solace. His literary agent, Faith Childs, with help from several of Wood’s friends, hired a former NYPD detective to retrace Wood’s steps. “We wanted someone who knows the wicked ways of the world,” says Childs, because, she adds, “I can’t say uncle yet. I just can’t.”