Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
In this episode, we’re digging into a question a fifth grade student asked about Elizabeth Keckly, a formerly enslaved woman who became a renowned dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln. Encounters along the way include colorism, the term “mulatto,” racial passing, and Carolus Linnaeus. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Transcript of 3.1 “Wait, she’s black?”
[Note: You may also see Elizabeth’s last name spelled as “Keckley,” which is the most common spelling. She herself seems to have favored “Keckly,” which is the spelling we’ll use below.]
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage, we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us
CH: Let’s take that half hour now. Thank you for joining us, welcome to season 3! For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Wait, she’s black?”
JC: A student asked me this question during our school program for 5th graders, I See the President. In the program, students look at a map of President Lincoln’s commute from the Cottage to the White House, which includes pictures of the places and the people he encountered along the way. I was talking about Elizabeth Keckly, who had been formerly enslaved and later worked as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. Amidst this explanation, the student looked at her portrait on the map, and this question burst out: “wait, she’s black?” In the moment, I told the student that, if she were alive today, we might talk about her as mixed – her mom and her grandma were Black, and her dad and her grandpa were white. He then went, “Oh, ok” – but something about the student’s surprise stuck with me. Clearly, something about Elizabeth Keckly’s appearance had been quite different from his expectations.
CH: The surprise was really the hook that left us wanting to know more. As usual, we went to talk to a wide variety of people about our question. What was their take on this moment?
Jennifer Fleischner: So, you know I imagine, knowing the picture that the student was looking at, you know there she is sitting in what, to his eye, or her eye, a twenty-first century kid, would be a very fancy dress, elaborate, she’s wearing jewelry, including a wedding ring, earrings, she’s sitting up erect, and it’s a studio portrait. And so that may not have jived with the expectation of a black person, nor whatever – if you had told the students about her, her life in DC, a free woman, I think that the expectation also of Blacks during slavery, they’re all enslaved, so even the, the freedom aspect, and her – and again that photograph, when I’ve asked people to say what does she look like, well: proud, regal, sufficient, independent, all of those things may again not fit the expectation, the racial one. And then of course, the- again it’s hard to tell in the sepia, or the old photographs, but she’s light-skinned, and her features are not legible necessarily to someone with certain expectations of blackness.
CH: That’s Jennifer Fleischner, a professor at Adelphi University in New York and a biographer of Elizabeth Keckly.
JC: We also spoke with A.B. Wilkinson, a historian at University of Nevada Las Vegas who specializes in the history of people with mixed ancestry. A.B. Wilkinson: So we read race in very specific ways depending on how we’re brought up or where we’re brought up, and, you know, during what time period. It’s interesting, now that we’ve been having this conversation I just googled the pictures of her that are in existence…. but now that I’m looking at her, I’m like, oh yeah, she would’ve been termed Black, you know, she would have been termed mulatto. I don’t think she would’ve been identified as white. But again that’s perspective, right?
Karen Grigsby Bates: Well I think it reflects partially that person’s experience, but partially also the fact that for a long time there’s been a severe under-representation of people of color in, visual imaging, in daily life, that’s reflected back to everybody else, that says, oh that’s what a reporter looks like, that’s what a doctor looks like, this is what Black looks like. In our case, in the case of America, lots of times, people who live in places that have no Black populations, or that don’t know any Black people personally, assume that Black is only what’s being reflected to them by popular culture. In the ah, in the ‘80s when Bill Cosby’s show was still a thing, before all the other stuff, one of the valuable tacit lessons that show taught America was – you can all be in the same family, the same nuclear family, and everybody’s a different color, because that was certainly the case in the Huxtable family. You know and it – I think just seeing that every week sometimes made people go: Oh, okay, I get it.
JC: Yeah, and I’m thinking about it that, like, part of what is inherent in this assumption or the conversation is that if you are surprised that Black people can look a way, in that surprise, what you are revealing is that you thought in some little corner of your head, that all Black people looked the same.
KGB: Yeah, that you’ve had limited experience with the extensive diversity of what Black is.
JC: Is that something that is in your personal experience of people being confused about you?
KGB: Oh my god. [laughter] I used to, when I, uh – I worked at People Magazine for a little while, ah, in the news and human interest department, and the photo editor was a charming woman, older, who was German. And at least once a week she would come – and we became friends – she would come plop herself down in the visitor’s chair in my office and say: [German accent] “Now Karen, tell me again, why you’re black?” [own voice] And I said, what d’you mean, “why am I Black?” My mom’s Black, my dad’s Black. His mom’s Black, his dad’s Black – she goes, I – you know, I can’t help what other people’s experiences are, but you should know that there is this whole spectrum of shade in the Black community, all of us consider ourselves Black. Whether we’re as pale as you are, and she was really pale, or whether they are very very dark.
CH: That comes from our conversation with Karen Grigsby Bates, a journalist who covers race in America for NPR’s popular program Code Switch.
KGB: We’ve been around for about seven years and we are a bi-coastal, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational team of journalists who report on race, identity, and culture and all the ways those things intersect with all the things that we’re always reporting on in the news, you know, everything from politics to medicine to the arts to commerce, you name it. And, as you can imagine, it’s been a very interesting and busy couple of years in the past couple of years.
CH: If you want to see the picture of Elizabeth Keckly to form your own impressions, go to our website at www.lincolncottage.org and click “Q&Abe Podcast.” We’ll add it to the page for today’s episode. [see below]
JC: Before she came to DC, Elizabeth Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 on a farm near Richmond, Virginia. She was raised by her mother, Agnes, and her adoptive father George, both of whom were also enslaved. At the age of 4, Keckly was brought into the house of the Burwells, her enslavers, to take care of the white children in their family. Those children were Keckly’s half-siblings, as Armistead Burwell, the white head of household, was her biological father – though she didn’t know it at the time.
CH: As a young adult, she was taken to St. Louis by her enslavers, and while living there she bought her freedom and her son’s freedom with the proceeds from her dressmaking. She moved to Washington, DC right before the Civil War, intending to make dresses for whoever was next in the White House. And indeed, she secured a position as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, and the two women became friends – we’ll talk more about that complicated relationship in just a bit.
JC: Before we got any further into how other people saw her, I had a question for Jennifer: what do we know, if anything, about how Elizabeth Keckly saw herself, and her own racial identity?
JF: Keckly herself was, thought of herself, as of African descent, as Black, but she also considered herself – certainly when she came to DC, she, she went, went easily into the sort of caste and class of Blacks who were a sort of elitist, light-skinned, um – you could trace this in the churches she joined when she came to DC, the first church, the Union Bethel Church, that was before she, when she first arrived, and then after Lincoln’s death, the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the elitist, the elite church, where only light-skinned, um, middle-class Blacks joined. But because she was, had been born enslaved, she wasn’t born free Black, she wasn’t, she was in this sort of, again this- not the highest of the high. I mean, she was looked down upon on occasion by those who had been born free, and so there was a sort of a complicated caste/class system…
JC: And, just to clarify really quickly – how much of that caste system had to do with economic wealth and how much with the way that a person looked?
JF: Well I don’t, I think both were factors. I think that, you know she – her whole life was spent as mixed-race or mulatto, as she would have been called in her time in the 19th century, moving between white and Black worlds.
CH: We asked A.B. for more context about the word “mulatto,” which he described as:
ABW: It was a racial term that they used back during this time period, and back into the colonial period, really, that came to identify people of mixed African and European – sometimes Native American ancestry as well – but usually someone from those, a mix of those two out of the three ancestries.
JC: A.B. explained that the term came into English from Spanish, in the 1500s, when the Spanish were the leading colonizers in the Western Hemisphere. There are some Latin words, like mixticus, that go back even further than that, but the idea of this term meaning mixed ancestry seems to have come into Spanish from the Arabic “muwallad,” meaning a person who had both Arabic and non-Arabic heritage.
CH: We were assuming that this term was primarily to oppress the people it was applied to, as opposed to being a neutral term. Was that correct?
ABW: The, the – even the racial terms mulatto, Negro, you know, we don’t – I’m using them now kind of within quotations, you know, I’m using them in historical context. And I should, you know, kind of put that out there as well – I do not advocate bringing back these racial terms such as mulatto, mestizo, and it’s precisely because they were derogatory in their time. You know, it’s still questionable whether people even used these terms themselves, or proudly used these terms to define themselves. And the one area where I have found people who wrote a letter identifying themselves as mixed ancestry from the early 17th century, they say “we are called mulattoes,” and they write to the Archbishop of the Anglican Church back in London and they say “we are called mulatters by those in our community.” Um, so they don’t even really identify the term strongly or prominently and I think that’s because it was seen as a derogatory or negative term – so when it’s written about in the laws, people are really identified in negative terms and it’s usually, you know, explaining kind of why they can’t have rights, for example the 1705 law which defines who constitutes a mulatto person, they say, you know, they kind of lay out, this is who a mulatto is because they cannot hold ecclesiastical office or public office. So definitely, definitely negative when they’re using the term. And, and the other more prevalent place they use the term mulatto is for servitude and slave laws because predominantly, people of mixed ancestry are enslaved and/or in servitude during this period, the colonial period at least – and into the antebellum period as well. Yea, so one of the reasons, you know, probably the main reason that people of mixed ancestry are identified in law is to keep them in bondage.
JC: At this point, we actually found out we needed to go back a step – and even further back in time. We spoke with anthropologist Nina Jablonski, who studies the origin and social positioning of human skin color, to find out: why do people even have different skin colors in the first place?
Nina Jablonski: Skin color is related to the intensity of sunlight, and specifically to the intensity of ultraviolet radiation. One particular pigment called “melanin” imparts most of the color to skin. This is, when it’s in its concentrated form, a very dark brown, almost black pigment that is an incredible natural sunscreen. The short story is that as people evolved – and all humans evolved in Africa – in our original early human state we were all darkly pigmented. We had a lot of melanin in our skin because melanin afforded superior protection to strong ultraviolet radiation that was present in our original homeland. As humans, modern humans, dispersed throughout the continent of Africa over tens and hundreds of thousands of years, and then later outside of Africa, they met much less intense sun and far more seasonal sunlight. And under these conditions, skin color actually faded. We became what I often call “depigmented.” This was an active evolutionary process. And, we really need to think about our original human color as being dark and lighter colors, and a range of intermediate colors, being, being sort of derivatives, being secondary developments as a result of dispersals into different latitudes with different sunshine regimes.
JC: One of the things we’re wrestling with with this episode and also in American society at large is that we have ascribed very strong and complicated meanings to a person’s skin color. How early does that kind of thing start happening?
NJ: The division of people into what we might refer to as “races” was not something that was natural or inscribed in any way. It was actually created through intellectual activity. And, at least in Europe, this was done because of a few different interests. One was the interest in, sort of, classifying different parts of nature. And so the early naturalists like Linnaeus and Buffon and others looked at the diversity of humans that they could recognize, or that they knew about – and this was actually only a small fraction of the number of people who really – the number and diversity of people who really exist. And they said, “Hmm, well we can put them into, let’s say four groups… or maybe five groups.” One of the hallmarks of early classifications of humans is their very arbitrariness. Humans were placed initially in color-based categories, and Linnaeus was the first to do this, identifying them as white, red, black, and yellow. Others later refined this, changed it, modified it, but the key thing was that these groups of people were color coded. One of the most important divisions that these early naturalists and philosophers recognized was a binary division between white Europeans and non-white others. And this probably becomes the most historically significant division not only for the history of the United States, but elsewhere. The tipping point, if we can identify one, is really in how those ideas translated into a broader non-intellectual audience. And what we see, especially in the English speaking world, is the promotion of these ideas across the Atlantic into the Americas at the same that the slave trade is going. This is probably one the biggest turning points actually in all of human history when people begin to think on the basis of no observable facts that one group of people is superior to another.
JC: This conversation with Nina was really helpful in clarifying what I think is one of the big sticking points for people – including me – in understanding race. In saying, yes, as is apparent with your eyes, people have different skin colors, but that it’s only society that says those colors mean anything. The meaning isn’t inherent in the color, it’s added on top by people. If you’d like to hear more of our conversation with Nina, you can listen to our bonus episode “I Don’t See Color”.
CH: One of the side effects of the construction of race with pale Europeans at the top of the hierarchy is colorism, where even among people placed in marginalized racial groups, folks with lighter skin colors have more status and prestige. It’s likely that Elizabeth Keckly’s lighter skin tone made it more possible for her to gain access to the White House and to Mrs. Lincoln. I’m really curious about the two women’s relationship beyond the transactional, and I asked Jennifer: what drew them together? What made them friends?
JF: Trouble. [laugh] I think. Well, not just trouble, shared sorrow. Uh, one of the first, letters that Mary Lincoln, very early on when the beginning of her husband’s term, when she was trying to settle into a Washington, DC, that was somewhat hostile towards her… and, Elizabeth Keckly, one of the first, if not the first mention of, um, Mary makes of her in the letter to a cousin, is of Keckly’s having lost a son, in a very early battle – the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861. And she’s writing in the fall after that, and she talks about her sorrow, and Mary Lincoln by that time had lost a son, a toddler, um, in Springfield. And it was the first of the three out of the four sons who would die before she did. But there was that, uh, joint sorrow, um – and Keckly herself recognized and appreciated, talked about appreciating, Mary’s sympathy for that. So that was a sort of bond. They also absolutely bonded around their interest in fashion. You know, they looked at Lady Godey’s Magazine, they would look at the latest designs out of Paris together and they spent hours and hours – those dresses took hours and hours, you know, and that would be hours in one another’s presence. So, they were drawn together by just the work and the creative collaboration of that. And, you know, over time – I think a turning point year was 1862. Early in that, in that year, in February, the Lincoln’s second son, second oldest son, Willie died at the age of 12, and that was a turning point for Mary, I think. Plunged her into real depression and grief and at that point she also came to lean more and more heavily on Keckly. So I think there’s that, and then I think another bond they shared was frankly growing up on, you know, each on another side of slavery. But the experience of being, of being raised in a household um, in the south, Virginia for Elizabeth Keckly, Mary Lincoln in Kentucky. Um, Lizzie was on the, you know, enslaved, she was in the big house taking care of the children, the, the “master’s” children and, you know, Mary Lincoln was the master’s children in her house and was cared for after the death of her mother by an enslaved woman. So I think that the, whatever the sort of, I’m not sure if the right word to use is “etiquette” of these relationship between the household enslaved, that I think also they underst– they had, uh…
JC: Would you say that they, like, felt like they knew how to act around each other?
JF: Yeah that’s what I’m trying to say, there’s a certain kind of protocol and modes of behavior, and a sort of understanding perhaps of boundaries, but also how those boundaries are fluid.
CH: In the Lincoln White House, Elizabeth Keckly was not the only light-skinned Black person with close access to the First Family. Another prominent member of DC’s African-American community, William Slade, worked as Lincoln’s valet, and was also relatively light in complexion.
JC: Karen had something interesting to add about the intersection of colorism and gender, with regard to the different Black men working in the Lincoln White House:
KGB: I have this theory that sometimes it is easier for, for a white employer to have people around him who look a little bit more like him than this bigger jump to, say, the color of his bodyguard, Mr. Johnson, who was very dark, and who was hazed by a lot of the paler White House colored people, because of his color. To do this, because, you’re not immediately reminded of America’s original sin. You know, it’s like, you don’t have to make that big psychological jump, it’s like- uh oh, I wonder if he’s mad at me, because- And in fact, as I understand it, Mr. Slade used to kind of brag a little bit about his elevated Southern aristocratic ancestry. Well, where did that come from, Mr. Slade? It came from a form of sexual coercion, if not outright assault, that produced many pale Black people, who were, as you can imagine, some of them, zealously safeguarding their paleness and maybe intermarrying and trying to pass it along to their children, because it was perceived as an advantage, in some situations. Although I should say, ironically, it’s kind of interesting, that there were advantages to that, but there were also disadvantages, because pale Black men, societally speaking, may be considered desirable in some circles – in other circles, it’s like: well, they’re not manly enough because look at what color they are. Mr. Johnson, you know, good example. He was a black Black man, who was chosen to be Lincoln’s bodyguard because he looked strong and manly, and as if he could take on all comers. They did not have him serving soup in the family dining room. Well and, even, you know, it continues to this day. I mean, I’m too old to really be into hip hop, but even I know there’s been this long discussion about Drake v. Kanye and who’s the “real Black man.” So it’s, you know, there are vestiges of that even now.
CH: Elizabeth Keckly’s son George was even lighter-skinned than she. Jennifer told us more about how Elizabeth thought of his racial identity and social position differently than her own.
JF: So, Elizabeth Keckly, or as she was born Lizzy, Elizabeth Hobbes, born enslaved, she may have been biracial but she, again, talked about her race. But her son, her son who I believe was born around 1841, he was the product of four years of sexual persecution when Lizzy was, during her teens, sent down from the Burwell home in Virginia to be the only slave in the household of the eldest son, Robert, and his wife, Anna, and they were in Hillsborough, North Carolina. And this is the darkest period of her life when she was beaten and when she was sexually assaulted and, you know, persecuted for four years by the son of one of the prominent landholders in, in the town, a man named Alexander Kirkland, and so her son, who was light enough to pass, and we know this because he enlisted as a white man, um, into the first Missouri regiment in 1861 at the beginning of the war – and he was born around 1841 and when – after his birth Lizzy was sent back to Virginia to be with the Burwell family away from Hillsborough, uh, she named her son- so here’s an example about the complex identities: she named him George. George was the name of her, her enslaved father, the man she knew as her father and whom she considered her father. You know Lizzy when she talks about him racially, and this is actually I think kind of an interesting and important, you know, the first thing – mention she makes about having a child, in the way that she did is that this is not a child she ever wanted, and yet she loved him. She talks about, why shouldn’t my son be free? He is half. You know, Anglo-Saxon blood runs in his veins as much as African blood, he is half white, why shouldn’t he claim, the freedom of his nature, that’s naturally owed to him? I think that – and again, you know she, he enlisted as a white man, uh, and my – his life would have been different from hers, right? College educated, the things that she couldn’t have, and so, again, this is something to ask, perhaps someone else, but there is a sort of generational shift, you know, that you see – she’s giving him, he is going to ha- he would have, he would be having a life she couldn’t have.
JC: Parents of all kinds hope their children will have better lives than they did. It’s so moving and so complicated, that part of how Keckly wished that for her son was in getting more access to whiteness than she herself had been able to claim.
CH: As Karen alluded to earlier, in many cases, the reason pale Black people exist is because of assaults on enslaved Black women by white enslavers. Mrs. Keckly and her son both fit into this category. A.B. told us about how the ways of talking about this kind of mixture were changing during Keckly’s lifetime, as the word miscegenation emerged to stoke fears about Black freedom.
ABW: So the term, ah, miscegenation comes out of the Latin “to mix race or kind,” and the term is coined in the ah, Civil War period by some undercover Democrats who were opposing Lincoln’s reelection bid, and so they come up with this term miscegenation and kind of say well, Lincoln is in favor of this, of mixing of the races and with that, with that term miscegenation and what people will come to identify as anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented people of different races from marrying or having a sexual relationship – these laws were already in place but just weren’t called anti-miscegenation, of course, the term hadn’t been coined yet, but they were in place since the 1600s and are in place until 1967 with the Supreme Court decision of Loving vs. Virginia, kind of outlaws them – and they’re still in over a dozen states, I believe, by that point. But they, they kind of reify or kind of cement these ideas around racial mixture and, and, kind of help propagate the ideas around the One Drop Rule, that if one is of slightly mixed African ancestry with European ancestry that the person is kind of fully Black. So yeah, that miscegenation term coming out during Lincoln’s time is really a, really a seismic shift, really the Civil War and the outlawing of chattel slavery and the 13th Amendment and other amendments to come out of the Civil War, these things show progress but also there’s a regression that also kind of takes place in terms of the way that we think about races of people and kind of reclassifying people who might have been termed mixed before even further and harder within, kind of that Black and/or Negro category.
JC: It’s making me think about that there were folks for whom mixing of the races, as it were, was okay under a slavery context, or in a specific context under slavery, but suddenly would not be okay, should the participants all be free and ostensibly more equal members of society.
ABW: Exactly, exactly. And so there’s this, you know again, a great irony, there’s great mixing within slavery that is just not termed legitimate, and people can’t easily marry of course and that there’s a lot of sexual abuse and rape of slave women that is taking place systematically, and nobody is really saying anything about it. In fact, it’s the biggest open secret that everybody knows is happening but nobody does anything about, really to prevent, you know, and protect these enslaved women but then when everyone’s free the big fear is that, oh, there’s going to be this mixing of the races and this will lead to, you know, really bad things.
CH: A lot of the time when we talk about race in America, we talk about it on this binary of black people and white people. But of course, it’s more complicated than that. Not only are there folks like Elizabeth Keckly whose very existence gives the lie to those rigid categories, but also there are folks with neither African nor European heritage who count themselves American, and have been part of the story from the beginning.
JC: Their children have also been affected by anti-miscegenation laws and by the hierarchies that put whiteness on top. Speaking of which, colorism is not just an American problem:
KGB: I’m sort of bouncing back to color prejudice – it’s not just the United States. Although obviously we think about it more about us, because everybody thinks about themselves more than anything else. But when you look at South Asia, at Korea especially, how much a pale complexion is prized. You know, it’s funny, here in LA we have a large Korean immigrant and Korean-American community and so people will often wander into stores in K-Town and say: I want a really good sunscreen, and I know you know what that is. Because they are determined to keep that pale – you know, people are now using face shields to protect themselves from back spray from corona, but we used to see tinted versions of that when the Korean ladies were out. In Africa, especially in places in West Africa that I’m familiar with, bleaching cream was a big deal, they’re trying to get women to stop using it. Ah, you can get mercury poisoning from it, it’s bad for your health. But, you know, you can’t erase the vestiges of a colonial past that easily, especially if you’re a fashionable woman, you know, you pore through the pages of fashion magazines, who looks back at you? Very pale women, until fairly recently.
CH: We asked Karen, what happens next? What is the next frontier for the conversation around mixed people?
KGB: I don’t know what happens going forward, because the world is getting more and more intermixed, and not just on the black-white binary. You know, Asian and Latinx and, you name it. So after a while – I remember listening to an older man say: I don’t know what all this fuss is about, you know, skin color, y’all should just do what I did, marry somebody of another race and after a while everybody will be the same color, and things will be fine. And it’s like: that’s a remarkably facile analysis, but okay. You know, for his part, it was wishful thinking. Humans will always differentiate from each other, you know, so even if everybody was exactly the same color – you know, it’s like that Dr. Seuss book about the Sneeches, there’s always gonna be some kind of self-selection until people get smarter about that. So I don’t think all of us being the same color is the answer – or the future! But I think making color matter a lot less, if at all, is a good thing to strive for.
JC: A.B. gave us some even further frontiers to think about: how can we talk about racial categorization without accidentally reinforcing what is harmful about it?
ABW: It’s interesting, earlier I kind of explained a little bit of the history of “people of color” and that term has made a resurgence, which has been interesting to me just because I’m writing about it at the same time that people are using that phrase more commonly. But it’s an older term, it has its problems as well. Because we’re still operating kind of within this racial context where there’s white and non-white, or people of color. For people of mixed ancestry, I, you know, really just the term “mixed,” it’s interesting to see that kind of take off just as a term itself, that people know what mixed is, if you just say, “oh, well that kid over there is mixed,” or, you know, “their family is mixed.” Which was a term that was used during the colonial period as well – at least I’ve come across it, but usually mixed blood, they’ll talk about people of mixed blood. But I wonder what we mean when we say the term mixed, even myself when I’m using it. If I’m saying, well race doesn’t really exist, you can’t really mix races, but we have the idea that you still can, right? So, it goes back to that kind of question, how do we talk about these things without propagating them? You know I, I prefer the term “mixed heritage” over “mixed race.” I really don’t use mixed race or talk about racial mixture unless I’m talking about what people think… yeah, mixed ethnicity.
JC: That’s what I was going to say, to try to take race out of the vocabulary. To say, these people have different communities in their background, not like, they are two colors that were mixed together.
CH: Yeah you know it’s – my husband, when someone, you know, people have asked him that, he’ll say: “my dad is Caucasian, my mom is Korean.” You know, I’ve never once heard him describe himself as mixed or anything like that. He, he gets very specific…
ABW: Yeah, you know, I think about it in terms of culture. Yeah, I sometimes say, “oh, my research is a lot like me-search because my family is very mixed.” My father is of African American and Native American ancestry, probably some European as well, though that’s not talked about on that side of the family, and then my mother is of European ancestry, French, Irish, Norwegian and German. And so, yeah, I – I think about things culturally, I think, for myself at least in those terms.
JC: If you think about, as Jennifer described to us, little Elizabeth Keckly, at four years old, brought into the “big house,” where, although she herself had no idea, it was obvious to everyone around her who her father was – she was already living the complexities of her racial identity. Her specific heritage came with advantages like learning to read, but it also remained a very dangerous position because Lizzie was more vulnerable to the mistress of the house, who despised her as a living, visible symbol of her husband’s betrayal. Keckly negotiated race from the beginning of her life, and that’s still true for children today.
CH: Yea, you know, to, to hear about Elizabeth Keckly as a young child, as you’ve described, and to know that this very question that we’ve spent so much time thinking about in all its complexity was asked by a child, really just underscores how early children are aware of race and have to navigate it. That really highlights for me just how important it is to talk to children about race and racial bias even at an early age. Nina agreed:
NJ: I’ll be honest, my own view is that programs that attempt to combat implicit bias in adults will always be fighting a terrific uphill battle. Because I think if kids understand why skin color evolved to be as it is, and why people classified people according to skin color years and years ago, they’re in a better position to say “Hm, ok, I get that, and it’s really cool that skin evolved in this way, but why are we holding onto these old ideas?”
JC: One of my favorite things about talking to kids about slavery at the Cottage is that the unfairness of it is so transparent to them, and they are ready in a second to call that out. Children have a great deal of power, in their perceptiveness and in the forthright strength of their belief, but they’re also uniquely vulnerable to absorbing harm from the world around them.
CH: Which means, it’s our responsibility, as adults, to work to recognize what harmful things we’ve picked up as kids and to keep it from damaging others in turn. In service of that, what moment of surprise can you double-check yourself on? What old ideas are you holding on to that you’d like to be free of?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for helping us rethink the boxes we’d been putting people into.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!