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Exploring the Many Shades of Black

“Black” is the most multi-cultured of all Earth’s peoples. It all began with exchanges between Native folks and African sailors/explorers long before European contact; and later, when female slaves were raped by their white slave masters and had children. Then some are mixed with Indian, some Spanish, or any other nationally. Fact is: An allele, is one of a number of alternative forms of the same gene or same genetic locus. Sometimes, different alleles can result in different observable phenotypic traits, such as different pigmentation. However, most genetic variations result in little or no observable variation. Skin shade is the result of melanin production, Vitamin D absorption, and human developmental adjustments result from both natural environmental pressures and cultural practices (This applies to all humans). Yet, “If one drop of “black” blood can define us as Negroes, its apparent then that the strength of the African people can be determined in that one drop. Once the Europeans figured that out, they tried to whip that out of us too” (The Late Richard Wilcox, Narragansett).

For some, the term black, when applied to Indians, is considered highly pejorative. Lorraine Baker (Nottoway-Pequot descendant) asserts, “There is no continent called, black.” Why call myself after something that does not exist. Self-determination is the only way to eradicate the ‘white’ other’s confusion.”

In the United States since its early history, Native Americans, African-Americans and European-Americans were classified as belonging to different races. For nearly three centuries, the criteria for membership in these groups were similar, comprising a person’s appearance, his fraction of known non-White ancestry, and his social circle. But the criteria for membership in these races diverged in the late 19th century. During Post Civil War Reconstruction, increasing numbers of Americans began to consider anyone with “one drop” of known “black” blood to be black regardless of appearance. America’s “one-drop” rule is unique in world history as it only applies here in this country. According to Ross Nutt, (Creek descendant) “Native American people are the only people who are identified as a people by a variable degree of blood, and have cards (CDIB or Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood) to identify the people as ‘qualified’ to be Indian.”

Homer Plessy was an “Octoroon,” a person having one-eighth black ancestry, who claimed his right to sit on white designated seats in Louisiana because he could pass for “White.” The Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson denied Mr. Plessy this right, thus recognizing the “one-drop” rule while legalizing Jim Crow segregation. Black Elk, a famous wi?háša wak?á? (medicine man and holy man) of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) said, “ I am an Indian. If you have one drop of Indian blood in your veins, then you are Indian.” His statement encourages that the “rule” should not be fixed, but a choice for self-affirmation.

“Life under segregation was at its best as discrimination was at its worst for racial violence and terror among people of color” (Kelly, Robin D.G., and Earl Lewis (2000) Make Our World Anew. Oxford University Press, 303-306).

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By the early 20th century, this notion of invisible blackness was made statutory in many states and widely adopted nationwide. In contrast, Amerindians continue to be defined by a certain percentage of “Indian blood” (called, blood quantum) due in large part to American slavery ethics.

In southern New England, ambivalence about American Indian differences was bound to ideas about black racial differences in the seventeenth century, local Indians could be indentured, but Caribbean Indians and blacks could be enslaved. Living with White families sped acculturation but also brought Native people into contact with enslaved and indentured blacks, among them often marriage partners. Children of Indian-black marriages were often characterized as “colored” or “black," but Indian identification and freedom depended on genealogy. For example, children of Negro women and Narragansett men were not allowed to vote as Narragansett in the 1790s and, until Rhode Island abolished slavery in 1784, could have been legally enslaved. “Colored” remained a flexible category depending on the classifier, but terms such as “mustee” ignored distinctions between people of color: “black,” “Negro” and “colored” were increasingly applied to all mixed-descent people. The persistence of slavery in some areas and a tendency to see Indian people as black also caused difficulties: during the 1840s, the Narragansett people issued membership certificates lest tribal members be mistaken for escaped slaves. The late Dr. Ella Sekatau, Narragansett Tribal Historian explains, “The one-drop rule was used to deny our existence and allowed Europeans to claim what they had stolen.”

The Handbook of American Indians, Fredrick W. Hodge, 1906, Black-Indian History, provides a capsule summery of inter-mixture of Indians and blacks, where racism has been a major issue since the colonial era and the slave era. In the twenty-first century, discrimination continues to permeate all aspects of American Indian life in the United States, and in particular, extends to American Indian communities of color, who are now being referred to as “black Indians.”

Pompey “Bruner” Fixico, Seminole Maroon descendant asserts, “Racially, I’m an African-Native American. Culturally, I’m an aspiring Seminole Maroon Descendant, but to the people of America that see me on the street, I’m just another flavor of ‘black’. I firmly believe that with this movement and the cultural renaissance that will accompany it, that we can change those perceptions for the better.” The movement he is talking about was the recently well-attended July 19, 2014 First Gathering of the National Congress of Black American Indians organized by Jay Winter Nightwolf, and host of The American Indian’s Truths on WPFW 89.3 FM. The groups founding principles are to “recognize and celebrate the histories and experiences of Native people of shared African and American Indian ancestry, and Spanish speaking indigenous people as a part of the greater American Indian experience.” The gathering received endorsement and letters of support from Maryland Gov., Martin O’Malley, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray and Prince George County Executive, Rushern L. Baker III.

To learn more about the National Congress of Black American Indians, click here.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.