NARRATION: I discovered this essay recently.
It’s called “Letter to Ma,” by Merle Woo.
It’s written by a Korean American woman to her immigrant mother.
Let me read you a snippet here.
“Because of your life, because of the physical security you have given me: my education, my full stomach, my clothed and starched back, my piano and dancing lessons — all those gifts you never received — I saw myself as having worth; now I begin to love myself more, see our potential, and fight for just that kind of social change that will affirm me, my race, my sex, my heritage.
“And while I affirm myself, Ma, I affirm you.”
After I read this essay, I became captivated by the idea of inheritance. The things parents pass on to kids, from one generation to another. Things that make us who we are.
I have my mother’s round nose and my dad’s crooked teeth. You can see that on my face just by looking at me.
But there are less obvious forms of inheritance. And that’s the inheritance of struggle, of ambition, and of dreams.
It’s the very element that makes up our heritage.
Actually, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I realized that inheritance and heritage have the same root: heres, which means “heir.”
It’s this hope that the children will carry on from where their parents left off — and build upon what they’ve started. That they’ll make things better for themselves and for the world.
But what if part of what we inherit is a history of racial injustice? And what if the way you look, the physical traits you inherited (or didn’t), offered a different way to navigate the racially unjust world?
Today on “Other: Mixed Race in America,” we have two stories about inheritance: stories about what gets passed on, and about the long history of passing.
It was spring of 1897.
Forty years after the Dred Scott decision established that blacks, free or slave, were not citizens of the United States.
Thirty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
And one year after the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision sanctioned segregation by relying on the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Anita Hemmings was months away from graduating Vassar College.
TANABE: So Vassar was a very different school than it is today. I think when you think Vassar now, you either think, like, old girls-club-type school from when it was single sex, and now it’s a very liberal school with a high proud gay population. So when Anita went to school, it was very, very conservative.
NARRATION: Karin Tanabe is an expert on Anita Hemmings. She’s also a Vassar alumna who wrote a historical novel based on Anita’s life called “The Gilded Years.”
TANABE: So Anita Hemmings was really take-your-breath-away pretty. And this is at a time where there was not a lot a girl could do, shall I say, to improve her looks. The hairdos were rough, they didn’t wear makeup, she was just naturally gorgeous,
And at the time, the girls all wore their hair parted in the middle, and then put high in a bun, which sounds very ugly, and it was. But Anita Hemmings could pull it off. A lot of her classmates when she arrived speculated that she was Spanish or Native American; she had very straight, dark hair.
NARRATION: She was even voted class beauty.
Anita was incredibly ambitious, which you can tell by reading her resume. She sang soprano in the choir. She was a member of the debate team. She spoke Greek and Latin.
I don’t have to tell you this, but career options for women at the time were extremely limited. You could basically be a mother or you could be a teacher. And as a child growing up in Boston, Anita dreamed of becoming a teacher.
Her senior year at Northfield Seminary, she set her heart on the best women’s college in the country: Vassar College.
TANABE: So at the time, you had to take these rigorous entrance exams to get into school, nothing like the SATs, more like tons of subjects — Greek, Latin, math — I mean I would’ve never, ever gotten into college, but Anita studied for a whole year to pass that test at Northfield.
NARRATION: On the Vassar application —
TANABE: — she wrote “English and French” because they asked your ethnicity, and she just left off a tiny detail.
NARRATION: One tiny detail: The brilliant, beautiful, outgoing Anita Hemmings was black.
She didn’t look it, though.
Both of her parents descended from slaves and had mixed ancestry. And they encouraged Anita to pass as white so she could go to Vassar.
TANABE: Anita certainly fit in because she was smart and she was talented and she was curious, but she would’ve also encountered the n-word I saw many times in the school newspaper. So while I think she probably loved a lot of things about the school, she certainly encountered racism from every corner.
NARRATION: But Anita flourished.
TANABE: Her comfort at Vassar, her happiness at Vassar, were in many ways her downfall. If she had just kept to herself, maybe stayed in a single or something, had no friends, maybe her secret would’ve been safe.
NARRATION: Her secret didn’t stay safe.
And the fallout nearly destroyed everything she worked so hard to accomplish.
At the beginning of her junior year, Anita moved into a double dorm room with Louise Taylor, a girl from South Orange, New Jersey.
TANABE: So I think perhaps to her, Anita was this beautiful, talented, very intelligent girl that she was very excited to have as a friend.
NARRATION: But in September of 1896, a small detail piqued Louise’s suspicion.
The fall of their senior year, an item in the Boston Daily Globe mentioned the wedding of a prominent African American couple, Bessie Baker and William Henry Lewis. Among the list of bridesmaids, Louise spotted one familiar name: Anita Hemmings.
Surely this wasn’t her friend Anita.
Then again, Anita never spoke of her family. And she did have a bit of dark coloring to her.
Louise grew suspicious over the following months.
TANABE: So suspicious that she had her father hire a private detective to go all the way from New Jersey to Roxbury in Boston to find the Hemmings family and confirm that they were not white.
NARRATION: At the time, some colleges allowed select African American students to enroll. Of course, Vassar wasn’t one of them. But even then, only one or two students would be admitted, and they definitely wouldn’t share rooms with white students.
Armed with proof that Anita was black, Louise petitioned Vassar’s president to expel her.
That didn’t happen.
The school decided to let Anita graduate, since she had made it so far. As long as everyone kept their mouths shut, no one would need to know that a black girl tricked everyone at Vassar.
Except — that didn’t happen either.
TANABE: After she graduated, she went up to Martha’s Vineyard where her mother ran a boardinghouse in what was then Cottage City — which is the predominantly African American area of Martha’s Vineyard. And she went to work there for the summer, as she did every summer before, and it was there that she found out that she was headline news.
NARRATION: Every major newspaper in the country printed Anita’s class photo.
It was a scandal.
No one could believe that an African American girl had graduated from THE Vassar College.
TANABE: They actually printed her address, they drew a picture of her house, so you have a picture of her house, you have a picture of her face, you have her address, it’s pretty darn easy to stalk this girl. She sort of went into hiding after that.
NARRATION: Anita would never realize her dream of becoming a teacher.
After the scandal faded, Anita found a job as a foreign language cataloger at the Boston Public Library.
It was there that she met Dr. Andrew Love, a light-skinned black man. They would marry, and, as a couple, they would pass as white for the rest of their lives.
Passing wasn’t an uncommon practice for African Americans at the time. Remember, we’re only a generation removed from the Civil War at this point. Looking quote unquote “white” could be your ticket to a better life.
Calvin Warren is an assistant professor in American studies at George Washington University.
He told me that passing challenges the concrete idea we have of race, while also reinforcing the societal importance of it.
For example, if you can’t tell someone is black from looking at them, what does that mean about race in general?
WARREN: Scientists have begun to disprove that, to reveal it or expose it as a myth, that these racial categories are really social constructions … So for example, you can have two black people who look very dark skinned, and they can have an extremely light-skinned child that might look white. Well, what is the status of that child? Those kinds of questions pose problems to the science of race.
NARRATION: Transgressing these expectations by passing can feel confusing.
WARREN: You don’t feel like you belong because you believe that there are these valid categories of racial purity. But the categories themselves are fiction. And fiction can be deadly, too. Ghosts can terrorize.
How do we talk about race without reaffirming the fallacious myths of race? But at the same time, the presence of this mixed-race person throws all of that into crisis. So it’s really about society, and not about the mixed-race person. Right? To use a cliche, it’s not about you — it’s about all of us.
NARRATION: Which brings us to our second story.
It was the fall of 2015.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Plessy and Dred Scott were long dead and discredited.
And Barack Obama was president.
Sarah Heikkinen was a senior at SUNY Oneonta.
SARAH: I had just declared the Africana and Latina studies minor the semester prior. So I was finishing it up because I had taken a bunch of the classes that would work for the minor, and then I decided, you know, why not actually get credit for it by declaring the minor?
NARRATION: So she enrolled in a race/class/gender/culture class to fill out her minor.
About a month into the class, Sarah discovered the poem “on not bein,” by Mary Hope Whitehead Lee.
TAPE: “she never wanted / no never one / did she wanna / be white / to pass / dreamed only of bein darker / she wanted to be darker / not yellow / not no high brown neither / but brown, warm brown”
NARRATION: Sarah broke down crying in the middle of her class discussion.
SARAH: It’s about being light-skinned and not feeling like you’re black enough … so when I read it, I was just like “Oh my god.”
NARRATION: Sarah’s biracial.
Her mother is black and her father is white — and Sarah grew up with her single mom in Neversink, New York. Her mother worked as a nurse for most of Sarah’s life.
Sarah lists the characteristics she inherited from her mother.
SARAH: Her stubbornness, her passion, her temper. … She’s a really good cook, and I think I’m a pretty good cook.
She’s always told me she always felt like she had to be better. She always felt that there was that pressure to just, to be better than the white nurses. Because they could be just, like, adequate and they would be fine, but if she were adequate, or, like, just adequate, then that would reflect poorly on her as a black woman and as a black nurse.
ALEX: Do you feel like you inherited any of that?
SARAH: Like the need to be better? Um, definitely. Yeah. Yeah, I definitely have.
NARRATION: Her mother instilled a strong black identity in her, and raised her on a steady diet of current events and stories from the civil rights movement.
SARAH: I’ve always been pretty politically aware because my mom always was. As a black woman, she faced discrimination her entire life from a very young age. … And she never minced her words, I guess. She never censored her own experiences with racism.
NARRATION: But here’s the thing.
Sarah doesn’t look black.
SARAH: I have blond curly hair, hazel green eyes. And I’m pale with a lot of freckles, like my whole body is covered in freckles.
I’d always have to pull out a picture on my phone of my mom and I or something and be like, “Yeah, that’s my mom.” Because people wouldn’t believe me, or they’d be like, “Oh, she has to be really, really light” or “Is your mom mixed?” And I’d be like, “No, she’s not. She’s light-skinned, but she’s not mixed.”
NARRATION: She always had to prove that she was black.
SARAH: In fifth grade, it was recess … and I was sitting in a gym with these two other kids who were also mixed but who looked mixed, like they had darker skin than I did. And the guy said that he and the girl were Oreos, because they were black on the outside and white on the inside. And then he said, “Sarah, you’re an Uh-Oh Oreo because you’re white on the outside and black on the inside.” And as a fifth-grader, I was just like, “Okay … I don’t really understand this. I think I’m kind of upset about it? But I don’t know why.”
NARRATION: But as she cried quietly in class, Sarah realized she understood why.
SARAH: I never thought there were people like me, you know, which I think was kind of naive in a way, but people don’t talk about it. … Reading those things really opened my mind to be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one.”
NARRATION: Sarah went home from class and wrote a response to the poem.
She wrote about being called an “Uh-Oh Oreo.”
She wrote about the demands that she produce a photo of her mother to prove her blackness.
She wrote about feeling like she wasn’t enough, either.
And she wrote about the guilt she felt having experienced privileges her relatives would never see.
SARAH: I fully acknowledge how weird it is that sometimes I wish that I couldn’t pass, you know? That like, I had darker skin like my mom or my brother and sister. Because I feel disappointed and guilty that I am constantly benefiting from the color of my skin.
I think I’ve always felt guilty that my sister was called the n-word in fifth grade. And that was never something that happened to me, which I’m lucky for, because that’s a terrible thing to have happened to you, especially as a child. But nobody ever said anything racist directed at me; like, they said racist things around me, but they were never directed at me.
NARRATION: She had never articulated these emotions.
But the next week when she returned to class, she stood in front of the room and read her response aloud.
SARAH: I was nervous about the other people in the class who maybe didn’t know, had never heard of passing. Or who wouldn’t believe me.
I looked over at my professor, and I mouthed, “I can’t do this.” And he whispered back to me, “Yes, you can.”
NARRATION: Sarah managed to finish reading without running out of the room. When she finished, she was crying again.
SARAH: I think that was the moment where I finally let it break through instead of just letting it sit and get harder and harder and more and angrier.
NARRATION: And her classmates didn’t respond at all the way she thought they would.
SARAH: This one girl who was also mixed, she came up to me and she … was just like, “That was really powerful.”
NARRATION: Her classmates piled her desk high with Post-its and slips of paper with messages like “That was really brave” and “You are enough.”
Both Anita and Sarah passed as white. Both “came out” to their college classmates as black in their senior years of college.
Anita’s identity as a black woman was made public against her will. After graduation, she returned to secrecy and lived the rest of her life as a white woman. She never got the career she’d been reaching for.
Sarah’s story ends differently, but she still carries her inherited racial anxiety.
SARAH: I’m still definitely hard on myself for a lot of reasons, but I think I worry less about telling people that I’m biracial. I’m not as paranoid that they’re going to think I’m lying or demand proof or anything, as I was a year ago. I still deal with those feelings, but it’s less prominent, like it’s not the first thing I think when it comes up.
NARRATION: Every day, she affirms her identity as a black woman.
It’s not easy or perfect, but she doesn’t hide.
She’s picked up where her mother left off.
Where Anita Hemmings left off.
Learn more about the other episodes here:
- Race is more than just black and white. This new podcast explores some of that middle ground.
- Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person
- What happens to your cultural heritage when you marry someone of a different race?
- The long history and legacy of passing in America
- The debate over who counts as ‘American’ is nothing new. Just ask this woman who was put in an internment camp when she was 10.
- ‘That’s my story’: Heidi Durrow on why stories about multiracial identity just aren’t niche offerings
- How Ruth Ozeki renamed herself