Archive for November 28, 2016

The Art of Passing

Our shifting national demographics over the past generation have foretold the end of the dominant role of the white male in US politics. We’re losing our grip, and we’re scared. Some readers of the tea leaves say that the surprise showing of rural white males at the polls on election day this year in a few key rustbelt states shows how desperate we white males are to hold on to that grip, reckless as The Donald may be.

The front page of our Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer this week gave us nine fetching portraits of the members of the Alhamoud family wrapped around the title “Finding Home.” This three-part series on the immigration process over the past year for this local family of Syrians comes to us the week after the election of a man who has repeatedly threatened to “register” all Muslims in this country and deport unspecified numbers of immigrants and build the iconic wall against immigration. This series—the warmth of these pictures and the endearing details of the ways these seven children, ages 2-13, and their two parents, Ahlam and Marie, have found some kind of home here—is clearly aimed at winning our hearts.  It won mine.

Two weeks ago our grandson Santiago Chavez Wulsin was born in Cincinnati, delivered by his Mexican-born and raised mother, an immigrant and a US citizen for the past three years, and our much loved daughter-in-law for the past seven years. On the day Santiago was born I happened to be in Texas, where I spent much of the day talking with my older brother about the mystery of our great-great-grandfather Drausin Vulsin Bacas. Why did this French-speaking man of 36 suddenly leave New Orleans in 1851 with his wife and five children, travel north to Cincinnati, change his family name to Wulsin, and settle here, never to return home?  Why at the same time did both of Drausin’s brothers and a sister leave the family home in New Orleans, all of them cut out of the will of their father Barthelme Bacas? It was time for them to get out of town.

We may never know the critical incident forcing their move, but the best working guess so far is that a new rise in the tide of racism drove them north. After generations of tolerance for people of mixed race under French rule in New Orleans, the French Revolution of 1848 resulted in New Orleans shifting to a more British influence with rising racial hostility. Though the New Orleans census of 1850 listed his father Barthelme Bacas as white, Drausin’s mother Adelaide, Drausin’s wife Josephine, and Drausin himself, along with his siblings, were all listed as mixed race. Doors once open to them began to close, including the door to their father’s estate.

We owe this guess partly to the work of Bliss Broyard. Having been raised in the privileged white life around Fairfield, Connecticut, in the 1970’s and 80’s, she spent the years after the death of her father Anatole Broyard in 1990 discovering his Creole roots in New Orleans, where he had been born, and later in Brooklyn where he was raised in a black family—a family that he had denied to his East Coast family and friends for much of his adult “white” life.

In Chapter 15 of One Drop (2007) Bliss Broyard writes about the forces in 1848 that drove her white great-great-grandfather to pass as black in order to avoid the appearance of a mixed race marriage, since his wife was clearly black. Broyard cites the Fugitive Slave Act, the Dred Scott case, and the call from the New Orleans Daily Picayune for the expulsion of all free Negroes from the city as some of the forces that fed the new intolerance of even “one drop” of black blood. Broyard notes that “more than 80 per cent of the free blacks in New Orleans were of mixed race in 1860, and they’d already been emulating white social mores for years.” By 1860 another local paper the Daily Delta observed that “scarcely a week passes but a large number of free persons [of color] leave this port for Mexico or Haiti.”

So it has only now dawned on us, my siblings and me, that though we were also raised in a privileged white world and so sure of our belonging, our great-great- grandfather Drausin Vulsin Bacas came to Cincinnati as an immigrant from a hostile culture with a funny name speaking a foreign language (French) and urgently needing to pass as white in this melting pot town nicknamed Porkopolis. For this fair-skinned music teacher and father of five, mastering the art of passing during the buildup to the Civil War was a matter of survival. All four of his sons served in the Union Army against the South, their homeland. One son later became a prominent lawyer and another the president of the Baldwin Piano Company, securing a place for their families in Cincinnati’s white society.

In our extended Wulsin family the truth about our mixed race roots was effectively buried as soon as they arrived in Cincinnati, and this intentional silence was carefully passed down across the generations. Then in the 1950’s our grandfather started to dig into his genealogy, but he abandoned his inquiries just shy of discovering that Adelaide, his grandmother, had been a Free Woman of Color and his grandfather was mixed race in the New Orleans census of 1850, but white in the Cincinnati census of 1860. Only in my generation have we come to that truth.

Drausin Wulsin and his children may have had to deny their homeland more than most immigrants, but denial is a part of the immigrant’s dilemma: how to fit in to the new culture without your roots. How do you reinvent yourself without losing your identity? Isn’t this the dilemma for our local Alhamoud family? Some truths about their homeland they might also keep to themselves.

At first glance the practice of passing as someone you’re not may seem like an act of deception, an act of questionable ethics. Bliss Broyard was initially angry at having been deceived by her father about her heritage for all of her childhood. But people usually pass in this way for love or money or survival. Martha Sandweiss tells us in Passing Strange (2009) about the brilliant white geologist Clarence King from Manhattan who passed for a black Pullman porter to secure his marriage in Brooklyn to a black woman from Georgia, hiding his true identity from her for 13 years. Like Broyard’s ancestor, he passed for love.

We descendants of immigrants benefit to this day from our ancestors who mastered the art of passing into their adopted culture. Obama has lived along this color line, and thanks in part to his example it is less dangerous today to be mixed race in this country than in the days of my great-great-grandfather. Some day the same may be true in our country for Mexicans and Syrians and other vulnerable immigrants. Some day we may face the truth that most of us are mixed race and most are descended from immigrants. That will be a better day in a better country, even for “white” boys like me.