Editor's note: Don Lemon anchors CNN Newsroom during weekend prime-time and serves as a correspondent across CNN's U.S. programming. He is the author of the memoir "Transparent."
This piece is part of a three-part series tied to the (1)ne Drop Project.
By Don Lemon, CNN
(CNN) - For years, the woman on the left in the photograph below could not be friendly to her own husband in public. She would pretend she didn’t know him or tell people he was her driver. She didn’t want him to be beaten in public as he had many times before.
She learned that particular survival technique from the woman in the photograph on the right, her mother and my grandmother, who had to use it from the 1930s until my grandfather died in the 1960s. Both women were often mistaken for white. And for whatever privileges my aunt and grandmother might have received for their light skin, their husbands paid for it by beatings or threats from white men. One handed-down family story that sticks with me is how my uncle was lucky to have survived a savage throttling in the 1950s after exiting a ferry crossing the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to Port Allen. Apparently, he and my aunt had let down their guard. They never did it again.
Heck, as a child, I wasn’t even sure about my grandmother or my aunt. “Is Aunt-ee Lacy white?” I’d ask. “Lacy’s black,” an adult would say. Of course the reply was followed by a big laugh and a phrase I’d never forget: “It only takes one drop.” Meaning it only takes one drop of “Negro” blood to make you black.