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January 29th, 2012
05:34 PM ET

Don Lemon: Legacy of 'one drop' rule inspires search for family history

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 is  final installment of  a three-part series about the 1ne Drop Project. Read Don Lemon's column, "It only takes one drop," and Yaba Blay's column, "What does Blackness look like?"

The video above contains offensive language. Viewer discretion is advised.

By Don Lemon, CNN

You never know from where inspiration will come.

I am often envious of my friends who can recite stories about ancestors that have been handed down through generations. I can’t do that. As a descendant of slavery in America, that hasn't felt possible for me. Truthfully, I didn’t think about it much until a few weeks ago, after I was asked by CNN’s In America team to write about the impact of a mixed racial background on my life, the idea that "one drop" of black blood makes you black.

In that article, I wrote about how my aunt and grandmother in Louisiana often were mistaken for white. I wrote about the extremes they went to in order to protect their husbands, who were black, from beatings by white men, or worse.

As I began to write the article, I sent a text message to my mother asking that she email photos of my aunt and grandmother. She sent me what she had, but asked why I wanted them. I told her I’d call to explain once I got home that evening.

When I finished the draft of the article, I zipped off a copy to her via email. A few minutes later, as I was driving home from work, my phone rang. When my mother began to tell me the stories of my aunt and grandmother, I had to pull over in a parking lot to take it all in. Some of it I knew. Much of it I didn’t.

My mother said, “Don, your aunt and grandmother really are quintessential ‘one drop’ Americans.”

“Why, mom?” I asked.

“I know you overheard some of this as a child, but your aunt’s father was a white man,” she said. “Your grandmother’s father was a white man.”

“Yes,” I said, “I remember now.”

Lemon's aunt and grandmother were often mistaken for white.

My aunt, my grandmother's eldest daughter and the one often mistaken for white, was the product of rape, my mother told me. My grandmother worked for a white family in a small Louisiana town in the 1920s. According to my mom and other family members, the man of the house raped my grandmother. She was barely a teenager at the time.

When her grandfather found out about the rape, my mother said, he picked up a shotgun intending to kill the man. But his siblings held him down long enough for his anger to subside, long enough to talk him out of it. A good thing, according to my mother - the man who raped my grandmother was also the town sheriff.

It wasn't the first time it had happened in my family. My grandmother's father also was white. Her mother died during childbirth, and in 1919 Louisiana, it was all but impossible for a white man to raise a black child. So, her grandparents took her in.

Confused? I am too.

But that's what inspired me: I want to trace my ancestry. I’ve reached out to an expert, Henry Louis Gates Jr., to guide me through it.

Wish me luck.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Don Lemon.

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Filed under: Black in America • Discrimination • History • How we look
soundoff (230 Responses)
  1. Lynn Harshman Sept. 8, 2012

    You intervied Wassserman today. That was fine. However, I'd like you to consider that the Jews in Americn are not Jewish Americans, they are American Jews, much the same as Americans of any other rreligious group.
    The reference to America indicates the origan of citiizenship, not of religon or race.
    I enjoy your weekend prgrams on CCN, You seem to appreciate "facts" this is one.. Thanks, Lynn~

    September 8, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. search

    Definitely consider that which you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be on the net the simplest factor to have in mind of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed even as other people consider concerns that they plainly do not realize about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the highest and also defined out the entire thing with no need side effect , people could take a signal. Will likely be again to get more. Thanks

    May 10, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Monique

    I am not sure when the strong racial tensions in America will ever really dissipate. The black experience in North America is so very different from that in the Caribbean even though a similar history is written. Strong hate between the races was ingrained very deeply into the culture in North America, whereas in the Caribbean you could say it was a different type of mental slavery.

    I never experienced racism growing up, instead I knew that classism existed. In school we all mixed together very easily. So when I was in North America for university meeting 20-somethings & 30-somethings of mixed race say they didn't know who they are was something I never understood. Those of mixed race I grew up with have never felt so torn in this way.

    As life would have it, here I am now in a mixed-race marriage with the responsibility of making my children know and love both of our cultures & languages, and teaching them to appreciate their uniqueness.

    By the way, good luck Don in tracing your ancestry.

    All the best,
    Monique

    February 4, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  4. abigail Mcelroy

    That geneaology stuff is not easy. I've been trying to research my irish roots, but unfortunately the records building in dublin got burnt down during their war in the 1920's, so everything from the 1860' to 1900 is virtually gone ! So i'm stuck with patching through census reports & searching ship records , praying for matches, and fighting nyc's red tape on geneaology research. I feel for you , I wish you luck, & also there is a lady that's a friend of mine, she's african american and researches all kinds of geneaolgy records so much of it is african american history . Look for her on facebook robin foster, or saving stories on twitter. She will help you out ,I'm sure of it. Good Luck.:)

    February 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Chris Martin

    CNN is racist by allowing the "N" word based on this mans ethnicity. If it were white interview, the "N" word would be edited (censored) and there would not be a nice little tag warning you of offensive language. It would be considered a "hate crime". This is America today !

    February 1, 2012 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
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