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.
I heard that phrase all the time as a child growing up in the South. And it wasn’t until I moved away from Louisiana as an adult that I recall anyone asking what it meant. As I wrote in my book, "Transparent", “Black America used to be, and perhaps still is, a pigmentocracy, which means that the social hierarchy is based largely on colorism.” I wrote about growing up in Louisiana, a state ruled by pigmentocracy and is at the pinnacle of color consciousness. It was borne out of slavery.
Black slaves impregnated by white slave masters bore children whose skin was so light and hair so straight that they could "pass" for white. Long story short, many of them did "pass," and so did their offspring. The ones who chose to stay on the plantation created the light skin to dark skin hierarchy that helped shape black culture. The ones who ran north toward freedom, opportunity and life as a white person, never looked back.
The alternative was to stay with the people you loved and depending on the time in history, either work on a plantation, in the field, as a maid, a driver or be relegated to some menial job with very little opportunity to advance beyond that.
If you did pass, back then, you didn’t dare tell anyone. If your cover was blown, you faced death. Imagine having to concoct a made-up history of either being an orphan or a product of an estranged family, or the only child of two parents who had already died. Even if your family were alive back home in the South, they may as well be dead because you didn’t dare contact them, except to send home an anonymous envelope with no return address containing a money order or note that read, "I’m OK. I’m alive. I love you."
To this day, the true identities of most of the people who passed are still a well-kept secret. But sooner or later, it turns up in their offspring’s DNA. Occasionally, it’s a dark-skinned child from two light-skinned, fair-haired parents. Sometimes two straight-haired parents produce a mysteriously curly-headed baby. When it does happen, the joke is often that there must be a "dark" person somewhere in the family tree. The reality is that there probably is a "dark" person in that tree, a black one who "passed" and quite possibly avoided a worse fate with a southern tree.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don Lemon.
History is important. All races have their proud and shameful moments. I think most white people don't feel good about what happened, but it's hard to be apologetic if the individual today did not participate in the heinous acts of yesterday.
I wish we as Americans would use our difficult pasts to unite: though whites, blacks, hispanics, asians, etc all have different historical experiences, everyone but the inherently rich Europeans have experienced struggle because we are all immigrants to America except for the Native Americans.
Different experiences often evoke similar feelings through struggle. We would all do well to remember that and be sympathetic to the struggles of each race and see beyond that to the individual.
As a black male, I say that all racsim is wrong. However, let's also understand that those Black people who dislike white people, realize where it comes from. It comes from a lifetime of being mistreated by the white majority people. It is like with the native americans, when I speak to them, they don't have very good things to say about white people, but folks don't understand or appreciate their feelings on the issue. Again, all rascims is wrong and two wrongs don't make a right but whites have to realize the historic trama behind the feelings or actions, in addition to the racism that is still being done by whites covertly... discrimination in hiring, racial profiling, disparities in education, housing loans, police brutality and so on.
I'm white; one of my best friends is black. That said, I do not agree with you that whites need to understand what blacks have and still go through as far as racism. My family immigrated to the USA in the early 20th century, they had nothing to do with slavery, nor racism as far as I know. I always made an effort to treat black people, (including colleagues) as would treat anyone else, unless their treatment of me warranted otherwise, ditto for whites or any other race. I must say I have encountered more black people in the workplace with chips on their shoulders including some who were my supervisors who tried to threateningly play the race card to abuse their position of authority. I wouldn't accept abuse from any authority figure, no matter what they feel they or their race went through at the hands of others. Time to stop living in the past and judge the people you meet on how they present themselves and how they individually treat you! If you are a racist, you'll be treated as such by me, if you are gang member trying to start a racial fight, I'll react accordingly to protect myself. If you are a socially adjusted, non-racist person, I'll treat you with the respect anyone with those qualities deserves. No one of any race should approach anyone with preconceived notions just because of their color. So no, I do not need to understand or appreciate why some black people hate all white people, they need to learn not all white people are equal, just like all black people are not equal.
As a new orleanian, I must say, what an amazing topic.Thanks to the author for sharing one of the most intriguing genetic histories and experiences amongst so much of our southern and historical cultures! What brave and beautiful women in your family!!
"When it does happen, the joke is often that there must be a "dark" person somewhere in the family tree. The reality is that there probably is a "dark" person in that tree, a black one who "passed" and quite possibly avoided a worse fate with a southern tree." Alas, for what's done in (and with) said "dark" must come to light, right? LOL Thanks for the reminder and a blast-from-the-past on the eve of Black History Month. I appreciate you opening Mr. Lemon- you have created a whole new world with your insight.
Why does Don Lemon feel such a need to turn himself inside out as a news anchor? What's next, a colonoscopy?
Sheesch! Why does he not focus on improving his professionalism/presentation skills instead of finding new ways to autoethnographically 'inserting' himself into the news? I cringe (when I can manage to watch him at all) waiting to see just how reactive his comments/facial features will be in the face of his coverage... Did the lesson of Rick Sanchez mean nothing to him? Just getting a little too comfortable (for me?) with himself on camera!
I would hate to be in those people's shoes back in the day's of slavery . They will pay for every thing that was done .GOD does not forget but can forgive. We are all GOD'S people .No one should every be treated like dog's even most dog's are treated better than GOD'S people .
I love your articles and this one was one of the best!! Thank you for sharing your personal life with us once again. You are an amazing young man and look forward to seeing you more on CNN!!!!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK MAN!
It amazes me at the stupidity that can come from any person. It seems everyone missed the point of the article and went off on a tirade. The bottom line is that slavery did happen and the blame is to be laid on both sides: the Africans who sold their countrymen and the Europeans who bought these people. What many of you are not realizing when you throw the blame here, there and everywhere is that all these ancestors that you are blaming belongs to both the dark skinned person and the light skinned person. Since being brought to America after being sold by Africans the blood has been mixed creating Americans. Not black Americans, not white Americans but simple Americans. I have African ancestors just as I have European ancestors. You cannot blame one while forgetting the part that the other played. History happened; we will not forget it, but I refuse to live it each day. When will we move onward and stop rehashing the past? I am proud of my ancestors, but I am also disgusted by them. The combination of these two polar opposites is what makes this country so great, and what makes us as Americans who we are. Life happens; what you do with it is up to you!
I'd say that most Americans, including myself, would agree with a lot of what you've said. Yes, most of us (whether admitted or not) part of a hybrid blending of humanity. That makes us unique and special, and I think you're right to say that we must move forward. However, remembering the past–warts and all–is not all that comfortable and usually prompts extremely emotional responses, especially in America. Remembering history is not simply a blame game. It is an attempt to understand where we are and how we got here. There are still inequities, unacceptable inequalities that arose from a complex historical calculus. You can't brush that aside (and I'm saying you are) by stating that life happens. What we do with our lives is not simply framed by personal choices–it is also influenced by those around us, and also comes from the choices made in the past that resonate to the present. Remembering history should be an exercise in reflecting on where we are as a society, how we got here, and what we can do to make life better for us all. We shouldn't be so angry at remembering the past that we put in on a shelf and simply live our lives, as though it had no impact.
History cannot be brushed aside. When I say life happens I mean we have to accept it, deal with it and move on. History teaches us so many things and how we learn from it is how we become a better nation and therefore a better world. My point is we can't let it control our future and I see that too often where we allow the deeds of the past to dictate how we live our lives. All I'm saying is we have a choice and what we do with it is how we make it better for ourselves. I am a believer in the laws; if I don't make it work for me then there is no point to them being there. Yes "racism" exists; yes there are ignorant people in the world, but I choose not to allow them to be part of my life or dictate how I live,
What is all this "hybrid" stuff about. It amazes me when you mix "White" into the equation, then all of a sudden humanity or the human race becomes a hybrid.
For starters if all it takes is just (1) drop of black blood I would accurate to say that the African Bloodline is the hybrid of all races.
It is my opionin, that when you mix with White blood you become a watered down defunct race with abnormal tendencies.
There was a time where the Black race was pure and strong and the Black race did not have all this confusion until the rape of Black Women during slavery, which then polluted the true, hybrid, authenic race of humans.
The true Hybrid is the Black Man and Woman.
You may have african ancestry but you need to go back and do a better job of studying the history of the african slave trade before making blanket statements implying that africans were mainly responsible for selling their fellow africans. The percentage of africans who sold other africans was minute compared to what the europeans did. Go back and study what the real truth is. Unfortunately such statements are made by people of european ancestry to take away from what happened historically i.e. europeans went to a land where they were not wanted and subjected the people to inhumane treatment and were the predominant force in slave trade. We can't rewrite history but we can acknowledge it and try to move on.
Thanks for sharing your story, Don. I found it heartening and it resonated for me. Too often people react to others' histories instead of underestanding that someone is extending their world to you in a friendly gesture. It is unfortunate that people forget the extent of suffering that African Americans endured in the past, and often still endure, just for having dark skin. A friend's mother passed for white and he explained to me that she used that advantage as a civil servant during the 1940s through 1960s to help other African Americans when she could. How is that wrong? It's not wrong White people help each other all the time. Gay people were often victimized, too, put in jail, or killed, when we did not pass for straight. Gays don't have to pass for straight anymore, and like African Americans, we want to remember our history. Our history holds lessons for us. It helps us see how our past forms the present and it provides insights into the present.
And many times they suffer under the hand of their own. The darker you are the more you get picked upon.
Who cares? The past is history. How about kids going to bed hungry, Darfur, Global warming, the economy???
Keep living in the past and ignore the present and future....very bright.
Ignore the past and there will be no future–at least not one worth living in.
You think slavery might return? Geeeesh
I remember reading this fascinating book many years ago - worth it -
Another great article. And of course they always have to come with some ignorant white people whining and telling black people to get over it. Typical.
The Jews went through worse and you don't here them whining daily about it.
My mother died this past June at the age of 99 1/2, her mother was born 1896, my aunt Lizzie, was born in 1877,and very proud to be born a free woman. Her brother was my grandfather.Their great-grandparents was sold by family members to traders in Africa.They were taken to Virginia by boat and sold. The father and son was sold to the Adair family,and the mother was never seen again.
I wonder is the Adair family the same one who founded the oil fire fighting company in Texas?
The reality is there is 'dark' blood in every one of us! All of our ancestors walked out of Africa, some just earlier than others. Get over it people, we're each and every one African!
I completely agree. This is a point that should be repeated often. We are all human beings, every last one of us, and we need to strive against the fear of the differences in our humanity, the basis of all racism, which are trivial compared to our common bond. Sadly, this cannot be accepted by those who do not believe in evolution, who instead believe that God created those differences and that they must be respected, because those notions are in the Bible. They forget that while the essence of the Bible may (or may not) have been divinely inspired, its scriveners were human, and fallible.
why is it that Jews can make so much noise about the holocaust but when black talk about slavery it becomes a NONO?
Um because there are no blacks alive in the U.S. today that experienced slavery.
Playing the victim by proxy doesn't do much for your integrity.
Just vote for Newt and call it a day. Obama 2012
How is telling a story about your family's history playing the victim by proxy? So that would mean relatives of vicitms of the Holocaust would be doing the same thing? Wow. Would it make you feel better if only the "good" stories about slavery or Jim Crow were told? Oh right, that would imply that these events were a good time for all involved.
And after slavery it was Jim Crow. MLK was murdered fir ending Jim Crow and there are STILL bigots that hate Blacks and don't even get me started. On all the state flags that bear CONfederate symbols. When CONfronted with thier racism, they play the "denial" card.
Good spin Carmen but the difference is that victims of the Holocaust can tell about their experiences themselves. Go meet some and be enlightened.
Stupid is as stupid does. Racism has not gone away, it is practiced by some every single day. Just becaus things have gotten better doesn't mean it no longer exists but people like yourself want to believe there is no racism because you are not black. Realy makes me sick to know people like yourself are still walking around with such thoughts. Walk a mile in my shoes.
Racism and discrimmation didn't end the day slavery ended. God if people would only read a damn book or talk to someone Black and see what they go through most days of their lives. Even the Blacks who are racists are mostly not racist but fed up being treated differently because of the color of their skin. There are more whites than blacks, it is the whites who can and will do the most damage. It really scary to believe if there were a vote taken today how many white people would vote to reinstate slavery.
They have better PR so they went to the top.
Just another liberal piece to boost ratings and Mr. Don's career. No news here. People are people and we tend to want to keep to what is familiar. Since he's gay and black or maybe he's white, but in this piece, the black card is being played), no one is supposed to say anything against Don and if we do,there's no understanding the logic behind our thoughts, everyone who voices their opinion will automatically be shunned by the liberals. This story actually means nothing, yeah, I think we already understand what slavery was all about and that we are living with the consequences. How many people that look as if they could be both white and black do we have to hear from? Why does it matter? Did this lady wish she was one and not the other, I don't understand the premise of the story. If she didn't feel comfortable with her husband in public, sounds like the husband is the one who felt ashamed by not wanting his brown wife around his white friends. Also sounds like her husband wouldn't have stood up for her in public. Just tell the guys she fell asleep sunbathing one day...
Keith, et al,
For those of you complaining about race-baiting obviously missing the point of the article . I am also a native of Louisiana and have similar stories in my family. But unless it a situation that relates to you, it must have a sinister intent (race baiting) and you can't comprehend the impact of those situations on a family that does. It has nothing to do with seeking sympathy or race bating (tired expression).
I'm sure many of you can't appreciate the story or understand the lasting impact these very experiences have through generations (ever heard of the paper bag test?). Oh and Keith, what does Don being gay have to do with the article? Why is that relevant? You don't have to value or substantiate our stories, but why spend so much energy trying to diminish them?
Why so many words to prove your ignorance?
BLAHHHAA bravo.SEE school daze! spike lee!
Keith just wants everyone to whitewash everything.
spot on Jimmy.The call of racism is largely for benefits, a simple truth,today.It is being rehashed constantly to justify compensation.I am not responsible for what my ancestors EVER.
jimmy alienwomen.Flip the script guys ! Anontment .This is a young cuountry look at n irland .Ok so what your not responable personally Why rationalize justify NO sh$IT its Like ok stop talking about it .NO talk more keep this debate rollin It healthy good and I proud I can lokk in the mirror and say I believe ion affirmative action and Will not cross the street!
i drove from nc to qutamala On the pacific coast of s.mex 2 tiny villages one black one mixed .NO CARRIBEEN side slave shipped wrecked on teh pacific coast and tehyw ere free.this was 95 or so and it amazed me that by choice the mixed went to mixed village and darker color stayed in og village !Listen I'm white I could date white gilr in deep south ALL of them were racist Its diquisting and sad
here is another one
MF these videos have nothing todwith th article. But go ahead, if yo feel this justifies racism, hole Ypu feel better.
A drop in the bucket. Go away, and come back when you can provide evidence of White people being sold, beaten, raped, denied the possibility of learning to read and write, forced to use separate bathrooms, denied housing because of the color of their skin, denied employment for same, experimented on for the medical expediency, and generally forced into working solely in service of Black people for the good of Black people. Until then, you have absolultely nothing by which to compare White atrocities toward Black people. Read a book. A truthful, unbiased book.
The Arab slave trade was the practice of slavery in the Arab World, mainly Western Asia, North Africa, East Africa and certain parts of Europe (such as Iberia and southern Italy) during their period of domination by Arab leaders. The trade was focused on the slave markets of the Middle East and North Africa. People traded were not limited to a certain color, ethnicity, or religion and included Arabs and Berbers, especially in its early days.
During the 8th and 9th centuries of the Islamic Caliphate, most of the slaves were Slavic Eastern Europeans (called Saqaliba). However, slaves were drawn from a wide variety of regions and included Mediterranean peoples, Persians, Turkic peoples, peoples from the Caucasus mountain regions (such as Georgia, Armenia and Circassia) and parts of Central Asia and Scandinavia, English, Dutch and Irish, Berbers from North Africa, and various other peoples of varied origins as well as those of African origins.
I guess we can all sit around and whine now!
Always remember that it was white people from the north who sent ships to get slaves (no ship from the south every crossed to Africa for slaves)...no southern business existed that traded in slaves, it was only northern businesses...and it was a white, southern man who insisted on slaves becoming free, even though he SAID he never thought he could consider a black person his equal.
Point is, don't judge people before you know their views. There are white people who want to bring you down, and there are white people who want to hold your hand. Just like there are black people who want to bring you down, and black people who want to hold your hand.
By labelling in any other way, you are being racist yourself.
What you say is true although I don't consider Illinois a southern state (I try not to consider it at all but that is just me)and, it must also be noted the southern coastal states were the ones taxed for the slaves even if they were not unloaded until they were up north.
It should also be recognized that the tribes of Africa traded the people for whatever they traded and it was rare the people were "kidnapped".
Personally, I had nothing to do with slavery and it is 150 years past. Get over it and quit whining about how you got here and wanting something for something you never experienced.
That's true. It's also true that the Africans who were sold into slavery were largely sold by other black Africans. They would kidnap their own countrymen and sell them to traders who arrived regularly on their ships. Most people mysteriously miss out on that point when recounting slavery.
i am shocked at what you guys are saying. Yes, africans sold their peopel but remember it wasn't like a mass market where people were being sold!!!! there were a few very bad people kidnapping people and selling them as slaves. My grandmother comes from a slave town in west africa and she recalls how they could not go out at night because the cheif and other neighbouring villages had announced there were bad people kinapping folks. It is the same in the west, you do have a few bad people doing bad things, does that mean all white people are evil?
yes, i don't expect any white person to pay for nothing for me. We as blacks are survivors and can make it on our own, just don't rub poverty in our face. it took your ancestors over 200 years to make it, it's been less than 100 years since blacks were "free" meaning not segregated and blacks are still struggling.
You may not have participated in slavery but a few rich white folks are benefiting from the slave ships their ancestors owned. you say to us "your ancestors sold you into slavery so you pay the price for what they did" but then shouldn't you pay the price for what your ancestors did as well. No monetary of course, but then don't spew out BS when people talk abt slavery
Mary Smith, you can't tell me that 5 Europeans (I’m being facetious) in a 145ft boat kidnapped 12 to 36million people without wholesale industrialized intentional participation of other Africans who profited to a large degree from the slave trade. African Kings were complicit and conspired together with the slave traders, negotiate and traded other Africans into slavery for a profit until a few European’s had the moral conviction to stand up against this inhuman practice. The Kings of Africa didn’t realize the ungodly alliance they had agreed to slowly began to undermining their power until the new European term Colonial protectorate all but made these Kings figureheads in their own countries.
Blacks know thier hiistory much better than you do. Blacks aren't upset or complaining about slavery, they are upset about the continued blatant racism and bigotry they must confront day in and day from the cradle to the grave. Right here on a country that they played a crucial part in building. When Blacks point out racism, you complain, when Bkacks celebrate thier achievements, you complain. When Blacks educate their children, You complain, when Blacks get good jobs, you complain. No matter what Blacks do, people like you complain. Yet when your racism s pointed out, you play the denial card.
Yet many here continue to play the denial card.
Another myth that has taken flight and people believe it and spew it out. Sad really. If you really believe that africans were the main sellers of their fellow africans in the slave trade, you are delusional.
Racism is not only demonstrated by just the WHITE people, I know many Blacks who are just as Racist as some White People, Not all White people are like this, this is a 2 way street Mr. lemons, I bet if u Dug deep enough u would find some stories about Blacks beating White people up as well, but we never hear about those do we??~Either way it is Horrible and I am sorry your family had to suffer from the ignorance of others.
Although true, racism is rampant both ways, blacks have by an enormous percentage borne the worse atrocities. And frankly to this day while it may not be everyday lynchings of beatings of blacks, there is still covert racism by whites.
I cannot imagine or understand how some blacks were able to live or survive with every day of your life being threatened by either being sold, raped, whipped or starved.
Discrimination is an understatement but what happened to hundreds of thousands of blacks was humanity at its worse.
Just like the jews will never forget the atrocities the Nazis committed against them; people of color should never forget what happened to their ancestors. True stories like these need to be remembered to avoid future holocausts. It's the only way.
Every race of people has suffered slavery and none has escaped it, but what made the American situation worthy of the attention it gets is the scope and its relative recent time in history.
It's true that anyone can be a racist. As a child, I was often then only white kid in class at a mostly black school. Because of that, I was often a target of bullying. One phrase I heard a lot of was "Let's get that white boy!" Because of racism on the part of the parents of black students, my school experience growing up was miserable. In spite of all that, I still can't hate someone because of race. It's not being one race or another (or even a really cool mixture) that makes people good or bad. It is what they do that matters.
So true, Don. Another hidden fact is how many Americans have Native blood. You may be interested to know that the "colour shading" stigma pervades the Caribbean, too. You are a brave and courageous person. All the best to you
Is there a law that says a white man has to like another white man, or a black man has to like another black man? So why is there this need that a white man HAS to like a black man, or any black man? Or a black man has to like a white man, or ANY white man? What difference does it make? This is a free country, right? So whyW the hell is a man not free to like and dislike anybody he chooses, for WHATEVER reason? Why do you want to force racism down everybody's throats? Is a black man looking to marry a white man? If a white man doesn't like him, why does it bother him so much? There are plenty of white guys who dislike me. I'm white, so I do not ascribe this to racism. There are black guys who do not like me either. I do not ascribe this to racism either. But even so, does it really matter if some other men do not like the way I look? They are not my family. I am not related to them. I am not looking to court them and marry them. The only reason I can think of that people keep harping on and on and on about racism is because they are looking to get as many social advantages as possible. /
Quit your crying, you big babies. You're free.
Jimmy, you are right, you don't have to like me and i am sure i won't like you either. Honestly, i may be as racist as you are. the issue is this: do not harm me because you dislike my colour, as long as you don't touch me, i am fine. Actually, i would prefer you as a white man don't like me because i won't have to pretend to like you either and trust me, many, many black people don't like the white skin either. Live and let's live that should be the rule.
Yes, you are free to hate who you chose. Your hatred for others is fueled by your hatred of yourself.
Unfortunately fir you, nt everyone will tolerate your hate.
Yes, all are free but not all are provided equal treatment. Everyone should be able to like and dislike whomever they choose but that doesnt mean they are then free to mistreat or withhold the freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I dont mind if you choose to not be my friend but when I am in your presence, you dont have a right to harm me, either physically or verbally, limit my opportunities or threaten my person, family or belongings. The things I have listed are what others who hide behind their freedom to be racist choose to do when the object of their scorn goes on about their life. I could care less if anyone, especially a racist, likes me. I just want to be free to be me with the fear of harassment or violence.
The one-drop rule makes me smile. Why? Because my family is 100% white- except (!!!) for that "one drop" of blood in us– left (so said my dad) by the "Moors" who invaded parts of Europe from Africa centuries ago. By the time our family emigrated from the British Isles, we comfortably settled into owning other human beings, and by the end of the 1800s, we were entrenched in our superiority despite having lost the Cause. I'm thankful that my dad, who was a Southern small-town boy himself, was enough aware of his own hypocrisy to mention to me that our own family tree was not without its "one drop." It's certainly not something I discuss with my wider family, as many of them would accuse my dad of being a liar and a traitor to the family. But it makes a story like Mr. Lemon cut closer to home for me, as I wonder which of my ancestors first "passed," and I hope it will help the next generation of my family come even closer to human-color-blindess.