Editor's Note: In today’s United States, is being black determined by the color of your skin, by your family, by what society says or something else? Soledad O’Brien reports “Who Is Black in America?” on CNN at 8 p.m. ET/PT Sunday, December 15.
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - What is black? Race. Culture. Consciousness. History. Heritage.
A shade darker than brown? The opposite of white?
Who is black? In America, being black has meant having African ancestry.
But not everyone fits neatly into a prototypical model of "blackness."
Scholar Yaba Blay explores the nuances of racial identity and the influences of skin color in a project called (1)ne Drop, named after a rule in the United States that once mandated that any person with "one drop of Negro blood" was black. Based on assumptions of white purity, it reflects a history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
In its colloquial definition, the rule meant that a person with a black relative from five generations ago was also considered black.
One drop was codified in the 1920 Census and became pervasive as courts ruled on it as a principle of law. It was not deemed unconstitutional until 1967.
Blay, a dark-skinned daughter of Ghanian immigrants, had always been able to clearly communicate her racial identity. But she was intrigued by those whose identity was not always apparent. Her project focuses on a diverse group of people - many of whom are mixed race - who claim blackness as their identity.
That identity is expanding in America every day. Blay's intent was to spark dialogue and see the idea of being black through a whole new lens.
"What's interesting is that for so long, the need to define blackness has originated from people who were not themselves black, and their need to define it stemmed from their need to control it," says Blay.
Blackness, she says, isn't so easily defined by words. What is blackness for one person may not necessarily be that for another.
"And that's fine," Blay says. "Personally, my blackness is reflective of my ancestry, my culture and my inheritance."
"Black," in reference to people and identity, she says, is worthy of capitalization. Otherwise, black is just another color in the box of crayons. (CNN, like other news organizations, does not capitalize black or white.)
CNN interviewed some of the people who participated in Blay's project to find out how they view themselves. What follows are their insights into race and identity.
Black and white
California author Kathleen Cross, 50, remembers taking a public bus ride with her father when she was 8. Her father was noticeably uncomfortable that black kids in the back were acting rowdy. He muttered under his breath: "Making us look bad."
She understood her father was ashamed of those black kids, that he fancied himself not one of them.
"My father was escaping blackness," she says. "He didn’t like for me to have dark-skinned friends. He never said it. But I know."
She asked him once if she had ancestors from Africa. He got quiet. Then, he said: "Maybe, Northern Africa."
"He wasn't proud of being black," she says.
Cross' black father and her white mother never married. Fair-skinned, blue-eyed Cross was raised in a diverse community.
Later, she found herself in situations where she felt shunned by black people. Even light-skinned black people thought she was white.
"Those who relate to the term 'black' as a descriptor of color are unlikely to accept me as black," she says. "If they relate to the term 'black' as a descriptor of culture, history and ancestry, they have no difficulty seeing me as black."
At one time in her life, she wished she were darker - she might have even swallowed a pill to give her instant pigment if there were such a thing. She even wrote about being "trapped in the body of a white woman." She didn't want to "represent the oppressor."
She no longer thinks that way.
She doesn't like to check the multiracial box. "It erases everything," she says.
She doesn't like biracial, either. Or mixed. It's not her identity.
"There's only one race," she says, "and that's the human race."
"I am a descendant of a stolen African and Irish and English immigrants. That makes me black - and white - in America.
Blackness and culture?
Biany Perez, 31, loves Michael Jackson but she doesn't know the Jackson Five. She didn't know that "Good Times" was a television show about a black family struggling to survive in south Chicago. Nor was she able to pick up certain colloquialisms in the English spoken by the black kids in the Bronx, where she grew up the daughter of Dominican parents.
Some people questioned Perez's blackness because she didn't fit into their definition of black.
She spoke only Spanish at home. She watched Telemundo and listened to Puerto Rican boy band Menudo.
She wasn't black enough because she was Latina and not Latina enough because she was black.
"The way I look shakes the image of Latina," says Perez, a program manager at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. "As I started getting older, I felt more comfortable in my skin."
Now, she calls herself Afro-Domincan.
"I think black is a broader definition I also embrace," she says. "Black is more than just saying that I am an African in America. It's political.
"It's about me connecting myself to my ancestors."
For Perez, black is about empowerment.
Creole identity is a complicated thing in Louisiana, says Kristina Robinson, 29, of New Orleans.
It's an ethnicity, a cultural designation for people descended from colonial settlers in Louisiana, mainly of French and Latin lineage.
The term Creole was claimed by the French and Spanish settlers in colonial times but it also referred to Africans and people who were a mixture of races. Those mixed-race descendants became a unique racial group and sometimes even included Native American heritage.
But in popular representation, Robinson says Creole has come to be defined as skin color.
She doesn't want to deny the rich Creole history but she doesn't identify as such if it means moving away from her blackness.
Black people think that her embrace of Creole means a rejection of being black.
"I never wanted to distance myself from my black ancestors," says the creative writing graduate student at Dillard University.
"They are the ones who claim me."
In her light skin, Robinson understands the insidious ways of colorism, a system in which light skin is valued more than dark skin.
"Colorism is a major problem within the Creole community and the black community," she says. "It's underdiscussed. It's perplexing and vexing how to work out this idea. I can see how the one drop rule is why we have so much colorism in our society.
"One drop is a lie," she says. "Black plus white doesn't equal black or it doesn't equal white. It equals black plus white."
She calls herself black. But other people think she is from India or the Middle East, especially in her academic work environment, where she does not have black colleagues.
"The assumption is I am not black," she says.
Ultimately, she believes environment plays a big role in identity.
Few people, she says, think that of her sister. One reason may be that her sister has more of a button nose. But another reason is that she works in a field with more black people, whereas Robinson finds herself in academic settings where she is the sole black woman.
Robinson acknowledges her lighter skin gives her privilege in a color-conscious society.
"But in those situations where you have to identify yourself and you choose to identify yourself as white - there's a big denial going on there.
"I do think it's troublesome when someone who is of mixed race chooses to deny that part of them that was oppressed," she says.
Race equals identity, or not?
Race is a social construct; identity is personal.
That's how James Bartlett, 31, views it.
"I'm black, I'm biracial," he says of his black father and Irish mother, who met and married in Louisville, Kentucky, just a few years after a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
He was raised in an all-black neighborhood; his mother was the only white person on the block.
"I interchanged between saying I am biracial and I am black," he says. "The culture I live in is black. I felt black because black people considered me black. That was because of the one drop rule."
But later, when he went to Ghana, the locals thought he was from Lebanon. Kids called him "Oburoni," the word for a white man.
Bartlett felt as though he were being told he was not who he really was even before he could interact with them, as though they were taking away his black identity.
"It put me on the complete opposite side of the coin," Bartlett says. "The first reaction was to put me in a box."
In America, people thought of him as a lot of things but not usually straight-up white.
"It's difficult for me to separate race and identity," says Bartlett, the newly named executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Diasporan African Arts in Brooklyn.
He is black, he says, because he didn't grow up with white privilege. What is that? The freedom, he replies, to not have to address race.
"I definitely didn't grow up with that," he says.
Being white in America is also knowing that people who look like you are always representing your interests in institutions of power.
"That is the essence of white privilege," he says. "Regardless of changing (demographic) percentages and numbers, racial representation is going to remain out of balance for quite some time."
In some ways, Bartlett says, he has been more attuned to race as a light-skinned black man than he would have been had he been darker.
Bartlett feels white people in America are threatened by the tide of color across the nation and that it will give rise to an us against them" mentality.
"I think blackness will change, too," he says. "The biggest change in the near future will be the end of blackness as a diametric opposite to whiteness."
Here and abroad
Charles Benjamin Cloud, 63, remembers a time when he was angry at all white people. That was in the time of the white water fountain and the black water fountain.
"They had their side of town; we had ours," he says of his childhood in New Bern, North Carolina.
As the son of a Cherokee man and a part-Cherokee, part-black woman, Cloud could have passed for something other than black.
"If I had decided to tell everyone I was Puerto Rican or Mexican, people probably wouldn't have known a difference," he says.
But he didn't.
"I never wanted to identify as white," he says.
"Blackness is a state of mind more so than a physical experience. But back then, physical appearance was much more of a black identity than it is now."
Cloud joined the Air Force and traveled the world. His light, ruddy complexion threw people off. The Turks thought he was Turkish; the Iranians thought he was from Iran. He even passed for Greek.
But back home, he chose not just to be American. He was black.
What happens when you lose your color as is Sembene McFarland, a 35-year-old emergency room nurse in Newark, New Jersey?
She has a condition known as vitiligo and is losing the pigmentation of her skin. The disorder affects people of all races but is most prominent in those with darker complexions.
McFarland describes herself as "garden-variety black" but once her vitiligo became noticeable, she found herself the target of outlandish comments.
When McFarland was working at a cash register job at a Barnes and Noble, a customer told her, "If you got rid of the rest of the color, you would be a really pretty Asian girl."
"Thank you very much," McFarland told the woman. "Have a nice day."
Now, she can't relay the story without laughing out loud.
Others have wondered: Were you white first or black first?
"That blew my mind," she says.
Her skin condition shows how people think of being black so literally, she says.
"When I think black, I don't think a particular shade," she says.
McFarland was 16 when she first learned she had vitiligo. It was tough. At that young age, no one wants to stand out.
Later she laughed. In high school in Mississippi, her classmates always joked she wanted to be white. She spoke like a white person. Some people said she sat like a white person - all proper.
Now here she was, turning white.
In the end, McFarland says, it's not about black or white. It's all the shades of gray that make people uncomfortable.
Unique but certain
Brandon Stanford's parents met in school in New Jersey. His mom's Irish family rejected her for dating a black man.
They've been married 37 years.
In that time, a lot has changed about being a child of an interracial marriage. For one, the man who occupies the White House is the son of a Kenyan man and a white American woman. Many Americans think being mixed is "cool."
Stanford, 29, has his own take.
"I wouldn't say that being mixed race is either cool or not cool," he says.
"I'd say it's a reality that one can choose to embrace by seeing the beauty of a world where the possibilities of transcending the limitations of race and racism exists if one is able to recognize the oneness of humanity. Is this not what our democracy is supposed to represent?"
Stanford, a graduate student in African-American studies at Philadelphia's Temple University, has had his identity questioned by both whites and blacks. That makes being mixed race difficult for some.
Some times white people speak about black people in front of Stanford, assuming he is white. He lets them go on for a while and then says: "By the way, I am one of them."
"I have a unique position in the world based upon what my complexion is," Stanford says. "I always have an opportunity to unsettle people's minds."
But Stanford has never wavered on his identity.
"My complexion is not black, yet I am black," he says.
Stanford doesn't deny his Irish ancestry. The Irish, he points out, were thought of as inferior by the English. They, too, faced discrimination in the United States. Black people were often called the "dark Irish," he says.
But the Irish in America distanced themselves from the anti-slavery movement in the interest of joining the white mainstream, Stanford says. That's where his connection to the Irish stops.
"I identify myself as African-American because of the history of the culture," he says.
The past in the present
That's how Kaneesha Parsard, 23, grew up. She was the daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1980s.
She didn't understand what her father's ancestry - her grandfather was Indian - had to do with her.
"I took the one drop rule pretty seriously," says Parsard, a graduate student in African-American studies at Yale University.
Parsard's father was born in British-ruled Jamaica. He was raised with Indian people but identified as black because, she says, of how exclusionary Indian communities can be in Jamaica.
She began to think about her own identity when roti and chicken curry appeared at the Thanksgiving table.
"What I have come to realize is that ... people's history is intertwined, that being mixed race is not at odds with being black," she says.
"When we think about blackness, it's usually along a black-white context," she says. "But there are many histories, interesting histories of resistance."
For Parsard, blackness stems from a moment in time in 1492, with the discovery of a new land and a history of brutality that followed.
Appearance is a primary factor for many Americans in determining race and identity. For Parsard and others in Yaba Blay's project, it's not.