On New Year’s Day, it will be 150 years since Abraham Lincoln set black people free from slavery.
And there is no such thing as black people.
The first of those statements is not precisely true; a clarification will be offered momentarily. The second statement is not precisely false. And the clarification begins here:
It is a clarification needed not simply because it helps us to better understand the milestone of history we commemorate this week, but also because it helps us to better understand America right here in the tumultuous now. The Republican Party, to take an example not quite at random, enters the new year still nursing its wounds after an election debacle most observers laid upon its inability to sway Hispanics, young voters and, yes, black people. Then there is the Trayvon Martin shooting, the mass incarceration phenomenon, the birther foolishness.
A century and a half later, in other words, race is still a story. Black people are still a story.
How can that be, if there is no such thing as black people?
Granted, most of us think otherwise. The average 18-year-old American kid, says historian Matt Wray, thinks of race “as a set of facts about who people are, which is somehow tied to blood and biology and ancestry.”
But that kid is wrong. If you doubt that, try a simple challenge: Define “black people.”
Maybe you think of it as African ancestry. But Africa is a place on a map — not a bloodline. And, as the example of Charlize Theron, the fair-skinned, blond actress from South Africa, amply illustrates, it is entirely possible to come from there, yet not be what we think of as “black.” Indeed, Theron, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008, is by definition an African American. Yet, she fits no one’s conception of that term, either.
Or, you might define “black people” by physical appearance: i.e., people with dark skin and coarse hair. If so, consider Gregory Howard Williams, a pale-skinned American educator and author of the memoir Life On The Color Line, who did not learn he was “black” until he was 10. Or consider Walter White, the former executive secretary of the NAACP, whose 1948 autobiography begins: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond.” Consider the people from India who have dark skin or the ones from Asia, the Middle East or Latin America who have coarse hair.
And perhaps here, you are tempted to throw up your hands and paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously said of pornography that he might not be able to define it, “but I know it when I see it.”
The difference is that pornography, at least, exists. But there is no such thing as black people. Or white people. Or Asians. Or Indians.
What is my point? It’s simply this: Race is the stupidest idea in history.
Or, as Wray puts it, “race was a big mistake.”
To which Nell Irwin Painter adds the observation that a decade of research and writing on the subject taught her “that if you try to consider race as a real thing, it makes no sense.”
Wray, a Temple University professor and the author of Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, and Painter, a former professor at Princeton and the author of The History of White People, are leading lights in a burgeoning field of study whose aim is nothing less that the deconstruction of race. It seeks to answer the question of when, how, and why we ever got it into our heads there is such a thing as race; when, how, and why we decided we could divide human beings into subgroups whose members all shared similar traits and that those subgroups could be ranked, superior to inferior.