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November 25, 2012 / JV

White Face, Black Lineage, So What?

Today a story popped up in my newsfeed: “A White Face With A Forgotten African Family.” The link leads to an interview with Joe Mozingo, a “blond-haired and blue-eyed” Californian who found out he is descended from Edward Mozingo, a black, indentured servant who gained his freedom in seventeenth-century Virginia. Joe Mozingo’s journey to trace his ancestry was first chronicled in the LA Times a couple of years ago, and has since been released as a book. I haven’t read the book, and I’m not interested in trying to figure out its relative merits as a work of art, genealogy, or anything of the sort. Nor do I want to neglect the one or two aspects of the aforementioned article that I think can be potentially illuminating. Take, for example, the following quote:

LYDEN: You stumble across many people with the name Mozingo in this book. And there in Virginia, you meet a character, Junior Mozingo. A lot of these people didn’t really want to think about having an African ancestor.

MOZINGO: He didn’t want to hear about it at all. I mean, he had lived literally on a spot where Edward Mozingo had lived 300 years before, yet he had this myth that they were Italian and they had gotten here in the 1800s, when in fact, he could trace his lineage straight to Edward.

This, I think, offers insight into how deeply intertwined people’s conceptions of whiteness are with the notion of a white (ahistorical) lineage. Through this quote, we get a glimpse into the importance of white narratives – if entirely mythical – to the formation of white identity, even if that identity is predicated on a whiteness that subsumes distinctive ethnic groups, e.g. Italians, under one racialized banner.

Beyond such moments of insight though, I found myself asking, What am I supposed to get from this? What is the significance of finding out that a person who looks white is, in fact, somewhere down the line, descended from a black person? Is this some kind of one-drop rule experiment? Am I – are we – supposed to feel differently about race now that we know that a person who looks white can trace their roots to someone who looked black?

I ask because I don’t feel differently. And, other than having a non-Anglicized, or “unusual-sounding” last name, I’m not sure Joe does either. Why not? Because regardless of how many black men are on Joe’s family tree (the violence of the metaphor is telling), Joe has lived his life as a blue-eyed, blond-haired white man. And, he will continue to live his life as such. Never will Joe’s mouth mirror Fanon’s tight smile in response to the repeated call and attendant burdens of, “Look, a Negro!”

What the article has to offer us, then, if we read it discerningly, is that Joe’s recognition of a black ancestor is ultimately insignificant to our understanding of race, except as a) a reminder of the gravity of imagined racial purity to whiteness, and b) an indicator that people still believe race is somehow contingent on biology. This is exhibited by Joe’s comment, “My initial intention was to go there and make people’s heads explode with the news that they were black, even though they weren’t.” That is to say, that them being related to a black person, despite their inexperience with situations that black people tend to face, changes them in some significant way – and not merely because it mars their narrative, but because it mars them. Race in this context is discoverable; it can be presented to someone as “news,” as though race is an ontological fact rather than a lived experience.

For the parts where the article exposes the aspirations, illusions, and delusions of whiteness, I am there with the imagined readership. But, I resist the moments where I feel as though I am being compelled – by the narrative, by the commenters – to read Joe Mozinga’s story as a humanity lesson. The lesson is that Joe being “black” humanizes blackness, and that, if only more white people knew they were “black,” racism would end. The former point, which I think is one of the main thrusts behind the Joe Mozinga story, hints at one of the messages that is embedded in articles like “A White Face”: The stories of black people are only relatable, and indeed, human, when mediated through white faces, and it is only when blackness becomes relatable, local, translatable into and behind whiteness that race and racism, for white people, become personal problems.

Posted at Postbourgie.

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2 Comments

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  1. Joe Mozingo / Nov 25 2012 10:38 pm

    But is this not worth exploring? Your words: “This, I think, offers insight into how deeply intertwined people’s conceptions of whiteness are with the notion of a white (ahistorical) lineage. Through this quote, we get a glimpse into the importance of white narratives – if entirely mythical – to the formation of white identity, even if that identity is predicated on a whiteness that subsumes distinctive ethnic groups, e.g. Italians, under one racialized banner.”
    This is not just a side note in the book, nor is it in American History. “Imagined racial purity” as exemplified in the ignominious “one-drop-rule” is a defining scourge of American history. If there is a theme in a work of journalism (this book is a story, not a treatise), I think this would be it, with no pretense that I was born to an experience I didn’t in fact experience — J.M.

    • VC / Nov 26 2012 2:23 pm

      Re: Is this not worth exploring – Yes, absolutely. I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing worth exploring in the book or topic. Surely there is, and part of what I’m trying to do in the post is tease out a few of those things. But besides this, I’m interested in the messages that news stories like the one on NPR seem to carry, and people’s reactions to them.

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