Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THE CASE FOR LOVING by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, but, what to do with what Jeter said about her identity?

Eds. note: See information about the second printing of the book, which was revised. 

New this year (2015) is The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko. Illustrations are by Alko and her husband, Sean Qualls.

The author's note tells us that Alko is a "white Jewish woman from Canada" and that Qualls is an "African-American man from New Jersey."

The story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving resonated with Alko and Qualls. Their case went before the United States Supreme Court in 1967. Here's the synopsis posted at Scholastic's website:

For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia.
This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state's laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents' love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — and won!
The Loving case is of interest to me, too. We all ought to embrace its outcome. As the synopsis indicates, the story is about the love Jeter and Loving had for each other, and how, using the court system, laws against their desire to be married were struck down. We need to know that history. It is important. In her review in the New York Times, Katheryn Russell-Brown noted its strengths. She also said something I agree with:
Alko’s calm, fluid writing complements the simplicity of the Lovings’ wish — to be allowed to marry. Some of the wording, though, strikes a sour note. “Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn’t see differences,” she writes, suggesting, implausibly, that he did not notice Mildred’s race. After Mildred is identified as part black, part Cherokee, we are told that her race was less evident than her small size — that town folks mostly saw “how thin she was.” This language of colorblindness is at odds with a story about race. In fact, this story presents a wonderful chance to address the fact that noticing race is normal. It is treating people better or worse on the basis of that observation that is a problem.

As Russell-Brown noted, the "language of colorblindedness" doesn't work.  As a grad student in the 90s, I read research that found that the colorblind approach sent the opposite message to young children.

The Case for Loving also provides us with an opportunity to look at identity and claims to Native identity.

When I first learned that Alko and Qualls presented Mildred Jeter as part Cherokee (as shown in the image to the right), I started doing some research on her and the case. In some places I saw her described as Cherokee. In a few others, I saw her described as Cherokee and Rappahannock. That made me more intrigued! In the midst of that research, I also re-read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name and really appreciate--and recommend it--for lots of reasons, including how Smith wrote about Black Indians.

I continued my research on Jeter and found a particularly comprehensive source: That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia by Arica L. Coleman. It was published in 2013. Coleman's book has a chapter about Jeter.

Drawing from magazines, newspapers and court documents of that time and more recently, too, Coleman describes the twists and turns that impacted Mildred Jeter's identity. Most crucial to her chapter is information Jeter gave to her.

Jeter did not identify herself as Black. In an interview on July 14, 2004, she told Coleman (p. 153):
"I am not Black. I have no Black ancestry. I am Indian-Rappahannock." 

In The Case of Loving, we read about Mr. and Mrs. Loving going to Washington DC to get married, returning home to Virginia with their marriage license, and, being awoken late one night by the police who asked Richard what he was doing in bed with Jeter.

He pointed to their marriage certificate hanging on the wall.

The marriage certificate--an image of which is in Coleman's book--shows us columns for the male and female applying for the license. Here's the information in the female column:

Name: Mildred Delores Jeter
Color: Indian

She identified as Indian. In Central Point (that's the town they lived in), Coleman writes, there was a (page 161-162):
"racial hierarchy that granted social privileges to Whites, an honorary White privilege to Indians (i.e. access to White hospitals and the White only section of rail and street cars), and no social privilege to Blacks."
Isn't that fascinating? There's more. In 1870, Mildred's parents* the Jeter name was listed on census records as mulatto. By 1930, they* people with that name were identified as Negro. She was born in 1939. But, Coleman writes (p. 164):
The Jeter surname is also listed in the Rappahannock Tribe’s corporate charter (1974) as a tribal affiliate. Many claim, however, that the Jeters are descended from the Cherokee who allegedly began to intermarry with the Rappahannock during the late eighteenth century. According to one anonymous informant, “The situation regarding Indian identity in Caroline County is very complex. There was a time when many in the Rappahannock community believed that they were Cherokee because that was all they knew.” Neither Mildred nor her brother, Lewis Jeter, supported the claim that their father was Cherokee.
A 1997 article in the Free Lance-Star reports that she said she was Indian, with Portuguese and Black ancestry. In 2004 Coleman asked her about the Black ancestry, prefacing her question with a reference to the Rappahannock's historic association with Blacks, Jeter told Coleman that the Rappahannock's never had anything to do with Blacks.

That denial of Black ancestry is striking, particularly since the Supreme Court case was based on her being Black. If I understand Coleman's research, Jeter thought of herself as Indian when she married Loving. When their case went before the Supreme Court, she was regarded as Black. In the last years of her life, she said she was Indian. What was going on?

Her ACLU lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, and Virginia's Assistant Attorney General, Robert McIlwaine--needed her to be Black. Her Indian identity had the potential to derail the arguments they were putting forth.

See, there was an act in Virginia called the "Racial Integrity Act" that was intended to preserve the purity of the White race. In early drafts of that act, white meant a person having only Caucasian blood. But that definition was replaced by the "Pocahontas Exception." The Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924.

When I read "Pocahontas Exception" --- well, I think it fair to say that my eyebrows shot up and that I leaned towards the screen (reading an e-copy of the book)! What is THAT?!

The Pocahontas Exception allowed Whites to claim to be white, as long as they had no more than 1/16 of the blood of an American Indian.

Chief Justice Earl Warren was presiding over the Loving case. Presumably, he knew about her Indian identity and therefore asked about the Pocahontas Exception. I hope I am correct in my reading of Coleman's research when I say that Warren let it go when he heard McIlwaine's reply to his questions. The law, McIlwaine argued, did not apply to this case because Virginia had two populations of significance to its legislature: a bit over 79% were white and a bit over 20% were colored; therefore, the number of Native people (at less than 1%) was insignificant. Moreover (p. 170):
It is a matter of record, agreed to by all counsel during the course of this litigation and in the brief that one of the appellants here is a white person within the definition of the Virginia law, the other appellant is a colored person within the definition of Virginia law. 
Significant/insignificant are my word choices. McIlwaine didn't use them and neither did Coleman. They are words that resonate with Native people because research studies on race typically have an asterisk rather than data for us, because relative to other demographics, we are deemed too small to count. Indeed, a group of Native scholars have written a book about some of this, titled Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education. 

With intricate detail, Coleman documents how the news media was hit-or-miss in terms of what reporters said about Jeter's race. One day it was "negro" and the next--in the same paper--it was "half negro, half Indian" and then later on, it was back to "negro." In the final analysis, Coleman writes, writers generally describe her as an "ordinary Black woman" (p. 173).

In The Case for Loving, Alko uses "part African-American, part Cherokee" but I suspect Jeter's family would object to what Alko said. As the 2004 interview indicates, Mildred Jeter Loving considered herself to be Rappahannock. Her family identifies as Rappahannock and denies any Black heritage. This, Coleman writes, may be due to politics within the Rappahannock tribe. A1995 amendment to its articles of incorporation states that stated (p. 166):
“Applicants possessing any Negro blood will not be admitted to membership. Any member marrying into the Negro race will automatically be admonished from membership in the Tribe.”
I'm not impugning Jeter or her family. It seems to me Mildred Jeter Loving was caught in some of the ugliest racial politics in the country. As I read Coleman's chapter and turn to the rest of her book, I am unsettled by that racial politics. In the final pages of the chapter, Coleman writes (p. 175):
Of course, Mildred had a right to self-identify as she wished and to have that right respected by others. Nevertheless, viewed within the historical context of Virginia in general and Central Point in particular, ironically, “the couple that rocked courts” may have inadvertently had more in common with their opponents than they realized. Mildred’s Indian identity as inscribed on her marriage certificate and her marriage to Richard, a White man, appears to have been more of an endorsement of the tenets of racial purity rather than a validation of White/ Black intermarriage as many have supposed.

Turning back to The Case for Loving, I pick it up and read it again, mentally replacing Cherokee with Rappahannock and holding all this racial politics in my head. It makes a difference.

At this moment, I don't know what it means for this picture book. One could argue that it provides children with an important story about history, but I can also imagine children looking back on it as they grow up and thinking that they were misinformed--not deliberately--but by those twists and turns in racial politics in the United States of America.

Published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine, I do not recommend The Case for Loving. 

~~~~~

Updates to add relevant items shared by others:

Kara Stewart pointed me to a news story from a Virginia TV station:
Doctor's quest to engineer a 'master race' in the early 1900s still hurting Virginia Indian tribes 

Kara's comment prompted me to search for information on the Racial Integrity Act. I found that the Library of Virginia has a page about it.


Update, March 18, 7:25 PM:
Just saying again---you must get a copy of Coleman's book. In other chapters, she talks about the Pocahontas Exception and how it was written to accommodate "the White elite who said they were descendants of the Indian princess Pocahontas and the English colonist John Rolfe." Here's one excerpt (p. 5):
It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. 

*Update, March 23, 12:05 PM:
Professor Coleman read my review and noted an error in what I said. I've used the cross-out option to indicate what is wrong and inserted the correct information. Mulatto/Negro were specific to the Jeter name, not to Mildred's Jeter's parents.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

National Museum of the American Indian: Newsletter for Teachers

Anytime you're in Washington DC, I hope you visit the National Museum of the American Indian. I was part of our tribal delegation when it opened several years ago. My daughter and I carry warm memories of that day. It was powerful and affirming in so many ways. I've worked with several people there, as well as attending some of their webcasts.

Today I want to point you to their newsletter for teachers. Five issues are available online. Here's a screenshot of the most recent one (Winter 2015):



Back in 2009, I wrote about When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans that is featured in the newsletter for Winter 2015. In that second paragraph above, Renee Gokey pointed to the selection criteria developed at the American Indian Library Association for its Youth Literature Award, a rubric for evaluating books, and my page of Best Books.

Visit the NMAI site and read the newsletters! In the current one, you'll see two more wonderful books on the first page: Sweetest Kulu and House of Purple Cedar. 

The newsletter talks about Never Alone, too, which I haven't looked at, but know is highly regarded by many of my colleagues.

And--there's a note, too, about what is coming in the next newsletter: how to engage children in difficult topics, like Indian Removal.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Game developer: "I decided to prove her wrong"

In October of 2014, I wrote about an educational game called Kachina. It was still in development and being previewed at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). It, according to their website, is the oldest and largest conference of game developers. It has gone from "about 25 developers in the living room of a notable game designer 27 years ago, to a week-long conference for more than 23,000 industry insiders."

Earlier this month (March 2015), I read a fascinating article about that game developer and what he did in response to my review. The game was developed by Ben Esposito. At this year's conference, Esposito gave a presentation in the conference's "Failure Workshop." He noted that he'd read my post about his game and...
"I decided to prove her wrong. I would make the most authentic game. It would be heroic... I am quite embarrassed about this."
He goes on to tell about how--once he started doing research--he saw that he was wrong. Prior to that,
the depth of his research on the topic had been, well, liking the look of those [Kachina] dolls.
He told that story to a packed room. Early on, he stuck with the "Kachina" theme and
showed a series of screenshots showing some frankly awful ideas
and then started talking to professors of Indigenous cultures. Someone told him to talk to the Hopi tribe. So he did. And...
After talking to people of the tribe for a while, listening to them about their art and their stories, he had his apocalyptic moment. "They're people."
I realize that a lot of people will say "well, duh!" to that admission, but I appreciate his honesty and his sharing. He could have shelved the game and walked away to redesign a new game, but he made a different decision.

Ben Esposito 
shared what he learned 
with his colleagues. 
At a major conference. 
To a packed room. 
What he did is a model of 
what writers in children's and 
young adult literature can do. 

Here's the closing two paragraphs from the article, by John Walker. Walker's comments and response are also worth noting. Esposito and Walker's willingness to share their thinking is terrific:
I love Esposito’s story. I want to defend him, champion him for his good intentions, his benevolent desire to communicate something. And I struggle along to the same conclusions, that sometimes a story is not your story to tell. “If it’s really important to tell someone’s narrative,” he adds, “let them tell it.” If someone is not in a position to tell their story, maybe look at ways to help it get told. But don’t assume it’s yours to tell.
“When you get called out,” Esposito finished, “shut up and listen. Examine your position. Learn from them. Learn to shut up.”
I followed/follow the Gamer Gate conversations. This one is remarkably different. Read the comments to Walker's article. Reading and thinking about this inspired me to create a new label:

AICL Thanks You! 

AICL thanks Ben Esposito, John Walker, and organizers of the conference for creating the space for developers to share failures with each other. Failures provide learning opportunities. They can be embarrassing, too, as Esposito admitted, but don't we all have those moments? About something we're ignorant about? We've all been there. It is human. What we do once we know otherwise is key.

I wonder---might writer's conferences have a "Failure Workshop," too? Wouldn't that be cool?


Update, March 16, 3:42 PM

I received an email that suggested that my idea of a "Failure Workshop" suggests that all non-Native writers will fail in their attempts to create Native characters. I do not think that at all. It is definitely possible. Flynn did it in On the Move. Definitely, writers have erred in depictions of people who are 'other' to themselves. I suspect they talk about that with their closest friends, but I think so much could be gained by more public conversations, like those that happen at the gaming conference. People who sign up to present in the Failure Workshop are people, just like the people who write children's and young adult books. What is it about that conference--that space--that makes it possible for them to share as they do? Maybe someone in SCBWI could investigate and find a few well-established writers who would be willing to do this sort of thing.