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Questions of Identity

African Americans of mixed race are often pressed to choose a single racial identity. Historically, laws and customs regarding who was “Negro” decreed that any trace of African ancestry made you black, regardless of skin color. But the “one-drop” rule—whether applied in European American or Native American practices—was a one-way street: a “drop” of Caucasian or Native blood did not make you European American or Native American.

There are complex reasons why an African American might choose to claim a heritage beyond solely black. Socially, and often legally, racial heritage is directly linked to acceptance and privilege. Mixed-race African Americans who “pass” into the white world can encounter disapproval. For some, “passing” as Indian was a strategy to take advantage of white notions of color. But stories of “passing” as white or Indian usually fail to consider underlying reasons, ranging from a desire for acceptance and opportunity to an embrace of a complex family history.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)

Alabama-born Zora Neale Hurston maintains her place among the most acclaimed American authors. She once boasted that she was “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on their mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” In that same breath, Hurston confessed that she was of mixed blood but differed “from the party line in that I neither consider it an honor or shame.”

Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division