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.

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Victoria is a writer and DJ based in Chicago, Illinois. You can find her on Twitter.

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6 comments to White Face, Black Lineage. So What?

  • The artist Adrian Piper–who is constantly mistaken for white but is black–has explored similar questions in her work– notably in her installation “Cornered” (1988), which is available on You Tube in two parts at the URLs below.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUJ8MhXTwtI
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIkvjGq7VgM

    Interesting read in parallel with Mozingo’s story.

  • This is great. So often when people try to do feel-good no-such-thing-as-race stuff it gets away with some really awful assumptions about what race means today and what it takes to “humanize.” And in a pillar of beloved center-liberal journalism too!

  • Joe Mozingo

    Dear Victoria, your point here — “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” — is not just a side note to the book. The story is exactly about blowing down these mythical narratives we as white people felt the need at some point to concoct. And my recognition of a black ancestor IS INDEED, as you say, 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.” If there is any single thrust of this book — and understand this book is a work of journalism, not a treatise — it is to dispel white people’s views of racial purity, which are based on this stubborn, invidious one-drop rule that still persists even among liberal-minded white people. I’m not saying you should read the book, but if you did, you would see there is no way in the world that I was trying to “humanize” African Americans by putting my white face out there. There are black people in the book who tell their very human stories, and I get out of the way and don’t inject my voice at ll. But this is mostly a look at white pathological thinking and how destructive it has been for America. Anyway, I appreciate the thoughtful dialogue, which is hard to find online these days. Best wishes, Joe

    • VC

      Hi again, Joe. Thanks for this expanded comment. I’m not sure if you got the chance to check out my reply on nomartyr, but as I said there, I didn’t set out to declare anything in particular about the book. I wouldn’t do that about something I haven’t read. What I am interested in is how the story is being portrayed and received. The NPR article and comments on their facebook page offer examples of how the story gets read in some of the ways I mentioned above, e.g. through the humanizing lens.

  • I have to disagree Joseph Shahadi. Adrian Piper only imagines that she’s “black” because she was brought up to believe that she wasn’t good enough to call herself anything else. I also disagree with Joe Mozingo, who believes that whites are responsible for keeping the “one drop” myth alive. As a longtime activist in the multiracial movement, I know for a fact that all the threats and name-calling directed against us for openly rejecting the “one drop” nonsense came from blacks.

    http://melungeon.ning.com/forum/topics/5th-union-presentation-by-a-d-powell

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