On Pinky and Rubicon

Can you choose your color today, or must others still do that for you? Can anyone of us with mixed heritage be predominantly called by just one name? What does that say about the heritage you choose (or is chosen for you), and the heritage not chosen? It appears to me that regardless of your standing in society, regardless of your accomplishments or natural talents, you must choose a color – or one will be chosen for you.

I wonder at that. In some ways, our nation has come a long way since Patricia ‘Pinky’ Johnson, in its day a very controversial film about a young black woman who passes for white.
PinkyPinky” was a slang term for light-skinned black Americans. We trust the term as used here is not offensive to anyone today as we are using same only as historical reference.

Lena Horne wanted to play the title role in this movie. Ms. Horne, among the most accomplished actresses and singers of all time, (awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk; Recording and Motion Pictures), was considered “light enough” to photograph “white” in the films of that time. However, that time was 1949 and 20th Century-Fox felt the movie would not show in most theaters (and for sure none in the South) since love scenes with a white actor were essential to the story. As a historical reference here as well, a “love scene” in the movies back then was an embrace or a kiss lasting more than a second (or about what you see Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed do in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). This was also the main reason she lost out on playing “Julie”, a role depicted for a “mulatto” woman in MGM’s 1951 remake of Show Boat.
Lena HorneIn her autobiography, Ms Horne said she photographed so light that MGM was afraid people would mistake her for a white woman, so they had Max Factor (yes, the makeup legend himself) create a make-up line for her to “appear” as a black woman on screen with black men. For the films where the cast was white, MGM shot her scenes so they could be cut out when the films were shown in the South. Hey now, you don’t have to like every aspect of our history, but to ignore or deny any part of our history is simply foolish and only serves to condemn us all to repeat its mistakes in one fashion or another (e.g., Gay Rights).

Indeed, our nation has come a long way since the first showing of “Pinky”. The last US census showed that an increasing number of Americans identify themselves as “multiracial and mixed-race” when asked to identify their heritage and an increasing number is expected to choose so in the 2010 census. Nevertheless, customs and society norms, like any addiction, are difficult habits to break. The parents of our President are both white and black, yet the world, as does President Obama, describes himself only as a black man or an American of African decent. We are not attempting to diminish any of the reasons for this choice, but attempting to understand how a focus on “color” continues in 2009. For example, one of the readers of SurfaceEarth, C.Grego, recently commented that he was surprised to hear that CNN does not consider him a white man (he is Portuguese).

“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.” Ms. Horne.

I believe we are long past that daydream now, and I hope Ms. Horne agrees. In regards to race, we have crossed the Rubicon. Sure, we can all turn around, look back and focus at the soiled and bloodied foot prints leading to the river, but cross it we have. It’s time to move on, and I wonder at that.

by Grego

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8 thoughts on “On Pinky and Rubicon

  1. Light is the combined total of all colors, seen and unseen.

    The majority of the time, I’m ruddy beige.

    But when I get cold I turn blue.

    And when I get sick I turn green.

    One time I stayed out in the sun a long time and turned red.

    And one time an instant tan creme turned me orange.

    As you can most likely surmise, I’m a colored person.

  2. I think we are seen how we present ourselves to be seen, whether consciously or unconsciously. It’s human nature to want to label everything – to put things in neat little boxes. It’s how we make sense of the world. That’s why we so fear things that don’t fit neatly in those boxes: we can’t understand what we can’t label, and anything we can’t understand is surely evil and wrong.

    Ultimately, I think CS Lewis said it best: “We are what we believe we are”.

  3. I don’t know what to say to this
    I have been color blind
    but I do know that the ability to see
    someone for their surface
    and not their depth
    is a learned trait.
    passed down
    in the way one hears
    and speaks
    at home.

  4. I would say, We are what we see

    if I see color, than I am color
    if I see love, than I am love
    if I see hate, than I am hate

    how everyone preceives these things we see and hear are different, so we might question them, how do we see love, how do we see color, how do we see hate.

    but what if we were without sight and without sound

    sometimes I stand with my eyes closed and block my ears to experience this

    if we were this way, then I would say

    We are what we feel

    so I wonder of this, because I have never asked one who is without both sight and sound from birth, how do you feel.

  5. All very thoughtful and insightful comments, thank you.

    I’m inclined to believe our brains are pre-wired to pick out differences in others. It’s instinctive, something we can’t help. However, how we treat those perceived “differences” is a learned behavior and, as history proves, that behavior is most often appalling.

    Looking at a herd of zebras, a lion can’t tell one zebra from another no more than we can. The lion does not even see white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes. But the lion is pre-wired to look for differences – the slower, the weaker, or that one zebra day dreaming away from the rest of the herd, i.e., the one that “appears different” from the others around them.

    This ability is essential to its survival, its meal ticket. I suspect so was the same for our common ancestors. Like the lion, our brains are pre-wired to perceive differences. What ever our color, we had to eat.

    As for me, a blind person knowing of my heritage would say I am non-white, while an uninformed sighted person would say I am white. What color am I? Maybe I’m a zebra.

  6. interesting posts. it never occurred to me until I read this…is a zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes

  7. The original TV series “Star Trek” (1966-69), if you peel away all the campy silly stuff, should be commended in that it touched on topics otherwise avoided like the bubonic plaque by all the other shows of its time and those even decades later. As you can imagine, in the late 60’s, race relations was one such a topic. In one episode, two alien characters – each, literally, half black and half white [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_That_Be_Your_Last_Battlefield], were at each other’s throats throughout the hour long episode. Their mutual hatred was so consuming that it destroyed not only themselves but every soul on their planet. Only near the end did the episode make clear what most people watching the show missed (and thus the purpose of that episode). The aliens, with their faces half white and black, were mirror images of each other (i.e., their colors were on opposite side of their faces).

    So my point is whatever color a zebra is … it’s still a zebra and just as tasty to the lion.

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