What does it mean to be black? Is it determined by the color of your skin, by your heritage or by the ethnic group with whom you most identify? And how does the "one-drop rule" -- the idea that even a smidge of black ancestry makes you black -- figure into this scenario?
In the American South, during the era of segregation, laws in many states mandated that a person who was at least one-sixteenth black (i.e. had a great-great grandfather or grandmother who was black) or some other tiny amount of black blood was considered black and therefore subject to the discriminatory laws that whites were not. This was informally known as the "one drop" rule [source: Davis]. Light-skinned African-Americans in the past might have determined whether it made more "sense" to embrace their black heritage, Jim Crow laws and all, or to try and "pass" for white for more economic opportunities but at the cost of cutting themselves off from family and culture.
Today with the segregation laws scrapped, the choices are more nuanced. Where a person is raised, or who raised her might determine which ethnic group she identifies with. Or she may feel she shouldn't have to pick one group over the other.
While it hasn't always been in vogue to claim all the branches of one's family tree, embracing a multicultural past is becoming increasingly common. Take Hollywood, for example. Gone are the days of film stars escaping outdated perceptions by denying their ethnicity. Many of today's celebrities are racially ambiguous, from Mariah Carey to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Today, we're sharing the stories of 10 people (past and present) you may not have known were black. Let's start with an illustrious French family.
Gen. Alexandre Dumas
Napoleon Bonaparte was a well-known figure who rose to power during the French Revolution. But Bonaparte was not its only hero. Meet Gen. Alexandre Dumas.
Dumas was born in what is now Haiti to a white father who was a member of the aristocracy and a black mother who was enslaved. Although Dumas kept his mother's familial name, his father raised him in France, which guaranteed opportunities to people of mixed race. There, Dumas completed his education and entered the military, where he became a master of strategy and sword. Dumas rose to the rank of general, led more than 50,000 soldiers and earned a reputation for action. He reportedly captured 13 soldiers singlehandedly, rode into enemy territory to imprison 16 more and led his men up icy cliffs in the dark to surprise opposing forces [source: Taylor].
Although Dumas continued his military career in the subsequent French campaign to conquer Egypt, he attracted the ire of his chief rival, the up-and-coming Bonaparte. Whether Bonaparte was jealous of Dumas' greater height (he was over 6 feet to Bonaparte's 5' 7"), charisma or infantry skills is impossible to say. One thing is for certain, though: The competition (even if only in Napoleon's own mind) would be Dumas' undoing.
In the late 1790s, when Dumas found himself washed onto Italian shores because of an alarmingly leaky vessel, Napoleon's followers tossed Dumas into a dungeon. There he languished for two years as he suspected the prison physician of poisoning him. Although Dumas was eventually released, his military career was over. Stories of his exploits, however, inspired "The Count of Monte Cristo," a novel written by his son Alexandre, who also wrote "The Three Musketeers" [source: Damrosch].
Anatole Broyard was born in New Orleans in 1920 to light-skinned black parents, spent much of his childhood in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood and then crafted a carefully constructed image devoid of his ethnic heritage.
Broyard's light skin allowed him to join the segregated Army as a white man, where he led a battalion of black soldiers. Upon his discharge from the military, he opened a bookstore in New York City's Greenwich Village, ensconced himself in the literary landscape and eventually became a copywriter at an advertising firm. Although he wrote a few short stories that were met with critical acclaim, Broyard initially struggled to complete a full-length work. The attention, however, helped him secure a job as a book reviewer with The New York Times in the early 1970s, a position he held for more than a decade.
During this time, he became one of the most influential literary critics in the U.S. And, despite rumors to the contrary, continued to live as a white man. Broyard's wife and children did not know he had been born black, nor did his colleagues or friends.
Broyard, who died of prostate cancer in 1990, never revealed the reasons for his ruse. Likely, the limited opportunities for blacks in the 1940s had something to do with his original decision. But many who knew him also believed Broyard wanted to live as a white man because he wanted to escape the expectations of race. He wanted to be known, not for being a "black writer," but a writer, period. Even his memoir, "Kafka Was The Rage," did not reveal his race [source: Gates].
"One could concede that the passing of Anatole Broyard involved dishonesty; but is it so very clear that the dishonesty was mostly Broyard's?" wrote scholar Henry Louis Gates. "To pass is to sin against authenticity, and 'authenticity' is among the founding lies of the modern age."
In 2007, his daughter Bliss published a book about her father titled "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life -- A Story of Race and Family Secrets."
Malcolm Gladwell, decorated staff writer at The New Yorker and author of four best-selling books -- "The Tipping Point," "Blink," "Outliers" and "What the Dog Saw" -- won a National Magazine Award in 1999 and was named Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" in 2005. Born in 1963 to a Jamaican mother and British father, he has found his mixed heritage to provide plenty of fodder for writing.
In "Black Like them," published in an April 1996 issue of The New Yorker, Gladwell examined the differences between American blacks and West Indians, along with observations about his childhood and family. He detailed the discrimination among his dark- and light-skinned ancestors. For example, a widow on his mother's side had two dark-skinned daughters, but once pretended she didn't know them as she made conversation with a light-skinned suitor.
Gladwell grew up in rural Ontario and contended that race there was a nonissue. "Blacks knew what I was. They could discern the hint of Africa beneath my fair skin," he wrote in his essay. "But it was a kind of secret -- something that they would ask me about quietly when no one else was around ... But whites never guessed, and even after I informed them it never seemed to make a difference. Why would it? In a town that is ninety-nine per cent white, one modest alleged splash of color hardly amounts to a threat."
That changed when he went to Toronto for university and discovered the reputation of Jamaicans who were purportedly heading Canada's drug trade. "After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming contradiction -- how West Indians celebrated in New York for their industry and drive could represent, just five hundred miles northwest, crime and dissipation ... In America, there is someone else to despise. In Canada, there is not" [source: Gladwell].
Carol Channing, born in 1921, was already a Broadway star known for her performances in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes" and "Hello Dolly" when she learned something surprising about her heritage. Her father, George Channing, had been a light-skinned black man.
And although Channing went on to become a well-known gay rights activist, being of mixed race was something she only briefly alluded to in her memoir "Just Lucky I Guess," which was published at age 81. In it, she recounted her father singing gospel music with her and flipping from one pattern of speech in the predominantly white community to a distinctly different pattern of speech in their home.
Nearly a decade later Channing, a three-time Tony award winner, seemed to change her mind again. On a 2010 episode of The Wendy Williams Show, Channing said that her parents "had many disagreements," and before she went off to college her mother thought "she would get even with me" and warned her that if she had a baby it might come out black. Channing, who died in January 2019 at the age of 97, admitted she did not know if the story that her father was black was true, but she hoped it was [sources: Parker, Williams].
Pete Wentz sported a signature look during the years he spent as a member of the Fall Out Boy rock band: singularly straight hair. As the band's bassist and chief lyricist, Wentz penned hit songs, including "Infinity on High," before the group's lengthy hiatus began in 2009 [source: Hasty]. Then he did something different. And we don't mean finalizing his divorce from pop singer Ashlee Simpson or forming the band Black Cards with fellow musician Spencer Peterson in 2010 [source: Gomez].
In 2011, Wentz began to forgo his strategically mussed straight locks for a more natural look: curls. He'd made no secret of the effort it required to style his hair, or the fact that he thought it was an important part of his appearance [source: Lucey]. The tight curls also prompted speculation that Wentz has black ancestors, and indeed he does.
In an interview with Alternative Press, Wentz says, "My mom, my family, is from Jamaica." His only regret? That when he spent time in Jamaica as a child, he didn't fully appreciate the musical influences of Bob Marley or the Wailers [source: Alternative Press]. Fortunately, Wentz's penchant for starting rock bands turned out OK despite this shortcoming. In addition, he's authored two books, opened a bar and runs Clandestine Industries, a book and clothing distributor [source: All Music].
When Soledad O'Brien debuted as host of CNN's "Black in America" documentary series, she volleyed plenty of questions -- especially from the black community -- about why she should be the one to tackle the premise.
Turns out, O'Brien is black, too. She is the daughter of a black Latina mother and a white Australian father; she grew up in a primarily white neighborhood with parents who insisted she identify as black. As a mixed-race, first-generation American, O'Brien became a broadcast journalist and found herself fighting for equal coverage for people of color [source: O'Brien].
"At screenings for 'Black in America' I've heard people say, 'Well you know I never thought you were black until you did [pieces on Hurricane] Katrina and then I thought you were black.' And I'd say, 'That's so fascinating. What was it that made you think I was black?'" said O'Brien in an interview to promote "Who is Black in America?", her latest installment in the documentary series.
"And then someone else would say, 'Yeah, but she's married to a white man.' And I'm like 'OK, so does that make me less black and how in your mind does that math work?'"
In the end, O'Brien (who's also produced documentaries for CNN on being Latino in America) relied on a lesson learned in her childhood: "My parents taught me very early that how other people perceive me really was not my problem or my responsibility. It was much more based on how I perceived me" [source: O'Brien].
Queen Charlotte of England
In the 18th century, a painting of Queen Charlotte -- wife of the British King George III -- sparked a flurry of debate because her facial features seemed more in keeping with someone of African heritage. And with good reason: It seems that Queen Charlotte was descended from a branch of a Portuguese royal family who traced their ancestry to a 13th-century ruler named Alfonso III and his lover Madragana, who was "a Moor" ( an old term for someone of African or Arabic descent) [source: Jeffries].
Some historians cast doubt on this theory but scholar Mario de Valdes y Cocom notes that the queen's personal physician said she had a "true mulatto face." Further, the royal family spelled out its link to African ancestors in a published report released before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, in conjunction with her position as head of the Commonwealth [source: Cocom].
If correct, the royal link to black heritage would mean that Queen Charlotte's granddaughter, Queen Victoria, was of mixed race. The same goes for her still-living descendants, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William, and any future heirs.
Considered the father of Russia's Golden Age of literature, Alexander Pushkin, was born into nobility in the summer of 1799. He was the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince named Ibrahim Gannibal, who had relocated to Russia and become a general in the army of Peter the Great [source: PBS].
Puskin became a member of a revolutionary group dedicated to social reform and wrote poems that reflected his views. His work, which included "Freedom" and "The Village," came under scrutiny by Russian authorities and led to his exile in 1820 to his mother's estate [source: Shaw].
Six years later, he was pardoned by Czar Nicholas I and free to travel; he married in 1831 and later challenged one of his wife's admirers to a duel in 1837. He died two days later from injuries he sustained in the battle. Pushkin's most famous works include the poem "The Bronze Horseman," the verse novel "Eugene Onegin" and the play "Boris Gudunov" [source: Shaw]. He also left behind an unfinished novel about his Ethiopian great-grandfather.
If you're an action-movie fan, odds are you'll recognize Michael Fosberg for the roles he landed in "Hard to Kill" and "The Presidio." Fosberg, who played white characters in these movies, didn't really have to stretch for the roles. After all, he'd grown up white in an upper-class family; his mother was a brunette and his father was a fair-skinned blonde.
When Fosberg was 32, however, his parents divorced and spilled a family secret that would change the course of his life. The man Fosberg had always known as his father was actually his stepfather. His biological father and his mother had only been briefly married after his unexpected conception, and Fosberg set out to find the man. When he did, he was stunned to discover his father was black.
The emotional reunion changed Fosberg's perception, not only about himself, but the world around him. It's a journey he chronicled in a memoir, "Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-Discovery." Fosberg discovered that the African-American side of his family included a grandfather who was chairman of the science and engineering department at Norfolk State University, Va., and a great-grandfather who was a star pitcher for the Negro Leagues [source: Ihejirika].
Since 2000, he's toured the nation performing a one-man play based on his life story. "It's important to embrace all of who you are," Fosberg said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Alessandro de Medici
An exploration of the Italian Renaissance wouldn't be complete without talking about the powerful banking and political family the Medicis. And Alessandro de Medici, the first Duke of Florence, supported some of the era's leading artists. In fact, he is one of only two Medici princes to be buried in a tomb designed by Michelangelo.
You could say Medici was the first black ruler in Italy, in fact the first black head of state in the Western world, though his African heritage was rarely talked about. He was born in 1510 to a black servant and a white 17-year-old named Giulio de Medici, who would later become Pope Clement VII. Upon his election to pope, Clement VII had to relinquish his position as Duke of Florence and appointed his son instead.
But the teenage Medici faced a changing political climate. Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, and Florentines took advantage of the turmoil to establish a more democratic form of government. Medici fled his hometown. He returned when tensions eased two years later and was again appointed by the Emperor Charles V, who offered his own daughter – also born out of wedlock -- as Medici's wife. Despite the family ties, Medici was killed by a cousin shortly after he married in 1537 [source: African American Registry].
Last editorial update on Jan 15, 2019 12:19:23 pm.
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Author's Note: 10 People You Probably Didn't Know Were Black
This was a fascinating article to research, especially because I was able to delve into personal histories. I found the experiences of Anatole Broyard and Michael Fosberg to be particularly poignant: Broyard for his ability and desire to skirt the issue of being born black, and Fosberg for embracing life as a black man after growing up white. And then there's the one-drop rule. What does it mean to be black? Or, in my case, Native American? I have Cherokee blood in my veins (and probably other ethnicities I don't even know about), but was adopted by a fantastic family when I was just seven days old. Naturally, I grew up identifying with my family. The idea of biology versus environment is an interesting one. With so many factors to shape our personalities and perceptions, who's to say whether we're formed by experience or ethnicity?
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