She is African American and Native American (Rappahannock), which may help explain why she has conducted research for the past 12 years on what she calls the “intersections between Native American, African American and European peoples in the southeastern United States with a focus on the etymology of race, the ideology of racial purity and its historical and contemporary effects on racial and identity formation.” In non-academic terms, that means she has done a lot of thinking about the relations and interactions of blacks, Indians and whites on the East Coast, primarily in Virginia.
Coleman has turned her Ph.D. dissertation into an upcoming book, That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia, and agreed to talk with ICTMN about her experiences as an African American woman who gets a lot of grief for also being an American Indian.
Wouldn’t you say that back in the day, American Indians and African Americans all went to the same parties?
Yes, we went to the same parties and we also worked the slave plantations together. This is what a lot of people do not understand when you talk about slavery. My African American brothers and sisters will have a problem with this because they like to look at slavery only in terms of black and white. The truth is—and specifically in Virginia—there was Indian slavery. The first slaves in the Americas were Native American and this business that the Native Americans died off as a result of disease and war [is inaccurate]—those were not the only reasons for their demise, there was the Indian slave trade, which is something we do not discuss a lot.
When you had people of African descent being brought across the Atlantic to the Americas, you also had Native American people throughout the Americas being dispersed throughout the world, including portions of South Africa and Angola. When you look at the records of the South—and specifically in Virginia—they talk about Indian, Negro and mulatto slaves…. From the 16th century through the 19th century, you had Native American peoples identified as Negro and as mulatto.
When you look in those records and see these terms you cannot automatically assume that these folks were African, because they could have been a mix of Native American or European as well. Racial labels have never been constant or used with consistency.
Courtesy Indiana University Press
Coleman is fascinated by the motives behind racial politics.
Is that what your book is about?
The book examines Virginia’s obsession with racial purity and the way that impacted African American and Native American kinship and friendship relations. When we talk about the racism that the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia encountered during its state recognition process—none of this occurred in a vacuum. This started long before then; Virginia has been obsessed with this from day one. They were going to hang John Rolfe for marrying Pocahontas—not everybody was on board for that marriage.
I tell my students all the time that there has always been the politics of difference, so as long as there are more than two or three people on this planet, somebody is going to find a reason why they are better than you. Before, it was religion. But now in our American society it is this myth of race, of separate biological races. So now we have Native people and this issue of blood quantum—it may take one drop of blood to make a black person, but it takes a lot of blood to make an Indian. That is politics. That is not scientific, or the law of nature, or the law of God—it is somebody’s politics.
In Virginia you could be of white Indian ancestry and still remain Indian, but once you brought in that African element, all of a sudden something magical happened—it became the myth of racial contamination. You hear about white people who love black culture, but you will seldom hear one actually acknowledge any African American ancestry. But they will claim Indian ancestry.
Can you tell us why Walter Plecker is so important to your book?
The title of my book is That the Blood Stay Pure because that was the premise of Plecker’s war against the Indians. In the 1920s, as the eugenics movement and the whole idea of good breeding and racial purity came about—it became the leading ideology in Virginia. There was a push to enact stricter legislation about racial intermarriage. Some states strictly forbade intermarriage with blacks while some states said whites could not intermarry with anyone.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was created to define a white person in very strict terms. Originally, the definition was anyone with only Caucasian blood. But Virginia ran into a problem, because some of its prominent citizens stated they were descendants of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. They complained that that made them colored—so the state instituted the Pocahontas Exception, which said it was okay to have 1/16th American Indian blood.
Walter Plecker was the most dogmatic [of the eugenicists]; as Virginia’s state registrar, he used his office as a bully to get the word out: “We do not want America to become a mongrel nation!” In 1925, a few months after the Racial Integrity Act was passed, Plecker began a campaign against Indians and called them “Negro.” He did not allow anyone to have an Indian designation in Virginia [through the Pocahantas Exception]. This man was ruthless and relentless.
What are some of the things you have faced as an African American and as a Native American?
It is very hard as a person of African descent to be able to embrace both cultures. I get grief from black people who think I don’t want to be black—‘Oh, you are ashamed of being black?” I say “No, I love being black.” When I walk into my house the first thing I see is a picture of my slave great-great-grandfather. He was a slave for 40 years but died a free man. The photo I have is from 1910. This is my grandmother’s grandfather so don’t tell me that I am not trying to be black.
I was at the pow wow in North Carolina [recently]. Thankfully it was not a pow wow where people wanted to card you. I guarantee if it would’ve been one of those pow wows I would have been carded, because even my husband noticed there were people who were looking at me in a certain way because I was in regalia and I was in the dance circle. I remember one person at a drum who gave me a look like, “For real?” This is the kind of stuff I face.
We have embraced the myth that if a person has African American ancestry, that’s all they are and that’s all they can be unless they become famous like [President] Barack Obama—then nobody is going to acknowledge he is half white. Once Vanessa Williams and Tiger Woods became famous then they could discuss their mixed-race heritage. Again this is based on someone’s politics of putting people into categories. This is exactly what happened in Virginia.
This is the other half of the Walter Plecker story. Those who advocated on behalf of the Indians to save them from his “pencil genocide” engaged in this same practice themselves by erasing the historical realities of African and Native American relations. Instead of
Plecker was determined to expunge Indians from Virginia’s official records.
challenging this racial purity doctrine that said you can only be white or colored, they embraced it.
In the 1990s, Wilma Mankiller [first female chief of the Cherokee] said “One of the things that struck me when I came to the South was that I saw people who identified as African American who were Cree, Yakama, Oneida, and I said, “Wait a minute, I know you have this black thing going on, but I am seeing a whole lot of other stuff too. I am seeing Native ancestry.” However, the whole premise is to deny, deny, deny.
Writing about Virginia Indians and writing about the racial integrity act—this is a taboo subject. This is something you don’t talk about. This book started out as my Ph.D. dissertation, and when I told my advisor, he said, “You are going to do a dissertation on what?”
He warned me I was about to step into some serious stuff—he didn’t say stuff—and I had no idea how serious and deep this “stuff” was.
One thing that made it difficult to do my work—and my family is from Virginia—is that nobody in my family talked about Indians until my great aunt Mary. Before she died, she wanted to let me know that we had Native American ancestry. My grandmother was not happy about her telling me this. I said, “What’s the big secret, for God’s sake?”
Also, I didn’t know any better when I approached chiefs and asked about their association with blacks. I didn’t know that these are questions you are not supposed to ask. I learned that these are things people only whispered about in secret spaces.
I remember being at a conference a couple of years ago, and a woman from Syracuse University made a comment about our present capitalist system being made on the backs of black slaves, and a Native American woman in the audience was very offended. She talked about the dispossession of Native peoples and the two of them got into a very nasty argument. People were standing there and didn’t know what to do, and here I was belonging to both of these peoples. To see them in a fight like that and to see how the dividing rule had been used to create this type of animosity, I broke down crying right there. I said, “You’re both right.”
When [Nottoway] Chief Lynette Allston came to the University of Delaware to talk about such topics some people very disappointed because she wasn’t wearing her regalia!
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this topic?
I love all of me. I am not going to deny my blackness, and I’m not going to deny my Indian-ness— you can’t make me do it.