A Distant Goal We Seek

In the isolated rural South, the arrival of a stranger often elicits both fear and excitement. That is why, nearly fifty years later, I remember so clearly the day an unknown woman in a sensible shirtwaist dress drove down our gravel driveway in Mississippi and exited her car bearing a notebook that marked her as a census worker. When my fair-skinned, auburn-haired mother answered the door, I am certain this strange woman thought she was entering a white home. By the time she was seated in our tidy living room, my father—with his distinctive caramel coloring—entered, followed by four children of varying hues, and the case of mistaken identity was resolved. We had already filled out our census form, 1970 being the first year we were classified as “negro or black” rather than just “negro,” a label of identity that matched the black Afro pick with the clenched fist lying on my bedroom dresser. After the census worker left, my mother gave her famous crooked grin, having maintained a sober poker face as she answered the questions the visibly perplexed woman asked. 

My family has been confounding census workers for nearly a century. In the 1920 census the taker in Washington County, Alabama, documented my white grandfather, Jim Richardson, living with my black grandmother, Edna, in a household with three “mulatto” children, while the 1930 census categorized the seven Richardson children as “negro”—my mother being the youngest of those seven children—and my white grandfather as negro as well. Since he had chosen to live with a black woman as the head of their household, he became black in the eyes of the census taker, just as my mother’s identity shifted in our living room forty years later. My grandmother, on the other hand, was not listed as the wife of my grandfather but as “cook,” perhaps an offhanded way of making a judgment about what was then considered an illicit and illegal relationship. It goes without saying that racial and ethnic identity in the United States has never been so fluid that my blond and blue-eyed grandfather would be perceived as “negro” by any census taker in 1930s Alabama.

Looking back on these stories of the U.S. census from my family, I am reminded that memory is not just a passive deposition of facts. It is an active process of creating meaning. The meaning we like to ascribe to the census is one linked to our constitutionally idealized view of counting the residents of the United States. Our individual memories create a fuller story of the census that is often at odds with what many believe this decennial event actually documents.

“Our shared humanity gets severely challenged when the manifold divisions of the world are unified into one allegedly dominant system of classification,” observed philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. “The uniquely partitioned world is much more divisive than the plural and diverse categories that shape the world we live in.” The census asserts that it exists to make sense of our shared American identity, yet this exercise has a long history of amplifying our cultural divisions and sowing confusion rather than allowing us to see the actual shape of ways its citizens see themselves. The census has been shaped by one dominant system of classification: whiteness. By the time that census taker drove down my driveway in 1970, the census was collecting racial and ethnic statistics on fifteen different racial classifications to enforce civil-rights laws related to housing, education, and voting rights. The shining promise of that post–Civil Rights Movement census was that finally all citizens would be counted and that those numbers would help combat discrimination and enforce the civil rights and voting rights acts. That idea of an inclusive American social covenant is still a distant goal we seek. 

Similarly, in the 2000 census the “check all that apply” race question held the potential to capture new forms of racial diversity in the population. Yet in spite of my three children’s awareness of a genealogy that over three generations blurs racial distinctions, as well as our trying to raise them with the idea of a rooted cosmopolitanism, they all identify as black first and multiracial second. While the multiracial movement promoted the compelling idea of seeing oneself as a palimpsest of identities, the one-drop rule continues to hold more cultural sway and helps provide a rapid answer to that awkward question asked of all ethnically ambiguous people: “Well, what are you?” The external cultural forces that commanded my children to choose an identity held more power than a gesture that merely acknowledged a demographic shift while not quite embracing it. My sons and daughter can check all that apply on a form, yet in an America where white supremacists wield influence at the highest levels of government, holding tight to your blackness is a means of resisting the weaponized power of whiteness that continues to hover over all of us in a threatening cloud of fear.

The specter of whiteness on our political landscape also brought about the controversial citizenship question the Supreme Court eventually ruled could not proceed because of the lie that was constructed to justify its inclusion. The citizenship question may now be blocked, but the integrity of the census remains tainted, as it has been since the first tally of our citizenry in 1790. That census divided the population on the basis of slave and free, yet other markers were part of the demographics gathered for that census: free white males, free white females, all other free people, and slaves. While many Americans view the census as a means of defining who is a part of our American community, what the citizenship question spotlights is the role the census has played in establishing and institutionalizing social hierarchies and determining who in our society may be thought of as an “other.” 

When my mother’s siblings were identified as “mulatto” in the 1920 census, the term was both a means of demarcating how the dominant culture defined them as well as establishing a racial hierarchy among black citizens, a distinction poet Natasha Trethewey characterizes as “the promise of blood alchemy” in her series of poems based on the casta paintings of Juan Rodríguez Juárez that she titled “Taxonomy.” Across this nation’s history, the label “mulatto” rendered those with an identity with “that precise shade of in between.” Sometimes I wonder whether that period of distinguishing between “negro” and “mulatto” only contributed to the colorism that still haunts black Americans. Moreover, given that the census has traditionally viewed the American populace in terms of a racial binary, people of ethnicities that exist outside of that realm—such as Arabic/Middle Eastern, Asian, Latino—have often found themselves checking the box “other” to define themselves and wonder how or if they have been counted. Consequently, what every American has to reckon with is the way the census has been used as both a means of establishing who is labeled as other in our society as well as a means of silencing those others by using power to represent and present who our society thinks they are rather than how a community may see itself.

“A nostalgia for lost origins can be detrimental to the exploration of social realities,” notes literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The census, both past and present, has provided a story of the way those with power seek to impose a sometimes faulty construction of identity on segments of American society rather than recognize the way the patchwork of communities across the country see themselves. Our idealized way of thinking of the census is one that is rooted in a gauzy filtered view of our culture, rather than a clear-eyed examination of the way we live now or even the way we lived in the past. Until we as a society come to terms with this fact, our national identity and cultural narrative will exist in fragmented and segregated spheres. And we will continue to be all the more divided, because we want to believe an illusion of who we are rather than see this country as it actually lives and breathes.


W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of A Place Like Mississippi (forthcoming 2021 from Timber Press), The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South (HarperCollins, 2009), and Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past (Basic Books, 2003). His essays have been published in The Hedgehog Review, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker. A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, he is currently a visiting professor of English and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He divides his time between Oxford, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C.