NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In 1914, in Alabama, a young white man defied the social mores of that time and his middle-class family and married a young black woman. Jim Richardson and Edna Howell built a house and for the next 20 years until Edna's death they raised a mix-race family in the Jim Crow South. The town they lived in is now largely abandoned and nearly forgotten. Alabama's racial laws are long since off the books, but the legacy of that time and place remain. Ralph Eubanks is the grandson of Jim and Edna.
His new book, "In The House At The End Of The Road" describes how Jim moved easily between the worlds of black and white and how his grandparents tried to raise their children to believe race didn't matter, and how racial identity shaped three generations of his family. Later in the program, pushing tin, we'll talk with Jeanne Marie Laskas, who spent time with air traffic controllers in the tower at La Guardia in New York. But first, if your family is mixed race, call and tell us how you talk about race and interracial relationships in your family.
Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site too, that's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ralph Eubanks joins us here in studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program.
Mr. RALPH EUBANKS (Author, "In The House At The End Of The Road"): Oh, thank you very much. I'm glad to be back.
CONAN: And there's a part of your book that I think I found a little hard to believe, I think other readers might too, where your mother, Jim and Edna's daughter, did not know her father was - not realize that he was white or the significance that he was white until his death.
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I mean, my mother didn't know the significance of his race. I think when she was a young girl she found out that he was white, that he collapsed in a field where he was logging and was being brought to the house by a group of men. And my grandmother's friend, Miss Kelly(ph), she asked her, said what's wrong with Jim and she always called him by his first name. And Miss Kelly replied, I don't know what's wrong with that white man. And she said, Miss Kelly, is my father a white man? And she screamed out, Edna, why didn't you tell this child that her father is a white man? And she said because it doesn't matter.
CONAN: Because it doesn't matter. And it's hard to believe that in southern Alabama at that time and place that there would be anybody to whom it didn't matter.
Mr. EUBANKS: It's really very, you know, it's very unique that it didn't matter to them. And I think it's because of the remoteness of the place. It's a beautiful place. You go down a sandy road that's covered with live oak trees and Spanish moss and you get there and there's nothing else for miles, I mean the Tombigbee River is off the distance.
Mr. EUBANKS: And as a result they lived this very isolated life and moved between these two black and white worlds, very fluidly, quite easily and with little consequence for, really, defying the law.
CONAN: And there were we have to remember, it was a felony to be married to -across races in those days.
Mr. EUBANKS: It was a felony. It was punishable by, I believe, seven years of hard labor in the Alabama state prison.
CONAN: And you're drawing a picture of a time and place - when you and I grew up, it almost seemed like that still existed or was hanging on and now seems like it was gone forever. There was a time before those laws were on the books where people mixed not just white and black but Indians as well and - Native Americans - and, you know, this didn't seem to be that much of a problem. Then it became a problem and now it is less of a problem?
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I think it's, there's a very interesting evolution of all this because this is south Alabama, this was originally, was British territory. My ancestors got their land from a land grant from George III. Then it became Spanish territory. There were Indians, so the Spaniards, the French settlers, the English settlers, the Native Americans all intermarried there. So you have communities of mixed race people in that part of the American South. And then as slavery becomes much more important to the culture of the South, then it begins to matter because you've got to determine who is going to be the top group rather than who is going to be at the bottom of the scale.
CONAN: Hmm. And it's interesting, you talked about your mother, not understanding the significance of you father as a white man, in a way you experienced that slightly differently in your life too that understanding, not understanding that your grandfather was a white man.
Mr. EUBANKS: I didn't understand. I really learned it when I was 16 years old and completely by accident. I had visited this place for years and there all of these relatives that I would meet who looks like my mother. But some of them were white, some of them were black and I didn't really know the difference. So, when I overheard my parents talking about how they'd really moved ahead with their marriage in spite of their different backgrounds and my father saying the hardest thing he ever did was to ask a white man to marry his daughter…
Mr. EUBANKS: …I was, you know, really surprised. But I pushed it aside because it was something that - this is 1973 when I'm hearing this, you know, soon after Black Power movement - it's something I wanted to hear. It's not something I really wanted to know, not something I really wanted to share.
CONAN: And are there some people in your family who are uncomfortable that you've written this book?
Mr. EUBANKS: No, they're not. They've actually been quite supportive. And I think that's also sign of how our times have changed because this isn't something that we want to - to hide anymore. Someone told me as I was driving around south Alabama once I saw I wish I would've started on this 20 years ago because more people would've been alive and she said, honey, if you'd started on this 20 years ago no one would've talked to you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Yet these stories were almost impossible to capture after all of this time. There's no documentation.
Mr. EUBANKS: They were really difficult to capture and it was just wandering these roads and just whoever I would stumble on who would talk with me. I would get them to tell me their stories. I have to say there were certain points where I wanted to give up on this because I would come across the very same story. You have people who are quite elderly and they tell the same story over and over again. And then you just happen to stumble on something and you hear something and it takes you in a completely different direction.
And that's exactly what happening to me. You know, maybe finding a document, hearing of a letter, someone just dropping me an e-mail, saying I heard you were here and I want to tell you this story.
CONAN: One of the great stories that you tell us is about your grandfather. This is before he's married to your grandmother. He's riding on a train and sees two white man berating a black man for violating a then informal law and goes to intervene on his behalf.
Mr. EUBANKS: Yes. He goes to intervene on his behalf and, as the story that I heard over and over again, that they said, well here's just, he must've thought here's another redneck who's coming to join in the fray. And he went to help him. He stabbed my grandfather who was very much short of - a man short of temper his entire life. And my grandfather pulled out a gun and shot him. And one of the things I wanted to do is to find out well was he ever prosecuted. And I spent an entire afternoon in the courthouse in Chatom, Alabama, going through all the records, looking for anything that had a Richardson name there. There were lots of things with Richardsons with gunplay…
Mr. EUBANKS: …which is a very common thing in the family but there was nothing there. And someone told me it was probably thrown out because that's how things worked in that part of Alabama.
CONAN: But of course when he did marry your mother and they decided to raise a family they did it in the black town and not in the white town.
Mr. EUBANKS: That's correct. And I think that that shows you where there was a real divide, and they knew that. And I think it was part of their social cunning, as well. They were - they are people - they are two people that I spent a great deal of time with over the last three years, and I've been amazed at how they really did know the limits of what they could do, but also were not - were very brave in making sure that people knew that they were not to be crossed.
CONAN: We're talking with Ralph Eubanks about his new book, "The House at the End of the Road." 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. We want to talk with members of mixed-race families about how they talk about race and interracial relationships, and we'll start with Keisha. Keisha's calling us from Cleveland.
KEISHA (Caller): Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi, Keisha.
KEISHA: Thanks for taking my call, and I'm so excited about this topic. I'm an African-American female married to a Caucasian male, and we have a six-year-old son who blatantly wants to identify as Caucasian. And it's like - it's heart-wrenching for me, as a mom. It's like he's basically developed this self-concept, this association of African-American as negative, and he tells me all the time I'm white, I'm white. In fact, he told me recently somebody in school told him you're black, and he was like oh, no. And I'm like, that's not nothing bad.
So I tried to educate him, but it just remains to be a difficult task in this day and age, and I think it's still hard - oh, go ahead.
CONAN: Yeah, I was going to get a…
Mr. EUBANKS: I'd say, yes, it is still hard. It's so fascinating that your son has had that experience, and I would imagine that phenotypically, he may look white. I mean, my son had the same thing. He phenotypically looked very white, but was going around the playground saying that he was black and got himself into a bit of trouble with that.
So I do - it is a real challenge today, because the lines of identity are being blurred a great deal. I think that's what you're witnessing with your son, whereas I think those of my generation, in particular, saying that you're white when you're of mixed race is a real - it's a real no-no. It's just something that you wouldn't say, nor would you ever say that you're a person of mixed race because you would always claim that you are black.
But we have to start moving away from the one-drop rule. And I think your son, in time, his identity will evolve. And that's one of the things that we've done.
CONAN: I just wonder in a world where we have a mixed-race president, do you not say to your son, you're just like Barack Obama?
KEISHA: Yes, I do, actually, and he's a big fan of Barack Obama. But I also think it's interesting - we had to move in a predominately white side of town, on the west side of Cleveland, because we were getting a lot of pressure, a lot of negative comments and reactions on the African-American side.
So I think in contrast to your parents - or grandparents, rather - who grew up on the black side and it was okay, now we are - we were forced, at least -because we were predominately, originally in the African-American, urban area, we were forced to move out just because of harassment. So that's another issue. But yes, I do identify - I mean, I point out our president to my son. And I also try to educate him on the history.
CONAN: Keisha, good luck with your son. We appreciate your phone call. We're talking with Ralph Eubanks today, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest is Ralph Eubanks. His latest book, "The House at the End of the Road," tells the story of his grandparents, James Richardson and Edna Howell. The two defied the times with an interracial marriage in Jim Crow Alabama. They chose to live as a black family in the Deep South, though they could have passed easily for white. You can read more in an excerpt at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our focus today is on interracial families. We want to hear your story. If you or someone in your family has married outside your ethnicity, what's been the reaction? How do you talk about it? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. There's also a conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
I just wanted to follow up on Keisha's call at the end of the last segment. Who today defines - the old rule under Jim Crow was one drop of negro blood and you were negro, you were African-American. These days, who enforces that rule?
Mr. EUBANKS: I think that no one really enforces that rule. It's culturally enforced, and we also have - I think it was in 2000 at the first census where you could check all that apply, which has really changed the nature of race. Now in that last census, you had seven-million people who checked the box saying that they were - they checked more than one box. And of those seven-million people, I think almost half of them are under the age of 18.
CONAN: Under the age of 18. So this is going to be changing even more, you'd have to expect.
Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, this is going to shift the demographics. So we have moved away from this, but it really - I think identity is something that you really feel inside yourself rather than something that people should place upon you. And I think that's a very important thing for people to remember today.
CONAN: Yet the government, in some contexts, still does define race -affirmative action, for example.
Mr. EUBANKS: Yes, they do define race in terms of affirmative action, and I think that's one of the policy issues that is going to come up as we become a much more multiracial society. How do we deal with issues of affirmative action? Is it going to be on race, or is it going to be on in-common class? How are we going to enforce some of the guidelines for the Voting Rights Act, for instance? That's one of the things that's coming up at the Supreme Court this fall.
So there's some profound policy issues, and I think it also changes the nature of racial politics in this country, as well.
CONAN: We're also talking mostly today, though, about the social implications of this in terms of the grandparents of Ralph Eubanks and the three generations of his family. Let's see if we can get Connie on the line. Connie's calling from Kings Mountain in North Carolina.
CONNIE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
CONNIE: I appreciate your program. I've been in a mixed-race marriage for over 30 years in a small town, small, in North Carolina. And my experience has been it was very, very hard for me at first because my family just put me out, so to speak, for 11 years.
But we have raised three children in this town, and their experiences have been, I think, individually different. And my daughter is a beautiful brown skin, and she has - people have always said to her you're black, because they would, you know - okay, you're black. Why do you say you're, you know, mixed? And she would - that hurt her. I mean, for me to be white and for her to feel like she had to deny her mother, that was very hard.
And then I have a - my middle son is very light-skinned. Now he married a white woman, and they just recently had a beautiful little baby who is very white. So when my husband, who is a very dark-skinned man, he holds the little baby, that's his grandchild.
So, you know, there's just such a mixture, and it's very beautiful to us. But it's a lot for other people sometimes to comprehend when they look at us. But we've just seen a great change over the 30 years in people's attitudes.
CONAN: You said earlier, Connie, your family had put you out. Have you reconciled?
CONNIE: Yes. After 11 years, we did. I think my dad - both my parents have passed away, but we spent quite a few years, and they grew to absolutely love my husband. I think there was just fear. You know, like I say, we're from the South, and my dad could just not understand.
CONAN: Was there one thing that made him change his mind?
CONNIE: I really don't know. I honestly - he just - I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, Connie, I think it's really interesting what you're saying about your family and about how they're all the varying shades of people within your family. But what I find very compelling is that acknowledging the beauty of all of these differences really makes the idea of race less meaningful because you're looking at how people look as a window into the past and into our future. And that's what's really wonderful about it.
CONNIE: Exactly - I'm sorry.
Mr. EUBANKS: Go ahead.
CONNIE: When you were talking about President Obama, that was huge for us. That was just very emotional and very - you know, that was just a wonderful thing for us to see that and feel like what we were a part of it, you know.
CONAN: And that you were visible, in a way, for the first time.
CONNIE: Yes. It was like we knew we were okay. You know…
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONNIE: …we appreciate ourselves. We understand our situation. But you want to feel like that other people see what you see.
CONAN: Connie, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.
CONNIE: Well, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can turn next to Vivian, Vivian calling from Flagstaff, Arizona.
VIVIAN (Caller): Yes, hi. I wanted to share a little bit of my experience, it's a little different. My - I'm a quarter black. I'm obviously from a mixed-race family. And I grew up in a household where race was not discussed at all.
My father is half black. His mother is German, and he married a German woman. And so because we didn't discuss race in our household, when I was growing up, I was teased a lot. I didn't really - you know, I tried to play with the white kids, the popular kids, and I was always kind of kicked to the curb in a way and teased and really manipulated. And when I hung out with the black kids from my neighborhood, I was kind of - I was always seen differently.
I could pick up as a child that somehow I was different, I was maybe even damaged. And I took - I understood or interpreted all of that teasing and that kind of not being a part of the social scene and not kind of getting into the groove of it as something wrong with me, my personality. I looked funny. I talked funny. I was awkward, or something like that.
So because - if my parents had discussed with me race and, you know, well, the kids might be treating you different because they don't know what group you're in or, you know, where you belong or that kind of thing, I would have - it would have been - it was to my detriment because I took everything personally.
If they had talked to me about race, if it had been an issue in a positive sense, then I would not have misinterpreted so much of what happened, like elementary school, middle school, even part of high school.
CONAN: Did you ever ask your parents about why they didn't talk about it?
VIVIAN: They just didn't want it to be an issue. They felt like if they brought it up, if they made it an issue, if they talked about it, then somehow I would feel ostracized. But, in fact, the fact that they didn't talk about it made me, you know, ended with me being ostracized or feeling ostracized. So they tried to view it in a - you know, for all good reasons…
CONAN: They did the best they could, but they got it wrong.
VIVIAN: Exactly. Exactly. And so I just feel like there's a way to talk about it that it can be a positive thing. I don't know. Somehow it can be - it doesn't have to be discussed with such negative connotations. I think just like anything else, you can put a spin on it.
CONAN: Sure. And like anything else, probably sunlight is the best disinfectant. Talking about avoiding the elephant in the room is probably not a wise idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
VIVIAN: Exactly, and my parents were very good at that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I think that what you're talking about is the importance of talking about race, whether you are in an interracial family or whether you're not in an interracial family. Because whether we like it or not, race is very much a social reality.
I mean, I think during the course of writing this book, it's made me think less about race in my personal life. However, I do have to acknowledge that race is part of our social reality in this country, and I have to talk about it. And I think my family talks about it a great deal as things that they're navigating day to day.
They're - you know, I have three young children who are navigating, you know, some very tough seas of identity right now, and they seem to be coming out okay, largely because we have talked about it.
VIVIAN: Yeah, definitely.
CONAN: But was there a time - obviously, there was a time, Ralph, in your family when they didn't necessarily talk about it that much. And was that necessarily an issue of principle, it doesn't matter, or was it an issue of avoidance?
Mr. EUBANKS: You mean in my own family?
Mr. EUBANKS: I think it was an issue that we did talk about it, but it didn't dominate what we - our discussions. But when it did come up, we were comfortable talking about it. I think that's really where we fit in with it, is that it was something to be talked about when it was to be talked about. But it wasn't something that was to actually run our lives.
CONAN: Vivian, thanks very much for the call.
VIVIAN: Thank you, bye.
CONAN: Bye, bye. Let's see if we can go next to Kerry(ph). Kerry, with us in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
KERRY (Caller): Hi. That was a really interesting conversation for me to follow up on because I'm part of a multiracial family. But actually, the only time that we remember that we're multiracial is when we listen to a show like this or read - TV, you know, see something on TV about it or whatever, read something on a book, it doesn't come up.
And it's interesting because I'm white - and my boyfriend of 14 years, he's black and we have three kids. And they are definitely different looks, different phenotypes, if you will. They don't look the same - I mean, they look like brothers and sisters but they don't have the same skin color or even eye color. And it's interesting because we don't talk about it at all because in my day-to-day life, I mean, I don't remember that I'm white and he's black and they're brown or whatever.
One time, my little boy, one of my boys, they were talking about - they identify themselves by their skin color and not by any socially-constructed racial concept at all. One of my boys was talking about, you know, he was brown and then his younger brown kind of look around and was thinking and pipes up, yeah. I'm khaki.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: How old are they, Kerry?
KERRY: They are not 13 and 11. And our daughter is nearly one.
And it's interesting because in - we live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which you don't think about Indiana as being a particularly progressive, open-minded place. I mean, it's pretty red state. But, you know what? In their school, in their soccer, in their swimming, in all the things - in our neighborhood and all the things that we do, it just never comes up. And it's not the elephant in the room. We're not avoiding it as principle. We're not avoiding it to avoid it. I mean, it just is a part of our lives and it's not part of the kids' lives. They don't identify that way. I mean…
CONAN: I wonder, do you suspect it might become more so as they get into high school?
KERRY: I wonder if it will. But, I mean, you know, every once in a while, when you listen to something like this (unintelligible), when there's - ever becomes relevant. If they're ever forced to make a choice whether to be black or to be white or to be of mixed race, you know, I don't know if it ever will. But it sure hasn't yet. And I used to think of it more when they were younger like, is this going to be an issue. But we've been going on for 14 years and it's - I mean, you just - I just never think, oh, I'm white and he's black. Or, oh, the kids are mixed. They're just who they are and I'm who I am.
And, you know, we have our problems but they're just human problems. They're not really, you know, we didn't - aren't really affected by this whole construct of race ever. I mean we really aren't. And it's not that I don't want to be, I mean, I certainly don't want to be. But it's not that I'm denying it, we just don't (unintelligible) I mean, ever until it comes up on a show like this, I mean, like, how, I shouldn't even think of that.
CONAN: Ralph, I can see you want to get in here.
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I think it's - I'm seeing some similarity with my own family, with my maternal grandparents and my mother's family, that some of that, perhaps, social isolation is contributing to that. You are in a circle of people who are very supportive…
Mr. EUBANKS: …and accepting and that really helps. But I know that for my mother leaving that accepting place and having to go to Tuskegee and to be black, I mean, and really realizing that she was black for the first time in her life, had a profound impact on her.
CONAN: Kerry, good luck.
KERRY: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Ralph Eubanks today.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And here's an email we have from Ana Maria(ph). As mixed race Hispanic woman of fair skin, I claim both black and white identities. I wonder sometimes, however, if some think I am trying to pass as black. While traditionally, black folks are critical of blacks passing as white, I think today some blacks are worried about mixed race people passing as black. As for me, I live by the old African proverb, it doesn't matter what you call me. It only matters who I -what I answer to.
I wonder about that comment, though. Do you?
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, it's really interesting thing to hear about someone not wanting to - someone wanting to pass for black. And in the course of my research, one of the things that I did find is that there is a great deal of resistance among - in some camps about people claiming to be multiracial rather than black or multiracial rather than some other, you know, put ethnicity here, because it does change the demographics a bit.
But I mean, I'm not as strict social constructionist about that. I think identity is, as I've said earlier, is what you feel inside. And if that's what the person who wrote that feels inside themselves, if that's who they are, that's who they should claim to be.
CONAN: Let's see if we can talk with Joan([ph). Joan with us in Palm Coast in Florida.
JOAN (Caller): Hi.
JOAN: Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Okay. We just have a couple of minutes but go ahead.
JOAN: Okay. I just want to say real quick, I'm white. My husband is black. We have 11-year-old daughter, Jordan(ph,) who has from her own mouth always said that she was a mixed race. And - according to her, she says she has the best of both worlds. In our household, we embrace both ethnicities. We are blessed, I feel, because of it. And we have an opportunity to show our neighborhood and our surrounding world that people are the same regardless of color.
We have instilled in her to identify herself more so from being kind and generous and loving, more so than the color of her skin.
CONAN: Well, it sounds like you've got a remarkable daughter.
JOAN: Oh, yes, we do. We've been very blessed.
Mr. EUBANKS: Well, I think, what you're saying is important for all of us to acknowledge that common humanity first and then…
JOAN: Yes, yes.
Mr. EUBANKS: …look at those outward characteristics as secondary things that we look at. And that's very important. And I've - that's, I think, the trajectory that we're on, I hope.
CONAN: And look up to it.
CONAN: Joan, thanks very much.
JOAN: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Give Jordan our best.
Ralph Eubanks, thanks so much for your time today.
Mr. EUBANKS: Oh, thank you very much for having me here. It's been a pleasure.
CONAN: Ralph Eubanks is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author most recently of "The House at the End of the Road." You can read an excerpt from the book at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And he was with us here in Studio 3A.
Coming up, 30,000 commercial flights a day and rarely a collision. Why? Air traffic controllers. Jeanne Marie Laskas takes us inside the control tower at La Guardia. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.