"You were permanently nicknamed. The honorifics of Mr. or Ms. or 'Your Honor,' or Doctor, are so absent from that community that people actually ended up making them part of their first name and insisting upon it by baptizing their children with the honorifics. As a way of subverting the disrespect.
"The acquisition of last names, after the Civil War, was a process, in many cases, of ditching last names, which were the names of owners. Malcolm X is understood to be the first person to examine the question of one's 'slave name.' But after the Civil War, people were very aware of slave names. They buried them and took on new names and moved across the country where they couldn't be found. They acquired new names, naming themselves after the liberator, Lincoln, and after Jefferson and Washington, or other iconic figures in American history. Those names didn't actually reflect relationship. That's why there are so many black 'Washingtons' and black 'Jeffersons,' and for that matter, black 'Jacksons.'
"I think every frightened refugee does some version of that renaming. It was interesting when The Boston Globe described John Kerry's forefathers who changed their names, or when you think of the days prior to the Holocaust when life in certain parts of Europe was dangerous for Jews and Jews changed their names to Christianize them in some way.
"I think that people do that; it's a human thing to do. We don't have an historic perspective on it. It's not part of written history. It is, I think, much more part of the oral history that I fear is being lost, which is another reason I started writing this down."
"What are your students at Columbia like?"
"Columbia is so expensive that they are largely very privileged. It's an urban campus; it's a very international campus; it's also very, very diverse. I think Columbia is one of the most diverse schools in the Ivy League because of its location. So I have students from all over the world, all over the country, all races, nationalities, and certainly probably a greater cross-section of a religious mix than most universities."
"When African-Americans talk among one another, do you all ever talk about this business about the 'one drop of blood?' -- 'A single drop of black blood is sufficient to assure membership in the black race.' "
"No. No. I think white people and Dinesh D'Souza [author, among other titles that are favored by conservative thinkers, of Letters to a Young Conservative, must be talking about it full-time, but black people, generally, don't talk about it. It's interesting to me to read ways in which it's represented, and again I think that this is so much an issue of the 'think tank' mentality, where they said, 'But you're not really black.' Anybody who does think of himself as black, 'Well, then, you're just following the one drop of blood.' But that really has not been in vogue since perhaps my grandmother's day or even before.
"In another book I wrote about a woman of my great-aunt's age, who was older than my mother, who is almost 90 at this point. I wrote about an encounter she had with a white Southern woman, who'd come up from Mississippi and moved to Boston. Her summary of racism in the North was that it was just so much worse because in the North, they're just racist against everybody. Whereas in the South, she said, 'They don't even give you any credit for your white blood.' I think that's the dark underside; I shouldn't use the word 'dark,' but you know what I mean. I think that's what I find so offensive about people who keep saying, 'Oh, well, you're just insisting about the one drop rule -- you're really white and nobody would consider you black.'
"Race has never been about color per se; it's not about genealogy. It's about social strictures, and it's always been malleable. We've been through 100 configurations of what's black or what's not. Or what's African-American or what's not, or what's segregation -- who is to be segregated and who's not. Is it hair? I mean, at one instance hair distinguished between South Asians and African-Americans. It is a kind of invisible caste system which has the complexity of this caste built into it, but the complexities of lots of other things built into it too."
I suggested, "Like celebrity. For instance, I think that almost any white racist would be pleased to drink a cup of coffee with Bill Cosby."
"Right, right, right. All isms, I think, employ exceptionalism as part of what really patrols the boundary between who's in or not. There's always an exception because that helps the designated superior caste feel better about themselves -- allows them to feel that they are being nice people. That doctrine of exceptionalism is what allows for a Cosby and maybe for me."
"How did this 'one drop of blood' business get started? Did it start in America?"
"When I was teaching contracts, I asked, 'At what point do we have a kind of commercial reference around living things?' Always the rules for living things -- plants, animals, humans -- are also employment contracts. These contracts become more and more complicated when you have sentient beings.
"When you look at that history, you begin to see that it develops along with breeding. So, really, after Mendelian science took hold, you saw it applied to plants, then to animals, mostly to cattle. The British in particular were obsessive about breeding bigger cattle. They then applied that to slaves."
"You didn't write about that in the book."
"Oh, no, I would never write that. It's still much too controversial. People still take it as though, 'Oh, that's why you guys have big thighs and can run so fast.' Except that nobody then looks at the extent to which we have never been able to breed blacks in the same way you can breed a cow. And, in fact, whites have as much African-American genetic structure as do African-Americans. Any white and black person in the United States who has been here more than a generation is much more closely related than any white person in Europe. So the discourse of breeding is just too freighted to talk about that sort of stuff."