Judy Scales-Trent draws on various genre techniques, including excerpts from a diary, anecdotes about private experiences, family history, pedagogical description, and commentary on social relations, to weave together a narrative that intertwines her explorations of self with the larger social context of race and identity. In her choice of title, as well as in her text, she attacks ideas of black-white dualism that are at the heart of racial prejudice against African Americans and have structured the patterns of historical discrimination against black citizens from slavery through emancipation and its aftermath. In doing so, she lends her voice to a long tradition in African American writing, both in using the technique of personal narrative as a means of sorting out identity and critiquing society at large and in dealing with the theme of color as caste and its role in shaping a community of consciousness among black people, drawing lines of difference between blacks and whites, creating hierarchy between blacks of different skin tones, and to a great extent predetermining an individual’s ability to move between the socially constructed borders of black and white communities. In approach and theme Scales-Trent’s contemporary work is thus linked with such historical, and now canonical, works as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man (1927). As the work of an African American woman exploring issues of status and color awareness, it is also part of the tradition of established black women fiction writers such as Frances E. W. Harper, whose Iola Leroy (1893), dealt with mixed-race heritage and the rise of a black professional class in the years after the Civil War, or the many treatments of the pain of passing for white, including Nella Larsen’s novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929).
Although Scales-Trent is highly cognizant of the fact that racial divisions are directly related to the control and distribution of tangible and intangible resources—income, medical care, occupations, residential opportunities, education, civil rights—it is primarily the social and cultural ramifications of ideas of racial difference, rather than issues of political economy, with which her book is concerned. As a lawyer and teacher, she uses the pages of her memoir to educate her readers and critique pedagogical practices. Her introduction sets her autobiographical musings in the context of the way that the law has historically been used to codify racial differences and discrimination, including the racial purity or antimiscegenation laws that were passed in many American states during the decades of slavery, increased in the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction, were challenged during the Civil Rights movement, and continue to influence the way that people of various colors are officially defined. She returns to a legal framework in the appendix, where she discusses the ways she has taught classes and introduced issues of race and social justice into the law school curriculum.
At the heart of Scales-Trent’s analysis is the fact that much racial identity and prejudice is generally assumed (that is, almost subconscious or implicit in nature), and racial categorization is ultimately not a matter of legal definition or of biology, but of long-standing and mostly unexamined social practice. She explains,
Because I am a black American who is often mistaken for white, my very existence demonstrates that there is slippage between the seemingly discrete categories “black” and “white.” This slippage is important and can be helpful to us, for it makes the enterprise of categorizing by race a more visible—hence, a more conscious—task.
In place of rigid categories, Scales-Trent ultimately advocates a concept of multi- or biculturalism: emphasizing the interplay of influences between black and white throughout American history and across the African diaspora and the extent to which many people of color are not either-or but both black and white. At the same time that she addresses the social pervasiveness of white racism against black people, she notes the pain produced within black communities because of differences in color and the factionalization and internal ostracisms that such differences can produce.
Her own identity, despite her pale appearance, is strongly that of an African American, and many of the tales she tells in the memoir sections of her book explore the difficult consequences of being one thing internally while appearing externally to...
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