outside the lines

This biography of Clarence King, geologist, geographer and more, sounds fascinating. I don’t know why it takes the New York Times review (via) so long to reveal that:

What they did not know was that when King was not living in various clubs and hotels, he was married and the father of five children. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada, a black woman 19 years his junior. This blue-eyed man, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, had successfully cultivated the impression that he was black too.

The existence of Ada and their children became publicly known only in 1933, at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the trust fund she had been promised by Clarence. He had been dead for more than 30 years, so the shock waves generated by the trial were considerable. Most dramatic, in Ms. Sandweiss’s account, is the way that revisionists demoted Clarence from hero to “tragic hero,” not to mention “the most lavishly overpraised man of his time,” upon discovering the he had been married to a former slave. This was typical of the sickening headlines surrounding the trial: “Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist.”

All of this has long been a matter of record. It took Ms. Sandweiss to pinpoint and explore the fact that Clarence went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends. He also adopted the name Clarence* Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

Or why you have to read to the end to learn this (which, incidentally, points to one of the ways in which the census has always been important):

But if race had clear, stereotypical meaning for this one odd man, it worked in entirely different ways for his wife and children. At the heart of “Passing Strange” is the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that the existence of one black great-grandparent defined an American as black. Not only did this ruling entitle Clarence to his claim as a black man; it also left the racial classification of Ada and her children to the whims of census takers who freely made assumptions about the people they questioned. Over time Todd family members were variously designated “white,” “negro” or “mulatto,” based not on evidence but on context. Ada and Clarence’s sons were deemed black when seen with their dark-skinned mother. But their two daughters married white men and effectively turned themselves into white women.

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*This might be an error. An Amherst press release about the book says he took the name James Todd, not Clarence Todd.

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