Lumbee Indians Struggle For Reocognition

In March 2012, Heather McMillan Nakai wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking the agency to verify that she was Indian. She was seeking a job at the Indian Health Service and wanted to apply with “Indian preference.” Nakai knew this might be difficult: As far as she was aware, no one from her North Carolina tribe — the Lumbee — had ever been granted such preference.

Her birth certificate says she’s Indian, as did her first driver’s license. Both of her parents were required to attend segregated tribal schools in the 1950s and ’60s. In Nakai’s hometown in Robeson County, N.C., strangers can look at the dark ringlets in her hair, hear her speak and watch her eyes widen when she’s indignant, and know exactly who her mother and father are. “Who’s your people?” is a common question in Robeson, allowing locals to pinpoint their place among the generations of Lumbee who have lived in the area for nearly 300 years.

Yet in the eyes of the BIA, the Lumbee have never been Indian enough. Responding to Nakai the following month, tribal government specialist Chandra Joseph informed her that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe and therefore couldn’t receive any federal benefits, including “Indian preference.” Invoking a 1956 law concerning the status of the Lumbee, Joseph wrote: “The Lumbee Act precludes the Bureau from extending any benefits to the Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties.” She enclosed a pamphlet titled “Guide to Tracing Indian Ancestry.”

As a staff attorney for the National Indian Gaming Commission, Nakai understands the intricacies of documenting native bloodlines. In fact, she had submitted 80 pages of evidence to support her case. The Lumbee are descended from several Carolina tribes, including the Cheraw, who intermarried with whites and free African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nakai, 38, can trace her family tree back to at least 1900, when her great-grandfather was listed as Indian on the federal census. “That’s a terrible feeling,” she says, “to have somebody say to you, ‘You’re so not Indian that you need somebody to send you a pamphlet.’ ”

Lumbees rely on historic census documents listing the “Indian Population” of specific counties to enroll members in their tribe. In researching her response, Nakai realized the same documents could be used to argue that Lumbees were eligible for federal benefits. She thought hers was a powerful legal argument. If she could receive Indian preference, then so could other members of her tribe. “When I’m pushed, I don’t run,” Nakai says. “I want to push back.” And so she appealed the bureau’s decision — and kept appealing until her case landed in federal court.

Her battle would force the Department of the Interior to reexamine its policy toward the more than 55,000 Lumbee who make up the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. For more than 60 years, the government has acknowledged that they are Indians, yet denied them the sovereignty, land and benefits it grants to other tribes. It’s a situation that raises fundamental questions about identity: What makes someone Native American? Is it a matter of race, or culture, or some combination of both? The Lumbee don’t fit neatly into any racial categories, but they have long been living as Indians, cultivating unique traditions and community. Can a country divided by race ever accept them?

Clockwise from top: Osceola Mullin, Earl B. Chavis and Heather McMillan Nakai

The Lumbee tribe takes its name from the Lumber River, which snakes beneath bridges and spills into swamps in their sandy eastern corner of North Carolina. The founding families settled along these swamps in the 1700s, fleeing the war and disease that followed colonization of the coastal Carolinas. Many Lumbees still have the last names handed down by those families: Locklear, Chavis, Brooks, Oxendine, Lowry. Some people believe they are descended from members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” of Roanoke who intermarried with indigenous people and fled inland. But most historians agree there was a Cheraw settlement on the Lumber River in the mid-18th century, and that several tribes — along with whites and free blacks — migrated to the area around that time. Their descendants now speak a unique Lumbee English dialect; they cash their checks at the Lumbee Guaranty Bank and enroll their kids at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the country’s first state-funded four-year college to serve Native Americans.

The state of North Carolina recognized the Lumbee as Native Americans in 1885. At the time, they were labeled “Croatan Indians” — one of many names given to them over the centuries because they are unable to trace their ancestry to a single Native American tribe. In 1888, the tribe started its long quest for federal recognition.

Currently, there are 573 federally recognized tribes and more than 200 that are not recognized. The Lumbee occupy a unique netherworld between the two. Recognized tribes are treated as separate nations by the U.S. government; they also can receive government services, and individual members qualify for other benefits, such as “Indian preference.” Right now, Lumbees don’t receive any of that.

Nakai is trying to secure individual benefits without undergoing the arduous process of winning recognition for her entire tribe. (Her case relies on a 1934 federal law, the Indian Reorganization Act, which grants rights and benefits to indigenous people who can prove they have “one-half or more Indian blood.”) For Lumbees as a group, meanwhile, their long struggle to win recognition has been complicated by their history of interracial marriage — even though interracial marriage was common among southeastern tribes prior to the Civil War. Many powerful western tribes have “a perception that the Lumbee are really a mixed-race, mainly African group,” says Mark Miller, a history professor at Southern Utah University who has written extensively about tribal identity. That “original sin,” he says, is a major cause of the Lumbees’ political problems.

In the Jim Crow South, white ancestry was acceptable for indigenous people, but black blood was not. When the United States was dividing up reservations and providing land “allotments” to Indians, a government commission told the Mississippi Choctaw that “where any person held a strain of Negro blood, the servile blood contaminated and polluted the Indian blood.” Many Native Americans internalized these racial politics and adopted them as a means of survival. After North Carolina established a separate school system for Indians in Robeson County in the late 1880s, some Lumbees fought to exclude a child whose mother was Indian and whose father was black.

In their segregated corner of North Carolina, Lumbees enjoyed more power and privileges than their black neighbors, but this was not the case for Native Americans in every state. In Virginia in the 1920s, Indians were required to classify themselves as “colored,” whereas Oklahoma considered Indians to be white — prompting Creek Indians to reject tribal members with black ancestry.

Heather McMillan Nakai speaks with congressional candidate Dan McCready, second from right, during the Lumbee Homecoming parade in Pembroke, N.C.

By the early 1930s, the Lumbee had spent several decades trying to persuade Congress to recognize them as Indians, and now sought to be recognized under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. In 1936, representatives of the federal Office of Indian Affairs traveled to Robeson County to determine the purity of the tribe’s “Indian blood.” Harvard-trained anthropologist Carl Seltzer and his colleagues conducted tests on 209 people. They measured skulls, opened people’s mouths and examined the size of their teeth. Seltzer noted whether each person’s hair was “straight,” “curly,” “frizzy” or “fine.” He scratched women and children on their breastbone to see if he left a red mark. (In his view, such redness indicated “mixed blood.”)

Three years after she filed her first request to the BIA, Nakai was digging through boxes at the National Archives when she saw the mug shots Seltzer took of her ancestors, and the looks on the women’s faces after they had been forced to open their shirts and allow a strange man to scratch their chests. She was devastated. “Just even thinking about the possibility that I would allow that to happen to my child — it’s horrifying,” she says.

In the end, Seltzer concluded that only 22 of the 209 people he tested in Robeson possessed one-half or more “Indian blood” and thus qualified for some federal benefits. (In some cases, Seltzer decided that one sibling had the required “blood quantum” and the other sibling did not.) Once the federal government offered some individual benefits to the “Original 22,” they broke off from the Lumbee to form their own political organization. Their descendants have their own complicated history of pursuing benefits and recognition.

The rest of the Lumbees continued fighting for recognition from the federal government. And in 1956 Congress did pass the Lumbee Act, which acknowledged the indigenous people of Robeson County as Indians and called them by the name they had chosen for themselves. But at the time, the federal government was trying to terminate its relationships with native people by disbanding tribes and selling their land. The Interior Department did not want the financial burden of providing services to a large new tribe, so lawmakers struck an odd political compromise: They recognized the Lumbee yet prohibited them from receiving any benefits or services offered to other tribes. Over the next few decades, the law was interpreted to mean that Lumbees could not qualify for health, housing or educational benefits offered to other Native Americans; their land was not protected, their children were not protected from being adopted out of the tribe, they couldn’t form their own police force, and they weren’t consulted when private companies wanted to build natural gas pipelines on their land.

Above all, the law deprived tribal members of a clear label they could use to identify themselves to outsiders. It even confused the government officials charged with enacting Native American policy — people like Chandra Joseph at the BIA, who insisted in her letter to Nakai that the Lumbee were not a recognized tribe. If the BIA treats you like you’re not really Indian, it’s hard to convince people who haven’t closely studied Indian law that they’re wrong. And the constant burden of explaining and justifying one’s identity can take a psychological toll. Reggie Brewer, a cultural coordinator for the tribe, says the current Lumbee recognition quest is not about money but respect. “We know who we are,” he says. “We want our children to have that self-pride, that self-esteem of who they are.”

In her hometown, Nakai rarely had to explain her background. But when she went to summer camp with other Native American children, they started asking questions she didn’t know how to answer. “Everywhere I went, people would say, ‘Are you mixed? What’s your heritage?’ ” Nakai recalls. “And I would look at them blankly.”

Some Lumbees have red hair and freckles, others have tight blond curls, and others have sleek, dark hair and mocha skin. No one is kicked out of the tribe because of their skin tone — and that concept is hard for the BIA to accept, according to Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke. “They don’t like the fact that we refuse to put people out who look too white or look too black. If they’re our people, we keep them.” Jacobs laughed, as if the idea of doing anything else were absurd. “We refuse to give them back. Why should we separate out based on this thing, this race thing? If we have grown them and they speak Lumbee the way we speak Lumbee, and they’ve gone to Lumbee schools and Lumbee churches and we’ve fed them and nourished them, they’re Lumbee.”

Taylor Hunt, Brian Keith Bryant and Shirley Dial
Kaya Littleturtle, Chloe Hammonds and Reggie Brewer

On a hot June morning, Nakai buckled her 4-year-old daughter into the car seat in her Chevy Tahoe and drove to church. As we entered downtown Lumberton — a cluster of hotels and strip malls off Interstate 95 — Nakai explained that native people never used to live there. Robeson County is 41 percent Native American, 31 percent white and 24 percent black, and its neighborhoods have long been divided along racial lines. The county had five school districts, separating children in the cities from Indians in the rural areas, until 1989, when Nakai was 9.

Nakai was baptized in the Lumber River and married her husband in the sanctuary of Smyrna Baptist. Church is such an essential part of Lumbee culture that when a Lumbee teenager gets a new boyfriend, her grandparents will ask him, “Where does your people church?” Families who have “churched” together for centuries share the same burial grounds, and the elders want to make sure their children don’t marry a distant relative.

When Nakai was accepted to Dartmouth College, Smyrna’s deacons sat on the porch of her grandparents’ house and tried to persuade her grandfather not to let her go. New Hampshire was too far away for a Lumbee girl to move to, they argued. Nakai understood that the men were worried about her safety, but she also knew Dartmouth was an Ivy League institution with a strong Native American studies program. If she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a legal advocate for her people, she had to go. She earned her bachelor’s degree there and attended law school at UCLA.

Many Lumbee parents fear that if their children live away from home for too long, they won’t come back and will lose their ties to land and family. But Nakai’s elders also faced decades of discrimination within Robeson County, limiting their hopes for advancement. No matter how hard they worked, someone would find a way to take their land and force them to become sharecroppers. Even if they spoke English and went to church like white men, “they still weren’t the same,” Nakai says. She was raised to believe that she constantly had to prove herself. “It’s just ingrained — you have to work harder,” she says. “Even if you’ve been perfect, it won’t be enough.”

The Lumbee don’t have an official clan system, Nakai says, but children are expected to live near the land where they were raised. When Nakai and her husband moved back to Robeson from Rockville, Md., last year, no plot was available for them to build a house on the dirt road where 35 of her relatives live. Instead, they moved into a country club development about half an hour away — shocking fellow Lumbees, who asked Nakai, “They let Indians live there?”

In 2015, Robeson County had the highest poverty rate in North Carolina, with 32 percent of its population living below the poverty line. It also had the highest rate of violent crime. Nakai doesn’t think the Lumbee can fully tackle these problems until their political status is resolved. Federal recognition would allow them to protect their land and alleviate the costs of housing and health care — in addition to enjoying the economic boom a casino might bring. “It’s like a cloud hanging over us that most people aren’t even aware of,” she says. “Right now, I’m still arguing about whether I exist or not.”

Brittany Hunt is also accustomed to defending her Native American identity. She’s a PhD student in educational research at UNC-Charlotte, hoping to become a professor who will bring more indigenous perspectives to classes on race and education. At 27, Hunt has hazel eyes, dark hair and a smattering of freckles. She smiled broadly when I asked her why she’s so proud of her Lumbee heritage. “I think being Indian is just the best,” she said. But it is “amazing and terrible at the same time.”

Hunt’s mother fought for her to attend gifted and talented classes in Robeson County schools, after the principal told her that no one from her side of Lumberton would qualify for the program. When Hunt enrolled at Duke University in Durham, she was the only Lumbee undergraduate on campus, she says. She quickly learned how to defend her identity. “I felt like I was on trial for my Indian-ness a lot of times,” she recalls.

At school Hunt befriended her black classmates because she felt they had similar experiences with discrimination. Still, they had trouble accepting her native identity. Some would point out that Lumbees had black ancestors. “That’s true, but I don’t have any family members who identify as black and I don’t identify as being that,” she would respond. Others would insist she was black or call her “light-skinned.” And she would argue, “No, I’m not light-skinned, I’m Lumbee.”

Clockwise from top: Kerigahn Jacobs, Dean Clark and Richard Jones

Questions of race and culture don’t just affect whether a tribe can gain recognition as Native American; they also influence which individuals can feel at home in — or join — a particular tribe. In Hunt’s view, cultural traditions — shared norms like humor, food, devotion to land and family — are more important aspects of Lumbee identity than race. Yet she concedes that Lumbee children with one black parent might not feel accepted by the tribe. “There’s a lot of racism that exists within native tribes,” Hunt says, left over from the days when segregation was used to “divide and conquer” people of color.

Jacobs, the UNC-Pembroke professor, points out that many mixed-race children who were raised as Lumbee moved away from Robeson County and left their Indian identity behind. “Plenty of people left and became white and left and became black,” she says. But if they came home regularly, kept their ties to family and community, and identified as Indian, they were considered Lumbee.

Such racial conundrums are not unique to the Lumbee. Wealthy members of the Cherokee Nation once owned slaves, and their African American descendants were treated as equal citizens of the Oklahoma tribe for decades — until 2011, when the tribe stripped thousands of black Indians of their enrollment rights on the grounds they could not prove their “Indian blood.” (In August 2017, after a lengthy legal battle, a U.S. District Court restored their citizenship rights.)

Before Native Americans were forced to prove their identity to the U.S. government, they formed a sense of identity through kinship — if your mother or father was part of the group, then you were, too. If outsiders married or were adopted into the group, they became part of that lineage. But once the federal government began forcing them onto reservations, redistributing their land and doling out benefits, they began to care about “blood quantum” — that is, how many direct ancestors were listed as members of their tribe on official government tallies.

To enroll and receive benefits from a recognized tribe, members now have to use historical census documents and “base rolls” to prove that they have some fraction of Indian ancestry. They submit this information to the tribe, and each tribe relies on a different fraction to meet their enrollment standard. “I don’t know of a single tribe that doesn’t require biological relationships with ancestors on the base rolls,” says Kim TallBear, an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, who has written extensively about race, genetics and Native Americans. “But we do have very active debates on how much culture should matter.” The problem, she says, is that “being the culture police isn’t going to be any easier” than tracing bloodlines. How, after all, do you evaluate if someone is culturally Indian?

Lumbees focus on both culture and kinship when enrolling members in their tribe. Applicants must have at least one ancestor listed as a member of the “Indian Population” on the 1900 or 1910 Census, and prove that they maintain current ties to the Lumbee tribe. In the tribe’s view, familial ancestry is not the same as racial ancestry. Government officials devised the categories of white, black or Indian, and then decided how much white or black “blood” was acceptable for a person to be called Indian. Lumbees couldn’t always squeeze themselves into those categories, and, as Lumbee historian Malinda Maynor Lowery notes, “we’ve suffered mightily for it.”

What many tribes fear — particularly those who oppose Lumbee recognition — is losing their identity. They want their members to be able to trace their ancestry to a single tribe that had a documented, indigenous culture and customs that are still practiced today. Lumbees can’t do that, because they began mixing with other tribes and races very early on. Southern Utah University’s Miller points out that when the Lumbee were “discovered” by colonists in the mid-18th century, they were already farming, wearing European clothing and speaking English. Some leaders of recognized tribes view this as “you guys were always assimilating racially and culturally,” Miller says.

In theory, DNA tests to determine a person’s overall Native American heritage could solve some of these quandaries, but both TallBear and Lowery say such tests are irrelevant to most tribes. When Lumbees contact her, alarmed that biological tests don’t reveal their native DNA, Lowery reminds them that the companies doing the testing don’t have base samples of their ancestors’ DNA. “People are allowed to be African American in this society and not have 100 percent African DNA,” Lowery says. “Are the Lumbee being held to a different standard?”

Lumbees swim in the Lumber River, from which the tribe takes its name.

Eight decades after it was conducted, the Seltzer study continues to haunt Lumbees. The BIA still cites it: In a June 2012 letter to Nakai, Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel told her one of the reasons she didn’t qualify for “Indian preference” was because she was not among those “Original 22.” “Right now,” Nakai said of the BIA, “they are sitting somewhere, trying to figure out how to make an argument that says that I am not an Indian under the law because no one ran a pencil through my hair without it getting tangled.” (Spokeswoman Nedra Darling says the BIA cannot comment on matters that are still being adjudicated by the agency.)

There are two ways for a tribe to become recognized: by an act of Congress or by petitioning the BIA for acknowledgment. In 1987, when Nakai was 7, the Lumbee prepared a lengthy petition for the BIA, only to have it rejected two years later. Since then, at least 27 bills to fully recognize and extend federal benefits to the Lumbee have been introduced in Congress. The closest they’ve come to success was in 2010. President Barack Obama had courted the Lumbee vote en route to winning North Carolina narrowly in 2008, and a recognition bill passed the House with the support of his administration. But it died in the Senate after news broke that Lumbee tribal leaders hired a gaming consultant company to lobby for them — even though the bill promised no casino would be built on their land.

Indeed, gaming is a major hurdle to Lumbee recognition. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates a casino in the mountains of western North Carolina, and its profits provide individual members of the tribe with $8,000 to $10,000 in annual payments, Miller writes in his book “Claiming Tribal Identity.” No other tribe has a casino in the state. In 2009, the Eastern Band, along with other powerful southeastern tribes, used its casino profits to lobby against Lumbee recognition, according to Miller. (Lynne Harlan, public relations manager for the Eastern Band, declined to comment for this story.)

That year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $786 million over a four-year period to extend federal benefits to the Lumbee. Other recognized tribes balked at that number; they don’t want their share of BIA funding to shrink. As Principal Chief Richard Sneed argued in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper last September, Lumbee recognition “has some staggering implications” for the Eastern Band’s economy. “The increase in competition for federal funding will grow exponentially if the Lumbee and their estimated 50,000 members gain recognition,” he wrote. “This will impact our housing and roads money among other federal funds which are dwindling with the proposed budget.”

BIA officials have stoked such fears by holding meetings with powerful tribes in western states and warning that their federal funds will be “significantly lessened if the large Lumbee tribe secures status,” Miller writes. For their part, the Lumbee have no casino profits to use in their lobbying efforts.

Stinston Revels, Nola Graham and Bryce Locklear, and Mickey Revels
Azalea Thomas, Austin Brayboy and Jerlene Maynor

And yet, a glimmer of hope arrived in December 2016, when the then-solicitor of the Interior Department admitted that Nakai was right — sort of. In a 19-page opinion, Hilary Tompkins wrote that the Lumbee Act did not disqualify all individual Lumbees from federal benefits. The BIA was wrong to automatically reject Nakai’s request for Indian preference simply because she was Lumbee, Tompkins wrote, and must reconsider her application. She went on to say that the Lumbee tribe could apply for federal recognition from the BIA, and if recognition was granted, they would qualify for all the benefits offered to other tribes.

For Nakai, this was a small victory: She had changed the government’s stance toward her tribe. But she still hadn’t won her case. She now had to supply even more documentation to the BIA, showing that she has “one-half degree or more of Indian blood.” As of July 2018, her case was still pending.

Meanwhile, the Lumbee are hoping Congress will grant them recognition. In the summer of 2017, two Republicans from North Carolina — Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Robert Pittenger — introduced bills to give the Lumbee full federal recognition. Pittenger, whose district includes Lumbee territory, cited the millions of dollars of damage done to homes, schools and businesses in Robeson County during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. He argued that some of the damage could have been prevented if the Lumbee had better access to emergency funds reserved for federally recognized tribes in advance of the storm. “The Lumbee tribe is not asking for special treatment,” Pittenger said. “They are asking for parity and consistency in the way that the federal government views them.”

When tribal chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. testified before a House subcommittee in September 2017, he noted that recognition would “greatly aid” economic development in his rural part of North Carolina. “We would be able to create a police force to address the violent crime and drug problems riddling our community,” he said. “We could build schools for our children that teach our culture and our history.” (Godwin did not return requests for comment for this story.)

Yet officials who oppose Lumbee recognition have argued that the relatively prosperous tribe — which at one point claimed to have more PhDs than any other Native American group — should not rely on federal assistance. In 1988, Ross Swimmer, a former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and then-assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, told Congress that providing BIA services to “a sophisticated, well-educated” tribe would create a “pocket of paternalism” in Robeson County.

Gaming presents its own complications. Pittenger’s recognition bill prohibits gaming on Lumbee land, but Burr’s would allow it. Arlinda Locklear, a prominent Lumbee attorney in Washington who represented the tribe in its 2009 recognition quest, says the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians still poses a formidable impediment to the bill. The “Eastern Band of Cherokee has money and we do not,” she says. “Their ability to lobby on this bill far exceeds the Lumbee ability to match that.”

Solicitor Tompkins’s opinion could also hurt the bill’s chance of passing. Until now, the Lumbee could argue they had no choice but to go through Congress, because the BIA refused to recognize their tribe. But now that Tompkins has made clear that they can petition the BIA for recognition, Congress may think a law is unnecessary. “It really kind of makes it harder, rather than easier, for us to get the legislation through,” Locklear says.

Nakai, however, remains determined to win her battle with the BIA. She wants to make sure future generations of Lumbee don’t have to argue with the government over their “blood quantum.” She and her husband moved back to Robeson County last year so their daughter could grow up knowing more about her heritage. “Everywhere she goes, people reaffirm not just who she is, but her place in her tribe and in her community,” Nakai says.

Strangers who meet the 4-year-old at church or school can identify “her people.” They can look in her brown eyes and see the generations that came before her. “That’s what it feels like to be Indian,” Nakai says. “To be Lumbee is to know that, come what may, you have a place that you belong.”

Clockwise from top: Jamie K. Oxedine, Mychalene Deese and Mary Deese, and Nancy Locklear

On the first weekend in July, Nakai took her daughter to the 50th annual Lumbee Homecoming parade. More than 20,000 people would be attending. Lumbee Homecoming started in 1968. Many Lumbees had begun moving to cities in search of factory jobs, but they still came home to visit their families during the summer. The festival was a way to celebrate their return and foster pride in their heritage. The week-long event included the Miss Lumbee beauty pageant, a golf tournament, a play about Lumbee history and a powwow. Vendors were selling jewelry and handmade pottery, along with T-shirts that said “Make America Native Again.”

Among those marching in the parade were North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. At one point, a small group of people marched by carrying a banner that read, “Full Federal Recognition Now!” They were campaigning with Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate for the 9th Congressional District, which includes Robeson County. Pittenger lost the Republican primary in May, and Democrats now hope to flip the House seat, which has been held by the GOP for more than five decades.

When the festivities paused to allow a train to pass through downtown Pembroke, Nakai walked over to introduce herself to McCready. Amid the roar of the crowd, McCready made clear he would advocate for the Lumbee. “We’d love to talk about that,” he told Nakai.

Nakai looked at him, taking in his eagerness to please. She’s devoted six years of her life to a legal battle that no politician has ever won. Her people have been disappointed by government officials for more than 130 years. Yes, she would be happy to meet with one of McCready’s staffers — but first she had a parade to attend. “I’ve got some ideas,” she said, and walked back to join her people.

Lisa Rab is a writer in Charlotte whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Harper’s and Politico Magazine. 

Credits: Story by Lisa Rab. Photos by Travis Dove. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

Jumping the Broom or Jumping to Conclusions?

Jumping the Broom or Jumping to Conclusions? 4 Myths about Black Marriage

We all know that Jumping the Broom, (for showtimes click here) the latest black movie/extended sitcom is coming out this Friday and will likely score big at the box office as Moms drags the whole family to see it opening night for her extended mother’s day weekend gift (when she’s not looking I’m going to switch tickets and take my mother to Thor).

However the premiere of this film will also inevitably bring up the never ending, often wrong headed discussions of the state of marriage in the black community. In the interest of time, common sense and to make you sound smarter in the hour long discussions of black love that will follow this film, I humbly submit the top four myths about black marriage in America and what you ought to be saying to stop them.

Myth #1: Black People Don’t Get Married

I am tempted to throw hammers at the computer screen every time I see a column quote the famous line “Marriage is For White People”. A statement made by one kid, in one article in the Washington Post years ago, about marriage.

Somehow this statement has become a sociological fact in discussions about African American marriages despite the fact that it is attributed to a kid. The truth is that African Americans do actually get married and at a fairly regular clip. Have marriage rates gone down? Of course they have for black people and everyone else, however African Americans were the only demographic group to post stable marriage rates over the last 10 years. While only 30 percent of African American adults are married, that number didn’t change from 2000 to 2010 while other groups, Whites, Asians, and Latinos marriage rates declined. Bet you won’t hear that one the next Black in America special.

Myth #2: Black Men Are All After White Women

This is my favorite myth since it is so pernicious despite having no real basis in fact or demographics. And just to keep it honest and real, we’re talking about marriage here, not sex and not dating. Ask most married men or women and they will tell you that there is a distinct difference between the people you slept with, the people you dated and the person you actually ended up marrying.

While interracial sex is popping off non-stop (for black men AND women) interracial marriage is still rare. While black men marry interracially twice as often as black women (12 to about 6 percent) the vast majority of black men who are married (88 percent) are married to black women according to the 2010 census. In fact the 12 percent of black men who are married to non-African American women represents only about a 6 percent increase over the last 40 years.

In other words that stampede for Amy that Essence Magazine is trying to sell you just ain’t happening.

Myth #3: Black Women are single because they don’t “Expand their Dating Options”

This myth is simply another in a long line of white supremacist myths that get twisted and turned until black people unwittingly start using them on each other. Every few months you’ll hear some black woman on the radio or some black male comedian say that black women are ‘alone’ because they don’t expand their dating options out of some anachronistic race loyalty to black men. It’s almost as if some people believe that by dating outside your race you’re ‘getting back’ at all of those black men who are doing it.

First let’s get one thing clear, black women are no pickier about their dating preferences than women of any other race. Studies of both on-line and real life dating have shown that all women, except for Asians, prefer to date men within their own race if asked and given the opportunity. Why? Because Black women, like all women prefer to date with an eye towards marriage, and your chances of getting married are higher amongst your own race than outside of it. The fact is because of the legacy of racism and sexual exploitation of black women in America many sistas are justifiably skeptical of the advances of non-black men. Who wants to be someone else’s “Brown Eyed Girl” experiment? However just because a White, Latino, Arab or Asian man might have to step their game up to get a black women’s attention is not the same thing as black women refusing to ‘expand their options.’  It’s called having standards, something that no other group of women is criticized for having.

Moreover, of African American women who do get married 94 percent of them marry African American men according to the 2010 census. The highest number of interracial marriages between black women and non black men occurred in 2008 so it’s not like black women are sitting alone and not meeting and marrying whomever they like. The key to this dynamic is choice, both on the part of men and women. The fact is that African American women are chosen less by just about every demographic group of men in both on-line and real life dating studies.

Most African American women if approached by an attractive sincere man of another color would give him the time of day – at least for a date – it’s just that usually he’s not asking.

Myth #4: Our Best and Brightest always Chose “Others” over us

Like Kanye said “And when he get on he’ll leave yo ass for a white girl.” No matter how much factual evidence is presented about the state of black marriage people will inevitably go back to their anecdotal arguments about this famous person that’s going out like Kanye says. I call this the “What about Taye Diggs” argument (also known as the “What about Garcelle Beauvis, Alisha Tyler, or Zoe Saldana” argument).

This one doesn’t really hold up either.

African Americans continue to chose each other as marriage partners no matter the socioeconomic status. Look at the NBA All Star Teams in 2010, that’s a pretty hefty group of elites and they’re athletes so of course they’re supposed to all chose white girls, Brazilians and Asians right? Wrong. Out of the 23 African American players that were married 20 were married to black women. That’s 86 percent for those of you who are counting, and that number has been steady for the last 10 years of players. And we aren’t talking scrubs here, we’re talking Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson. Heck D-Wade left his black wife for ANOTHER black woman.

If anything the “Best and Brightest” argument would apply more to women than to men. Amongst all interracial marriages between blacks and whites 74 percent are Black male/White female and 25 percent are Black female/White male. However as you start to go up the socioeconomic ladder, once you hit families with a joint income of over $200,000 a year the percentage of Black female/White male marriages increases to 50 percent of all interracial black/white marriages. Translation: Black men will marry white women whether they’ve got a million dollars or two nickels in their pockets, but white men only tend to marry black women when they’re both rich. And bear in mind BOTH of these marriage scenarios represent only a small portion of black marriages overall.

Ultimately, Jumping the Broom isn’t a sociological treatise, it’s a movie geared towards making people smile and taking cash out their pockets. Along the same lines the “Marriage Gloom and Doom” industry is a for profit enterprise as well, banking on fears amongst black women and men that there is no one out there for them and that we as a people are somehow not interested in the marriage game. Hopefully now you know a little better, and might realize that the scenario presented in Jumping the Broom isn’t fantasy, for many African Americans is a long standing and durable reality.

This article originally appeared in under the headline “Jumping the Broom to Conclusions: 4 Myths About Black Marriage.”

Witness connects Rio councilman Marcello Siciliano and Military Police member to Marielle Franco’s death, newspaper says

Black Women Of Brazil

marcello siciliano marielle franco Councilman Marcello Siciliano has been accused in participating in the execution of Councilwoman Marielle Franco

Note from BW of Brazil: Although the story is no longer the lead piece on the evening news or the front page of newspapers, many of us still want to know who killed Rio Councilwoman Marielle Franco, a story that made international headlines back in March. I’ve said from the very beginning that it was a well orchestrated hit, either a death squad connected to Military Police or political interests. Last month, this really started to look like more than just conspiratorial speculation when Carlos Alexandre Pereira Maria, a collaborator of Rio councilman Marcello Siciliano (PHS) was murdered. Now, as the investigation continues to unfold, the focus is now on Siciliano himself. 

Testemunha liga vereador e ex-PM à morte de Marielle, diz jornal (Mario Vasconcelos) Rio Councilwoman Marielle Franco was murdered in March

Witness connects councilman and Military Police member to Marielle’s death, newspaper says

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Save The Last Dance Review

My original 2005 essay on Save The Last Dance:

Warning: My review may not sit well with some people who want life to be seen in rose-colored glasses or the ideology of “colorblindness.”
My view on the 2001 movie, “Save the Last Dance”

I’ve rented the video, “Save the Last Dance,” to find out what the hype was about. It’s just a typical movie about a middle-class suburban white woman dates a black man from the inner city. The movie’s success depends on using dated stereotypes: “angry black woman,” “thuggish black man,” and “innocent” white women. White men, with few exceptions such as Sara’s father, barely register in that inner-city flick. The movie is set in South Side, a predominately black area of Chicago. She’s taken in by her jazz musician father who barely figured in her life. His home, in contrast to his daughter’s large, decorative suburban house, was a small flat. The apartment building where her estranged father Roy lived, was dilapidated and in desperate need of repairs. His apartment was no better. It was sort of unkempt, keeping with the stereotypes of bachelor and artists not having a care in the world. Meanwhile, blond Sara is trying to adjust her life in the inner city, going to Wheatley High, a predominant black high school where students check in going through metal detectors, which were absent in Sara’s old school in Lemont, IL. That says a lot about the racial/class disparities of two neighborhoods. It was at Wheatley where Sara met a gifted young man named Derek. Derek is a very hardworking student who is also college-bound. He’s going to Georgetown to study pediatrics so he can become a doctor. The producers could have shown more black men who are studious and honorable. No, they have to pander to prevailing stereotypes of black men as the thuggish, predatory criminals that populate the flick.


Sara and Derek became fast friends and even was invited by Chenille to dance at “Stepps,” a hip-hop nightclub where Wheatley students party on weekends.
Derek encourages her to start back on her ballet, which she gave up after her mother’s untimely death. Her friend Chenille was a single teenage mother who is making it on her own. She’s struggling to raise and protect her toddler son, Christopher, from pitfalls and obstacles she and her brother suffered. Their mother once served time in jail for drug possession and prostitution and who wasn’t involved in their lives. Black women today formed the fastest growing prison population due to the draconian and racist war on drugs policies. Their kids are being taken away and put into foster care, for rarely do nonblacks adopt “black” kids and “black” parents had to go through a series of bureaucracy which takes up to several years before adopting them. As a result, most black kids are informally taken care of by friends and relatives such as Derek’s and Chenille’s grandmother.


The subject of interracial relationships, they could have done a much better job than that. The movie overemphasize the anger of several black women, while downplaying or minimizing the anger or opposition from whites of both genders. Most movie reviewers said nearly nothing about the opposition of Derek’s male buddies to his budding relationship with Sara, not to mention white opposition to IR. His friends told him that he lost his pride and that he needs to “watch his back,” which is understandable because of society’s persistent opposition to interracial relationships as well as the legacy of history of lynching, imprisonment, and castration of black men pursuing love and marriage across racial lines. The murder of Emmet Till comes to mind. Even today, there’s that fear in which black and biracial black men could be imprisoned, even killed for such things as the young teenage man named Marcus Dixon in Georgia who was imprisoned recently for having a consensual relationship with a teenaged white girl. He was college-bound and gifted like the Derek character in the movie. His friend, Malakai, told his girlfriend that she didn’t belong at Steps and that his ex-girlfriend, played by Bianca Lawson, was the better choice. He felt that by his friend dating outside of the race, he was selling out. Also, the comment by her white friend about Sarah’s living in a “war zone.” To her suburban friend, the inner city of Chicago is “full of violent blacks” who prey upon one another and that is full of hopelessness, bleakness, and despair. She obviously don’t have a clue because she lives in a lily-white world and what white-owned media tells her. She also asked her friend whether her school has white boys because she thinks that one should date/marry within the race and that she wouldn’t find men of color attractive. Then there’s a middle-aged white lady on the train staring at the couple. She evidence her prejudices by her hate stare as well as saying hateful things under her breath. Even her father didn’t want her to date outside of her race by telling her to be home at a “decent hour.” For him, who neglected his daughter for many years, to tell her to be at home while he’s out playing jazz in Chicago’s nightclubs almost every night. In fact, only near the end of the film, did he show her fatherly affection and love.


The portrayal of black women in the movie were mostly negative, with few exceptions. Many of the women were portrayed as single mothers, angry harpies, loose women, immoral, and as victims. I didn’t like the blown out-of proportion fight between Sara and Nikki at the high-school gym nor do I like the cluelessness and naiveté of Sara when confronted by friends, family, and acquaintances at the school. She thinks that everyone lives in the same world, which is based upon her white suburban perspective. She thinks the world is colorblind and is full of fair-minded people. Her friend corrected her by telling about her world and the people in it. It’s not the world Sarah envisioned. It’s a world inhabited by people of color, many of whom are poor, working-class, and lower middle class, with fewer job opportunities, fewer amenities than in affluent white areas. It’s also a world where people are being abused by others, whether the abuse is being conducted by police, store owners, teachers, family members, or strangers passing by. The problem with the movie is that it privilege Sara as being morally superior to the black women in the neighborhood. Mainstream society writes off the inner city as “hopeless area full of poor people of color who couldn’t do better and as an area full of criminals, prostitutes, drug addicts, ‘no-good’ single mothers, and ‘unemployed bums.’” Such views have been articulated by politicians who need middle-class voters for reelection. For example, the late ex-president Ronald Reagan blamed poor black women on welfare for scamming middle and upper class taxpayers. Many scared middle-class voters have bought the idea of poor blacks destroying America and its way of life.


Getting back to Nikki, I think she was mad at Sara because she represent naive, suburban white females who date black men without thinking about their whiteness/pedestalled white femaleness which advantaged them. White females are not that far from black men in the racial/gender hierarchy. They can cross the racial divide if they so desired. Whereas black and biracial black women, having neither racial nor gender privilege cannot. We’re not as valued as other women, especially white women. American society has long placed white women upon pedestals, especially during slavery and segregation periods, while black women bore the brunt of racial and sexual abuse by men of all races, even today. The revelation of Essie Mae Williams’ claim that she is the late Senator Strom Thurmond’s child is a case in point. He abused his 15-year old maid at his parents house in 1924. Her mother didn’t had any right to resist because Mr. Thurmond was the one who had all the power. He could kill her if she didn’t comply. Or the tabloid saga of Britney Spears’ fiance’s spurning of his ex girlfriend Shar Jones while she was still pregnant with their second child. He didn’t think his ex was worthy enough to marry, following the pattern of most white and other non black men who have relationships with black and biracial black women. Chenille, highly angered by her baby’s daddy’s(Kenny) recent dissing, lets Sara know clearly that white girls like her who steal the best black men from under black women’s noses aren’t always cool. She told Sara at an inner-city doctors’ office full of black single mothers with children that she doesn’t understand black womens’ frustration with interracial dating, that Sara, being white, is taking away the decent black men after jail, drugs, and death and that she is using her white privilege in dating successful men of color. I hated that she was forced by the script to apologize. The statement Chenille about life in her inner city and her perception that white women go after only successful black men were most telling. One aspect of white female privilege that is almost never addressed in mainstream media and academia, that is, the naivety of white females when it comes to interracial relationships. The racial
hierarchy in female beauty/femininity needs to be addressed. I
don’t feel the movie adequately address the issue that is between black/biracial and white women in American society today. Colorism in the film is ubiquitous, with the white girl at the center, then Nikki, played by Bianca Lawson. Diggy, who may either be a white or latina, was played by Elisabeth Oas. The said girls are either white or light-skinned. Chenille was played by the brown-skinned, shorter haired Kerry Washington. Momma Dean, Chenille’s grandmother, is played by Dorothy Martin. The white girls in the film were given an aura of innocence, while black women were portrayed as experienced and “loose” as well as victims of either bullies such as Malakai, played by Fredo Starr or irresponsible cads like Kenny, played by Garland Witt and the single mothers at the doctor’s office, where Chenille told Sara to look around and see what’s happening in their community instead of herself.

I give Save the Last Dance one star because it was about Sara and her struggles instead of exploring the struggles of Derek, his sister, and the community which Sara temporarily resides. As a matter of fact, her white skin privilege keeps her from doing so. The example of Sara ‘s quick glance at the single mothers at the doctor’s office after Chenille said some things about life, she still didn’t get it. Or the argument between her and Derek at the school’s dance studio regarding the fight and their future together, saying that the relationship is too hard for her because of the opposition from all sides, while dismissing Derek’s viewpoint on life in the South Side of Chicago. Earlier in the film, she dismiss opposition to her relationship by whites by showing off their display of affection on a subway, where a middle-aged white woman disapproved of them being together, yet black people’s opposition to IR are a big deal to her. Either she is clueless to their views of the world or her whiteness blinds her to certain realities people of color face in everyday life.

Updated commentary:

When I watched that movie again earlier this year, I see cultural appropriation of hip hop/Black culture by Sara while living in South side Chicago during her Senior year.  She befriended Derek’s sister, Chenille and apparently doesn’t have any Black friends save Derek, whom she dates and his sister.  She’s very oblivious to Chenelle’s reality as a Black woman living in segregated inner city of Southside Chicago.  Like the incident at the  clinic.  Black women and their children had to use that clinic to provide for their children’s’ health.  The treatment there was substandard and brusque.  Major hospitals don’t serve the underserved populations, especially People of Color.  So, they had to use various clinics and urgent care centers in neighborhoods of Color.  That film didn’t address that issue.  The majority are single mothers with young children, Black and Biracial.  

The film gloss over the role of White men.  In my opinion, Chenille was biracial in the film played by Kerry Washington of Scandal fame.  There were unacknowledged biracial students in the school as well as the clinic and Stepps, a night club frequented by students.  Some of the children at the clinic appeared to be mixed.  Nor did the movie emphasized on Sara’s deadbeat father.  Sara was lucky because her mother and apparently affluent grandparents provided for her previous lifestyle in Lemont, IL. her father left when she was young. They were estranged in the majority of the movie. Nor did the movie tread on the issue of police brutality and affluent White men coming to the neighborhood for drugs and sex. As in the 2011 movie,  The Help, White men are exonerated and exempt from the daily activities of inner city life in Chicago.  

the portrayal of Black relationships as being dysfunctional, chaotic, and stereotypical.  They show the couples either fighting each other or are together for having a good time at the club dancing, drinking etc.  There are no fathers in the film except for Sara’s father and Chenille’s son’s father played by Garland Witt.  There are two parent families and functional Black couples in South side Chicago but the movie purposely omit such relationships.  The movie have mainly single mothers.  Throughout American history, society has always been threatened by genuine Black love and romance.  Hollywood merely reflects racist ideology and practices against Black life and culture. They also exploit Black sexuality through club and “inner city” life.  That’s reflected in the dancing and tense gender relationships at Strips and at the high school.

Though the movie featured hip hop music, dancing, and culture, the main emphasis is on ballet.  Sara used hip hop to enliven her ballet dance steps in order to to win a scholarship at Julliard, the premier arts school in NYC.  Throughout the movie, ballet is both portrayed and perceived as stereotypical White, despite the inroads of Women of Color such as Misty Copeland. That narrative also erased historical WOC ballerinas such as Maria Tallchief and Carmen de Lavallade who were ballerinas in their own right. Save The Last Dance portrays Black women as being knowledgable only in often stereotypical vulgar hip hop dancing as portrayed at Stepps.

Save The Last Dance promoted hateful stereotypes of Black men, women, and kids of South side Chicago while putting Sara on a pedestal of “purity and innocence”.  That movie traffic in toxic stereotypes and racist mythology.

Intimate Justice

Sums it up perfectly.

Madlawprofessor's Weblog

published in The Times Literary Supplement, JANUARY 2, 2018.


“Five Day Forecast” by Lorna Simpson, 1991

© Tate, London 2017

Silenced and objectified: black women in the US


Some years ago I attended a play about the race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. The event, sponsored by the Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue, was followed by an open discussion among actors, producers and a broader than usual audience. What I remember most is an older black woman volunteering that a white man sitting next to her had just asked for her view on a particular matter. Most importantly, he had asked in a way that made her feel that he honestly wanted to know. “In my entire life,” she said, “I have never had a white man ask what I was thinking about anything at all.” Her pleased surprise resonated with many other women of…

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