MONDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2021
The Times toys with the question: Do individual people belong to a "race?"
Individuals will be treated as if they belong to a race. But should we even believe in the concept?
Unfortunately, these are among the most important questions in all of American history. The brutal mistreatment of people on the basis of their "race" lies at the heart of our national story. Meanwhile, in the present day, "race" is widely viewed as a fundamental part of each person's "identity."
At one time, within living memory, progressive culture widely proclaimed that there was no such thing as race. It was common for liberals to enter words like "human" or "none" when confronted with government forms asking us to name our "race."
Progressive culture stressed the idea that we humans are really all the same. Progressive culture stressed the idea that there was only one race, the human race; that "them old dreams [about the existence of race] are only in your head."
Today, progressive culture is deeply invested in the idea that race and gender are the primary building blocks of a person's "identity." Inevitably, a great deal of incoherence is built into these deeply held, frequently noxious, mandated tribal beliefs.
Enter the New York Times—for example, in a lengthy, rather peculiar report in yesterday's Sunday magazine.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our self-impressed liberal tribe is crowded with fuzzy thinkers. Also, with people who may perhaps be just a bit self-involved.
Our journalism is crowded with people who mainly like to tell a good story—who may prefer the pleasures of same to the values of clear exposition. As a tribe, we're spectacularly impressed with ourselves, but also ginormously flawed.
Enter yesterday's puzzling report about Rebecca Hall's mother.
Rebecca Hall is a British actress and director who is about to release a new film, one we look forward to seeing. Her mother, Maria Ewing, is one of the most famous singers in the world. She was born and raised in Detroit.
That said, does Maria Ewing belong to a race? And if she does belong to a race, to what race does she belong?
Who the heck is Maria Ewing? You're asking a very good question.
On the one hand, Ewing is one of the greatest singers in the world, and has been for some time. On the other hand, since her career has mainly been in opera, no one in the hinterland has ever heard of her.
Maria Ewing is Rebecca Hall's mother. Here's the basic outline of Ewing's career, according to the leading authority on the topic:
Maria Louise Ewing (born March 27, 1950) is an American opera singer who has sung both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles. She is noted as much for her acting as her singing.
Ewing made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976 in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Her first European performance was at La Scala, Milan as Mélisande in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Her repertoire includes Carmen, Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Salome, the title role in L'incoronazione di Poppea, Marie in Berg's Wozzeck and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Ewing is particularly well known for her sensitive interpretation of the title role in Richard Strauss's Salome, where Oscar Wilde's stage directions for the original play specify that, at the end of the so-called Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome lies naked at Herod's feet. Ewing appeared fully nude at the end of this sequence, in contrast to other singers who have used body stockings. She also sang and appeared in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.
And so on, at some length. Excitingly, Ewing has appeared fully nude at Herod's feet!
At any rate, Ewing has been a major star for a very long time. But what the heck is her race?
Yesterday, the New York Times played exciting mystery games concerning this topic. On the other hand, as far back as 1992, the Los Angeles Times had managed to tell the public this, as part of an interview with the star concerning a performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion:
ISENBERG (11/8/92): The soprano offstage still seems onstage—dramatically dressed in black jersey and jeans, her dark hair pulled back off her pale face, her full, sensual mouth layered in lipstick. Her exotic features reflect a Dutch mother and a father who was part Sioux, part black and part Scottish.
She was born and raised in Detroit, where her mother sang, and her engineer father played piano, painted, wrote and lectured on the plight of the American Indian. Her father’s piano selections included both ragtime and his own Sioux-inspired compositions, says Ewing, and “we’d all dance around the room when he was playing."
Ewing's mother was Dutch (and presumably "white"). Her father, an engineer, "was part Sioux, part black and part Scottish."
On the basis of these particulars, how was Ewing treated / viewed / identified within her native Detroit? The 1992 profile didn't explore such questions. But there seemed to be no mystery concerning the fact that the immediate ancestry of this star tracked to more than one "race."
Maria Ewing isn't 100 percent "white!" All the way back in 1992, there seemed to be no giant mystery—and no giant sense of excitement—concerning this particular fact.
Still, no one had yet forced the star to submit to a public DNA test. Two years earlier, the Washington Post had told its readers this:
MCLELLAN (11/15/90): In private conversation, Ewing, tall and slender, is elegant and quietly self-contained until she begins talking about opera and acting; then her voice becomes animated and she has a deep, earthy laugh...Her exotic good looks (inherited from a Dutch mother and a Sioux father) are even more impressive up close and without makeup than they are when she is onstage. She is 40 years old, looks less than 30, and is totally convincing when she impersonates a spoiled, sensual teenager who dances an elaborate, Oriental striptease to gain power, uses that power to kill the man who rejected her and then scolds and fondles his severed head.
Ewing became a singer almost by accident. Growing up in a music-loving family, the youngest of four daughters (her father was an engineer, her mother a good singer but not a professional), she studied piano and sang occasional duets with her sister Frances...
In this profile, her father had been Sioux (full stop); he was once again described as an engineer. Concerning Ewing's exotic good looks, she looked even better in person!
Long story short: It seems to have been clear for some time that Ewing's father wasn't exactly "white." To the extent that anyone cared, there doesn't seem to have been any mystery about this.
In terms of "race," how was Ewing classified, identified, treated, viewed within the Detroit of the 1950s and 1960s? We can't answer that question. But as of 1990 and 1992, it was being reported that Ewing's father wasn't "white," and it looks like Ewing herself would have been the source of these revelations.
There doesn't seem to have been any giant mystery about this. Indeed, as of June 2010, Hall was quoted telling The Guardian this about her famous mother:
"She came from working-class Detroit...Her mother was Dutch, her father half Native American Sioux Indian and half black of some unknown origin."
That was Hall, discussing her mother back in 2010.
Yesterday, the New York Times put the mystery back in the stew. Along the way, the famous newspaper skipped past a lot of questions about what it means to belong to a "race"—about what it means when we say that someone does.
Hall's forthcoming movie is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, “Passing." As her profile of Hall begins, Alexandra Kleeman starts driving the mystery train:
KLEEMAN (10/24/21): When Rebecca Hall read Nella Larsen’s groundbreaking 1929 novel, “Passing,” over a decade ago, she felt an intense, immediate attachment to it. The story seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity—the unnameable gaps in her family history that shaped her life in their very absence, the way a sinkhole in the road distorts the path of traffic blocks away.
So intriguing! There were unnameable gaps in Hall's family history which shaped her life in their very absence. The story in Larsen's novel seemed to clarify so much that was mysterious about her own identity!
That's spectacularly fuzzy writing, suitable for this ghostly time of year. The responsibility for that fuzzy writing lies with Kleeman and her editors, not with Hall herself.
Soon, though, Hall is quoted discussing her family history. We're somewhat puzzled by some of what she says:
KLEEMAN: Raised in England within the elite circles of classical theater, Hall, who is 39, had her first introduction to the concept of racial “passing” in the pages of Larsen’s novel. “I was spending time in America, and I knew that there had been vague, but I mean really vague, talk about my mother’s ethnicity,” Hall explained over the phone this spring. Her voice is calm and poised, with a warm polish to it, and she tends to speak in composed paragraphs. Over the year that we had corresponded, Hall hadn’t been acting much and had instead spent time writing screenplays from the Hudson Valley home that she shares with her daughter and her husband, the actor Morgan Spector. “Sometimes she would intimate that maybe there was African American ancestry, or sometimes she would intimate that there was Indigenous ancestry. But she didn’t really know; it wasn’t available to her.”
Hall grew up steeped in performance: Her father, Sir Peter Hall, was known for founding the Royal Shakespeare Company and serving as the director of the Royal National Theater for many years... Her mother, Maria Ewing, an American raised in Detroit, is one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, famous for her daring portrayal of Salome in Richard Strauss’s production, in which she followed the Oscar Wilde-penned stage directions to the letter and went nude onstage.
After her parents divorced in 1990, Hall lived for many years with her mother in a manor in the English countryside, where she remembers rooms filled with the sound of jazz on vinyl, her mother making herself at home in the relative isolation and remoteness of an adopted country. “I was sort of brought up to believe that I was this—all of which is true, by the way—privileged, upper-middle-class, sort of bohemian well-educated white girl from a very prestigious family background,” Hall said. “And that was sort of where it stopped. And when I asked questions to my mother about her background in Detroit and her family,” Hall said, her voice low and firm, “she left it with an ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past.’”
In that early passage, the mystery story gets its start, and a certain impression gets lodged. Hall seems to say that her famous mother would sometimes "intimate" that there was African American or Indigenous ancestry. But she also seems to say that her mother "didn't really know."
"I don't want to dwell on the past" was all her mother would say, at least to Hall herself.
Possibly that's true! A more devoted journalist would have asked Hall to clarify this account based on those profiles in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in which, or so it seemed, Maria Ewing had made it clear that her father wasn't exactly "white."
Growing up, did Hall know that her mother's father had been described as "part Sioux, part black and part Scottish?" If not, when did she find out?
She certainly knew by 2010, when she spoke to The Guardian. But when did she find out?
In pursuit of basic clarity, an actual journalist would have pushed Hall to speak to these obvious questions. But the New York Times loves to entertain its readers, especially on thrilling matters involving "race."
There followed a jumbled mystery tale about the process by which Hall learned about her "racial" ancestry (also described as her "identity"). Readers were forced to waste some time while Kleeman, inevitably, told us a great deal about herself. Eventually, though, we were returned to Hall's current tale.
As told by Kleeman, Hall's understanding seems to turn on research recently done for the PBS program Finding Your Roots, including some of the statistical sleight-of hand which commonly dogs that otherwise fascinating program:
KLEEMAN: Hall had recently taken part in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots” (the episode will air next year), and filled in some of the lacunas in her family history that had made elements of her own life feel incomplete or difficult to comprehend. She had shown a version of her film to her mother, sparking conversations that they weren’t able to have in the decades preceding. And “Passing” had been sold to Netflix for almost $17 million, a deal that would guarantee the film the sort of broad audience and promotional support rarely given to intricate, demanding art foregrounding Black women.
The researchers on “Finding Your Roots,” she told me, traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. She learned that her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing, was born into slavery but found government work post-abolition in Washington, and even gave the toast for Frederick Douglass at a banquet in his honor. Her great-grandmother was a free woman of color, descended from one of only 5,000 Black men who fought on the side of the rebels during the Revolutionary War. But against the background of so much lineage lost and recovered was the discovery of the exact point at which the narrative had broken. “The revelation,” she said, “was that it was just my grandfather who passed—just that one act that erased a huge amount of history, including some stuff that’s really extraordinary.” She spoke carefully, pausing often. “The irony is his father was a race man. His father was someone who wanted to uplift.”
I pointed out how rare it was for a person to have the chance to make a decision that so rapidly shifts the path of his descendants, a complex, psychological decision that erased anyone’s ability to find out why he made it. Hall nodded. “And if you know that it happened, it passes on a legacy that’s”—she trailed off, searching for the right term—“so confused, you know? Because if you’re the child of the parent, and you believe them to be doing the right thing, or hiding something by living in secret, then your obligation to the parent is to do what they do.” When I asked if her mother ever told stories about her own father that might shed light on why he chose to pass, or what his experience was like afterward, she told me that her grandfather was an artist and a musician, and this is part of what made them close—her mother learned to sing from imitating records in the basement of the family house. She left home soon after he died when she was 16, Hall said, gaining admission to the Cleveland Institute of Music against the odds and later moving to the Barbizon Hotel in New York, and eventually to Europe, where she sang in Salzburg, in Milan, in London.
Hall didn’t know if her grandfather was a sort of anchor for her mother, whether his death caused her to leave home. But her mother did talk, Hall said, about an event that was very disturbing for her...
Had Gates' researchers really "traced her mother’s side of the family tree as far back as her great-great-great-great-great-grandparents?"
Since Hall, like everyone else, has a total of 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, we'll guess that Gates actually researched a limited number of these ancestors, while obscuring the fact that there were so many others, with so many other personal histories.
With respect to "her great-grandfather, whose name was John William Ewing," Hall has eight great-grandparents in all. Four of the eight may be Brit all the way. Two of the eight may be Danish.
The two American great-grandparents were apparently classified as "black," though they may have had a great deal of European ancestry. (The one-drop rule would perhaps have been in effect.) According to Hall, her mother's father decided to "pass," moving beyond the stupid / cruel types of "racial" categorization his society dropped on all comers.
(Full disclosure: Earlier this month, Hall was quoted telling The Daily Mail that it was "more than likely" that her grandfather's parents also "passed." The story keeps moving round.)
Does this story mean that Maria Ewing's father was regarded as "white" when Ewing grew up in Detroit? In yesterday's profile, Kleeman doesn't ask, and Hall doesn't say.
Does this mean that Ewing regarded or presented herself as "white" when she was growing up? That question wasn't asked or answered either.
Meanwhile, Hall seemed to insert more drama into the tale with her comments about Ewing leaving home soon after her father died. According to the standard bios, Ewing graduated from Detroit's Finney High School in 1968, when she was 18. Assuming that is accurate, she doesn't seem to have run away the day after her father died.
The story Hall goes on to tell involves Ewing and her father being assailed by a neighbor with a racial slur shortly before his death. Does that mean that Ewing knew about her father's black ancestry when she was growing up?
None of this is clarified. Instead, we get a bit of a pleasingly jumbled mystery tale.
Reading this imitation of journalism, readers are given the impression that Hall became aware of family background due to Finding Your Roots. That would make for a pleasing story, except for the fact that she was quoted saying this back in 2010:
"She came from working-class Detroit...Her mother was Dutch, her father half Native American Sioux Indian and half black of some unknown origin."
How long ago did Hall learn that? Who did she learn it from? Kleeman didn't ask.
Kleeman's profile is a jumble, a pleasingly novelized tale. Elementary questions go unasked as the fuzzy story emerges. Ultimately, this is the fault of Kleeman and her editors.
What does Hall actually know about her mother's early life? What does she actually know about her maternal grandfather's apparent decision to present himself as "white?"
Kleeman didn't try to find out. In the process, we got a pleasing tale, and we got a (thoroughly typical) celebrity-friendly promotion for a film for which Hall has already received $17 million.
(Nothing the celebrity says will be questioned in the course of such profiles. Because it deals with such important issues, we look forward to seeing the film.)
All through American history, people have been forced to live within the socially defined boundaries of "race."
People have been told that they belong to a "race," and that they had to stay within its established borders. People were badly and brutally treated, depending on which of those boxes they were said to be in.
People had "race" imposed upon them, often in absurdly arbitrary ways. Our progressive tribe once opposed such mandatory sifting of people. Today, it's the foundation of our frequently unimpressive worldview.
(Many Others are able to see how unimpressive our worldview is. Only we cannot.)
Do individuals belong to a "race?" Individuals will be treated that way, but should we believe in the concept?
The concept comes from "the world the slaveholders made." Should we keep selling their concepts, or are there better ideas in which we humans are secretly all the same?