After I raved about Taylor Branch's America in the King Years yesterday, I figured I ought to give you an example of why I'm praising it so highly. Here, from volume two, Pillar of Fire, is Branch giving a quick but detailed biographical sketch of Mississippi farmer Vernon Dahmer--and using that sketch to explore the underlying complexity of the very concept of race, especially as employed in the highly charged American South of the 1960s:
Staying on alone at the farm, [SNCC worker Hollis] Watkins gradually learned that the Dahmer family's Faulknerian bloodlines wandered across racial boundaries and taboos. Vernon Dahmer's mother, Ellen Kelly, had been one of four light-skinned mulatto daughters born during Reconstruction to a white plantation owner named Kelly, for whom their farm region north of Hattiesburg was named Kelly Settlement. Old man Kelly had no wife or other children, and he honored his mulatto family far beyond accepted custom. In the 1890s, Ellen Kelly caused something of a family crisis by entertaining a marriage proposal from George Dahmer, a most unusual white man--born illegitimately in 1871 to a transient German immigrant and a white woman who, during the chaos and destitution that followed the Civil War in Mississippi, had gone on to marry an ex-slave with whom she produced eight dark-skinned children raised as George Dahmer's younger siblings.
To the ex-Confederate planter Kelly, the problem with George Dahmer as a suitor for his daughter Ellen was not so much his bastard status or the racial confusion of a genetic white man living within Negro culture, but his lack of higher education. Kelly withheld consent until young George Dahmer completed courses at Jackson State, Mississippi's Reconstruction-built Negro college, but then he blessed the newlyweds with a full share of his estate: forty acres, a cow, two calves, and a feather bed. Although some of the surviving white cousins contested these gifts to Negroes as the folly of a lunatic bachelor, the bequest stood, and in time George and Ellen Dahmer gained possession of additional Kelly acreage.
In December of 1908, four months after Lyndon Johnson was born in the Texas Hill Country, Vernon Dahmer arrived as the eighth of twelve Dahmer children. He may have become the superior farmer of the lot in any case, but competition decreased significantly when three of his five brothers married "out of the race" into white society in the North, one as a church pastor. Not all family members on either side of the color line were aware of the secret. Among Vernon Dahmer's most delicate tasks as an adult was to maintain ties among the witting ones even while engineering an innocent extinction of bonds in the next generation. Life's passages--births, marriages, deaths--posed the most difficult decisions about which distant ones could be notified, and how to do so without risking the fateful curiosity of the unwitting. With time, the simplest family communications across the color barrier became trying and dangerous. On the Negro side, parents faced the crippling issue of whether to acknowledge the possibility that especially light-skinned children might cross over, and if so, whether it was mutually safe and emotionally tolerable to seek the counsel of those who had gone before.
Vernon Dahmer narrowed such dilemmas by choosing successively darker wives. After fathering three sons during the Depression who grew up to look like him and his father, George--that is, by all appearances as white as the governor of Mississippi--he married a darker woman who bore three discernibly Negro sons during the 1940s, and two years after the second wife died, he married Ellie Dahmer in 1952 and produced a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Bettie, his young tractor driver, also clearly of African descent. In public, Dahmer learned to expect different reactions according to which sets of children were in his company. Among strangers, he could pass with his eldest children as a white family so long as Ellie was not along, whereas with her and the younger children he functioned separately across the color line as an ambassador. On Southern highways, he easily picked up food from the first-class "white" side of segregated restaurants if his family remained hidden in the car. Less pleasantly, white strangers who encountered the entire family assumed sometimes that Dahmer was a white boss among servants. Some made collegial remarks to him about his niggers.