What even is race?

Is it only passing when you’re “black” but you look “white?” Since the trope of passing has been more associated with blacks passing as whites due to the increased social privileges that they redeem, it’s been hard to understand that whites can pass for blacks. Or can they? The reality is that people who have the ability to pass are mixed blood, white and black, and usually have characteristics from both races which makes it difficult to label them (because they are a walking contradiction of what constitutes white or black). The problem with race, at least in America – has been used to group people together if they meet a certain criteria and so there are specific characteristics that define an individual within that group. After years and years of interracial mingling, there have been many “whites” with Afro-characteristics and many blacks with Caucasian characteristics. The idea of race does not consider that people of different “races” would mingle (also I believe that was prohibited at the time) and so it was believed that African Americans cannot possibly have straight hair or blonde hair or blue eyes, or fair, white skin and vice versa, a white person could not have darker skin tone, coarse hair, black hair, i.e. Even the racial construct itself in America has changed to accept more “options” as white. White immigrants weren’t white such as Jewish, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, so in America, at least at first, what constituted whiteness also dealt with where you were born (I guess it still is but it is MUCH more broad now), along with wealth, and obviously, the color of your skin. Adding in the context of the one drop rule, if there was any African/black lineage, no matter how distant, you are considered black.  So not only does whiteness means what I had already listed, but it also meant your bloodline was “pure,” free of any “inferior-race” ancestry. Nowadays, these groups are considered to be white so there has always been an evolving definition of whiteness and race in America. According to the US Census, a person who is white is a person “who has origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”

Clare Kendry in Passing plays with the idea of race by being both black and white at the same time. Her black friends know she is black (and is technically black under the One Drop rule) but her white friends and associates think she is white. Clare mentions on pg. 37, “You know, Rene, I’ve often wondered why more colored girls, girls like you and Margaret Hammer… never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do.” The reason why it’s probably unheard of to hear whites passing for ‘blacks’ besides social standing reasons is probably explained by the exchange between Clare and Irene… with Irene saying “What about background? …Surely you can’t drop down on people from nowhere and expect them to receive you with open arms, can you?” And Clare responding with: “Almost, You’d be surprised… ‘Rene, how much easier that is with white people than with us…” (also p. 37) Clare Kendry was able to get away with being white when she’s black (mixed) because whites assumed she was white. They assumed that she had extensive ancestry from Europe, and based on Irene’s response, I would assume that black people insist on background checks if one would claim to be black.  “You didn’t have to explain where you came from? It seems impossible.”Rachel Dolezal, in Center of Storm, Is Defiant: 'I Identify as Black' - The New York Times

Picture of Rachel Dolezal, ex Spokane NAACP President

According to this article, “white people have been passing for black for centuries.” Rachel Dolezal, former Spokane NAACP President,  has been identifying herself as “black, white, and American Indian/Alaskan Native,” but her parents say she is white and has been trying to fool everyone. But d0 people grill Rachel because she looks white trying to identify as black or because her parents say she is white? America’s one-drop policy wanted to make identifying people simple — if you were even 1/1000th black, you were black, no matter how white you appeared. Sole appearance defined your race, at least to the general public. And it shows  with the public’s reaction to Ms. Dolezal’s ‘revelation.’ Part of the equation of you identifying yourself as a certain race has to do with society’s reception to how you identify.


The Root Cause of America's Problem: The Creation of a Racial Caste System | by Kenadie Cobbin-Richardson | An Injustice!

picture from

Race in America was more of a caste system than it was biological, and it ignores the heterogeneity nature of being human. At some point, not all Europeans were considered white. There was no difference in genes and ethnic background, but there was a change to their race, which allowed them to be ‘American’.  The article from Scientific American explained the use of race best “…race is to be understood as a useful tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, but on the other hand, race is also understood to be a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics.” It is important to note that identification is two ways — you may see yourself or present yourself one way but the way it is received can be another. You may be black but the person looking at you thinks you’re white. You do not have full control over how you are identified.


Works cited:

Cobbin-Richardson, K. (2021, January 11). The root cause of America’s problem: The creation of a racial caste system. Medium., from

Gannon, M. (2016, February 5). Race is a social construct, scientists argue. Scientific American.

Lind, D. (2015, June 15). White people have been passing for black for centuries. A historian explains. Vox.

Bureau, U. S. C. (2022, March 1). About the topic of race. from

Larsen, Nella. (1929) Passing. pp. 37-38

“Is Gentrification Bad For Harlem?”

In “The Making of Harlem,” a chapter within the Survey Graphic magazine, negroes moved from a corner of Lower Manhattan to 53rd St. Then they relocated to Harlem due to the surfacing of better houses.  As there was a shortage of labor at the time, (country is stabilizing from WW1) there was of course a hefty amount of work available and more negroes are able to work, now being able to find work easier and at higher rates than what they’ve received ever in their lives. Also, property value for some foreclosures went to its cheapest point since lending companies have been holding vacant the “handsome dwellings,” with normal selling figures such as $15,000 (around $210,000 in today’s dollars) or $20,000 (around $281,000) selling at one-third of their normal asking price, ex: 5,000 (around $70,000). It was said that negroes in Harlem had owned more than $60 million dollars of property. It was safe to say at the time, Harlem was owned by negroes.

Real estate prices in Harlem are much more expensive today than in the 1920s, if you compare the aforementioned figures, with median sales prices around $800,000, well below the median sale price in Manhattan of $1.2million. Although Harlem is relatively cheap versus the rest of Manhattan, it is still expensive to many who have lived here their whole life. You will also notice how Harlem has once again be subject to demographic change, more blacks are leaving due to expensive rent or property taxes while well-off whites and hispanics have been bargaining at Harlem’s offerings.


But can the Negroes keep Harlem? I’ve already mentioned that there were pockets of negro communities before, so given the pattern before could it therefore repeat again, but at a larger scale? James Weldon Johnson claims that “when colored people do leave Harlem, their homes, their churches, their investments and their businesses, it will be because the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it.” (638) Gentrification is prevalent today in Harlem, with new luxury condos being erected and raising property values, a lot of people simply cannot afford to call Harlem their home anymore, let alone New York City. Harlem not only has been a place to call home for Negroes, but Harlem has become synonymous with Negroes itself. Detaching Negroes from Harlem would seem to lose integral value to what made Harlem, Harlem.

A crowded street in Harlem, c.1920 (Taken from "The Making of Harlem" p.637)

Picture taken from “The Making of Harlem” in Survey Graphic:  Harlem Mecca of the New Negro, pp.637


This may be a silly question but when Johnson claimed that the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it, I question were the lower class and middle class colored people leaving and being replaced by upper-class colored? Earlier in the text it was mentioned that a lot of whites left Harlem (white flight) because it felt like they were being invaded. Given that negroes in Harlem were more exposed to individual, entrepreneurial jobs and now have more financial freedom than ever before, now buying up properties and properly managing their finances, this was their biggest chance of retaining an area (in which they own themselves) within this time of American history. Is gentrification a race related issue or is it a class related issue? Regardless, a high-society and posh Harlem  would strip away values like community,  culture, standards, and, literally, people who help construct this place. When I look at the pictures in the “Making of Harlem,” the large crowds and communities seem like they are all socializing, mingling, there is an overall feeling of togetherness. Today, at least to me, maybe it’s just a city thing, there are occasional socializing like small talk with a person on the train or hotdog stand but overall everyone is so distant and minding their own business. This is already one example of how Harlem Renaissance Harlem differs from modern-Harlem… the sense of togetherness. Maybe it is the gentrification that has made us so distant?


Harlem in the 1980s and the 1990s had put a stain on Harlem’s illustrious history, with the crack situation running rampant within its community. Harlem was in disarray. Crime was then at its peak. The New York Times had even stated in “Harlem Battles over Development Project,” “since 1970, an exodus of residents has left behind the poor, the uneducated, the unemployed. Nearly two-thirds of the households have incomes below $10,000 a year.” It is not just whites who were leaving, it was people who provided stability to Harlem who were leaving including financially stable coloreds.  A journal published by Columbia University, “Crack Cocaine and Harlem’s Health,” speaks about the damage drugs have done to the community: “Between 1960 and 1990, four disparate forces – suburbanization, economic decline, epidemic disease, and municipal public policy – transformed Harlem from a functional ‘urban habitat’ to a de-urbanized area with a hyper-concentration of poor people with serious health problems. Homicides, cirrhosis,  and drug-related deaths accounted for 40% of excess mortality in Harlem. Harlem had the highest rate of age-adjusted mortality from all causes, and that rate was 50% higher than U.S. blacks living in other areas.” Harlem at this time was dying. Take a look at these before and after pictures.

Note: these are not my pictures.

1988: Corner of 132nd Street and Madison Avenue

2007: Same Corner

Pictures taken by Camilo Vergara


1988: 116th Street and Lenox Avenue


1988: 125th Street Between Park and Lexington Aves


All of these photos were taken by Camilo Vergara, his pictures are digitized into the Library of Congress:

Some people call it a second reconnaissance while others describe it as gentrification.

Was the second renaissance or gentrification necessary to save Harlem? The question becomes would you rather stay on your storied land but have it crumble before you due to drugs, crime and poverty, which is unrecognizable to its former glory or have your storied land taken from you (cannot afford to live on it anymore) but is being converted to a neighborhood with a fresh new personality?

Works cited:

Shipp, E. R. (1991, July 31). Harlem Battles Over Development Project. The New York Times., from

Watkins, Beverly X. and Thompson Fulilore,  Mindy. (2000). “Crack Cocaine and Harlem’s Health,” Dispatches From the Ebony Tower Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience. 

Johnson, James W. (1925)  “The Making of Harlem”, Survey Graphic: Harlem Mecca of the New Negro pp. 635-639

Harlem Real Estate Market Trends. 2022 Home Prices & Sales Trends | Harlem, New York, NY Real Estate Market. from



Walking Tour Of Harlem

This trip was definitely more interesting than anticipated. Given that I was born and raised in Harlem, I have walked down these streets before, but I never much stopped to think about the history of every street. I guess when something’s ordinary you just don’t really pay a lot of attention to it. But when we were on 140st and 141st street and Lenox Ave talking about the Savoy Ballroom and how dancers used to line up by skin tone from dark to light, there’s really so much history that one doesn’t realize that has happened. Matter of fact, I did not even know what a ‘Savoy Ballroom’ was before the trip! Who could have imagined that a legendary ballroom and nightclub have stood where apartments now stand?

Savoy Ballroom Harlem Archives - The Vintage Inn

taken from Google Images

Savoy Ballroom on 140-141sts Lenox Ave.

Savoy Park 620 Lenox Avenue | Apartments For Rent In Central Harlem  taken from Google Images

What stands in its place today

It was cool to visit through St Nicholas Houses again, where we saw my high school, HCZ Promise Academy I.  I used to walk through St. Nicholas Houses everyday to get to school. Honestly that was the first time in a long time where I’ve gotten that close to my school in a long time. When the school was first constructed in 2013, everyone disliked the idea that you had this nice, expensive school in the middle of the “dangerous” projects, but Geoffrey Canada envisioned that the school acted much like a community center for people in the area with a hope of providing aid to a greater disenfranchised community.

Promise Academy® High Schools | Harlem Children's Zone front of the school, picture taken from Google Images

This relates to my blog with the “Is Gentrification Bad For Harlem?” as I discussed the idea of the second Renaissance in Harlem. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children Zone organization not only is giving back to the community but is providing a foundation to which generations of disenfranchised children can become empowered and also contribute to the community. Geoffrey Canada had the same vision that W.E.B. DuBois and other key figures of the Renaissance had, that is empowering the black community to replace the recurring associations of black and latino with poverty and inferiority. Unlike Dubois where he is creating editorials and magazines to bring a renewed black image, Geoffrey Canada aims to uplift the black and latino community through the means of quality education, making a mission for kids to go to and through college.

Geoffrey Canada stands next to Harlem Children’s Zone mural

A picture of Geoffrey Canada standing in front of the Promise Academy II (Geoffrey Canada Community Center) HCZ logo on 125th Street Madison Avenue, taken from

HCZ’s website:


“Is Violence Ever the Answer?”

Articles that stood out in Opportunity Magazine were both “Gandhi” authored by Rene Maran and “Better Human Relationships” by Caroline G. Norment. The intent of  intellectual pieces like Opportunity, The Crisis, Survey Graphic was to display various capabilities and ideals of the Negro people, and ultimately record Negro history from the Negro perspective. This is a sharp divergence from the Negro narrative being created by non-Negros and it was this manufacturing of the Negro image that circulated negative stigma about Negros.

In Objectivity and Social Change, a chapter in Word, Image and the New Negro by Anne E. Carroll, the Chicago Commission of Race Relations which studied the root of the Chicago race riots concluded that “the Chicago Defender had stirred up bitterness of its black readers against whites, and that the Chicago Tribune had ‘served hatred for the Negroes with the breakfast of Chicago’s white population.’ The commission also concluded that ignorance fueled that hatred: it found that white Americans knew very little about black Americans, and their perception of African Americans were largely shaped by images ‘that cause the Negro to appear only as a criminal or a fool.’ The commission advised that if similar violence was to be avoided in the future, better understanding and attitudes between black Americans and white Americans were necessary, and it argued that the press had to play a major role in promoting these changes.” (Objectivity and Social Change, 59) Johnson felt that having “inflammatory text” in writing would fuel the race tensions and thus cause more violence, where DuBois felt that one could not remain cool and collected while fellow brothers and sisters were getting “lynched, murdered, starved.” (Social Change and Objectivity, 61) DuBois understood that in order for Blacks to be represented accurately, the authors and the one telling the stories had to been black which is partly the reason why he had a strong desire to mass-produce race-related magazines. He wanted the negro to be seen in a way never seen before, as an equal human being.

Johnson liked using facts and using less provocative imagery. DuBois felt there was a need for a call to action. He spoke his mind and used inflammatory imagery. He felt that nothing would be accomplished if he had done otherwise. I believe that Gandhi was mentioned in Johnsons’ Opportunity because he essentially fought off oppression and gain freedom without the use of violence. He had set the precedent to MLK Jr’s nonviolence campaign during the Civil Rights Movement and had shown the world that colored (albeit Indian instead of Black) can fend for themselves, be their own people, and make history too. Given that Johnson wanted a more conservative approach he valued peaceful cooperation because the root of the rift is that the two peoples were essentially divided, and forcing people to like each other given with the use of force just isn’t going to happen. Here was an opportunity to overcome oppression without the use of violence. Not only does Gandhi break the stereotype of having to use force to force out oppression, he breaks the stereotype of what people imagines as a world leader. His differences in characteristics such as his height, his health and his skin color had made him contrast the notion of world leaders. And it is because of his difference of character would inspire more and more “different” world leaders including aforementioned MLK Jr. and Nelson Mandela. And a final distinction between Gandhi and other world leaders: Nonviolence was embedded within Gandhi. Given that he was Hindu he believed that nonviolence had to start from the soul or one’s religion. He made it clear (although it was already known) that the black struggle against whites in America wasn’t only exclusive to blacks living in America, there had been black against white problems in South Africa, Indians against British in India, there was a group struggle against an oppressor force all over the world.  Violence motivates for change. British in India inspired for the Independence of India, and also inspired democracy in India. Violence against blacks inspired the Harlem Renaissance and other Renaissances across the country that proved their worth.

taken from wikipedia:

A picture of Mohandas Gandhi

When Gandhi was in South Africa, he realized that colonizers “be it French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, or American – that brutality, pillage, death, sudden assassination, incendiarism was used as the only method of communication and understanding between them and other peoples who have committed the inexpiable crime of not belonging to the same race.” (Gandhi, Opportunity, 41) Human history has been riddled with conflict and violence, whether it is race-related, religion-related, or politically related. And Gandhi (and Mr. Johnson) are trying to break this cycle of violent behavior to solve our problems. Since when do civilians benefit from war? They hardly ever do. It is only their leaders who potentially profit the most (if they win, of course). Does using violence to solve violence ever work?

This video by NBC news provides a quick summary to Gandhi’s impact on India and India’s power struggle against the British. Notice also how important community is to Gandhi as he is seen always with a large group. He is much different than kings who believe that they are superior to their subjects and look down upon them. This person instead struggles with his people to show strength, unlike anything that we’ve seen before.

Caroline Norment in “Better Human Relationships” asserts that inter-human conflicts exists due to “Humanity, striving for place in the sun, has formed habits of selfishness, acquisitiveness and self-protection. Naturally enough, groups have formed which are antagonistic to other groups which are even slightly dissimilar.”(43) When you think of what it means to be a human, you might think we are intelligent beings, being able to reason and understand consequences for actions. We think of being friendly, or humane, open to new experiences, but yet it is said that is ‘human nature’ to have fights with one another. Do we really fight wars for survival or do we fight wars for status and belonging? When we’re in fear it’s us or them because they are not like us, and we tend to think that they are inferior to us, or even, them existing threatens our existence. We call ourselves friendly and welcoming but also don’t mind resorting to violent tendencies when we feel threatened. To be human is to be a hypocrite, we are welcoming but we form groups to isolate ourselves from others, we fight and kill each other but yet we are not animals, will we ever learn that violence leads to more violence?

Works cited:

Carroll, Anne E., (2005) “Objectivity and Social Change: Essays and News Stories in Opportunity.” Word, Image, and the New Negro pg. 59, 61

Maran, Rene, (1925) “Gandhi”, Opportunity Magazine pg. 40-41

Norment, G. Caroline, (1925) “Better Human Relationships.” Opportunity Magazine pg. 43-59