A Virtuous Ruby, Rachel Dolezal and the value of blackness

Ruby will be available on all platforms and in print exactly one month from today!

Ruby will be available on all platforms and in print exactly one month from today!

In the flurry of discussion about the Rachel Dolezal story, people have overlooked one big issue. I haven’t though. This issue has made me think of how much, in one hundred years time when I set A Virtuous Ruby, how little has changed. Dolezal is clearly a pathological liar, but the reception of her deception is what interests me. Many have gone out of their way to treat blackness with complete and utter contempt.

Media figures have postured that the blackness that Dolezal sought to appropriate could not possibly be something that a sane person would want to take on as worthwhile. I witnessed this treatment in the quizzical voices of journalists as they interviewed her parents. Their treatment reminded me of how my light-skinned character, Ruby Bledsoe chose to work and live as a black person in 1915 and of how she convinced her man, Adam Morson, to do the same.

When Ruby was on the contest circuit about three years ago, I would get comments saying things like, “Why shouldn’t she choose to be white?,” and “She should be proud she can pass.” And whenever I would express my surprise at these comments to other African Americans, sometimes they would say things like, “Yeah, Ruby had to be a little crazy.” Or “Why not pass as white if you can get away with it?”

So the overall narrative we are supposed to swallow from the Dolezal case seems to be, when in doubt, choose white. Never, ever choose black. That’s the losing team. Except Ruby knew a few things. She knew that the world she lived in would punish for choosing to be something she wasn’t. She knew that choosing white would mean distance from the family that she loved and was raised in. Ruby also knew that choosing whiteness would not help at all in her desire to stop lynchings from happening in the south. As a Christian, most importantly, she also knew that choosing the path that God put before her in the way she was perfectly knitted from Him , was the best way to accomplish those goals.

Part of A Virtuous Ruby was inspired by the soul-killing struggle of the main protagonist in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Johnson’s point, way back in 1912 allowed his protagonist to suffer throughout that novel to find a meaning and a purpose in life. When he thinks he’s found it at the end, by melting into the white world, he’s done. Johnson’s point was that blackness was not the bad, evil punishment from Ham that the larger world claimed for it to be.

Rachel Dolezal, bless her heart, knew the value of blackness, but she’s going to be made to pay for choosing the unpopular team. She could have done all of the work she wanted in her God-fashioned form. But I have a feeling she’ll be alright.

For real black women, this way that blackness is treated in the larger society is the reason why, at my institution, students have to take a year long class. The class prepares them, and indeed, arms them for with all of the good, positive, wonderful things that blackness is about, so that today’s young black women don’t have to waste one more moment wishing or hoping to be someone else. There are some who would say that my school is crazy for teaching such a class, but for those of us who teach the class, we hope that the students spread the word. That they talk to their parents about it. That they teach their little cousins and nieces, nephews and future children about it. From such a class, they can walk into the world as fully-armed Rubys—ready for anything and proud to be who they are.

Last night, I won the 2015 Breakout Author of the Year award from the AAMBC Literary Awards. Thank you all for your incredible support. I appreciate it so very much!

The nerd has to clean up every once in a while!  Thank you for your support!

The nerd has to clean up every once in a while! Thank you for your support!

16 thoughts on “A Virtuous Ruby, Rachel Dolezal and the value of blackness

  1. It is fascinating how she chose that. It is especially interesting to me that she was not even a good liar. Most of the statements she made about her growing up years, are easily disproven! (I grew up in the same town as her and know most of her family and family members). I think it is quite amazing she was able to do it, but have a huge issue with all the lies.

    • The reasons people lie are always fascinating, Martha, I agree. However, she did get pathological with it, as I say early on in the post. Thank you so much for commenting! I’m so glad that you stopped by and I certainly hope that you let your very influential reading group know all about Ruby when it comes out and that you yourself give it a chance!

  2. What a beautifully written and enlightening post. Thank you for your very logical view on this disturbingly pathological case.

  3. I don’t agree with the deception, because she could have had the position as a white. It does make me wonder why pose being African-American when your not, in the end she’s hurt the very thing she was fighting for, making things better for African-Americans.

    • I think you are giving her too much credit, Jackie. She hasn’t hurt anything for African Americans. She’s hurt herself. And as someone who might have tried to get that scholarship or the job she holds, I hope I made it clear in the post that I don’t agree with her deception at all. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting!

    • I think she’s hurt African Americans–African American women. Rachel Dolezal’s fraud and the support she’s received is one more instance of black womanhood not being considered sacred and worthy of protection. It is acceptable for it to be commercialized, commodified, mimicked, and performed without black women at all.

      The success she’s achieved through her performance as a black woman is no different from how/why Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Bo Derek became famous…even reaching back to Susan Kohner in 1959’s Imitation of Life and Jeanne Crain in 1949’s Pinky.

      But Mindy Kaling’s brother passing as a black man in order to achieve success he believed was barred to an Indian man? The outrage was widespread and crossed color and gender lines.

      And that the first thing many reached for to excuse Dolezal was to heap coals on black women for wearing blonde weaves/wigs? That was telling.

  4. People like Dolezal are the reason why we teach the class, Evangeline. It’s all part of the curriculum to know that is a history and lineage to this and that as critical thinkers, students have to have a response prepared. The work that you and I do as writers are all part of that response. Thank you for stopping by and commenting Evangeline. I always appreciate your thoughtful insights.

  5. Your post is well-thought out and so much more eloquent than I could have been on this subject. I do not hang on Twitter or Facebook much, so I’ve missed a ton of the fallout from this charade.In one social group I belong to the young Black women were cheering this fraud on. I was shocked and felt these young’uns simply didn’t know history. I tossed out a few questions and lo and behold, they proved me right. Outside of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, their knowledge of our history, and true treatment, in this country was nil. The young do not know anything beyond the folks trotted out during Black History month and know more about Nicki Minaj.

    Anyhoo, I have to agree with Evangeline. When it comes to Black women in this country, we are both expendable and expedient. Our traits, personalities and lives are treated as Halloween costumes. To be worn, altered or shed for someone’s pleasure or goals. I find the entire situation with Ms. Dolezal, disturbing. She knew what she was doing could probably fool many because, hey, she was posing as a BLACK woman. A being not very respected or taken very seriously in the good, old US of A.

    ps as for not being respected, we have to look no further than the whole need for diversity in romance push that really isn’t one. it’s lip service at best. bless the visible, successful careers of Brenda Jackson and Beverly Jenkins. but really, there’s room for many more. I don’t think anyone advised Loretta Chase and Eloisa James not to write historicals because “we’re plum full up with Julia Quinn.”.

    • That was wonderfully said,yourself PJ. And you are right. The young like the change factor of what Do legal did but don’t know the history. I look forward to teaching about this in a few weeks when some more thoughtful responses like yours and Evangeline emerge. Thank you for stopping by!

  6. I question her honesty and sincerity in taking on a position to help African Americans under the guise of being born into the race. Living in a home with black children she had to be aware the difference in society’s treatment of AA women. All her life she had enjoyed the preferential treatment and knew if the going got too rough, she could always reclaim her heritage. It’s too bad, children never have a choice in their parentage and some inherit more privileges as their assumed birthright. That’s life.

    I don’t know for a fact, but believe she probably could have received more support for her chapter with a request from her as a white woman, rather than as another race.

    Although she feels she’s the injured party, the chapter she represented will be the most damaged. As a former fundraiser for non-profits, I’m aware donors often look for reasons not to honor requests from certain groups and would question the integrity of the organization because of being fooled by her trickery. And was the black spouse out of love or expediency?

    Btw, congrats on your awards this year.

    • Thank you for your kind words Paulette! I have to say that in the ensuing week, that woman has lost a lot of shine. I’m glad, because, as I hope as I made clear in my post, I’m far more concerned with society’s reaction to her than all the the particulars of her existence. The point of my post about the value of blackness was underscored in a most tragic way this week and I’ve chose for my focus to be on that. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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