A project of Brooklyn Historical Society


Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (2011 – 2015), sought to document contemporary Brooklyn by collecting oral history interviews with people who self-identified as mixed heritage. In the U.S., people tend to think about race first and foremost when they are thinking about mixed identity. By resisting defining mixed heritage and allowing narrators to self-identify, we maintained the project’s focus on intersectionality and social constructions of race.

Seeing who self-identified as mixed heritage revealed how contemporary Brooklynites think about their cultural heritage and how they define what it means to be "mixed." Narrators used their own language and concepts of self-definition. We heard from interracial and interethnic families; interfaith and international families; Third-Culture Kids; and people who identified as mixed because they grew up in neighborhoods that were predominantly of a race/ethnicity that was different from their home culture. A team of 25 interviewers collected over 100 oral history interviews which will be preserved in BHS's Othmer Library for future generations, 35 of which are now available online.

Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) created space for public dialogues about race, ethnicity, and intersecting identities. As Audre Lorde says, “too often we put the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences are insurmountable barriers, or that they do not exist at all.[1]” These public dialogues were conceived as places to practice. Participants understood that the work to undo racism and intersecting oppressions is ongoing, that people with good intentions do make mistakes, and that these can be learning opportunities. CBBG invited white people to take an active part in interrupting racism so that the burden of teaching in these moments does not fall on people of color alone. Nearly 1,800 people attended the 32 events. Even thought this project has completed, Brooklyn Historical Society continues to program many events centering on themes of racial justice.

Intersectional feminist work, both scholarly and activist, inspired how we organized and implemented Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. Brooklyn Historical Society is a public history center and CBBG was designed to be a public homeplace[2], a term which describes the community-based, personal-is-political movement building common to the 1960s-70s Civil Rights and women's movements. As such, CBBG nurtured the concentric conversations happening among narrators, interviewers, archivists, and the public programming participants, and, more broadly, resonant scholarship, activism, and media. We listened to the community that gathered around this project, and responded with changes to the project along the way. CBBG’s successes are a result of this collaborative process and the generous engagement of everyone involved.

[1] Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde, (Berkeley, California: Crossing Press, 1984), 115.

[2] "Using the homeplace as a model, the members go on working to make the whole society more inclusive, nurturing, and responsive to the developmental needs of all people --but most especially to those who have been excluded and silenced," Mary Field Belenky et al. A Tradition that Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities, (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 13 – 18.

2nd Annual What Are You? discussion, photo by Willie Davis for Brooklyn Historical Society, 2012

Historical Context

Forty-five years ago, interracially married couples faced prosecution and jail time, or violence, if they happened to cross into one of sixteen states that prohibited and punished marriages on the basis of racial classifications[1]. Sixty years ago, anti-miscegenation laws were on the books in thirty states[2]. While interfaith marriages were not legally proscribed in the United States, interfaith and interclass marriages often met with opposition from family and community. And yet, in less than two generations since the last anti-miscegenation laws were removed, a study released by the Pew Research Center in 2010 reports that a record one out of seven new marriages in the United States were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed that multiracial and multiethnic children are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups.

From Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer, 1967) to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), stories about mixed-heritage romance abound in theater, film, literature, cultural criticism, news media, political cartoons, pop culture, humor, and folklore. From abolitionist fiction like Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824) to stories by Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, and William Faulkner, interracial relationships are a theme in American literature with tropes such as the tragic mulatto, the vamp, and the African Queen. These stories address issues about gender, sexuality, class, power, community, nationality, and identity. Despite popular culture’s fascination with this topic, scholars agree that all too rarely do we hear the real stories of mixed-heritage individuals’ personal experiences, which provide crucial perspective and complexity to historical moments and movements.

Questions of race have been central in interpreting national identity since the formation of the United States. Despite the discrediting of biological definitions of race and scientific racism in the 1920s, and the successful breaking down of the color-line, described by Charles W. Chesnutt in 1889 “as fixed by law, regulated in theory the civil and political status of persons of color,” (What Is a White Man, 1889) in the 1950s and 1960s, racial divisions still exist. It is impossible to separate the history of racial categorization, including the one-drop rule, and laws governing intermarriage and mixed-heritage children from the history of slavery. Indeed, the term “miscegenation” was coined by two Copperhead New York journalists in a hoax pamphlet that advocated the intermarriage of Irish laborers and free Black people, both being similarly poor. Now, 148 years since the dubious coining of this term miscegenation, people are still negotiating their thoughts and feelings about marrying outside their race, ethnicity, and heritage, and the children of multiracial/multicultural partnerships are exploring their identity in new ways.

When Barack Obama was declared the “First Black President” in 2008, some people asked why Obama was identified as Black when he could also identify as biracial or bicultural. A columnist raised the question of racial identity on the Opinion page of The New York Times and suggested people should be described however they identify themselves, and many online commentators responded with the thought: “Why in the course of general discussion should a person’s race come up at all?” While these statements were made in the spirit of eradicating racism, colorblindness is not helpful to this aim. In recent years, the much-debated term post-racial suggests not the end of racism and xenophobia but a need for more complex and nuanced understandings of racial and ethnic identities. Touré’s popular and much-discussed book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press, 2011), describes the present as a “post-Black era,” where there are many ways to “be Black” and “our identity options are limitless.” Touré is very clear that “post-Black" does not mean “post-racial,” which “posits that race does not exist or that we are somehow beyond race and suggests colorblindness.”

CBBG investigates intersections of cultural heritage and racial/ethnic identity today.    The United States continues to grapple with the color-line, as described by W.E.B. DuBois as “the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” (The Souls of Black Folk, 1903) and CBBG responds to Americans’ need to explore this topic and opens up public space for racial justice dialogues.

- Sady Sullivan, CBBG Co-Director, 2011 

[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia

[2] Additional 14 states in 1952: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming