By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
President Warren Harding
The rumors surfaced again with renewed vigor when Barack Obama emerged on the American political scene. In fact, the New York Times commissioned Beverly Gage, a well-regarded professor of modern American history from Yale University, to write a piece on Harding’s alleged hidden black heritage.
Writing in the New York Times of April 6, 2008 under the title “Our first black president?” Gage concluded that: “[…] many biographers have dismissed the rumors of Harding’s mixed-race family as little more than a political scandal and Chancellor himself as a Democratic mudslinger and racist ideologue. But as with the long-denied and now all-but-proved allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings, there is reason to question the denials. From the perspective of 2008, when interracial sex is seen as a historical fact of life instead of an abomination, the circumstantial case for Harding’s mixed-race ancestry is intriguing though not definitive.”
This cautious admission of President Harding’s “black” parentage says a lot, especially coming from a white historian from an Ivy League university.
President Calvin Coolidge was elected vice president and succeeded as the 30th President of the United States when President Harding died in 1923 while on a speaking tour in California. If Harding is the most probable past American president with a black African ancestry, Coolidge is perhaps the least probable.
However, many African-American historians think otherwise. Auset Bakhufu, author of Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA, claims that Coolidge was, in fact, proud of his African ancestry, a highly implausible proposition given the dishonor in which blackness was held in 1930s America. Bakhufu claims that Coolidge’s mother was “dark” but that he explained away the darkness of his mother’s skin by attributing it to the fact of her mixed Indian heritage.
Bakhufu then relies on this alleged explanation to assert that at the time Coolidge’s mother was born in New England, the American Indians there had all been intermarried with black people. This interpretive leap stretches my credulity to the limit. It is not clear to me how a person can simultaneously be proud of his ancestry and strain hard to explain it away, thereby denying it outright.
Black American conspiracy theorists also claim that Coolidge’s mother’s maiden name was “Moor” and that Moor used to be the generic name for all black people, especially in Europe. That is wholly inaccurate. The only people Europeans called Moors were North Africans, who aren’t black. Well, even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Moor referred to black, then white people whose last name is Black (and they are many) must be part African too!
Dwight David Eisenhower
The evidence proffered to support claims of the African ancestry of Dwight David Eisenhower, America’s 34th president who served between 1953 and 1961, is also weak and speculative. Black American historians allege that Eisenhower’s mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover, was part black and part white, which makes her— and all her descendants— “black,” according to America’s unique racial typology.
But what is the evidence that Eisenhower, whose official biography says he was an American of German descent, was “black”? According to one conspiracy theorist, “Interviews made during the 50s uncovered some very old people who long remembered referring to Eisenhower's mother as ‘that black Links gal’.”
Another piece of “evidence” is the picture of Eisenhower’s mother on her wedding day published in his autobiography. Someone claimed the woman “would not have been able to eat in restaurants anywhere in the South before the end of segregation.” Well, I saw the picture myself and the woman looked lily-white, as Americans like to say.
Of course, in my studies of American presidential rhetoric, I discovered that Eisenhower was more obliging to African-Americans than many past American presidents. He was, for instance, the first president to deploy federal force to desegregate schools in the South. He was also the first president to invite African-American leaders to the White House, and the first to appoint a black person into an executive position in the White House.
But it’s not a persuasive argument to assert that a president’s complaisance to a historically oppressed people is an outward manifestation of his suppressed genetic relationship to the group.
But why should it matter if any past American president was part African? Why should this interest us in an age when scientists, scholars, and DNA analyses continue to explode the myth of racial exclusivity? Well, it is partly because while these progressive developments are taking place, we are also witnessing what appears like the recrudescence of nineteenth-century scientific racism on the fringes. But that’s a topic for another day.
Another reason why this is important is that America is a nation that is heavily invested in racial symbolisms. It will elevate the sense of self-worth of African-Americans if they can convince themselves (even if they can’t convince others) that some past American presidents share an ancestral linkage with them.
I also think it’s a creative inversion of the logic of one-drop rule. Most so-called black Americans are not simply African; they are an embodiment of a multiplicity of racial identities. They are “black” only because a racist power structure pronounced them so. As Langston Hughes, the eminent “African” American poet, once wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore, black. I am brown."
However, even though in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally invalidated the one-drop rule, it continues to be employed in self-definition and the definition of others.