In June, 1967, I walked across the quad of Howard University, a light-skinned, 19-year-old sophomore. It was Black Power days, when I was on fire to learn the black history America had largely ignored. On that wide walkway, I ran into a boy from class who broke into a toothy smile, stuck out his much darker hand and shook mine vigorously, laughing like he had no sense.

"Congratulations," he said.

"Congratulations for what?"

"For not being a bastard anymore."

"What are you talking about?" I said, snatching my hand away. "I was born legit."

"No you weren't," he said. The day before, the Supreme Court's decision in Loving v. Virginia had overturned laws in 16 states outlawing interracial marriage, and he assumed that this meant my parents' marriage was finally legal. In fact, my parents were married in New York, where their union was officially sanctioned, but the Loving decision was still a watershed — the start of a long journey to learn the truth about my mixed family's place in America's racial landscape.

Nearly 25 years before Loving, my parents married for love. To escape Indiana's anti-miscegenation laws, my mother staged her own disappearance, going underground to marry my father in New York. After she vanished, the FBI was called in to search for her, and finally pronounced her dead, likely the victim of foul play. Her family still believed her dead when Loving was won.

When my brothers and I were born in the 1940s, the federal census racial categories dictated who we were. We were biologically mixed blood, but it said NEGRO on our birth certificates, with no indication of our mother's whiteness. For over 50 years, on government and school forms, job applications, doctor's records, and the census, we dutifully checked the box that said Negro or Black. The facts of our births meant nothing to the Census Bureau. By the centuries-old One Drop Rule, one drop of black blood made us 100 percent Negro. The government said so.

However, in my private life, checking that box never shielded me from the parade of strangers who challenged my identity. It's the olive skin, light eyes, and soft curly hair that confuses them and starts a guessing game about my ethnicity. Thrown off, they ask "What are you?" like the gas station attendant who demanded to know if I was "Spanish, Eye-Talian, Injun, or Jewish." When I told him I was black, he whooped and jumped back from the car, then yelled across the pumps to another gas man. "Come 'ere and lookit this gal. She says she's black."

The author’s parents, Ella and Charles Jackson, on their 35th anniversary in 1978 | (E. Dolores Johnson/Courtesy Narratively)

Or the Egyptian cab driver who insisted I looked like his sister and needed to confess my Egyptian roots. Or the Puerto Ricans, Greeks, Berbers and Sicilians who talk to me in their tongues. Or the white colleague who was so incredulous when I explained why I don't try to pass for white that his face turned red. Or the house salesman in Louisiana who gushed over me until he understood I was black, and then slammed the office door and pulled the shade down.

Or the black people who call me high yellow, redbone, and half-breed. Or accuse me of thinking I'm better than them and enjoying near-white privilege. Some were discriminated against by light Negroes — refused from Negro bourgeois clubs or marriage to the lighter partners who could bleach their lines, because their skin was darker than a brown paper bag. Some thought that was my fault, although it was blacks with two black parents who exacted those criteria, wanting to protect whatever paper bag-brownness got them in white America.

This confusion has plagued me my entire life, and finally drove me to search the census records, to see how people like me have been counted through the years.

The Census Bureau says it is the leading source of data about the nation's people and economy, guided by "scientific objectivity," with data presented as statistical observation. But as I worked in a dark carrel of the National Archives outside Boston, cranking through wheels of census microfilm, I squinted through page after fuzzy page, and saw something different. From 1790 to present, the census has singled out, separated, and subdivided those who are black and brown. From its inception, the census has not just counted Americans, but has deliberately drawn a line between a monolithically labeled white category and the endlessly sliced and diced others, the not-white.

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