'You don't have to look black to be black': The complex racial identity of a tiny Ohio town

In the remote Ohio town of East Jackson, which sits in the Appalachian foothills, residents have for decades identified as black – despite the fact they appear white. Tom Silverstone and Francisco Navas visit a place where residents’ racial lines have been blurred to invisibility
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With a lot of the people that live out here,
you probably wouldn’t take them to be black people.
You might not look black
but you got the black blood into you.
My name is Roberta Jeannette Oiler but I
go by Bert for a nickname.
I’ve lived here all my life.
On my job that I had worked at,
they took me to be white
and my best friend
she took me to be white.
She was shocked when I told her I’m not white.
I am black.
I am a black person.
And it was, ‘Well you’re not that,
you think you are’,
‘No I know I am, I was raised that way,
but I was also raised,
as Mom would say,
‘It doesn’t matter what colour your skin is
we all serve one God.’
Now as you know, this is my home.
Over here is my daughter’s home, Jessica.
Everybody else in here, we’re all kin
folks. That’s how this community got to be mixed
with white and black.
It was from the black children,
our children going out marrying white
and bringing them in.
A lot of them was as light as I am
but we still said we were black,
and then we
had some real dark ones but that’s OK.
They were black, we were black.
So that’s how this all got started.
My grandma, she was half
Turk [Native-American], half black.
My grandpa was a white man.
My mom registered me as black.
My mom was a … she wasn’t as fair
complected as I am.
She was a light tan brown.
My dad, he has German, Irish, white …
While his mother was a white woman.
His dad was a coloured man,
and then as I grew older and I got married
and I had my children, I registered
my children as black.
Most of them in this area goes as black.
We’ve got maybe two,
three families that consider
themselves being white, but the rest of
us in here, we consider ourselves being black.
You know this country is prejudiced,
always has been and it never will grow out of it.
I was in the service in ’66 and I circled,
‘black, Negro.’
He said,
‘You can’t circle that’, I said, ‘That’s what I am.’
Well, he kind of smiled and he said, ‘Circle this.’
I said, ‘OK, which meant Caucasian.’
I didn’t show my colour but I know what I
was and I’m not going to deny my race.
My mom raised me as Negro. Oh I had a lot of
people ask me say, ‘Why did your mom
raise you as a Negro?’
I said, ‘That’s what I am.’
They said, ‘Yeah but you don’t show it.’
They said, ‘There will come a time where whites won’t accept you and the Negroes won’t accept you.’
I said, I’ll wait it out.
It’s about all you can do.
Growing up I was always taught
that I was black.
I started into school and
didn’t really think much about it until
I got into the elementary,
I’m going to say around about third or fourth grade,
that’s when I started noticing the difference.
I started noticing I was
being taught that I was black
but I didn’t look black.
Other children didn’t
view me as black,
even some of those other kids made fun of me because, ‘Why are you saying you’re black when you’re white.’
It was until I reached about
junior high and then I realised I’m white.
That is what I am.
Yes, I know I was
raised black and was told I was a black,
but I am white.
What black person has blond hair, blue eyes
and fair complected and can hardly tan
besides burning?
I’m white.
You don’t have to look black to be black.
I know she don’t look black
but she has got black in her …
She’s right, she’s got a lot
of different kind in her
but I am her mother, I stand on the black.
She did not stand,
only for so long of a time she stood as for black.
When she got into
school, into Waverly school, she let the
people in Waverly change her thinking,
her feeling. I didn’t.
I still stood for what I was,
what my mother told me I was.
I didn’t care what I had to go through,
I still stood for it.
When I finally made
the decision to go as white,
I did feel guilty about it,
it did in a way break my heart …
It’s nothing against my family
and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like black
people or love black people or care for black people.
I do and like I told her, I
can’t be racist and I know that
and I would never want to be even if even if I
chose to be, I couldn’t.
I don’t want that for myself or for my children.
You’re never going to get to the top
of that mountain, I’m telling you.
The black blood in you
it’s going to stay there,
and whether you want to accept it or not
there is going to be people to pick it out of you,
whether you mention East Jackson or not.
I went to a doctor in Waverly
a couple good years back,
and on that application
it asked my race and I put black.
The woman come out
and said to me, how can you be black?
And I kind of stared at her
because she throwed me off.
She said, ‘I have never seen a black person, fair
complected, blue eyes, freckles and red hair.’
I said, ‘Well surprise, you see her now.’
And she wanted to change my race.
She was aiming on marking
out the black and putting white
and I told her, ‘Don’t you do
that, I know what I go by, I know what I am,
you leave it there.’
I will never ever, ever deny my race
for what my mother had brought me up
and raised me and had put me as.
I will always be that until the day I leave this earth.

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