Somewhere, back in time, a little light-skinned (but still Black) girl finished the last page of Alex Haley’s epic Roots and thought to herself….”I wonder what my light-skinned roots are?” And Cane River was born.
Just as Roots was an exploration of how we as a family, a people, a force, maintained even the smallest piece of ourselves when stripped of our roots, Cane River is a one way ticket to escape those roots, or try at least. The author, Lalita Tademy, uses historical fiction just as Haley did in an exploration of her family tree, beginning with her great-great-great-great and great-great-great grandmothers, Elisabeth and Suzette. These are the last “regular” Black folk in Tademy’s family line, though she does make sure to mention that Gerasíme, Elisabeth’s husband and Tademy’s great-great-great-great grandfather, has some “Indian” blood in him. If you’ve ever met a thoroughly Black person who wanted to get as far away from their Black as their 4C hair and midnight skin would allow, you know it ain’t long before they claim some Native American ancestry. Though, I guess the news has shown me that I can’t relegate this desire to be Native to just Black folk. 🤷🏾♀️
Either way, it has historically been the easiest (and most unprovable, until DNA kits became popular) way to make yourself a little bit further from Black, even when your skin would betray you. This entire book reads of someone yearning to distance herself from that Blackness. Through several generations, at least as chronicled by Tademy, the women of this family made conscious decisions to reproduce with white men, live as close to that whiteness as possible, and embrace any aspect of their eye color, skin color, hair texture, nose size, or whatever other attribute that would remove them from the realm of Blackness and put them closer to the orbit of whiteness.
Tademy obviously researched and investigated her family extensively to write this book. However, I can’t tell if her research revealed the white-is-right attitude that she weaves into the fabric of the female characters in the book, or if she is projecting some of her own hangups about the way the generations of her family developed, leading into her own light complexion. I can’t figure out if the women passed down anything other than “white” features to their children. But, race and complexion are some of the most central characters of this story. One son decides to pass as white and move away. A matriarch is barred from marrying her lover due to her 1/4 Black heritage. The novel ends with an elderly matriarch of the family being “put” in her place by a store-owner who at first mistook her for white..and the only comfort she gets is being able to pass for white at the front of the bus.
Maybe that’s where Tademy comes out about what she perceived as the pursuit for whiteness in her family. You can try, and you can come close, but you will never be anything beyond what the strictures of our color-conscious society allow you to be….and that’s always gonna be Black.