The relationship between this full brother and sister was guided by research into the practice of “passing for white.” Granddaddy Cooper, the father of both, faced a dilemma determining what was best for each child. His decision affirmed the only future available to Mr. Jefferson but provided the best possible opportunity for Grandma Em in the segregated South.
Given their individual characteristics, there were different paths open to each. Mr. Jefferson’s black heritage was clearly evident and limited his options. However, Grandma Em’s physical features opened doors to a different life. Their physical traits determined who they could be by dictating where they would be accepted. Grandma Em’s Black American heritage would cause problems for her if known in the white community; however, her Caucasian appearance could also cause problems in the black community from both racial groups.
These factors contributed to the decision to place Grandma Em with her older half-sister; however, it negated the effect it would have on Mr. Jefferson. When individuals decide to pass for white it results in a total separation from family. The loss is often great on both sides. For Grandma Em, as an infant, she didn’t understand; however, Mr. Jefferson grieved deeply for his only sister. Along with his despair was a great love. He wanted to be near her, to see her, but also to protect her. His willingness to suffer silently their entire life softened Grandma Em at the end. Allowing him to see her in the final days was her way of saying thank you for his life-long protection.
The decision ultimately made by Granddaddy Cooper around 1880 was an act of love for his daughter. Separating Mr. Jefferson and Grandma Em determined their individual futures not according to their racial heritage or societal rules but based on their apparent physical characteristics. A Chosen Exile, A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs discusses in depth the role physical appearance plays in determining one’s future. I invite you to read more about this hidden society and the difficulty it poses for the individuals and their families. It is a story of profound loss.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana