Former Spokane, Washington NAACP President Nkechi Diallo, previously Rachel Dolezal, has been in the news for being charged, and pleading not guilty, for welfare fraud and perjury. As a student of race and culture I see her story as another dimension in the discussion on racial identity and required more attention than the aspersions directed at her that were most common in the news. Seeing her autobiography In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World I decided to invest the time to learn more about Miss Diallo.
The subject of biological racial identity is an often-discussed topic today. Whether it is federal census tracking, employment applications or DNA testing, racial identification is changing the social politics in dramatic ways. The history of racial classification and identity has a much more sordid history than many people realize.
The histories of eugenics, forced sterilization, sexual exploitation and racial preference all are subtext to the story of racial identification. If Nkecki Diallo’s story does nothing else, it concentrates our attention on the opposite of the story of people passing as white. I found her story compelling and I came away without any animosity or feelings of betrayal for her position.
Nkechi Diallo was born to Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal in 1977 in a Tee Pee. Her parents became disillusioned with city life and moved she and her brother (Josh) to Montana to get away from the vices of city life. Diallo describes her childhood as repressive with constant applications of corporal punishment and very little time outside of maintaining a wilderness lifestyle of cleaning and farming.
There was very little reading material in the house they built, except for National Geographic and Sports Illustrated magazines, which her father didn’t see as subversive and Diallo was able to see pictures of Africans and African American sports figures without the fear of being reprimanded. She says she use to imitate the pictures of Africans by putting mud on her face. Her autobiography has a series of pictures of which one is of her brother holding Diallo. The picture is presented to show that there is a distinct difference in skin color between the two with Diallo noticeably darker.
When her parents began having financial problems they decided to adopt orphaned children. Because white children were in short supply, they resigned themselves to adopting 4 Black children, 3 boys and 1 girl, to receive the stipends for their care. Diallo, still a child herself, was tasked with provided for their care, with little help from her parents. As a result, she developed a very close bond with these children that can easily be described as maternal.
Throughout the book Diallo describes her affinity to identify herself as African American as something that felt natural but that she was often conflicted about her feelings because of her parentage. A picture of her birth certificate does not identify any racial category but because she wore her hair in braids and dressed in African prints, she was constantly asked what her racial classification was. She says if people assumed she was Black, she didn’t correct them.
Diallo fulfilled her dream to attend Howard University, where she graduated with honors. She went on to teach black studies curricula at the university level and lead several racial and social justice initiates around the country. Throughout the book Diallo references Black historical figures (Sojourner Truth) and scholars (Na’im Akbar) to prove her authenticity as a person worthy of her chosen racial identity. Diallo says that “Black is the closest descriptive category that represents who I am.”
A Netflix documentary “The Rachel Divide” premiered on April 27th. It is billed as an in-depth look at Diallo’s life and her decision to identify as “trans black,” As a matter of context readers should read about the life of Clarence King. Born in 1842 King, a white man, was a noted geologist and the first director of the United State Geological Survey. He also passed as a Black man who worked as a Pullman porter (you had to be Black to be a Pullman porter) while married to a Black woman. His story is told in the book “Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line” by Martha A. Sandweiss.