Document Type


Publication Title

Common Knowledge

Publication Date

Fall 2013



Page Number



genealogy, race and law, discrimination, agency


Law | Law and Race


In 1927 a Radcliffe graduate student named Caroline Bond Day began researching her anthropology master’s thesis on mixed-race families in the United States. The subject had personal resonance for Day, who was a fixture of colored society in Atlanta and had a complexion that defied easy categorization. To gather data for her thesis, she wrote to dozens of men and women in her large circle of friends, among them civil rights leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, John Hope, and Walter White. She asked for exhaustive genealogies, with estimates of blood proportions— Negro, white, Indian—for each ancestor. She provided a detailed questionnaire about their physical features, from eye and skin color to the fullness of their lips. And she requested family portraits and locks of hair.

Day was capable of speaking about race with an almost absurd degree of scientific precision. One year earlier, the National Urban League had given her a prize for an autobiographical short story called “The Pink Hat,” about a young woman who discovers that one of her hats covers her hair and casts a rosy glow on her skin in such a way that most people at first glance think she is white. Near the beginning of the story, Day described the main character as “anthropologically speaking, a dominant of the white type of the F3 generation of secondary crossings.” But Day was also capable of using more accessible taxonomies. When she asked the research subjects of her thesis to describe the texture of their hair, she gave them a range of options. Was it straight? Wavy? Curly? Or was it something in between wavy and curly? That intermediate category was what Day called “frizzly.

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