The theatre is one of the most powerful influences in the building up of morality. Upon its stage are presented in vivid colors and high relief the problems which are puzzling us in our daily life.
It is therefore a matter of great interest and importance when the theatre presents ably and graphically a gripping play which deals with a live problem in racial morality. But it will sometimes happen that while presenting a real moral problem or struggle between higher or lower sanctions of conduct, instead of holding the mirror up to nature, a play presents the reflection of some purely imaginary or legendary event.
An interesting illustration is a play now running with much interest and success which presents with great artistic ability and skill the tragic problem of a man apparently white, but with a slight and perhaps questionable strain of negro blood from some remote ancestor, who marries a white woman, only to have his secret and shadowy misfortune shouted to the whole world by the birth of a black child!
A Very Deeply Rooted Popular Delusion.
The motif, of course, is not new, any more than that of Shakespeare's most famous plays, but has been utilized to a vivid and harrowing effect in a score of different stories, novels and plays on both sides of the Atlantic under such titles as "The Black Frankenstein," "The Inescapable Blot," "The Dark Secret," etc.
Further than this we have all heard lurid and sensational stories, usually rather vague as to name, date and place, but most circumstantial and convincing in all other details of similar catastrophes. In fact, the belief that an apparently white man or woman, even one whose ancestors on both sides have passed for white for several generations, may at any time be suddenly confronted by his or her family skeleton in shape of a negro child, is as universally believed and well attested as William Tell's apple, George Washington's hatchet, madstones, centenarians and hoopsnakes.
I am not concerned with the general merits of the play, its bearing upon race prejudice, etc. The only point to which I wish to call attention is the fact that the episode upon which its whole appeal is based has never yet been known to happen. In fact, we are able to say that it is highly improbable that it ever could happen.
This may sound rather like a sweeping and dogmatic statement and it is, of course, impossible to establish a universal negative and deny the possibility of anything happening, but here are the facts:
Some five or six years ago a very careful and well-planned investigation was begun, in the Eugenics Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution, of the exact way and proportions in which racial characters were inherited when two distinct human races intermixed. The problem was purely a scientific one and undertaken very largely for the purpose of throwing light upon the now famous Mendelian theory of heredity, which deals with the way in which parental characters are combined and reappear in the offspring.
The mixtures between the negro and white races were selected, chiefly because the racial characters were so strikingly different and easily distinguished. Also because it was the only measure of the human which was accessible for study in large amounts, under civilized conditions, where reliable vital statistics could be secured. But chiefly because the well-known result in point of color, hair, features, etc., of the inter-breeding of white and negro races has been used as one of the strongest arguments in disproof of the Mendelian theory of inheritance. It had nothing to do with the question of miscegenation, or the desirability of the mixing of the races, merely a cold-blooded scientific desire to get at the facts of what actually happened when two diverse races were inter-mated. To avoid the possibility of misunderstandings and for other obvious reasons, the statistics were carried out not in the Unites States, but in some of the British West Indies - the Bermuda Islands.
The Mendelian theory, to put it very briefly and crudely, holds that in place of inheriting a "fifty-fifty" combination of the characteristics of both parents, and consequently representing a position half way between their two extremes, say, of color or height or mental ability, a child received them in most unequal and varying proportions, of ten twice as much from one parent as another and vice versa. Indeed, it undertakes to lay down a law which would govern the variations of these resemblance to father or mother; namely, that of any large body of offspring, one-fourth would closely resemble the mother in respect to the particular character, one-fourth the father, and one-half would present a nearly equal mixture of the traits, either resemble both parents or stand halfway between the two. This Mendel had worked out and corroborated by thousands of most ingenious and painstaking experiments in crossing various garden plants and flowers, notably the sweet pea, with astonishingly accurate results.
The Elements of Mendel's Law of Heredity
To make a long story short, the method has since been tried out upon a great variety of plants and domestic animals with the net result that while it is not accepted in its entirety by the scientific world, it is regarded as having given us a clearer idea, a closer picture of the actual mechanism of inheritance than we ever had before.
Just to give a single, simple illustration from the poultry yard, when a Black Spanish rooster is mated with a Silver Spangled Hamburg hen, one being a glossy, raven black and the other a beautifully mottled and spangled white-and-black, and fifty of the resulting eggs are hatched in an incubator, the chicks when feathered out were found to be not equal mixtures and mottling of white and black, but one-fourth of them glossy black like the father, one-fourth spangled like the mother, and one-half of them a beautiful slaty blue with black "trimmings".
These intermediate, slate-colored birds are known as Blue Andalusians, and, curious as it may seem, this beautiful and popular breed has to be produced afresh each generation in this same fashion, because by the farther working of the same ingenious law, if a pair of blue [ORIGINAL TYPE APPEARS CUT AWAY]
spring, instead of being all blue, like both parents, proceed to split up into a perfect kaleidoscope of different colors, again according to a definite rule of proportion, which are too complicated to be further followed. On the other hand, if you "play both hands against the middle," and mate one of the black chicks resembling the father with one of the white chicks resembling the mother, the same combination will repeat itself - 50 per cent of Blue Andalusians, 25 per cent Black Spanish, and 25 per cent Silver Spangled Hamburgs.
When we attempt to discover whether the Mendelian law applies to human species, we are, of course, cut off from the most valuable resource of all, the experimental method, partly because human life is so long that it would nearly a century to get the three successive generations required, and partly because unions between brother and sisters are not permitted by law and public sentiment. So that the best we can do is to take two races as widely apart as possible, and with some striking, singular difference between them, and find out what happens to this difference when those possessing it intermarry.
It is, of course, impossible to go into details, but after several years of careful study, of actual facts of race mixture in the Bermudas, Dr. Davenport, of the Eugenics Laboratory, came to the following working conclusions: That there are four factors or units required for the production of the full black negro color, of which the pure or "Guinea" Negro has all four, the three-quarter blood negro, that is half way between pure black and mulatto, [OBSCURED] three; the mulatto or half-breed [OBSCURED] quadroon one, the octaroon on[OBSCURED] while the white, of course, has none [OBSCURED] Of course, there are many difficulties in the way, questions of paternity among different children in the same family, questions of accurate birth registration and family history, but when the doubtful cases have been eliminated, it seems when a white or partially white man or woman has mated with a black or partially black mate, the children, instead of being all intermediate in point of color, vary widely in color between the extremes possessed by both parents. And whenever a sufficient number of families representing the same racial mixture could be secured to give fifty or more children, it was found that, roughly speaking, one-fourth would be as white as the whitest parent, one-fourth as dark as the darkest, and one-half of a varying mixture between the two.
Another feature, however, soon came to the front with great distinctness, and that is that while there might be wide variation in the color of the different offspring of one pair of parents, none of those offspring was ever found darker than the sum of the darknesses of the two parents. For instance, when a pure white man mated with a black woman, some of the offspring might be jet black, like the mother, some nearly a pure white, like the father, and the others intermediate, because there were present in the maternal parent four full factors of blackness, and consequently any child might inherit all four.