Jun 24, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 3

Black No More, White No More. 

We follow Harry's grandkids and great grandkids as they grapple with his legacy in their own lives. 

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, writer Cord Jefferson, WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, and WNYC's Jami Floyd. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. Featuring interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

The Vanishing of Harry Pace - Episode 3

JAD ABUMRAD: This is the - excuse me - The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB. I'm Jad Abumrad, here with...

SHIMA OLIAEE: I'm Shima A. Oliaee. Man, I jumped in too fast again.

JAD ABUMRAD: There's an A in there?

SHIMA OLIAEE: I jumped (laughter) in too fast.

JAD ABUMRAD: Anyhow, this is episode three - the last in the Harry Pace trilogy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And it's all about the gray space.

JAD ABUMRAD: Ooh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So...

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

SHIMA OLIAEE: On last week's episode...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

ACTOR: (As character) I'm white - white, white.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...We were left with this kind of uncomfortable question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

ACTOR: (As character) Are you Black?

ACTOR: (As character) No. I'm as white as you.

ACTOR: (As character) You're lying.

ACTOR: (As character) I'm not.

KIESE LAYMON: I'm just saying - my sense, when I heard this story, I thought the dude could be white. I was - I kept saying, wait, is he white?

'Cause that sounds like some white boy [expletive] - is he white? And, you know, Shima wouldn't tell me. But I'm like, he white. That's white - like, sorry, babe.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So Harry Pace vanishes by passing into white society. And then there's the question of what to make of it. Like, was he pressured into passing? Did he choose to? Was he actually white all along and passing for Black? And what does that even mean even?

KIESE LAYMON: And I love this notion of this possibly white guy who put on Black - not face but a Black persona to ultimately help liberate and free and get access to things for Black folks. I love that part of the story.

JAD ABUMRAD: Now, there's no way for us to get into his head because Harry didn't leave any journals or letters behind about this moment. All we really have are these two pictures. And so, like, inevitably what we ended up doing with our collaborators, Kiese Laymon and Imani Perry, was just, like, staring at these pictures and trying to read into them.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. I'm going to show you pictures of Harry Pace. Are you ready? I'm going to...

KIESE LAYMON: I'm ready.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Share my screen. I think it's pretty big. Can you see it?

KIESE LAYMON: Oh, wow. Whoa.

SHIMA OLIAEE: On the screen, there's a black-and-white photo of a very attractive man.

JAD ABUMRAD: Looks about, maybe, 18 - I don't know.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Broad shoulders, three-piece suit and a knowing grin on his face.

KIESE LAYMON: See? I would have claimed this brother right here (laughter). Oh, man. That was my first assumption. I was like, oh...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

KIESE LAYMON: ...I know this brother. I feel like I played ball with a version of this brother before.

JAD ABUMRAD: So what is it? Is it the hair?

IMANI PERRY: Yeah.

KIESE LAYMON: Fam - it's the part...

(LAUGHTER)

KIESE LAYMON: ...The part in the hair. It's the hairline.

(LAUGHTER)

SHIMA OLIAEE: His hair is kind of wavy.

KIESE LAYMON: And if you threw a mustache on him, you could not tell us he wasn't Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

KIESE LAYMON: Oh, my God. You throw a goatee on his brother, it's a wrap. Nobody's questioning.

SHIMA OLIAEE: OK. Let's go second picture. Thoughts? Older, older Harry Pace - probably the time when he was testifying.

KIESE LAYMON: Ooh.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is the picture...

ERIC PACE: That had been on our wall.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...That Harry's grandkids had on their wall - the one that Peter showed them the day he handed them each a packet.

ERIC PACE: And he says, do you all know who this man is?

SHIMA OLIAEE: We'll hear from them in a second. It's the one where he's in a pinstripe suit.

ERIC PACE: It's kind of the sepia tone.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And he looks weary and maybe a little lighter-skinned.

KIESE LAYMON: Now, see, this is the Harry Pace I imagined the whole time you were talking.

IMANI PERRY: I don't know what Kiese is talking about. He has wavy - this looks like a Black man to me. I don't know he's talking about. He looks like many...

JAD ABUMRAD: What is it?

IMANI PERRY: ...Black men I (laughter) know.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is scholar Imani Perry.

IMANI PERRY: And it sounds odd to say. It's sort of a weird thing to say when not talking to another, like, Black Southern (laughter) person. But, you know, there are Black people who are lighter than white people, like, who have - really have white complexions. It's not - so it's not even just appearance. Like, it's carriage. It's sound.

KIESE LAYMON: Wait, can I see the first one again?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Sure. Can you see it? Oh, no.

KIESE LAYMON: Wait, Eve.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Wait, what?

KIESE LAYMON: Eve, come here.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Kiese called to a friend who was in the room with him but off-screen.

KIESE LAYMON: Is that brother - is this brother right here - do you think that's a brother or is that a...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Who's?

EVE DUNBAR: He could be Black. Is he Latino?

KIESE LAYMON: He could be? She said, is he Latino?

(LAUGHTER)

KIESE LAYMON: I don't know, fam.

IMANI PERRY: Race is not something that is. It's something that happens. So the only way we know the answer is to see what (laughter) happens.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So in terms of Harry's story, this is what happens. After he dies, Harry's son, Harry Jr., he drops out of college and enlists in World War II as white. He then marries a white woman and moves into an all-white neighborhood. His kids attend a segregated school. Harry's daughter, Josephine, pledges an all-white sorority in college, marries a white man, raises her children in an all-white lake community.

It seems that Harry Jr. and Josephine together destroy any evidence that they are Black. That includes his legacy, his life and his memory. They hide the secret so well that even their kids had no idea who their father was. Basically, Harry's story dies in one generation.

PETER PACE: We knew very little about my father's family. Well, I don't know how far back you want to go. I'll try to make it brief.

JAD ABUMRAD: You don't have to edit if you want to. You can tell us the long version.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Yeah.

PETER PACE: Well, that's true. Yeah. I went to San Jose State and graduated in 1967. And this was at the height of the Vietnam War.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Peter Pace, grandson of Harry Pace.

PETER PACE: I was under indictment for about two years for the felony of draft refusal.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

PETER PACE: So I was pretty much unemployable. And rather than going to jail, I needed to get two-years' work in the public interest. I ended up getting a job working with emotionally disturbed kids. And I met a couple counselors there.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And they formed a band.

PETER PACE: The Shasta Band - and we got together, borrowed some amps and stuff and made some noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

PETER PACE: (Singing) Don't you hear the music, baby?

We started off being the Soylent Band because of the drummer. He had this fascination with "Soylent Green."

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God.

That's a reference, by the way, to an old film starring Charlton Heston.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOYLENT GREEN")

CHARLTON HESTON: (As Detective Thorn) Soylent green is people.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Did you sing in the band? Or what did you play?

PETER PACE: Yeah. I was primarily the singer. You know, they kind of saw me as being - having frontman potential at the time with my Afro.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Did you ever wonder why you had an Afro?

PETER PACE: No. When I was in the high school, you know, I really wanted to have a flattop.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

PETER PACE: That was the thing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, my gosh.

PETER PACE: But in the '60s, all of a sudden it was cool to have an Afro. And my hair did that. It got pretty big, so big that when I got in the car, I had to slump 'cause it would get flattened out on the...

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: No way.

PETER PACE: ...On the ceiling. I didn't really question it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But he says there were a couple moments.

PETER PACE: Once I was at a festival, and some guy came up to me. And he said, what are you? And I thought that was an odd thing for him to say to me. I said, what do you mean?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

PETER PACE: I mean, what are you? Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Weird.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, Peter really didn't say anything in that moment. He just went back to tuning his amp because in his mind there wasn't really a question. His family - they lived in Northern California.

PETER PACE: I brought some pictures.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, perfect.

And they were very white-bread.

PETER PACE: Christmas in Stockton.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

PETER PACE: This is a picture of the whole damn family. That's my father...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

PETER PACE: ...Sitting up there on the right.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry Jr., Harry Pace's son.

JAD ABUMRAD: In a buzz cut.

PETER PACE: And that's Jo's (ph) husband. That’s my mother sitting next to her. This is Aunt Jo.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Josephine, Harry's daughter.

PETER PACE: That's Gail my cousin.

JAD ABUMRAD: I've got to tell you, with all the retro glasses and buzz cuts...

PETER PACE: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...It has a sort of a - I hope this doesn't sound offensive, but kind of a "Leave It To Beaver" vibe.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes (laughter).

PETER PACE: I don't know why that would be offensive.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But again, there were moments.

PETER PACE: You know, actually, it's funny you would say that. And this is kind of an anecdotal thing, and it's kind of silly. Way back in the days when I was starting to play music...

SHIMA OLIAEE: He says, one night...

PETER PACE: I was practicing in my little house. For some reason, I looked down at my skin. And it was like a, whoosh (ph), kind of thing. All of a sudden, I'm looking at it, and I would think I was looking at a Black person.

JAD ABUMRAD: You're saying the skin on your hand looked Black to you?

PETER PACE: Yeah. I mean, it sounds silly, but it was distinct. I've got to tell you, I was probably - I was - think I was on LSD.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

SHIMA OLIAEE: And you were playing an instrument? Like, what - you were...

PETER PACE: I was just playing. And I just kind of looked down at my hands and my arm and everything, and I said, oh, my God. I've turned into a Black man (laughter). Like I said, it's silly. But it happened.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I love it.

Fast-forward to 2006...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...A very different time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNOUNCER: A website called thefacebook.com. Consider this site the 21st century version of the old, paperbound yearbook.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is when the internet really starts to go mainstream, genealogy sites are popping up. And after years of Italian mafia rumors about her husband's family, Peter's wife, Susan (ph), does this search on this website called Google. She searches: Harry Pace, Chicago lawyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CHIMING)

PETER PACE: And she thought maybe with the internet, she might be able to find something out. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER PACE: ...What came up was Harry Pace was the founder of the first African American record company.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME BLUES")

ETHEL WATERS: (Singing) Woke up this morning, the day was dawning...

PETER PACE: And she just kind thought, well, that can't be right.

SHIMA OLIAEE: A couple months later...

PETER PACE: We were visiting my sister in Santa Barbara. My wife kind of presented it with a giggle.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Like, oh, look what I found. Do you guys know that there's this other Harry Pace out there?

PETER PACE: Here, I'll show you. And she pulled it up on the laptop. And we're looking over her shoulder at it. And it gets into 1917, Harry Pace married Ethylene Bibb. Well, my sister - her middle name is Ethylene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER PACE: So at that moment, we all looked at each other and thought, whoa. It was mind-blowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER PACE: But we didn't know what to do with it. After we kind of got over the giddy aspect of it, you know, we were trying to decide what to do with this knowledge. And it was kind of discussed that maybe this would be hurtful to other members of the family and that we should be careful about disseminating it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Peter says they made the pact for many reasons, one of which was that there were still members of the family living in gated white communities.

PETER PACE: They were - yeah - with a restrictive covenant.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, what?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

PETER PACE: Blacks are not allowed in there - Lake Quivira (ph).

JAD ABUMRAD: Given that your grandfather tried to take down restrictive covenants, did it eat at you, like, after you made that decision to keep it quiet?

PETER PACE: That ate at me. Yeah, it did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: Peter told us that he kept thinking about events from his childhood.

PETER PACE: Did I dream this? But in the '50s and '60s, there was a dentist, professional man, and his family that tried to move into our neighborhood. There was a homeowner's association meeting in our house where they were talking about how the property values were going to plunge because this African American dentist and his family were moving into our neighborhood.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is in your house with your dad, Harry Pace's son, at the meeting?

PETER PACE: With my dad, yes.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.

The guy who tried to desegregate the neighborhood? His son tried to re-segregate it. And he thought about other memories.

PETER PACE: My youngest sister, when she was invited to go to the senior prom by an African American kid...

SUSAN PACE: The only Black boy in the school - he was very handsome, and he was a football player.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Peter's sister, Susan.

SUSAN PACE: So I was very excited, and I said yes. And...

PETER PACE: ...My father said absolutely not.

SUSAN PACE: ...He flipped out and made me cancel the date.

PETER PACE: My father forbid her.

JAD ABUMRAD: Susan, what was your reaction when you found out about your grandfather, Harry?

SUSAN PACE: It was like, oh, my God. You know, it was just like, I can't believe this has been kept from us. All these years I thought I was something else, and I'm something else. The next morning, I called my husband, and I was in tears. You know, I thought this was just going to be - you know, that my husband's going to leave me. He goes, honey, this man's incredible. So it was just confusing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Why did you think he was going to leave you?

SUSAN PACE: This was my own thoughts in my head. I didn't know how he would react because you have to understand - all of a sudden, my world was rocked. I'm just trying to figure it all out.

JAD ABUMRAD: Suppose you had known this all along. Do you think you'd have a different life as a result of knowing this one thing?

SUSAN PACE: Yes.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, wow.

SUSAN PACE: Yeah. I mean, I was born in 1953. And I do think we probably wouldn't have lived in the neighborhood that we lived in. I probably wouldn't have gone to the school that I went to. Life would have been different, yeah.

PETER PACE: I would like to think that my parents realized that they were doing this for us, you know, so that we would have the benefits of the privilege that comes with being raised white.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Without the burden of the lie.

PETER PACE: Yeah. When you pass, you have to learn how white people see Black people. You understand how white people feel to the extent that you hate Black people. You hate your own people. And I think my father had gotten to that point.

JAD ABUMRAD: And what changed for you that made it...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...So you didn't want to keep this a secret anymore?

PETER PACE: It was a mixed thing because the more we read about this man, the more remarkable he was. My grandfather, Harry Pace, as you know, was successful over and over again. And pretty soon, that kind of - for me personally - became the primary thing, that we kind of won the genetic lottery in a way.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, wow.

PETER PACE: I decided that secrets are toxic, you know, that we needed to share this with family members.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And so in the summer of 2006, Peter sends out a text to all of his kids.

ERIC PACE: And we got a message from my dad...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE NOTIFICATION CHIME)

ERIC PACE: ...Saying we have a mandatory family meeting. You guys need to leave work to come and talk to us. He didn't give us any other information. He said, nope, you've got to come to the family meeting, and I'll tell you everything.

JAD ABUMRAD: So this is how we started the series - with Eric Pace, Harry's great-grandson, driving three hours from his YMCA job to his childhood home in Redding, Calif., walking into the living room, seeing his whole family gathered there. And this is really where Eric's journey begins, which is an interesting mirror to Harry's. And that's after the break.

This is "The Vanishing Of Harry Pace," the miniseries on RADIOLAB. I'm Jad, here with Shima.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Hey.

JAD ABUMRAD: Let's get back to the story.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So picking up where we left off, Eric Pace, great-grandson of Harry Pace, gets a text from his dad, Peter, drives three hours, walks into the living room of his childhood home, where he discovers his family has already gathered.

ERIC PACE: My dad tells us to go sit in the living room. And we're not a very formal kind of family, and so that was strange. We're like, OK, this is getting weirder and weirder. And then he holds up a picture that had been on our wall our whole lives. And it was this picture of his grandfather. And he says, do you all know who this man is? And we said, yeah, that's your grandfather, Harry Pace.

PETER PACE: I think I told them - I said, you know how we've never really known anything about Grandfather Harry Pace? Well, we've discovered some interesting information about it.

ERIC PACE: Then he handed us the packet.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

ERIC PACE: It's about 10 pages long.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

ERIC PACE: And so we started waiting. And within, like, about 30 seconds, my sister - my older sister started - said out loud, oh, so does this mean that we're African American?

PETER PACE: I think my two daughters - they just kind of shrugged their shoulders and thought, yeah, is that it?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Which Eric says, for some reason, really set him off.

ERIC PACE: I was just so - I just - you know, it was so - I stood up, and I said, are we done here? And he's like, yeah. I'm kind of shocked that I reacted like this, but I literally was like, are we done? Like, I don't know why I got so angry. I kind of - like, they were like, Eric, come sit back down. We want to talk some more about this. And I actually left and was, like, fuming. I don't know why.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

ERIC PACE: I actually ended up jumping in my car and driving - just driving down the road.

JAD ABUMRAD: Where'd you go?

ERIC PACE: Down I-5 for, like, 50 miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river.

ERIC PACE: This whole family secret thing rubbed me the wrong way - that somebody would hide something about - something good about my family. There was definitely a quick understanding that there was some kind of racism in my family. And I was having some kind of crisis in my head.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He says he felt like something he didn't know he owned had been stolen from him and his dad.

ERIC PACE: I - my dad wanted to be a rock star. Imagine if he would have known about this. And then there was also a strange kind of feeling, like, well...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Does this explain me in some way?

ERIC PACE: I was obsessed with Sam Cooke. And I would just - I would just listen to him. I was obsessed with soul music, and I also was...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ERIC PACE (Rapping): OK to grind. OK to bomb (ph). OK to accumulate. I want it all.

ERIC PACE: I was in this hip-hop band. And I was in a hip-hop band with a white dude, I might add. It's kind of - you know, I felt like an appropriator leading up to this. And then afterwards, I was like, OK, maybe I'm not an appropriator. Maybe this obsession with Black culture and Black music is not so delusional.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Eric says he pulled off at a truck stop, read the packet one more time, then got in his car and drove back. On that drive back, he just felt kind of changed. You know, he was a 21-year-old kid feeling already uncomfortable in his own skin, as we all are when we are 21, and this just felt like an answer to something.

ERIC PACE: How I understood what this all meant was that I was now, like, officially Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ERIC PACE: It's kind of funny. I was, like, you know, bumping hip-hop music, bumping, like, Bob Marley and stuff. And I just felt like I was Black. I was, like, a cool African American now. I, like, went to the Black barbershop and got myself all...

JAD ABUMRAD: You went to the Black barbershop.

ERIC PACE: Right away.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.

SHIMA OLIAEE: What kind of haircut did you get?

ERIC PACE: I got a - what was called a lineup. And they were like - at first, they were like, what's this white boy doing in here getting a haircut? This is crazy. I told them all about the Harry Pace story, and they were like...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

ERIC PACE: They were like, for real? Like, what? They listened to the whole Harry Pace spiel, and they listened to me talk about how he had the first Black record company, and I showed them the Wikipedia page. They were like, cool. They were like - I was like, yeah. Black people totally approve of this transformation that I'm going through.

PETER PACE: It was a major change in his orientation.

ERIC PACE: When I made it back to college, I remember going up to some of my Black friends and being like, guess what. I'm Black. What's up, brother? You know, like...

PETER PACE: Some people found it interesting. Some people found it irritating.

ERIC PACE: It was really embarrassing in hindsight. It was stupid.

IMANI PERRY: Oh, baby. That's so sweet.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) You’re so kind!

IMANI PERRY: No. I just love it.

KIESE LAYMON: She's so generous. She makes me look like the [expletive]. But...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Our collaborators, Kiese Laymon and Imani Perry, predictably both had very different reactions to this moment.

IMANI PERRY: I don't know. I was just moved by that. I'm generally moved by young people feeling excited about learning something about themselves.

KIESE LAYMON: I like listening to people be happy, you know what I mean? And...

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

KIESE LAYMON: ...Maybe, I don't know, is Blackness this, like, one thing you can get injected with, and then you're like, hey, I do - this is why I like Bob Marley? And I'm not sure Blackness operates the way the younger Pace assumes it does.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Kiese's point is that you can't just take the good stuff or what you assume to be the good stuff about being Black without also acknowledging that that stuff came out of hundreds of years of violence and racism.

KIESE LAYMON: And the fact that that doesn't ever come up in this conversation then makes me feel like, you know, this character is dipping into a Black, like, grab bag of stuff. But it's only, like, the good candies, you know? There's no [expletive] peppermints. There's no goddamn whack-ass butterscotches. It's, like, all Snickers.

(LAUGHTER)

KIESE LAYMON: You know what I'm saying?

IMANI PERRY: I get that. Well, I guess for me, that's the remains-to-be-seen question, right? Do you know what I mean? Like, so he finds out. Then what does he do with it? To me, the question is, OK, so now what do you take this to mean?

KIESE LAYMON: That's true. That's true.

SHIMA OLIAEE: One of the things that kept coming up in our conversations with them and also with Eric and Peter, his dad, is the idea of the one-drop rule.

PETER PACE: It was almost like he took it to heart that the one drop meant that he was African American.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, the one-drop rule was the legal definition for race throughout the 20th century. One of the most famous examples was a man by the name of Homer Plessy, who looked about as white as Eric and had roughly the same amount of, quote, unquote, "Black blood" in him as Eric.

IMANI PERRY: Grandparent is quarter.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Then eighth, so...

IMANI PERRY: Great-grandparent is eighth. Great-great-grandparent, sixteenth...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

Eighteen-ninety two, he goes into a whites-only railroad car, sits down, announces to the conductor that he's Black. He gets kicked out. He sues the company. Case goes to the Supreme Court. And one of the big questions, not so much in the case, but looming over the case, was, if you are America, and you are obsessed with separating these two races, what do you do with a guy like Homer Plessy, who looks white, but says he's Black? You could ask this same question about Harry Pace. And the ultimate solution was the one-drop rule, which is you are legally Black if you have even one drop of African ancestry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, this can all sound like a bunch of bull**** that doesn't matter anymore. But this legal definition, according to Kiese and Imani, has seeped into our thinking in ways that are still very much with us.

IMANI PERRY: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

KIESE LAYMON: You know, growing up in Mississippi, we were always taught, whether it's right or not, that one drop could mean you were contaminated to white people and whiteness. But on the flip side, we were also taught that one drop could mean that you were, like, someone who was going to be not just potentially, like, loving of us, but one of us.

IMANI PERRY: So the one-drop rule - absolutely its origin is in racism and the idea that whiteness must be pure. But what Black people did with it was to create a kind of collective identity.

KIESE LAYMON: So I just think it's interesting the way the one drop - on one hand, it's a contaminant. On another hand, it's, like, an entryway into a community.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And that's exactly how Eric took it.

ERIC PACE: Like, whoa, I'm in the club. I'm part of the African American experience. Like, this is amazing, you know?

SHIMA OLIAEE: For seven years, Eric openly called himself a Black man.

ERIC PACE: I was full of attitude. I was like, I'm going to piss off my family. Like, there's going to be no more secrets anymore. Like...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Which led to a lot of fights.

PETER PACE: Unfortunately, it kind of put Eric a little bit out of the fold as far as the family's concerned.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then things shift one more time. In 2013, he meets a woman named Candace (ph).

CANDACE EDWARDS: Candace Edwards (ph) from Trinidad and Tobago. I am an ex-national team...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPORTS BROADCASTER: Candace Edwards.

CANDACE EDWARDS: ...Soccer player.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

CANDACE EDWARDS: I met Eric Pace (laughter) at a concert.

ERIC PACE: It was Third World.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Third World, yeah.

ERIC PACE: They're, like, an '80s famous reggae band.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She said she liked his sense of humor.

CANDACE EDWARDS: The rest was history.

(LAUGHTER)

SHIMA OLIAEE: They end up getting married in Vegas. And ultimately, they fly to Trinidad and Tobago to meet her family. And there, Eric recalls this one night.

CANDACE EDWARDS: We went to a soccer game.

ERIC PACE: They call it a sweat. Like, a soccer practice.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He was sitting in the parking lot near the field...

ERIC PACE: It's nighttime.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Listening to Candace and the team play in the distance. And while he waited...

ERIC PACE: I was writing lyrics.

(Rapping) I don't know what this life means, but if the light's green, I go past like lightning. I hit the button, the virus, Miley Cyrus. I'm the highest. Multiply it by the nicest. You're stuck up, I get my bags of rice up.

I was kind of trying to feel the environment and kind of get some inspiration from my surroundings. And all of a sudden, I noticed movement to my left. And I see a little boy standing in front of me. He was a short little guy. And he just looks at me for a second, and just says, hey, white man...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ERIC PACE: ...(Laughter) Your girl just wants you to know that she's going to be 15 more minutes.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He said there was something about the way the kids said it.

ERIC PACE: It was just his confidence, that he walked right up to me and was like, hey, white man. This is totally appropriate to say to this guy that I don't know.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The casual certainty of it. You are white, so I will call you white man. He says that moment snapped him out of his one-drop dream.

White man (laughter).

CANDACE EDWARDS: White man. I guess you just have to go with it.

ERIC PACE: That just put everything into perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IMANI PERRY: So what's interesting to me about that is that in Trinidad, he would have always been white. So they didn't have a one-drop rule. Phenotype is what defines race in Trinidad and Tobago.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Meaning how you look - skin color, facial features, hair. It's not about blood.

IMANI PERRY: Like, the debate doesn't exist in Trinidad in the same way.

CANDACE EDWARDS: I mean, in America, if somebody was to refer to me as a sweet darky, then that would probably be, like, a headline or, you know, a talk. But in T&T, they call you a sweet darky. That's fine...

ERIC PACE: Yeah.

CANDACE EDWARDS: ...There.

JAD ABUMRAD: Because you have dark skin.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Dark skin - I'm chocolate.

ERIC PACE: You can't do that in America.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Yeah, you can't.

ERIC PACE: You can't do that. It has a totally different connotation in America.

CANDACE EDWARDS: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Point is, the entire frame of reference was different. And maybe it was that or the fact that he was in a place where he was a minority for the first time, but it just hit him different in this moment.

ERIC PACE: Didn't matter what I thought. There was no possible way that I could ever kind of, like, convince these people that I am any way connected with them. It was almost like a delusion in my head.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He says sitting in that car - again, the car...

ERIC PACE: I just had another identity crisis, where I felt like, wow, I don't feel like I've lived a upbringing in the Black world that qualifies me to claim that I'm Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And so at this point - and this might be the ultimate answer to Imani's question...

IMANI PERRY: OK, so now what do you take this to mean?

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Eric decided he just needed to learn more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ERIC PACE: I've found that it's all worth studying and it's all worth understanding.

SHIMA OLIAEE: About history, about W.E.B. Du Bois, W.C. Handy, Ethel Waters - and he dedicated himself to making a documentary about his great-grandpa Harry Pace.

Meanwhile, Eric and Candace...

ERIC PACE: Actually, we started Pace and Candy Record Company.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh you're wearing the shirts. That's cool.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

They started a music group, as a homage to Handy and Pace.

CANDACE EDWARDS: We both make the beats together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "45")

THE PACES: (Singing) You have nothing to do within a week. You have nothing to do within a week.

CANDACE EDWARDS: We call it psychedelic soca.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "26")

THE PACES: (Vocalizing).

CANDACE EDWARDS: (Laughter) That's what we call it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "26")

THE PACES: (Singing) Only he knows what. The vessels go.

JAD ABUMRAD: Their music is actually surprisingly experimental and interesting. I don't think Harry Pace would have liked it.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Harry was an opera guy (laughter). You know, like...

JAD ABUMRAD: Not a synth guy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Well, we want to close with one more digression. In talking with Imani...

IMANI PERRY: Yeah, I was like...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...The idea came up that that thing that Eric experienced in the car - shifting how he sees his relationship to race, waking up from the one-drop rule - Imani says that America might be in the beginning stages of that same kind of shift.

IMANI PERRY: You know, what he experienced in the barbershop - that's my experience generationally of Black culture. It's like, OK, yeah, come on in. You're one of us, right? But, like, you know, young millennials and Generation Z - they were like, first of all, you don't look Black. You don't experience Blackness in the same way. You just found - I mean, it's just a very - it's a different moment.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Why?

IMANI PERRY: I think something has happened where the sense of what Blackness is is very - it's almost overdetermined by the encounter with state violence. So it's like if you don't experience this sort of racialization when people look at you or how they treat you, that that's the outer limit of Blackness.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She says that a lot of people are starting to talk about the, quote, unquote, "Latin Americanization of race in America." Apparently in a lot of Latin American countries - and I guess this is also true of Trinidad and Tobago - they see race as about phenotype - how you look, how you're perceived. And as an example of maybe where we're headed, Imani mentioned Brazil.

IMANI PERRY: Yeah, it's wild.

CORD JEFFERSON: When I went to Brazil, Brazil was the first time I'd ever been in a country where just, like, everybody looked like me. Like, I sort of - I felt at ease and sort of, like, at peace in a way that - it's just a contentment that I had never felt before about the way that I looked.

JAD ABUMRAD: This is screenwriter Cord Jefferson. He also worked with us on the project. And if you recall, we began the whole series with that memory of his of standing at the mirror with his white mother and his Black father, looking at the reflections and asking...

CORD JEFFERSON: What am I? And I neither looked entirely like my mother nor entirely like my father. What am I?

SHIMA OLIAEE: He says Brazil was eye-opening on many levels, and he ended up writing an article about it.

CORD JEFFERSON: Brazil - in 1976, Brazil's census, the national household census - last question on the census asked people what color they were. And they got 136 different responses.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. So 136 different racial categories essentially.

CORD JEFFERSON: Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He read us a bunch.

CORD JEFFERSON: Acastanhada - somewhat chestnut-colored; alva - snowy white; alva escura - dark snowy white; alvarinto (ph) - kind of blonde; alva rosada - pinkish white; amorenada - somewhat dark-skinned; avermelhada - reddish; azul - blue; bem morena - very dark-skinned; bem branca - very white; branca-avermelhada - white going on for red; branca-melada - honey-colored white; branca-morena - white but dark-skinned.

(LAUGHTER)

CORD JEFFERSON: That one's amazing. Bronzeada - sun-tanned; bugrezinha-escura - dark-skinned India; cor-de-canela - cinnamon-colored; cor-de-cuia - gourd-colored.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, my God. We're only in the Cs.

CORD JEFFERSON: Cabocla - copper-colored; cor-de-cafe - coffee-colored; canela - cinnamon; cafe au lait - coffee with milk; cor-de-ouro - gold-colored; cor-de-rosa - pink; meio-amarela - half yellow; meio-branca - half white; meio-morena - half dark-skinned; meio-preta - half Black; melada - honey-colored; mestica - half-caste, mestiza; parda-clara - light brown; parda-morena - brown morena; parda-preta - Black-brown; polaca - Polish women, Polish woman. Polaca - polish woman - translation of Polish, which means someone very white. Pouco-clara - not very light; pouco-morena - not very dark-complexioned; pretinha - Black, either young or small; puxa-para-branco - somewhat toward white.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter) Sorry - it's a moving color.

CORD JEFFERSON: I know, right? - somewhat toward white.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's moving towards whiteness.

JAD ABUMRAD: I guess the question is, if, as you say, younger Americans are Latin Americanizing their idea of race - this is more of a thought experiment than anything, but, like, if America ends up going the direction of Brazil, with all of these many racial categories that designate the sort of middle spaces, is that a better world?

IMANI PERRY: No. No, absolutely not a better world. And in having been to Brazil - right? - and you see children killed by death squads, Black children begging everywhere you go on the street, it's clear that in Brazil, the darker you are, the more oppressed you are, which is true in much of Latin America.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Imani's sense is, before we splinter off into all these different categories, maybe let's first try and address the mistakes of the past, which gets harder to do the more we splinter.

CORD JEFFERSON: So Brazil is trying right now to figure out how to compensate people who have experienced racism in that country.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, wow.

CORD JEFFERSON: And the problem they're having is who's white and who's Black.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

CORD JEFFERSON: And so they have tribunals where they're literally measuring people's nose width and, like, testing and measuring...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Crazy.

CORD JEFFERSON: ...And, like, true, like, phrenology stuff. Like, bring out the calipers. We're measuring skull shape and nose width to see who's...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, no.

CORD JEFFERSON: ...Black and who's white, which is, like, a whole ‘nother, like, sort of, like, mess on their hands, right?

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, whoa.

CORD JEFFERSON: It's just, like, a really....

IMANI PERRY: So, you know, it's complicated. But we can't be romantic about any of it. I think that's the thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: All right, Shima.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: In the end, what I'm left with at the end of this Harry Pace trilogy is just a feeling of like - these categories, these little boxes on the census form that I guess divide and also bring people together - what I'm left with is the loneliness when you don't have a box, when you're between boxes. Some people have asked us, actually, why are you guys, you two Middle Easterners, telling this story. And I think most of all it's because we connect with that loneliness.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we've both gotten that question...

PETER PACE: What are you?

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Our whole lives.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

PETER PACE: I mean, what are you?

SHIMA OLIAEE: There's something about people not being able to know quite where you're from when they look at you that allows you movement but also never, like, a safe home.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. That's actually something I want to say, picking up on your word movement. I really do believe that the act of trying to move out of your head and get into somebody else's, see how they answer that question - like, to try and see that person's humanity regardless of the choices they have made in their life, whether we're talking about a white family living in an all-white neighborhood or a Black man a hundred years ago trying to make change and encountering something horrible - like, trying to see the world through that person's eyes, I think that's the work. That's the deepest work we can do as journalists. And I'll always hold to that. But, you know, we're just a two-person team. It's not something anyone can do by themselves. And we had a lot of help.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is when Trixie (ph) comes and brings the lemonade and says, oh, oh wee (ph), let's sing another.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter) That's a good idea. We should wave in that tape.

JOHN WORTHAM: (Singing) In the cotton fields of Dixie is a dear old Southern home where the mockingbirds - oh, get that flossy - and moonlight love to sing, in the land where cotton is king.

That's what this was for. And then, Aunt Madge would bring some lemonade. Here y'all go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHIMA OLIAEE: The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created by Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee and is presented as a collaboration between Awesome Audio, RADIOLAB and Radio Diaries. The series is based on the book "Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise And Brutal Fall Of America's First Black-Owned Record Label" by Paul Slade.

JAD ABUMRAD: Our editorial advisors are Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Cord Jefferson and Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer. Our fact-checker is Natalie Meade. Series artwork was created by Katia Herrera. Special thanks to Nellie Gilles, Ben Shapiro, Deborah George and Joe Richman.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This concludes our trilogy on Harry Pace. But the series is not done yet.

JAD ABUMRAD: No. We have many more episodes coming to you in the next little while.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes. More on that in just, like, four or five days.

JAD ABUMRAD: Not even, I think, actually.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. Anyhow, thank you for listening. We'll catch you in the next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SINGER: (Singing) ...That man…

 

Copyright © 2021 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.