The remarkable story of Robin Cloud’s family is one that gets to the heart of one of the deepest wounds in American society: racism. Cloud, a comedian, author and film director who recently spoke with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer for his podcast “Scheer Intelligence,” comes from a sizable black family with roots in South Carolina dating back to the age of American slavery. She can trace her ancestors back to both slaves and slave owners, a history that is known and shared by the many members of the Ragin-Watson family that come together once a year for a family reunion.
But for years, a branch of Cloud’s family, known as the “Nebraska cousins,” was missing from all the photos of their annual get-together. What Cloud comes to uncover about her family is the subject of her 6-part documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” The film, which you can watch the first episode of below or on Topic.com, follows the comedian’s reencounters with family members who descended from a cousin and her husband, both of whom were black, who decided to pass as white when they moved to Nebraska. The reason behind their decision to pass was like that of many others who have in the past and present: access to better jobs, housing and a life exempt from the often deadly racism that pervades every aspect of American life. From that point on, their dozens of kids and grandkids, grew up believing they were white, despite sometimes being questioned by others about certain features, and even wondering themselves whether they had other roots.
The film, which gives an honest, often uncomfortable look into Cloud’s reacquaintance with her family, does not paint an idyllic picture of reunion. In fact, it goes to show just how stubbornly some people will hold on to white privilege despite clear evidence of their ancestry.
“Imagine seeing a picture of your grandmother at a black family reunion,” Cloud tells the Truthdig Editor in Chief, “and still not believing that it’s true. Like, that’s how deep this issue is that [we’re] talking about, about white people not wanting to deal with race.”
The denial is one that can be seen in American society at large, and, as Scheer points out, can be traced to our political troubles to this very day.
“Your film really deals with an up-to-the-minute issue,” the journalist tells Cloud on his podcast. “This is not ancient history. And the reason it’s not ancient history is that racism survives precisely because it’s good for demagogues. And it’s a way of explaining away other contradictions in the society.
“I love this quote from you: ‘Culture almost outweighs blood,’” Scheer continues. “And what it’s really saying is an illusion outweighs reality.”
The inability or lack of desire to examine the contradictions that our own blood can carry is illustrated in a poignant moment between Cloud and some of her young cousins in Omaha. When the film director asks her relatives if she thinks this knowledge will change their relationship to or views of black people, the two shake their heads, with one answering that he essentially doesn’t see race. Cloud highlights her discomfort in the narration as well as to her cousins, telling them that in “this political climate” it’s impossible for her to ignore race and racism.
Listen to the full discussion between Cloud and Scheer as the two talk about the film and how it relates to both the painful history and current events that many Americans refuse to face.