Where do they come from?



One of the main conversations in Talk That Music Talk is around race and music. This lesson is designed to be able to prepare students to participate in the experiences that the activists and musicians share with them. Physical anthropologist Ashley Montague called race “man’s most dangerous myth.” Critical studies of race show that the categories of “white” and “black” are not based in biology, but were created by European societies in the 1700s to justify colonialism and slavery. Separation continued with the Supreme Court case Plessy V. Ferguson, which legalized segregation. This lesson teaches students to recognize that although people use these terms to identify themselves and others, they are not fixed identities, and are based on a foundation of inequity.

High school yearbook for John McDonogh Senior High in the late 1960s after the white school was desegregated in 1967. The pictures show the diversity of students who came from the Sixth and Seventh Ward neighborhoods. By the early 1970s, almost all the white students had left. John Mac remained 98% African American until it closed a few years after Hurricane Katrina.




•  Students will understand the relatively recent rise of the use of racial categories.

•  Students will deconstruct the “common sense” of these categories.

•  Students will become familiar with the Harlan dissent and consider how Jim Crow segregation laws were enforced.

•  Students will examine the lived experiences of multiple people during an era of inequality as a precursor to Civil Rights organizing.



Between two-three 50 minute class periods, depending on the length of discussions and presentations from students.



•  An open mind

•  Handout of Harlan Dissent

•  Handout of Questions and Decisions


Race can be a difficult topic to talk about for both teachers and students. Entire courses are taught on it. The nightly news and day-to-day conversations go on about it. Everyone has had to make decisions around the classifications. Most people have painful experiences and are often left with a lot of questions. Despite the difficulty, students report that the conversations they have with their peers about race are some of the most important experiences in their education, and have helped them be more open-minded in all aspects of their lives. These lesson plans are designed to help teachers lead a critical discussion on the history and contemporary experiences.

STEP 1:  Begin by acknowledging that race is a difficult topic to talk about, and the goal of the lesson will be to build up trust and respect with everyone in the classroom. Part of the reason race is difficult to discuss is because we often don’t look at the assumptions about it. It seems like “common sense.” But what is it? When we look deeper, what seems straightforward becomes fuzzy.


• Ask students what the categories of race are and what the physical characteristics are for each category. Write their answers on the board.

• Ask students whether these terms are biological. You don’t have to correct them. At this point in the lesson, they should just take inventory on what they have been thinking about it.

• Is one category seen as better than others? Do you have any evidence of why or why not? Again, the point here is to let them become aware of their assumptions.

• Does anyone know how long we have been using these terms and/or where hey come from? Given them a chance to reflect on whether there was a time when race wasn’t seen as a way of classifying people.

STEP 2:  Explain that the idea of race developed in the early 1700s. What else was going on around the world during this time? European colonialsim, trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Enlightenment. In Invitation to Anthropology, Luke Eric Lassiter (2002: 28) shares an example of how the founder of modern taxonomy, Charles Linneaus, classified people:

Homo sapiens europaceus (white): white, serious, strong. Hair blond, flowing. Eyes blue. Active, very smart, inventive. Covered by tight clothing. Ruled by law.

Homo sapiens asiasticus (yellow): Yellow, melancholy, greedy. Hair black. Eyes dark. Severe, haughty, desirious. Covered by loose garments. Ruled by opinion.

Homo sapiens americanus (red): Red, ill-tempered subjugated. Hair black, straight, thick. Nostrils wide. Face harsh, beard scanty. Obstinate, contented, free. Paints himself with red lines. Ruled by customs.

Homo sapiens afer (black): black, impassive, lazy. Hair kinked. Skin silly. Nose flat. Lips thick. Women with genital flap, breasts large. Crafty, slow, foolish, Anoints himself with greese. Ruled by caprice.

STEP 3:  Ask students what they think about these terms that separated people into different categories.

• Are these neutral categories? No, they are hiearchical.

• How do they relate to the anthropological understanding of ethnocentrism that they learned about in the first lesson? The invention of race is an extreme form of ethnocentrism, developed during a time when many European powers were justifying conquest and mass slavery.

• What happens when people in the category of “white” have more power? How will they make decisions if they are taught to believe these terms? Scientists have long disproven race a biological category. The categorieis are subjective and arbitrary. As Lassister has written, “The history of human races…shows us a mankind that is always on the move.….no one human group has ever stayed put or been isolated enough to create a separate population that would be able to be considered a subspecies or race” (Lassiter 2002: 24)

STEP 4:  Have the students “deconstruct” how race is organized. Of course, physical differences exist, but the relationship between these differences do not match up. Skin, hair, eye color are mixed up. Depending on what biological characteristics we focus on, we’ll end up with different categories.

Skin tone varies from very light to very dark. How do we draw lines? People from the Mediterranean often share a skin tone similar to those from Northern Africa, but they are often put into different categories of “white” and “black.” In addition, the categories themselves are not stable. In the U.S. we have a “dual-race” system that

some people call the “one drop rule.” At one point, if you were of 1/32nd African heritage, you were considered “black.” In Brazil, the Caribbean, (and New Orleans for a long time), there was a category on census records called “mulatto.” In Latin America, there is a category that acknowledges mixture between Europeans and Native people—mestizo. It’s possible for people to “change race” when they move from one place to another. Often times, people from the Caribbean, Latin America, or India will say, “I never thought of myself as black, but in the U.S. that’s how I’m defined.” Here are some other examples:

• Jews were not considered white and were often put in their own racial category.

• Through most of the 1800s, Irish and Southern European immigrants were also excluded from the white category.

• In addition, many European immigrants did not identify as white when they first moved to the United States. We have records of immigrants referring to “white” people and meant European-Americans that had been in the U.S. for generations.

For more resources on teaching on the social construction of race see:

• Luke Eric Lassiter’s Invitation to Anthropology. Published by Rowman & Littlefield (2014).

• The American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race”: http://www.americananthro.org/ConnectWithAAA/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2583

Race: Are We So Different has three interactive portal, history, human variation, and lived experience, to share with students: http://www.understandingrace.org

STEP 5:  Anthropologists and scientists have debunked the biological concept of race, but it is still a powerful social category that has been used to divide people for a number of centuries. The physical anthropologist Ashley Montagu has called race humankind’s “most dangerous myth” and America’s “Original Sin.” As anthropologists know, myths sanction and help shape action. They are most effective when they go unrecognized for what they are, and shape the way we see the world around us.

New Orleans, with its history tied to French and Spanish colonialism as well as the expansion of the United States, has disrupted some of these myths. Because the legal system was set up differently than other parts of the U.S., it showed that other ways of interacting were possible. The civil rights activism that emerged in the city in the late 1800s not only challenged discimination, but the very concept of race. If time permits, there are a number of great resources to lead students through this history:

• We As Freemen: Plessy V. Ferguson, by Keith Medley, is about the civil rights organizing that happened in the city in the mid to late 1800s, and the Supreme Court case that led to de juré segregation.

The documentary film Fauborg Tremé is a good introduction to the same time period.

•Students at the Center, an important writing program in New Orleans, published The Long Ride, a wonderful collection of high school student writings about civil rights organizing in Louisiana. Parts Three and Four include in-depth time lines of the late 1800s. A PDF is available at: http://www.sacnola.com/thelongride2/

STEP 6:  Distribute hand-outs on the Harlan dissent from Plessy V. Ferguson and the quotes from musicians in Talk That Music Talk.

• Read part of the Harlan dissent and ask students to think about what it would have been like to enforce these rules on people. Do they agree with Harlan that it creates hatred? Even after these laws have been taken down, what are the impacts of separating people?

STEP 8:  If time permits, students can write a reflection or longer piece about what they believe are the long-term consequences of the Plessy V Ferguson decision.

Ask students to take ten to 15 minutes to do a “free-write” on the long-term impacts of segregation in their own lives. They can focus on what it is like at their schools, in their neighborhoods, and/or friendship groups. Ask them to concentrate on actual experiences rather than their general opinon.

Depending on the class size, students can move into a circle with the whole group or stay in the small groups to be able to share their reflections. Ask the other students to take notes on what they liked about it and what they wanted to know more about. They can share these reflections before moving onto the next person. This provides a safe way for students to engage with each other’s writing without being defensive.

An obituary for E.B. Kruttschnitt, one of the architects of segregation and black disenfranchisement in Louisiana, in The Times Picayune is evidence of the common place language of white supremacy used in the press before the Civil Rights Movement.




In 1896, the Supereme Court of the United States gave its verdict in Plessy V. Ferguson. The court case had begun in New Orleans as a protest against discimination in public transportation, but turned into a test of whether separating people into “races” would be ruled constitutional. The Court’s seven to one decision sanctioned “Jim Crow” and added another legal way to the use of race to categorize and separate people. The majority opinion argued that separation was not inherently unequal. However, the ruling occured at a time when politicians and community leaders openly advocated for “white supremacy.” The lone dissent on the Supreme Court came from Jusice John Marshall Harlan. Although Harlan does not dispute the categories of race, he acknowledges that they are set up to put the “white” race above others.

The “For Colored Only” sign on the streetcar marked the day-to-day realities of Jim Crow segregation in New Orleans. Photograph courtesy of the Charles Frank Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.6222

In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case. It was adjudged in that case that the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country and sold as slaves were not included nor intended to be included under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and could not claim any of the rights and privileges which that instrument provided for and secured to citizens of the United States; that, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, they were considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.


The recent amendments of the Constitution, it was supposed, had eradicated these principles from our institutions. But it seems that we have yet, in some of the States, a dominant race— a superior class of citizens, which assumes to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race. The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the States in which they respectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the States are forbidden to abridge. Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens. That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.


After the court ruling, state and local governments passed other laws and ordinances to separate people. Then came the issue of enforcement. In in 1921, Mrs. Mary Glenn Cashman and Mrs. Jeanne Serpas Ruiz sat in the “white-only” section of the streetcar on North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and refused to move after the conductor accused them of “being Negro.” Like Homer Plessy and Rosa Parks, the women were arrested. In protest, they filed a lawsuit against the transit company and won a settlement. This example is one of countless decisions that people of every “racial” background made each day in how to live together, or further apart, under state sanctioned segregation.




One of the main conversations in Talk That Music Talk is around race and music. This lesson is designed to be able to prepare students to participate in the experiences that the activists and musicians share with them. Physical anthropologist Ashley Montague called race “man’s most dangerous myth.” Critical studies of race show that the categories of “white” and “black” are not based in biology, but were created by European societies in the 1700s to justify colonialism and slavery. Separation continued with the Supreme Court case Plessy V. Ferguson, which legalized segregation. This lesson teaches students to recognize that although people use these terms to identify themselves and others, they are not fixed identities, and are based on a foundation of inequity.

Anthony Bennett: My grandmother Na Na spoke patois. Half of the time you couldn’t understand what she was saying. She would say, “Look, but in Creole, “Gardé ca.” She sang little Creole songs to you, too. Uncle Lionel Batiste used to call her “Talk of the Town.” She was a tall woman and very outspoken. She told me about when the police chief of New Orleans, David Hennessey, was killed in 1890. People were running around the city yelling, “They killa da chief!” They started rounding up Sicilians. My uncle could have easily been confused for one. They had to put him in the vegetable cart to snake him out of the neighborhood. It was hard to tell the difference between a lot of Sicilians and blacks back then. (Page 117)

Joseph Torregano: The inquiries I get about who I am are unbelievable. If people try to guess, Spanish is probably number one, and then it ranges. Anything from Filipino to Pakastani could be possible. It usually begins with, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” If I say no, they will ask “What is your ethnic background?” I tell them, “African-American.” It confuses them. If I add, “I’m from New Orleans,” they might get it…There was a very ugly split in the family because some of my father’s family crossed the color line and passed for white. My father was a tad darker than me. He could pass for Spanish, but he was always proud of who we were. (Page 141)

Will Hightower: My great-grandmother was really, really old. She lived over on Orleans Avenue by Bayou St. John. My mom tells funny stories about her. How she used to walk with an umbrella every day to get to work because she was Spanish and she didn’t want her skin to get an darker. This was a time when, if you were a certain color, they wouldn’t let you work certain places. (Page 105)

Woody Penouilh: I grew up Catholic during segregation. Even when I was a kid, I questioned why there had to be separation. I went to school with white people. The street I lived on, Esplanade Avenue, was almost all white. A lot of the side streets were black. My mother learned French from her grandmother and went to an all-white girls school. My daddy spoke Cajun French. It used to hurt my heart so much to see the way white people were treating black people. There was so much trouble in the schools—to feel like a person should be shunned for the color of their skin. (Page 193)

Kenneth Terry:  My mom was actually the first black lady to move int hat block between Marais and Urquhart. It was pre-integration, and, during that time, it was mainly Caucasian. The block voted to see if you could meet their standards to be around Caucasian people. Here’s an interesting thing about “race.” My dad grew up a country boy in Napoleonville, Louisina, and part of his family there is actually Caucasian. A lot of people don’t know that. On the other side, my mom’s dad was the darkest child in the family. They used to call him Midnight. Yes. And my mom inherited her skin tone from him. My parents connected and were together for 46 years. The 1200 block of Frenchmen voted about them, and, as a family, we passed. (Page 167)

Will Smith: Ray and I got to be a lot better personal friends when we went to China. The other guys in the band were tall, but I was tall and black. And so everywhere I went, they took me in the backroom. Everywhere. They’re going through everything. Digging through all my stuff. I wanted to say, “Yes, I’m still black. The passport is valid.” At the end Ray said, “I never paid attention to profiling as much as I do now.” (Page 239)





In your small group, read your assigned quote from a musician in Talk That Music Talk. Discuss what happens in their story, and how people’s lives were impacted by living in a society organized by race. What choices did they make around them? How did the history of racial categories developed by scientists like Linneaus and the experiences of living under racial segregation impact their decisions? What have you experienced or seen happen as you’ve grown up? As a group, be prepared to share your answers with the class.

1. Anthony Bennett:  In 1891, a few years before Plessy V Ferguson, the Irish-American police chief of New Orleans was said to have been killed by Sicilian immigrants. During a time when Sicilians were not considered “white,” they were attacked indiscrimately. What happens to Anthony Bennet’s family? The skin color and facial features of Sicilians and many Creole New Orleanians were similar, and people couldn’t tell them apart. It is an example of how racial categories are not consistent, and often are used to keep people in a lower rung of the social ladder.

2. Joseph Torregano:  Joe’s family is Sicilian and African-American. More than 100 years after the lynching of Sicilians, people are not sure what racial category to put him in. What does this show about people in U.S. society? Many people are used to thinking in narrow terms of “black” and “white,” and are not sure where to “place” those that don’t fit into this framework. He said some of his family took advantage of this confusion and claimed being “white.” What were the consequences of “passing”? Why did some people, like Joe’s father, decide not to?

3. Will Hightower:  The story of Will’s great-grandmother mirrors Joe Torregano’s story. His graandmother’s skin tanned enough to be considered by many to be “colored.” She tried to protect herself from racial discrimination by staying out of the sun. What does this say about “race”? Again, it shows that the lines that are drawn around race are arbitrary. However, people often try to protect privileges they may receive from being designated “white.”

4. Woody Penouilh:  Woody’s family background is French and Cajun. His family is raised in white-only institutions, but he questions why that means he cannot associate with other people. What does Woody’s story show about race? Does it seem like he has someone to talk to about it? Although the law was set up for someone like Woody to beneift from segregation, he did not agree with it. He felt like he might be losing something, too. For instance, other cultural identites can be

5. Kenneth Terry:  Ask the students if they recognize the use of the word “Caucasian” from Carl Linneaus’ racial classifications. What do they think about using the term? The racial categories used by scientists like Linnaeus continue to be used, but now it has taken a slightly different connotation. Often times, “Caucasian” can be used in an attempt to show neutrality instead of using the more charged word “white”, but the term itself comes from pseudo-science. How does the story of the vote around housing discrimination connected to Harlan’s dissent? Harlan predicted that the decision to declare “separate but equal” constitutional would lead to more wide-scale discrimination. Kenneth tells the story of racial discrimination in housing. It is ironic that white families believing they were judging the character of a“black” family didn’t realize they came from a diverse family.

6. Will Smith: How is racial profilng connected to the history of racial classifications? By associating negative characteristics to certain skin colors, these racial categories shaped the opinions and actions of people all over the world. Ray Lambert, a member of the band Will is traveling with who is white, was struck by what he was witnessing. What is he implying in his comments to Will? When you don’t have to worry about being judged by the color of your skin, you often don’t notice how many times people who are of a dark complexion have to deal with the profiling. But if you spend time with them, you can begin to see the way profiling occurs.