Along the path of the August 21st solar eclipse, there live almost no African Americans. The peculiar trajectory of the moon’s shadow illuminates racial isolation and compromise, past and present.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will arrive mid-morning on the coast of Oregon. The moon’s shadow will be about 70 miles wide, and it will race across the country faster than the speed of sound, exiting the eastern seaboard shortly before 3 p.m. local time. It has been dubbed the Great American Eclipse, and along most of its path, there live almost no black people.
Presumably, this is not explained by the implicit bias of the solar system. It is a matter of population density, and more specifically geographic variations in population density by race, for which the sun and the moon cannot be held responsible. Still, an eclipse chaser is always tempted to believe that the skies are relaying a message. At a moment of deep disagreement about the nation’s best path forward, here comes a giant round shadow, drawing a line either to cut the country in two or to unite it as one. Ancient peoples watched total eclipses with awe and often dread, seeing in the darkness omens of doom. The Great American Eclipse may or may not tell us anything about our future, but its peculiar path could remind us of something about our past—what it was we meant to be doing, and what we actually did along the way. And if it seems we need no reminding, consider this: We tend to backlight our history, and so run the risk of trying to recover a glory that never existed. When the light in August changes, watch carefully.
The Colors of the West
As the eclipse approaches, the temperature will fall and birds will roost, and then, suddenly, the lights will go out. For each place within the path of totality, the darkness will last a minute, maybe two, and then daylight will return.
Oregon, where this begins, is almost entirely white. The 10 percent or so of state residents who do not identify as white are predominantly Latino, American Indian, Alaskan, or Asian. There are very few black Oregonians, and this is not an accident. The land that is now Oregon was not, of course, always inhabited by white people, but as a U.S. territory and then a state, Oregon sought to get and stay white. Among several formal efforts at racial exclusion was a provision in the original state constitution of 1857 that prohibited any “free Negro, or Mulatto” from entering and residing in the state.
The American West was not the land of chattel slavery—with some brief exceptions, slavery was illegal in Oregon before and after statehood. But among the dreams of the pioneers there was, at least sometimes, a dream of escaping racial strife by escaping black people altogether. As put by Peter Burnett, the architect of one racially exclusionary law in Oregon, the aim was simply to avoid “that most troublesome class of population. We are in a new world, under most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so afflicted the United States and other countries.”
From Oregon, the Great American Eclipse will travel through Idaho and Wyoming. (It will catch a tiny unpopulated piece of Montana, too.) Percentage-wise, Idaho and Wyoming are even whiter than Oregon. And as in Oregon, but even more so, the few non-white residents of Idaho and Wyoming are not black—they are mostly Latino, American Indian, and Alaskan. The astronomers tell us where lies the path of totality; the census tells us where live the people and what colors they are. The census is detailed, and precise, but its very categories should bring unease. A census is not just a matter of counting; it involves assessing and classifying and evaluating. This is particularly true of the U.S. census, a window into this nation’s dreams of totality and its always dangerous compromises.
The census is required by the United States Constitution, which envisions an accounting of the people every ten years to determine the size of each state’s delegation to the House of Representatives. Infamously, the Founders argued over whether slaves (who, of course, could not themselves vote or serve in office) should nonetheless be counted for purposes of allocating members of Congress, and infamously, the Founders settled the matter with the Three-Fifths Compromise. Each state’s power would be based upon a population tally that included both free persons and “three fifths of all other persons” (with “Indians not taxed” excluded altogether). Thus the country was founded with the idea that the people had to be counted, and that each had to be classified before he was counted so that we could know exactly how much he counted.
“Black” was not an option on the first U.S. census, nor was “colored” or “Negro.” The first census, in 1790, and the next two distinguished along the lines that mattered, along the lines expressly contemplated in the Constitution: free whites, other free persons, and slaves. The 1820 census introduced the term colored. In 1850, black and mulatto became options. In 1890, the census kept the terms black and mulatto but also added quadroon and octoroon. We needed such precision in the post-war era of Jim Crow, when even one drop of African blood rendered a person legally black. With whiteness, there was no compromise. Totality was everything.
We tend to backlight our history, and so run the risk of trying to recover a glory that never existed.
To be clear, black and mulatto and octoroon were labels assigned by the census-takers. Not until 1960 did the people being counted get to check their own racial boxes. In 2000, they gained the ability to check more than one. The most recent census, in 2010, gave respondents the chance to identify themselves as white, “Black, African American, or Negro” (a single category), or any of 13 other options, including “some other race.” The next census, in 2020, will abolish the term Negro. Race, like America, is a work in progress.
Shadows in the Heartland
After Wyoming, the eclipse will go through Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. This is America’s heartland, and also, literally, the land of compromise. When Missouri sought statehood in 1819, the United States consisted of 22 states, equally divided between those that permitted slavery and those that did not. Missouri’s request to enter as a slave-holding state threatened to upset the balance, but a kind of unity was preserved with the Missouri Compromise. The deal allowed Missouri its slaves but drew a line across the nation, east-west to the Pacific Ocean, and mandated that slavery would be illegal in all other territories north of the line. Nebraska and Kansas, bordering Missouri to the west and lying just north of the compromise line, were thus to remain slavery-free. But the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the (white) people of those territories to decide for themselves whether to have slavery. A few years later, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court would declare the Missouri Compromise to have been an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to intrude on states’ rights. A few years after that, the Civil War would begin.
Most Americans learn this history as schoolchildren, but then forget it. There are too many damn facts. Even for those who like facts, some may be too painful to face or to remember. Some facts may just get obscured by more bad news. In America’s heartland, a different kind of struggle, primarily economic, is now more easily called to mind than the details of the Missouri Compromise.