The word "Mulatto" is usually used to describe a person of mixed black and white ancestry. But writer Stephan Talty expands the meaning of the term in his new book, Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture.
African American hip hop was the music of Stephan Talty's youth. He grew up the son of Irish immigrants, in an all white neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. But he says black culture was always a big part of his life.
"I was a fan of early hip hop, had black sports heroes, read black writers," he explains. "So I really felt if I had been affected by this kind of invisible influence, there had to be more people out there, both black and white, like me."
There turned out to be so many people that Stephan Talty says he could have written several volumes on the subject. Instead, he's written a single book, Mulatto America, that explores key points in the exchange of black and white values, ideas and art forms. One of the earliest exchanges came in the eighteenth century, when white evangelists began converting black American slaves to Christianity.
"You had British preachers coming over giving these huge rallies, 30,000 people and upwards, and in the crowd would be mixed crowds of poor whites, slaves and slave masters," he explains. " It was one of the first times people could meet as equals in the society. And the churches that arose out of those revivals were probably more bi-racial than they are in the South today."
Stephan Talty says those first black American Christians put their own interpretations on Biblical texts. They were especially drawn to the story of how Moses led the captive Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
"Whites often emphasized 'Obey your master,' those kinds of verses. The slaves, who had themselves been kidnapped into the western world, looked at the story of the Israelites and saw themselves in that narrative. So it was a way for them to find justice and freedom coming to them," Mr. Talty says.
The American Civil War ended slavery, but also led to a new gulf between blacks and whites. In the decades following the war, Stephan Talty says laws enforcing racial segregation went into effect throughout the American South. But the two cultures again intersected at the start of the twentieth century, when black intellectuals embraced Shakespeare and other European writers and thinkers from the past.
"I think it was exemplified in someone like W.E.B. DuBois, this scholar who went to Harvard and later to a university in Germany. And what he found in Europe was an ideal of where white culture could go," he says. " And his whole generation really saw white culture in that way, that if only blacks could perform in classical music or could write novels of their own, then that would prove their humanity."
Instead, African Americans created pioneering new art forms of their, with music leading the way. Stephan Talty says black jazz musicians forged a sound and style that quickly jumped over racial boundaries.
"It was actually an art form that drew from a lot of sources, Caribbean, European, but it was definitely originated by blacks," explains Mr. Talty. " And whites immediately upon hearing it wanted in. So you had white musicians and serious fans coming to black clubs, not only emulating the notes they heard and creating it in their own way, but also seeing black culture at its core. It was really kind of a counterculture. It said that those things which are valued in mainstream America - at the time it was things like money making and respectability - are not the things we value. We value a passionate response to life. We value sexual honesty, and we value improvisation. And I think especially for young people that was an appealing message."
And that began a process of musical borrowing that continued throughout the twentieth century, including everyone from white rock and roll stars to black Gospel artists to a new generation of hip hop musicians.
"If you think about someone like Eminem, I think 25 years ago a poor white kid coming out of Detroit probably would have gone into heavy metal automatically. But Eminem felt he had lived a life that encouraged him to feel rage and defiance and that hip hop was a way to express it," he notes. " So hip hop has become global - you have hip hoppers and break dancers in Japan and Russia."
Stephan Talty says the twentieth century was an era of firsts for black Americans, the first black sports heroes, the first black movie stars, the first black literary prize winners. And he believes the making of "Mulatto America" has reached the point where it's almost past history. He says a new process is now under way.
"I think 30 years from now somebody will write a book called Mestizo America, because the number of Hispanics and their power is rising so rapidly," he says. " And I think that's a good thing because when you have a mixed popular culture, this old polarity between black and white will be broken down more and more."
Mulatto America is published by HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022-5299.