Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Girl you ain't (insert non black race here), that's Hawaiian Silky. But then again...

Family Guy and I differ in a very important aspect. No, I actually am partial to his philosophical bent concerning work. It’s the fact that he comes from a long line of well…something. I went to a Native American exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian this weekend. The exhibit focused on interactions between Native Americans and African Americans. As one could imagine, throughout history, the two groups intermingled, intermarried, hunted each other, hid together, slaved together, enslaved each other, and basically, interacted in a manner that ran the whole gamut. The natural consequences of these interactions led African American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston to say, with no small amount of facetiousness, that she was,
"the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief."

In that light, as part of the exhibit, a genealogist held a seminar on how to trace family genealogy. She noted the difference between documentation and conjecture when it came to tracing family backgrounds.

I found the discussion about conjecture particularly interesting.

She spoke about how oral histories are not always accurate. If you are one of those people who feel you have Native American ancestry, why do you feel this way? Do you have tribal artifacts, religious practices, or even photos of ancestors in tribal regalia that have been passed down? Or is this suspicion of Native American ancestry rooted in the fact that Grandma “sat on her hair”, that some of your cousins have “high cheek bones”, or that you have been called a “red bone”?

She then went in on oral histories and how over time they become skewed, sometimes intentionally. A long time ago when those of European ancestry used to rape our womenfolk with impunity, it was considered a shameful event. If it got out that that is what happened it might even upset the white who did the raping as he may have been married and respected in the community. When the water broke, to account for the non-African features of a baby, appease white, and save themselves from the awful embarrassment of being raped, mothers and sisters and cousins etc may have invented a story about a “traveling Indian” who was the daddy. Years later, people are swearing up and down that they are Cherokee or Blackfoot, what have you.

I started thinking about my own history, and how my maternal Great Grandma escaped from North Carolina on a train in the dead of the night, and headed north, to D.C.. As the story goes, Great Grandma had a baby from a white judge in Fayetteville, North Carolina and had to get out of Dodge. That’s all I know about that.

Then I started thinking about my other maternal Great Grandma, who has been described as a very dark skinned woman, with “long beautiful hair down to her butt”. She had one eye (don’t know what happened to the other)and was described as stoic and mean. She was part Native American by all accounts, but the only rationale Ive been proffered as to why everyone thinks she was part Native American is because, essentially, “she sat on her hair”, and was, I’m not making this up, stoic and mean.


I realized that what I knew of my heritage was more a creation story than anything rooted in truth. Today, without all the external racial pressures and Jim Crow miscegenation laws, a lot of people are just as clueless about their ancestry.

Please don’t judge me by the people that have managed to make it to the outer fringes of my circle of influence, but I know a married woman who unbeknown to her husband, aborted their matrimonial seed, and to top it all off, had the child of another man, her husband none the wiser. Granted, that is an extreme example of trifling behavior, but how many children don’t know who their fathers are? How many think they do, but really don’t?

With entities like businesses and governments, and even cultures, collective awareness of the past is called institutional memory. Without institutional memory businesses, governments, and cultures repeat similar mistakes, duplicate work, and operate in an, overall, inefficient manner. As a result, the viability of these entities suffer.

Obviously there are some exceptions, but I don’t imagine individual humans fair too much better. There is strength in heritage—the strength in knowing about yourself and your composition. If I knew my father, and my father's father, and my father's father's father all looked at work the same way I do, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me 30 years to realize the reason why I should work is not solely for a check, but for the purpose the work can bring to my life. Who knows? Maybe even one of my ancestors figured out how to survive and support successive generations by never doing anything but asking why? Wouldn't that be nice. If he did, maybe he could have hipped me to game. Shit, even if you don't believe in all that institutional memory foo foo, nowadays, they can figure out your susceptibility to all sorts of diseases with a little family info.

Though it seems easier to lie up front, we deal with this stuff on the back end when we have large groups of people searching and looking for answers that may already have been provided. For a long while, not much could be done about the lack of continuity in our communities, but in 2010 we have the power to make it right.

And sometimes, the most valuable inheritance is one that cannot be taxed.

1 comment:

  1. You have articulated an interesting perspective. The mere mention of the possibility of Indian heritage generates a flash of shame and the smirk of denial in most black folks. You have seen it, I have seen it. Many of us will casually acknowledge the white man in our wood pile with assurance from a knowing audience. There are so many elements to who we are and the Indian experience is just one of them.

    Black people have been coming to the Americas for a long time. In the earliest of times we might have been explorers and adventurers. We might have just been lost. In later times we came as indentured servants and full blown slaves. There weren't many white women in the new world then so guess what. The indigenous and African women caught hell.

    Later still, the ugliest versions of slavery saw millions of black folks brought to the new world, seeding the oceans with the bodies of the less hearty. Guess what, it is speculated that most of the surviving black women were pregnant when they disembarked from the ships -- two for one. When the dominant culture decided to kick all the indigenous population out of the east (the Indian removal act) a lot of the Indians became black. They didn't have to march across their country, through the woods, across streams and plentiful game to live on barren plains in the Midwest.

    Now what is left? A group of people who survived the best way they know how -- in the racial shadows of acquiescence, passing, classiest skin hue and lightness, Indian kinship, or the other extreme -- just being black. It is said that 32% of black folks in this country have a white relative. That is over 11Million black/white/Indian/other folks. So I have decided that my people are American people, whoever they are.

    My roots could be African or European or Asian or American. In genealogy, as a man I have to follow my male ancestors back in time. I imagine it would be quite an experience to be my great grandfather, who might have been a slave or a white man or an Indian or a gypsy; or his father who might have been a black man or a white man or a gypsy, or their father who might have been a black man or a white man, or his father who probably was a black man...... after all, everyone’s grandfather to the 20th place was probably a black man.