Monday, October 8, 2007

Still Muddlin' Through... (pt 2)

So either a.) My weird childhood and family history makes my thinking outlandish and I'm in denial about what race I am, or b.) people are sheep.

Is it me? Am I crazy? There can't be "race"; it's illogical when you really stop to think about it. What there is, is a basic need for people to classify themselves, but I wonder frequently why it is in this country that people *insist* on classifying themselves by "race." Why not some other designation? In Jamaica, where I grew up, the National Motto was "Out of many, one people" and if you asked a light-skinned Hispanic-looking person what they were, they answered "Jamaican." Not "Spanish-Jamaican" or "Black Jamaican" or "Chinese Jamaican." Hell, if his last name was "Chang", it was obvious there was some Chinese in their somewhere, but he still answered to Jamaican.

I had been wondering about this topic for a minute, but then I read a post Humanity Critic wrote, answering a post written by the first "America's Next Top Model" on her Myspace blog. Her post had to do with her boycotting BET, and also declaring her dislike of Black History Month. Long story short, though I thought to post my own thoughts here instead of on his blog, I posted a couple of long comments over there and got called out for it. Eh. I had kind of wanted to keep the conversation over there, on his blog, cuz I wasn't particularly trying to bring the traffic to mine. Trying to follow the rules of keeping a "thread" in it's original location... but it seemed I ended up breaking some netiquette protocols anyhow. Which kind of threw me for a loop (you know, my "rules" issue), but what threw me for a bigger loop was that I came to realize that very few people seem to think like me, when it comes to racism. Or rather... very few "AfricanAmericans" think like me. Because aside from the fact that the ANTM's reasoning was idiotic and her facts weren't straight, I actually agreed with her. I hate Black History Month. And I hate BET, but probably for different reasons than her.

I hate Black History month because it annoys the crap out of me that one month a year (and the shortest month at that), we get to remember great contributions by "blacks" in this country, and since no one really reads any more, or actually digs into history, the same old heroes get trotted out for veneration... MLK, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (his less militant side, anyway). And then for variety, famous "firsts" by "Black Americans." Lots of Kente cloth colors adorning various commercials for toothpaste and Uncle Ben's Rice. If I told you that pisses me the fuck off, it would be an understatement. First of all, the "peaceful" ones are the ones who get most talked about... when personally, I'd rather hear about Brother Malcolm's militant ass, or Nat Turner or the Seminole Wars. People who actually fought and burned stuff--who vowed "by any means necessary" to go down swinging, taking folks with them even if it meant their own demise. Don't get me wrong; the injustices suffered by enslaved people were atrocious, horrific and insufferable. I know that if I lived back then I would have died young because I can't see myself being able to keep my big mouth shut and suffer in silence. But that brings me to the other reason I hate Black History... because we were all so intertwined that I don't understand why we separate "Black" history out from everyone else's. Slavery fucked everybody up; those who suffered, quite obviously suffered blows and degredation on a mass scale in a way I doubt we could ever understand, but those who believed in the institution and embraced it suffered in a different way... losing their souls to the darkness. I've seen the pictures of smiling whites at lynchings, and have wondered what "blackness" (pun intended) crept into their existence to make them feel that this was an event to be photographed at???

And it's no "diss" at all to the aformentioned "usual" heroes, because what they accomplished was monumental. What I object to is the "sanitized, cleaned-up, peaceful" versions of the stories safe for advertising sponsors... and the fact that nobody mentions that all of them were tri-racial.

Cuz then I found out, climbing my family tree, that a good portion of my mother's people were "free", listed as "Mulatto" during slavery and owned property in places like Linconlton, North Carolina, and Macon, Georgia. The one person I know was a slave, on my father's side--my great great grandmother Josephine, was actually a "quadroon", or maybe even an "octoroon", the daughter of a Confederate Colonel. And my father's father's side of the family were descendants of free Africans that had been brought to the States by missionaries--they had never been slaves. And one of them lived openly with an Irishman as man and wife, daring anybody to say something.

So maybe having a big mouth and a dislike of authority figures is in my genetic make-up... and maybe it's why I'm not accepting of the traditional history we learn about race in this country. But the more I got to digging around the roots of my family's herstory, the more I found some "Others." Native Americans. A Spaniard. A Puerto Rican. And yet, my mother's family became "black" sometime around the time of my grandparents--previous to that they were all "mulatto" on the censuses. And my father's family, too. So now, I'm "Black", but how can I be when there are so many "Others"? How can I deny any of them?

I remember the firestorm Tiger Woods caused among AfricanAmericans when he said he didn't want to be called just "African American" (LookSmart's FindArticles - Black America and Tiger's dilemma; national leaders praise golfer's accomplishments and debate controversial "mixed race" issue - golfer Tiger Woods - Cover Story--Ebony, July, 1997). Some people got real uptight, but I remember cheering for him and feeling exactly the same way. It's why I answer to "Other" on those stupid census forms. And what of The Sun? His father is Albanian. It's stupid that he be "Black", because that's how the government chooses to designate me, when in truth he's more Albanian than anything else.

And you know how, when you're mulling over something, you keep coming across that thing in your "everyday"? So for the past two weeks, I've met several people willing to acknowledge the "other" in the their background. The ironic thing was that all but one, were "white".

When Kip passed away, his longtime best friend came up from Fort Myers, FL for the memorial. An averaged-height, husky man with a wonderfully mannered speaking voice and twinkly blue eyes, I liked him instantly and understood why he was friends with Kip. But there was something about the bridge of his nose that got my attention. In the limo on the way out to Brooklyn, he began to tell me how he and Kip became freinds. Like Kip, he had been raised by people other than his birth parents; it was during the Depression, and his dying mother had given him away, the baby of 7 children, to be raised by an Aunt and Uncle. His mother ended up living but stuck to her word, but unlike Kip he had had a relationship with her. I asked him where he was born, and he said Ohio. He said, sort of in passing, that he was "white" but that "well, this is America, and so 'white' is a relative thing".
"Oh?" I asked, "what's your heritage?"
"Well, Irish, obviously" he said, remarking on his last name -- ironically the same as mine but spelled differently, " but my mother was part Native."
"I KNEW it," I told him, "I saw it the minute I met you. What nation?"
"Iroquois" he said. And then he told me how his birth mother was considered a "bastard"... that her birth certificate even said so, and he'd fought to have that designation removed from her death certificate and her birth certificate, after her death. One of her parents was Iroquois, and the other was German, and due to the miscegenation laws in Ohio at the time, her parents couldn't marry.

Last week, I went to take a picture of a doctor at the hospital, also someone of Irish descent. When he saw me, he immediately asked me what I was, and I laughed. I told him I was laughing because I'm frequently asked that question and I can never answer it simply... because I refuse to leave anyone out. I told him I'm American, of mixed heritage, and he laughed and told me that digging into people's genetic backgrounds was sort of a hobby of his. I suppose I could have found offense in his questions, but as I said I'm asked it so frequently, and with so many different "tones" that when he asked I felt he was genuinely curious. Plus, I ask people all the time, because I'm fascinated by how they answer. He said as far as he knew, he was pretty much "straight up" Irish, but that this being America, there was no telling. We laughed some more, and talked about music and his early days of living in Flatbush Brooklyn, and I got a couple of nice pictures of him.

On Friday, I decided to take my turn reporting in to the Labor Relations department to bitch about the job. Before I even launched into my story (the end result being the knowledge that I have one of two options--suck it up or quit) the Hispanic-last named woman at the front desk took one look at my bracelet and said "That's Navajo." I laughed; she was right. It was made by a Navajo silversmith first befriended by Poppy when he was teaching in New Mexico, and then later my mom. She said "I know because I'm Navajo." I admit... I did a double take, but then we got to talking excitedly over each other about family histories, and she pulled out all the family photos on her desk to show me the various hues in her family; her dark Navajo father who had been stationed in PR and married locally, bringing his wife home to Brooklyn. They spoke Spanish, but she had gone and met her Navajo grandmother. Her children came in all shades of brown, while she herself was light with crazy hair. We agreed that we both answer to "Other" and that when asked we say we are American... because where else would we exist? It was awesome.

Then today, I noticed that the Fat Lady posted on her blog about Anatole Broyard, a topic that has been on my mother's lips this past week or so (Mr. Broyard looked an awful lot like some Chicago "Black Society" people she grew up with). And my boss, who had read an article I'd given him about the subject that Poppy had written, told me there had been a show on 60 Minutes this past Sunday about genetic DNA testing... something I'm curious to do one day.

I'm doubtful that people will start to look at the whole of American History, denounce race and adopt a National Motto similar to Jamaica's.... but hey. Like they say about Lotto, "You never know." In the meantime, our history as an American people is something that consumes me pretty much 365 days of the year...

5 comments:

Ros said...

And you probably knew but just didn't write that "race" is a concept alien to genetics in some ways, that under the skin, Will Smith & I are way more similar than Will & an Australian aborigine who may "look like" him more than I do. I totally agree about Black History month (let's add in Women's History month to the rant), but I'm the chick with a Malcolm X poster up in my office. This being B'more, we also get to trot out the guy who founded Parks Sausages (a local company), and we also claim Douglass I think. To me, socioeconomic status lets you stereotype a person much faster than race does. :-) The stupid story that illustrates this is -- well, do you know what a half & half is? Wikipedia says it's Southern; I know it as something that only people from the hood drink around here. So at church coffee hour yesterday, one of the girls in my class comes up to me and tells me to guess what she mixed together for her drink. I said, "iced tea & lemonade, you're drinking a half & half". She looked at me like I had two heads. Because she's 9, from the hood (someone brings her to our church), and being surrounded by middle- and upper-middle-class folks at my church, she didn't think anyone would know that term. :-) SES more than race . . . .

The Bear Maiden said...

I dunno... like I said, people have a need to classify themselves... really the need to classify most things. We also have a need to make one classification "better" than the other. But I think I disagree about SES.... though you're right about it in that it a big "qualifier". But in this country you have the added "bonus" of SES tying in to racist stereotypes. The idea of "race" and shade of skin is so thoroughly ingrained in us now, I really wonder if it's possible to ever overcome it. Frankly, I don't think so. It's so fundamental to how we see things in this country that it's like breathing; we don't even notice it. I make a conscious effort to avoid racism in my own thinking... and as much as I believe in what I'm saying, the "habit" of generalizing still sneaks up on me. I think the ONLY reason I'm even conscious of it is because I spent enough time as a kid in an enviromment where racism wasn't an issue. But once I came here to America, I was very quickly "infected".

Milky said...

Being Brazilian is confusing. We don't have a race. We're all different colours and we're so mixed up that we don't even bother trying to separate ourselves by race. My Grandpa on my mother's side is Black, while his wife is a descendent of Portuguese settlers in Brazil. My Grandpa on my father's side is of Italian descendency, while his wife has half-Greek, half-Native Brazilian. My parents are both Brazilian. I was born in Canada, along with my younger sister, but my older sister and younger brother were born in Brazil.

(BIG SIDE NOTE: This resulted in my sister having blonde hair and green eyes, and everyone thinks she's white. I have brown hair and brown eyes, and light skin, and people think I'm Middle Eastern.)

What race am I? I have no clue at all. And frankly, I only get reminded about my not-having-a-race when talking about racism. I've never dealt with it, and in Brazil, no one has a race. You're just Brazilian. And we're damn proud of that. I don't consider myself Canadian, or even Brazilian-Canadian. I'm just Brazilian.

But here in Canada, we talk about race so much. It's such a big deal here and I'm not used to that, even though I grew up here. Canada is definitely more tolerant than the USA concerning race, ethnicity et al.

Don't get me wrong, racism is wrong, but why even separate people by race?

The Bear Maiden said...

oooh Milky! Nice to meet you! Now THAT'S what I'm talking about, and I wholeheartedly agree... why separate people by race? There's a huge portion of us in America that are just as "raceless" as you are, descended from several different people (including me)... believe me. But yet and still, we are required to define ourselves--every time we go to the doctor, every time we apply for a job. It drives me nuts. Its why I check off "Other".

Milky said...

I was trying to explain this to a guy I know the other day, only he thought I was brushing the problem of racism off =S

It's hard to talk to other people about this; I'm just glad I found your blog. =D

Keep up the good writing