Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Yup, I'll Say It Again...

...in case you missed it the last four years... I still hate Black History Month. You can follow the link to read a post I wrote four years ago, if you care to.

A lot has changed since I wrote that post, both in America and in my life. America did elect her first brownskinned President in 232 years, and he is now up for re-election. I found out even more about my own personal American history. And instead of living in a mostly-"white" community, I now live in a browner community, which has only reinforced my dislike of "Black" History Month.

What hasn't changed is racism. I can't say that it's gotten worse than it ever was. When you look at the last 236 years of American History, brown, tan, or reddish-toned folk have universally been targeted for a disproportionate amount of ill-treatment and genocide ever since European settlers made their homes on this continent. Right after the Civil War, and then again one hundred years later after the Civil Rights movement,  brown people made great advances in the way we were perceived. But invariably, those strides forward brought on a backlash that sent our rights two steps in the opposite direction: the strides we made after during Reconstruction beget the KKK and Jim Crow Laws, for example. After Obama's election, racism has certainly become less hidden though I have to say the backlash, while expected, makes my head spin. Having a brown President has brought out every snide, nasty comment we ever had about "race", and allowed it to be aired in the guise of bipartisan politics. And everyone is guilty.

I still think--no, I'm even more convinced that singling out an ethnic history does an enormous disservice to this country and everyone in it. It perpetuates the myth of race. It doesn't take into account the real reasons that "race" came into existence in the first place. And, it hides the real truth, which is that brown peoples all over the western hemisphere have been systematically and purposely divided, dominated and destroyed in order for a Euro-centric empire to flourish. And, it sets up the greatest myth of all, that America is "white and black".

As an American who is brown-skinned, I will not identify as "Black". I am not black in color. I do not, nor do any of ancestors or family members come from a country named "Black". To talk of a "Black Experience" conjures up images of a people as seen through European eyes.For me, quite literally, drawn and colored black or photographed in shades of black white and grey.

I will not, cannot identify as "African American". I am not African, any more or less than I am European. Neither my father, nor mother, nor any of my grand or great-grands or even most of my great-great grands were born in Africa. I know this, because I took the time over several years to find out exactly who my people were. I have found two Africans in my tree; one from Madagascar and one from some heretofore unidentified African country. Neither of them, interestingly enough, were brought over as slaves. And with the exception of Nicolas Marin from Alsace-Lorraine and Narcisso Garcia from Puerto Rico, the remainder of my known ancestry were born and bred in America. On my mother's side of the tree, a surprising number of my ancestors were born outside of slavery, or weren't slaves for long.

I don't think my family's history is all that unique for brownskinned people from the East Coast of America, although I notice that the further south and more inland you go, the mixture between European, Native and African may be more weighted one way or the other. But there are a great many of us who claim varying amounts Native Blood.

People will argue for the cause of the "Black Experience", or the "African American" experience. It largely brings to mind slaves and the horrors of slavery, of emancipation, of segregation and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the ways in which a people have triumphed over obstacles. In no way am I negating any of that history. But my soul hurts for the stories that are NOT told, or forgotten and then completely obliterated and left out from the accepted narrative.

And I still get really angry by the suggestion that because I insist on claiming ALL of my ancestors, I'm really trying to avoid being "Black" or "African American". I can assure you that this is not the reason. Nor do I think there's some "money for Indian Scholarships" and I don't feel a need to research my history so that I can "enroll" in a tribe. While I am inordinately proud of my African heritage and the triumphs of my African ancestors, I resent being made to feel as if I must identify one way or the other.

This year already, more than years past I have seen homage paid to Carter G. Woodson as the "father" of African American History, and to W.E.B. DuBois as being a leading great educated "Black" man. I most certainly am not devaluing their work; without Woodson's insistence our African history may have been erased completely, because Euro colonists didn't really want for their slaves to know where they came from. They didn't teach their slaves to read and write for a multitude of reason, history being one of them.  But I personally have inherited some feelings about DuBois in particular, who was a little bit of an elitist... at least to hear my grandfather tell it.

DuBois was a frequent guest at my great-grandparents home in Atlanta and his snobbery apparently pissed off my great-grandmother who was more than a little Native (most likely Nottoway). I think it amused and sort of rubbed my great-grandfather the wrong way, he being at least an 8th or more of Seminole via his mother. While there was a huge catch-all called "mulatto" on the censuses of that time, amongst that group itself,  there was a distinction between "mulatto" (African and European) and "half-breed" (Native and African).The mulattoes held disdain for "half-breeds"....  DuBois and Woodson were, according to research, "mulatto". My great-great grandmother Annie Cox was "half-breed".

But the kicker is that while mulattoes or "creoles" might have been relegated to being the courtesans of Europeans, they were left alone to hold property and houses. "Halfbreeds", if they identified as "Native" (which would be likely if the mother was Native and the father black) could still be hustled off their property and sent to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. So I suspect that a great many of my "halfbreed" ancestors who had land and were free long before slavery ended, allowed themselves  to be thought of as "mulatto" which eventually and arbitrarily became "light skinned black". Think about... if you owned property, and could lose it by claiming your full heritage, what would you do??

In reality, all it has ever been about, this "race" thing, is money. And business. BIG business. Multinational corporations worth billions of dollars.

In the 1300s, European countries could trade, import and profit from silk, spices and opiates from Asia because of deals they had made with Mongolia and China. But when the Roman Empire fell, and the Turks blocked the trade routes, Europeans sought other routes. Some Europeans, particularly the Dutch and Portuguese explored eastwards, convinced they could get around Africa to Asia. Some explored West, convinced they could cross the ocean and get to Asia from the other side. Columbus, Italian by birth and Spanish by way of his young mistress/second wife, got financing from Spain and took the latter route. He happened on the Caribbean and the Americas, and the rest is established as history. Initially, the upper class of the Europeans exported and abused their own to work in new colonies--the poor, the broke, the criminal-- and to develop these new lands. But it wasn't enough of a labor pool and business wasn't making enough of a profit. The companies weren't able to top the profits of the spices, opiates and silk they had made with Asian trade.

Africans and the Moors were already known to Europeans, but my own personal theory is that war, particularly with the Moors (around the time Columbus sailed for the West) helped to promote the feeling of "us versus them" that allowed Europeans to justify African slavery. Besides, the Moors were not Christian.

In America, the first people abused and enslaved to work for the colonies were the Indigenous people here, but that proved difficult. Yes, many Native Americans died because of European diseases they were not used to, and they died because the Europeans laid waste to the the land and food sources the Native population relied on. But many many many more of the Native peoples retreated further into America, refusing to serve Europeans, forming alliances with each other and disappearing from view. America was their home, after all, her forests and swamps and mountains easy for them to retreat to.

To "break" them, the Europeans captured and exported whole nations of indigenous people to the Caribbean, and replaced them with people from Africa. As far as conquering a people goes, it was a brilliant strategy; it disoriented the people exported, it reduced the numbers of the people left, and it completely subjugated the people imported. How can you fight a battle when you don't know where you are, or how you'll get back home?

But there was something the Europeans didn't quite count on when they first got to this part of the world: unity between the newly imported Africans and the Natives. When the Africans ran away they were often taken in and adopted by Native Americans. The Seminole Nation in the swamps of Georgia and Florida were most famous for defending their African friends. And amongst the colonies in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, so many Africans intermarried with Native peoples that at one point, "free blacks" out numbered the white colonists.

Slave revolts in the West Indies frightened the American colonists, and they resolved to not let that happen here. And while history traditionally told you that the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean were "wiped out", new, more accurate knowledge has proven this a lie. The infamous Maroons of Jamaica, who terrorized English colonists, were a mixture of the Native Arawaks of Jamaica and runaway African slaves. Recently, DNA testing begun in 1999 found that up to 62% of present day Puerto Ricans are of Amerindian descent.

In America, they began to enact laws that prohibited mixed unions, and reclaimed many African/Natives as "free blacks". In time, they even legalize the capture and re-enslavement of "free blacks". To further widen the divide between Native peoples and African slaves, Europeans introduced and actively encouraged the concept of slavery to Native Nations, particularly the Five Civilized Tribes. Some Nations, particularly the Cherokee, took to slavery in a more Euro-centric way, especially among those Cherokee who themselves were  partially European. Initially, the major difference between Euro slavery and Native slavery was racism; "White" Euros dehumanized brown skinned people in order to justify perpetual servitude. But for many nations, a "slave" was the equivalent of a less-fortunate relative whose care and feeding were repaid with service.. and often slaves were absorbed into the family either by marriage or age. This rarely--if ever-happened among Europeans in this country.

Its important to realize how much money was generated by slavery; how many companies were built on its practice, how many industries and products were made and were exported cheaply due to slavery, how many banks were formed to deal with the money. Wall Street came into existence because of slavery and racism. And then perhaps you will understand why it was so important to keep slavery going. Really, slavery still is going. Currently everyone is talking about Apple and its use of Chinese slave labor... but think about the billions of dollars made on Apple products because it can pay its workers peanuts and force them to work long shifts, housing them in dormitories where they can easily be called into service. These days its electronics; in early America it was cotton, clothing, and tobacco. In the West Indies it was sugar. But slavery has existed since mankind started fighting wars. What was new to the institution was racism; declaring that a person might be a slave in perpetuity, because of the color of his skin. That because she was darker, she was less intelligent, less human. God-ordained to be dominated.

Even when slavery ended, racism had become so ingrained in the country that many people stayed right where they were, continuing to work in the same conditions they toiled under during slavery. And for the great many who migrated north, the companies that survived and profited from their exploitation still needed cheap labor to survive , and did so by racially exploiting these people, relegating them to second-class citizenship, segregation, and poverty.

For all of us, being told that we should identify as "Black" or "African American" severely limits the very rich and diverse history of this country. It limits our scope to think we are "only" one thing, share "one" experience, and contribute to "our race" and not this entire country. Furthermore, it is a Euro-centric way of thinking that we have been encouraged to accept.

Every year, "great African-Americans" are held up study and praise, ostensibly to create pride in ourselves. But it is inaccurate history; since many of these icons are just as Native American as they are African American. And to ONLY claim the "African" negates the importance of  these people in the larger context of the world. It limits their contribution. I often wonder what greater contributions to humankind my own grandfather (who knew of his African, Native and European history but never spoke of it) would have been capable of had he felt comfortable declaring all of his ancestry. How long would slavery and oppression REALLY last, if Native Americans and ex-African slaves truly united to fight the same oppressor? America might be a very different-looking place.

For instance, Crispus Attucks, known as the first person killed in the name of American freedom, was African and Native Canadian. To only identify him as "Black" limits the story of who he really was, where he came from, why he felt compelled to stand for America as a man. Arthur A. Schomburg, a "Black" librarian, was in fact from Puerto Rico of German and African/St. Croix parents. To only identify him as "Black" limits why his quest to research and collect books about Africa. To talk of the "Black Experience" severely limits the true horror of people forced to choose or hide their cultural identity in order to survive.


Only looking at "Black History" limits the true story of America. It allows everyone else to teach "American" (read "White") history 337 (338 in a leap year) days of the year. And for 28 ( or 29 in a leap year) they can pretend they are honoring "Black" people by reciting every known fact about Black Greatness. And sometimes some little known facts. But our country's history is FAR more complicated and nuanced than just "history" and "Black History".

If I only identified as "African American" I may be ashamed of my "white" ancestors, assuming their unions with my "black" ancestors were born of rape and torture.I would assume that the slaveholder I did find in my history was "White". I may completely overlook the possibility that Peter Morgan, slave holder and probable father of Peter G. Morgan was an Indian slaveholder. And I wouldn't have bothered to delve into the history of Nicolas Marin, who left his European wife and children to live with his mulatto (Euro and African) mistress, raising eight children with her.

And just today, looking up historical facts, I found out something fascinating. It turns out my father's ancestor Marin, born in Barcelona but German-speaking, and who emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine to America in the very early 1870's, was likely to be a Sephardic Jew, or at least of Jewish descent. A fact that amuses me, since my father converted himself and us to Judaism "because it made sense." I might never have learned that if I only looked at history through the eyes of a "Black" woman, rather than an American one...

Which is what I am. An American woman.

Sources:
Arthur A. Schomburg
Wiki on Arawaks
Wiki on the fall of Constantinople
Wiki on The Moors

Petersburg and the Atlantic World
Sephardim
William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians
The Melungeons
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann

The Threat of Race, David Theo Goldberg
SOMO-Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations
History of the Jewish Community in Alsace Lorraine

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