Saturday, January 16, 2010

Regular black

My views on mixed race and multicultural black folks have evolved over time. When I was an undergrad, the Afrocentric, black power sista, I was all about the blackness or the African-ness of everyone being expressed and affirmed. It was in undergrad that I developed my first close ties to any mixed people. Both were black identifying women with black dads and white moms. They were cool people who were all about black progress and really affirmed what I believed at the time: you can have white in your family, but if you are part black, you are black. Period. Mixed folks who identified as mixed or more with their white side were sellouts. Now I am not saying this is what my friends thought, but it was my view. Mixed folks like my friends were cool, others were not.

I went through a lot of changes while in undergrad. I remember reading Alice Walker's thoughts on multiracial identity and how she felt she had to honor all of her ancestors, including the Indian and the white ones that were probably there because of slavery. At the time, I was practicing an African based religious tradition and ancestor worship was part of my practice. I thought deeply about this and realized that perhaps I, too needed to affirm all of my ancestors, not just the black ones. I discussed this with some Afrocentric friends and experienced the first of many attempted silencings by other African Americans on my desire to acknowledge my multiracial ancestry. My one friend shut me down. Solidly. I don't remember what she said, but it was enough to shame me into thinking that perhaps I was not a revolutionary thinker, but a self hating Negro like the rest of the masses.

I identify as African American. But I recognize that inherent in that identity is the understanding that I have mixed ancestry. I know this because of the experiences of blacks historically in this country, but I also know it because of my own family history. I first learned about this as a young child. I grew up in Detroit, but my mom was born and raised in the Southern Arkansas / Northern Louisiana region of the south. One summer, my mom and I traveled south to spend time with her maternal grandmother. Granny Mirdie.Granny Mirdie and her son Grandpa Willie always looked a little "odd" to me. It was something about their coloring, which was dark, but almost red instead of brown, and their white, straight looking hair, that did not fit in with the rest of my family up north.At the time, the majority of my family was rocking gherri curls, so I really had a skewed view of what "normal" was. My mother, however, wore a short natural….really a fade…which provided my extended family with endless comic fodder.

But, back to the southern folks. Now, this was my mother's paternal side, the side which was almost completely in the South. My mother's maternal side was the side that I had grown up around, a side that my mother, an only child, and I, her only child, did not resemble too much. My grandmother, mom's mom, was the eldest in the family, but she was really a half sister to all her siblings. She was a Robinson, while the rest of my family were Washingtons. I will get back to the Robinsons later.

While visiting Granny Mirdie and Grandpa Willie, my mom and I went to visit two of her grandfather's sisters (Grandpa Willie's paternal aunts). I remember sitting on the porch with them and being scared and amazed at the same time. They were small petite old ladies, with really light skin and long straight white hair that hung to their waist. As my mom chatted with them I just stared. They looked like witches to me! And they were white! How could these women be my aunts? When we left the house I asked my mom how could we be related to those white women. She replied that they were not white, they were Indian. I don't remember probing her further. And I think for many years I put it to the back of my mind

As a dark skinned girl growing up in the late 80's and early 90's, I was ridiculed often because of my skin.I got called choco-bliss (after the Hostess snack) blackie, and a whole assortment of names. My parents were anti perm and hair pressing, so I wore my hair in natural braids and ponytails until my middle school years, when I took to daily pressing my hair. I always knew where I fit on the beauty continuum, according to my peers. The light skinned girls with "good hair" were at the top, and I was at the bottom because of my skin. I would look in the mirror and see a really pretty girl, but one who could not be seen as beautiful because of my darkness. But I would look at my thick, below shoulder length hair and, later, my shapely physique, and see that if I played up those attributes, people would recognize my beauty. My folks were not having the tight clothes, so I focused my attention on my hair. If my hair was long, or looked curly, then people would be able to see my beauty.

When I became afrocentric, I let go of the obsession with hair, initially. I cut all my hair off, as my mother had done so many years ago, and focused on the beauty of my dark skin and black features. I fell in love with me.I was a broke college student though, and could not afford the weekly barbershop visits. So I began to let my natural hair grow out. I was completely surprised when my hair began to come in as curly waves. You got "good hair", some family members and friends would exclaim. But I didn't. Good hair was what mixed light skinned girls had. I was African. I started paying attention to my mom's hair, which by now had grown out and was fast turning white, like her father and grandmother…and her Indian great aunts. I noticed how her hair straightened when she put water in it and combed it, while mine curled and waved up. What is going on with your hair? I would ask her. Is it because you are going gray?

I tried to be a nappy missionary, encouraging others to go natural. My extended family would scoff at me. You and your mom got Indian all in your family. You can go natural. We can't. After a while, I stopped trying to get others to accept their natural hair. But I started thinking about my identity, bashfully at first. I was ashamed to even think of myself as anything but African. But my desire for self knowledge trumped my worries of perhaps having some residue of self hatred in me. I asked my mom about those aunts from long ago. "They, and my granddaddy were Creek. I remember some stuff about him, but not much. But there were some Indian things that he did at the homeplace". She was never specific about it though. I know he was a sugar cane farmer and they called him Beet because of it. She desired to know more and so did I, but again the social pressure to be black and only black got to me. Even years later when I was researching the family on and considering DNA testing to find out about our African ancestors, I remember chiding my mom for asking me to look up the Indians too. I remember she stared at me and said, "Why shouldn't I want to know about them? They're my people too".

This was a pivotal moment for me. At that point in my life I had been experiencing a number of people, from different walks of life and different nationalities, asking me where I was from. Mostly they thought I was from the Caribbean or Africa. Sometimes folks would ask me my racial makeup, wanting to know who in my family was non-African American . This was usually in the context of a conversation about hair. I would grudgingly admit that my great grandfather was Indian and the questioner would give me a knowing glance, indicating…yes, THAT is why your hair looks like it does.

During this time I was also trying to come to terms with mixed race and multiracial people and identity. I no longer felt that people who affirmed their mixed heritages were sellouts. But I was still uncomfortable with a lot of what I read about mixed and proud people. They often seemed condescending of mono-racial folks, particularly black people. I felt like they were trying to separate themselves from blacks, and it stung. But I wanted to understand their perspective. I dated a mixed race (white and Chinese- American) man who had been part of the early mixed race movement in the Bay area of the 1990's. He had distanced himself from it because he felt that they wanted people to let go of their colored identity, in his case, his Asian side. He was staunchly pan-Asian. The funny thing is, when talking about his non Asian side, he brought up the Indian heritage that he had via his white father. It turned out that he had an Indian great grandfather as well. We were probably the same percentage Indian, if you will, maybe me more so since there is purported Indian ancestors on not just my mother's paternal side, but also her maternal (the aforementioned Robinson's) and on my paternal side as well. I do not speak of this often because of my lingering reluctance to be labeled as one of those blacks claiming to have "Injun" in the family. I try to stick to the Indians that I know, but I still get labeled.

In various online communities, particularly ones that talk about racial politics, I have tried to engage in discussions about black people with Indian ancestry. I have shared my experiences, one experience in particular when a man attempting to get me to sign a petition asked me about my racial makeup. He was a reddish brown-skinned man, black, but it was obvious to me from his pony tailed wavy hair and facial features, that he had Native ancestry. Still, when he asked me about mine, I tried to dismiss it. He pressed me, and I finally acquiesced about the Creek heritage. he told me that he could see it in my features. Upon sharing that story, a member of an online hair board that I frequent looked at my online photo album, returned to the board and remarked, "I don't know what you are talking about. You look regular black to me". I remember being stunned and feeling silenced. Was I trying to be something that I was not? What was regular black? That thread did not end well. People who identified as having native ancestry were basically called self hating Negros who wanted to find any way possible to claim superiority over non Indian blacks.

I knew that was not the case for me. I love being black /African American. I have been exposed to other black cultures (African, Afro-Latino, Caribbean) and while I appreciate them, I have great pride in African American culture. Its mine. Likewise, I have been exposed somewhat to Native American culture and intellectual spaces. I am interested in them, but they are not me. I'm black. Regular black. Which to me means having a multicultural heritage that should not be ignored. Like Alice Walker, I am going to continue to learn about all of my ancestors, women and men whose lives have led to my life. I am striving to no longer let others make me feel ashamed for acknowledging them.

My views on multiracial identities have and will continue to evolve. It took me seeing both sides of the debate, experiencing them firsthand, to really begin to understand the dilemma people who consider themselves mixed race have to deal with. While my experience is not theirs and theirs is not mine, I am better able to understand their (varied) perspectives. It is this understanding that precludes me from being hypocritical and expecting them to show their loyalty to blacks in particular. The need to self identify is paramount. No one has a right to determine for others what type of black, what type of human, one should be.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Year's Eve

I spent NYE 2009 in the Barra neighborhood (my hood) with a cool group of Americans, Brits and hmm...only 1 Brazilian! We started the evening at my friend's restaurant (she is African American and relocated to Brazil with her husband and two small children a couple of years ago).

After food, drinks, conversation, and photos, we headed out onto Avenida Oceania for fireworks, drinks, and partying.
We watched some Capoeria in the streets too. Some guys hustled me and my friend for donations after we took pictures. That is jeito, or commonplace, in Pelourhino (the old town), but here in Barra? They pissed me off, but I gave some just to keep the peace.All in all, I had a wonderful time. I was so tired that I slept most of the next 2 days....I am getting old, can't hang like I used too!