"Y'know we got Indian in the family"
I read this post about James Brown on Angry Asian Man (hat tip to Racialicious). On page 54 of his memoir, Soul Brother Number One said:
"I also have some Chinese in me, at least as much as I have black (and maybe a little Egyptian King Tut thrown in for good measure). All you have to do is look at my face--it's all there."Now, I'm not coming for the Godfather, because I have no idea in what context he made these statements or how true they are. But AAM's post made me think about how often black people claim mixed heritage as a badge of honor--proof of being better and special. And why is that?
I am not talking about bi-racial people who rightly claim both family cultures. I'm not talking about descendants of Cherokee freedman and other groups with blended cultures. I'm talking about folks who reach back 100 years in the family tree to tout a mythical Cherokee princess or a great-great-great-great-grandfather in Louisiana who may or may not have been Creole.
I would venture that most black Americans that dig into their family history--and not that far back either--can find more than a few ancestors not of African descent. Most of us are of mixed race. It is only the one-drop rule that says otherwise. But there is something not exactly self-affirming about many of the ways we communicate this:
"She's got them pretty, light eyes and she's a nice color. You know her mama's people were Creole."
"Yeah, you know me and my sisters have that good grade of hair because we have Indian in the family."
It is very often "Indian in the family," isn't it? While many black Americans do have Native ancestry, I bet a higher proportion have white ancestry, given the history of slavery. How come you never hear: "My great-great-grandfather was a white plantation owner?" Not exotic enough?
We also love to be Creole, and we use the term so sloppily that when I first visited Louisiana and learned about the region's history, I was surprised that Creole didn't simply refer to a mix of African and white French heritage.
There is nothing wrong with embracing every part of your heritage. I'm a family researcher. I get wanting to understand all the parts that make you--you. But mixed ancestry is what we too often use to explain physical traits and cultural markers that are deemed good--the opposite of the "dark continent" practices, tightly coiled hair and dark skin that are bad. Mixed ancestry is often what we bring up to prove that we are different from other "just black" folks.
I find it interesting that many of the people who tout non-African ancestry rarely embrace that ancestry. They wouldn't know Cherokee culture from Nez Perce culture. Chinese is the adjective they affix to every Asian person. Creole and Cajun are interchangeable. And great-great-grandmother Siobhan was actually Irish not Scottish.
So, too often it's not about embracing all parts of our culture. In fact, it involves some exoticizing of other cultures--distilling them down to a source of pretty hair and acceptable features. It is about elevating ourselves in the hierarchy of race--from "just black" to something special.
What do you think?