Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"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. And why is that?

I am not talking about bi-racial people who rightly claim both family cultures. I'm talking about folks who reach back 100 years in the family tree to tout a Cherokee princess who may or may not have existed.

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 are mixed. But there is something not exactly self affirming about many of the ways we communicate this:

"Yeah, you know me and my sisters have that good grade of hair because we have Indian in the family."

"The baby will probably be a nice color because the daddy is light and you know we have Indian in the family."

(Sidenote: It is always "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?)

Mixed ancestry is what we too often use to explain physical traits that are good, never mind the self-hating idea that tightly coiled hair and dark skin 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 Pearce culture. Chinese is the adjective they affix to every Asian person. 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?


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