Kaleidoscope Of Life

Thoughts On Ethnicity

Jarrin Kendall

(Copyright 1996)

Imagine your parents: your father, a Blackwell, one of five children in a strong, blue-collar family who left school after the tenth grade to go to work to help his family. Although your father did not finish high school, he was a very wise man whose strong work ethic shaped the very backbone of your being. He and his father before him always stressed the importance of family and heritage. Your father constantly drilled into you that work equals reward.

Your mother, a Craig, was raised as an only child, had the best of everything and was educated at private schools. Her grandfather worked his way through college and was the first black doctor in his town. Her family has instilled in you steadfastness, humor and unselfishness. Your mother always stressed community and family responsibility. Although you strongly resemble your mother physically, your temperament is more that of your father's. If you're like most folks, you are a combination, a beautiful combination of both your parents. You love and are proud of them both.

Now imagine being forced to choose what your were, a Blackwell or a Craig. Which would you be? A Blackwell or a Craig? Would you feel angry or resentful at having to choose? Would you feel somewhat apprehensive about slighting the parent you did not choose? Would you worry that other people might feel that you were somehow ashamed of the parent you did not choose? Would the Craigs spurn you if you chose to be a Blackwell? Would the Blackwells despise you if you chose to be a Craig? Would the family you chose embrace you as a member or would they repudiate your choice?

Nearly two years ago, a law professor from New York, Judy Scales-Trent visited for one term the university where I am employed While here, Judy was putting the final touches on her book "Notes of A White/Black Woman". The book is a series of essays about Judy's experiences as a "black" woman whose skin is white. Judy speaks in her book of her many experiences and observations about appearing to be white when, indeed, she was black. Judy and I had several lively, thought-provoking conversations about what being black really meant.

One of the topics which arose was the African (slave) Native American connection. I, like most black people, have a lot of Native American ancestry. My father's maternal and paternal grandmothers were full Cherokee Indians. My father's paternal grandfather was from Haiti, which I understand means he was originally from Africa. My father's maternal grandfather was "nearly white." Following one of these conversations, Judy recommended the book "Black Indians" by Katz. I devoured "Black Indians" and highly recommend it. The book whetted my appetite for learning more about the Native-American/African-American connection.

My Uncle Chuck has old sepia colored pictures of my great- grandmother, Mary Ellen Brown and great-great-grandmother, Evangeline Payne. When I first saw these pictures nearly fifteen years ago, I was surprised at the appearance of these ladies. Both were burnt-copper colored and their hair, while long, was crinkly. I grew up and was schooled during a time when black people were only slaves and "Indians" only savages in the history books taught from in school, though I knew that not all "Indians" had fair skin and straight hair. Still, I was quite surprised to see the dark skin, "kinky" hair and broad features of my ancestors. In "Black Indians", I saw many photographs of Native Americans who had African features. I learned that many of the famous and in some cases, infamous, Native Americans were "Black Indians." Black slaves and Native Americans were natural allies. Thousands of runaway slaves found safe havens in Native American tribal groups. This depletion of the "cash crop" caused severe financial losses to Southern planters, in addition to the "indignation" felt about successful slave flight. After many losses to combined runaway slaves/Native American gangs, white Americans devised a plan to split the two groups. While they despised both groups, they despised the Native American less. They attempted (and were successful in some cases) to create a fission between the two groups by telling Native Americans that they were better than the black man and offered incentives, some monetary, to Native Americans who would turn in runaway slaves. Once again, blacks were at the bottom of the pile. Being an Indian was of course, worse than being white, but being a black man was equivalent to being an animal.

The friendship of Native Americans and black slaves is glossed over, if mentioned at all, in American history books. Sadly, I've encountered some Native Americans who, although they smiled in a friendly manner when discussing the subject, were not very interested in pursuing the matter, nor did they seem eager to embrace a "sister."

After reading "Black Indians", I began to seek out whatever information I could about the connection between Native-Americans and African-Americans. I should mention that several years ago I discontinued using the term "Indians" to refer to Native Americans. I learned that Indian was a term given to Native Americans by Columbus who mistakenly believed he was in East India when he "discovered" their land. I also learned that many of the words associated with Native Americans were derogatory terms given to them by the white invaders. "Squaw", for example, does not refer to a young Native American woman. Squaw means vagina. Since black female slaves were later raped by descendants of these white invaders, I can only imagine the origin of the term "Squaw". As children we were not permitted to use expressions such as, "Honest Injun" and "running around like a wild Indian."

After reading "Black Indians" and several other pieces, I had a strong urge to acknowledge all of my ancestry, or rather all that I knew about. I discussed this with several close friends, one of whom was my younger sister. My sister's first reaction was surprise. She told me that I had "black" features, not Indian ones. I then asked her, what do "Indians" look like? When she visited my home a short while later, I shared with her the pictures in Katz' book. She was quite surprised at the features and skin color of the Native Americans illustrated there. This led to a lively conversation that concluded with the comment that these Native Americans must not have been "full" Native Americans. While some have eagerly discussed black ethnicity with me, others have given me that skeptical look that says, "oh no, here we go. Another black person who doesn't want to be black."

I must admit I was apprehensive at first about claiming my Native American ancestry in addition to my African American ancestry I did not want anyone to think I was ashamed of my "being black." Growing up in a time when lighter skinned blacks were called yellow and half-breed, I fought long and hard to be black. I grew and wore an Afro; I bought and wore a dashiki. I learned to say "Salaam Alakim". After giving it some thought, however, I decided that anyone who knows and cares about me knows that being black is such a large part of my life that any shame in that blackness can not honestly be considered. The opinions of others who either do not know or care about me matters little, if at all.

I've begun learning more about the African connection to many races. Since moving to San Antonio, Texas nearly twelve years ago, I have come to know the Mexican-American culture and community. When I first moved here from Pittsburgh, which at the time had no visible Mexican-American community, I was quite surprised at the many hues of Mexican-American skin color. My only exposure to Mexican-Americans had been a former sister-in-law who was light complexioned and had straight hair. In Texas, I've encountered Mexican-Americans who range from the very white complexioned to ebony-hued, from keen-featured to very broad featured. On a trip to nearby Mexico ten years ago, I encountered Mexicans who looked more Native American than Mexican. I encountered others who looked like black folk. I wondered then about the Mexican-Native American-African connection. I've discussed ethnicity with many Mexican-Americans. While many would eagerly discuss their Spanish and/or Native American ancestry, I have met none who would acknowledge any African heritage, despite historical evidence that such a connection exists.

While I was absorbing my newfound knowledge about the Native American connection and pondering embracing my multi-heritage ancestry, I recalled several anecdotes from the past. I remember the celebrity, Jayne Kennedy being interviewed by John Davidson a number of years ago. John commented on her beauty and followed the compliment by asking Jayne what else she was besides black. Jayne told him, and I'm paraphrasing here, that although she did have other ancestry besides black (some Native American) she resented the implication that because she was attractive, there had to be other genes involved beside her black ancestry. I also recalled the singer Sade being interviewed a few years ago for an article in a black magazine. Sade's mother is a white Englishwoman and her father was, I believe, Nigerian. She was asked the infamous question, "Do you consider yourself Black?" Although Sade stated that she does see herself as a black woman, she also added. "To state that I am simply black, totally denies the existence of my mother, whom I love dearly." I must honestly admit that until I read that statement, I never thought about it from that perspective. Too often we as black people anxiously wait to see if someone will identify themselves as black. We want to see if "they think they're white" or conversely will state, "they don't act black." I must confess to being guilty of "looking for blackness" in people that I've encountered who, while they appeared to be something other than black, had some characteristic or habit that made me "check for signs." Most of us have these discreet (we think) ways of checking. We look at the hair at the nape of the neck (the kitchen). We check the broadness of the nose, the thickness of the lips, the texture of the hair, etc. We might even ask, in a subtle way, where they went to college. A graduate of Clark or Tuskeegee is usually a dead giveaway. Often, once someone has "discovered" that someone is black, we hold them to this "black test." They must act a certain way, be involved in certain causes, hold certain views on particular topics.

I remember when Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America. I heard several black woman comment, "she doesn't really look black," or "they would pick someone who doesn't look black", as if all black people really do look alike. I recognize there are many reasons for this. I realize that for so many years, we were brainwashed into thinking that "white and light were all right" and "if you're black, get back." Then, during the sixties, we began to be proud of being black. I, too, grew up in a time when there were few blacks on television. A book I read recently talked about a time in the fifties when a young son yelled "colored folks on t.v.,"alerting the entire neighborhood. It was then indeed a rarity. The lack of blacks in prominent view caused us to want to embrace any public person with "even a drop of black blood." If this person for whatever reason did not totally embrace his blackness, we grew indignant. We heard comments such as, "He thinks he's too good; she thinks she's white," and on and on. Why is it that other races can act a certain way, talk a certain way, even dress a certain way, and it does not detract from their ethnicity, but black people are held to a certain "black standard" by their own? Just as we come in hues ranging from vanilla to deep, dark chocolate, our personalities, our interests, our activities, are just as varied.

Thinking about all this, I've come to realize lately how silly, how inane, this all is. I've asked myself, what does it really matter? Once we discover someone is black, what is gained by that knowledge? Do we now have an instant kinship? Can we then say to this stranger, "hey Sista?" Do we, should we, feel that we have met an ally? If you meet someone you thought to be white and whom you later find out is black, do you change how you act around that person? Do you treat them differently now that you know they are black? Conversely, what if you met a person you assumed to be black and you later found out they were white? Would your relationship with that person change? Would you feel differently toward them? How much sense does this all make? What really is race, ethnicity, after all? Is it how someone looks? Is it how a person acts? Do we determine a person's race by what activities they are involved in coupled with how they look?

Why is it that other ethnicities get to chose what ethnicity they claim, be it one or many? I've met Anglos who are Irish/Italian American, Austrian/Jewish American, even Korean/Mexican American. Why are blacks who claim all known ethnicities looked down upon by many? Why do other ethnic groups not have to prove their ethnicity but people who "look black" but acknowledge also other heritages, (unless their natural language is other than English, e.g., black Puerto Ricans) must "prove" that other heritage.. One friend suggested that perhaps someone way back might have anticipated that African-Americans would at some point want to also claim their Native American ancestry. If not, why must you be "affiliated with a tribal group" in order to claim Native American ancestry? I've seen this qualifier on many forms, ranging from Census forms to employment applications. Perhaps, someone worried that we would not only want our forty acres and a mule, but that we would also want back some of the land that was stolen from our Native American ancestors.

There's a debate currently raging about creating another racial category: biracial. This category purportedly would be primarily for those of white and black ancestry. Why stop there? Could not those of African/Native American ancestry, Korean/Mexican ancestry, African/Asian ancestry, etc. also fit there. What about those from three different racial groups? Should there also be another new category: tri-racial? I can see how this could really get ridiculous. Again I ask: What really is race, ethnicity? Why is it so important after all?

Recently, I decided to look up the word "ethnicity" and see how Webster defined it. Webster's Collegiate published in 1949 defined ethnic as: 1. Neither Jewish nor Christian. 2. Of, pertaining to, or designating races or groups of race discriminated on the basis of common traits, customs, etc. Webster Ninth New Collegiate published in 1983 defined ethnic as: 1. Heathen. 2. Of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origin or background. No wonder there is much confusion about a person's ethnicity. For example, what would be the ethnicity of a Black Jew, based upon Webster's definition? Judy suggests in her book that since life originated in Africa, all who are living in this country are African Americans.

A friend told me recently that he thought this ethnicity crap (his words) was all garbage. He felt that most blacks knew very little of their heritage and since it was just about impossible to trace our ancestry, we should just be satisfied with being black.

I'm proud of my black heritage. Our people have proven to be a strong, enduring people. What other race could have survived slavery? We have accomplished much, often with very little. I am also proud of my other heritage, my Native American heritage. My red ancestors were also strong, enduring, proud. They too were survivors. I am a combination of those who came before me.

Would you choose to be a Blackwell or a Craig? Or, would you be a Blackwell-Craig?


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