Last Christmas my mother asked me to make a family tree for her. I was totally into the idea (though it hasn’t happened yet – I don’t know where the year went but I know that both of my Christmas gift art projects are still undone!) because lately I have been really trying to understand what it means to be – white.
Look, I know what it means to be white skinned in the south – I know that it means I am safer, I am more employable, I am born with the privilege of living without many of the social and economic hardships that my fellow brothers and sisters of earth do not enjoy. I didn’t always know that – but I do now. What I didn’t understand what how my mother could look at pictures of her father – thick black hair, dark eyes, deep brown skin and say, “That’s the Indian in him.” If we were white, how was he Native American? I was raised in a white-washed white world with NO CONNECTION to any sense of history, family, culture other than the small family I knew and the culture of Southern Louisiana and New Orleans.
It honestly never occurred to me that I came from somewhere. That my family came from someplace beyond the land deep in the south of Mississippi where my grandmother’s grandmother still lived. I was SHOCKED when I was told that Native American’s weren’t allowed to go to school or have other rights and due to that our Native American ancestors registered their children as white. I knew that there were Irish-Native American marriages, but had no idea that many Native Americans married outside of the tribes to avoid persecution and to attempt to be accepted and afforded the chance to just live. Many of those we to the poor Irish, which my great grandparents were. Then the brain starts to question all sorts of things. I was angry that they would have to do that and that no one seemed angry – in fact they seems happy just to be white. “You just are.” I was told. How? How? Just because we passed? How was it okay to just walk away from who you were and become something else? Would everyone back then have done the same?
Finding out about that side of the family has been hard enough, but the other side is even worse. There was an adoption – though it is questionable if it was an adoption or an out of wedlock baby adopted by only the father. That happens to be the lead I am following due to the fact that that is the only story I was given with much conviction. There was a great grandmother who spoke German, though someone else remembers her speaking French – what?
Though the disappearance of any Native American blood is one thing, if it was better I can almost understand. Why, though, do we have NO connection to the Irish side? No celebrations or customs – what happened to their way of life? There had to be something. What happened to any of the things that made the people I came from who they were? Other than a long line of addiction I can’t see them. Maybe it was the fact that they were so poor that there wasn’t much to pass on, maybe it was the addiction that left nothing to look back on fondly… It’s not that I don’t want to be white, I am white. I am also confused and disconnected.
It all left me blank, an open canvas with no real loyalty to the white mass. I am filling my canvas with learning, with our own customs and culture. I am investigating where I come from for my daughters – it’s where they come from. I am learning where they came from, we talk about the history that they have as best as I have been able to discover it. I am embracing ALL of my history – because while I don’t know much about me the individual I know I am an American and that American history, LGBT history, Black history – the good and the bad – ALL of it is ours to share and know and learn from.
I really can’t tell if what I am trying to say is coming across. I hope so, but if not I will keep trying…