by Sandra McCollum
I recently read with great interest Raven Symone’s rejection of the term African American as a label and of her desire to be called American.
We are all Americans, but, many groups resonate with their culture of origin often expressed as Japanese Americans or Italian Americans or Native Americans to name a few. Terms like African American celebrate our connectivity to one another and our relationship to a land of ancestry.
Recently, I had my DNA analyzed. I am a combination of 16 distinct regions of the world with which I have no familiarity. These include 2 percent Finland/Northwest Russia, 1 percent Scandinavia and 3 percent Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers. Though these exotic and obscure ethnicities may course through my DNA, my identity is African American. It is my identity by law and by choice. All of us are a mixture of many ethnicities, but our identities define us as who we are.
To my further consternation, in recent years I have had numerous persons ask me if I am mixed. What does that mean in a global society? What is more puzzling is that this question is most frequently asked by African Americans. Being mixed is not an identity. On occasion, persons from other ethnic groups have asked me the same question even after I identify myself as African American. If I say “yes” does that make me less African American? Referencing “mixed” as a racial description implies that it has some biological significance. Race is a socially constructed designation and has some historical relevance. What is happening? Are many of us denying our blackness and or our connection with Africa, the source of our unique essence?
President Obama appeared on “The View” in 2010. Barbara Walters asked him why he doesn’t describe himself as bi-racial instead of Black. President Obama, through his writings and in personal appearances, has addressed this question by stating that he sees himself as African American. Many with public faces have clarified the issue of their personal mixed racial heritage, such as Melissa Harris-Perry and Halle Berry. Halle Berry identifies as “Black.” She further asserts that her mixed race daughter is Black, supported by her belief in the one drop rule. Melissa Harris-Perry self identifies as Black also.
Both my parents had roots in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, the historical site of the book and the movie “Twelve Years a Slave.” My father used to tell me how lucky we were to live in New Orleans because of its racial tolerance at that time. Rapides Parish, he said, was the worst place in the world. Nestled in the center of the state, it was an icon of racial oppression.
My great grandfather Willie Smith was born in Rapides Parish in 1851. His father was a Caucasian planter of historical note in the area. According to family lore, his mother was a full bloodied Native American captured in Virginia and forced into slavery in Louisiana. When he was about nine years old, Willie traveled freely between his father’s plantation and the plantation where his mother was a slave. One day while he was visiting his mother, he saw the plantation mistress and her two daughters dressed in their finest outfits. The Sunday Surrey awaited them. The driver was dressed in fancy livery attire. He admired the mistress and her two daughters, entranced by the beauty of their lavish pastel dresses adorned in lace and ribbons. He watched them ride away in the surrey until all he could see was the dust churning on the road. He wondered with great curiosity about their festive destination.
Suddenly, he saw his mother run from the master’s house in such fervor her long waist length hair flew backwards as if propelling her forward. She was completely naked. The master followed in hot pursuit yelling in agitation for the overseer to catch her and beat her. The slaves were called from the field and cabins to come and witness the beating. She was tied to a post. Her body shivered in anticipating the sting of the lash. Willie watched his mother’s back turn scarlet with blood and her hair became matted in the broken flesh. He felt as if all of the air had been removed from the earth. He found it hard to breathe. He broke through the crowd of onlookers and climbed on his mother’s back to protect her from the whip’s lash.
The master ordered the overseer to stop. He warned the slaves that if any of them untied her or tended to her wounds, they would also receive a lashing. That night, the slaves defied the master and untied his mother and took her into a cabin to nurse her wounds. She died before morning.
When my mother first told me this story, I had many questions. Now that I am an adult and reflect on it, I think that Willie was probably traumatized for the rest of his life. My mother said that he rarely spoke. He was so quiet; often he was not noticed.
When Willie Smith married my great grandmother Cecelia Andrews in 1875, she still lived on her father’s and former slave owner’s plantation. Willie told Cecelia that he wanted to live as a Black man among Black people. He was adamant about his choice because Black people had exercised human compassion and endangered their own lives trying to save his mother’s life. This decision would later pose a psychological separation for Cecelia from her brother and sister, as they chose to live as White. Some African American and former free people of color selected to live as White because of the economic barriers that limited their progress as Black people. Unfortunately, over generations, this conflict divided families further and further apart. My family accepted blackness as the only honorable identity to choose. We were taught to embrace our unusual mixture of ethnicities, but to celebrate our Blackness.
Long before the “I’m Black and I’m Proud” movement permeated the psyches of African Americans, I remember how my parents and others cheered loudly when Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” became the Heavy Weight Champion of the world. When Jackie Robinson stood at bat ready to hit the ball, African Americans around the globe swelled with pride as another Black man had led us all to victory in another arena. From those of us who had “one drop” to those who could boast of being the blackest berry, we turned out in droves to see and hear Billie Holiday, or Marion Anderson, or Count Basie, or Cab Calloway, not just because they were superb performers, but because they were Black like us and they made us proud. We are African Americans and we are proud to be so.