When I was growing up, my mom told me that I was American Indian, Chinese, German and Irish. German and Irish from my father’s side and American Indian and Chinese from her’s. When I was in school learning about the Native Americans, I would raise my hand and offer that I was Mohawk and Shinnecock. I came to identify with the history and struggles of American Indian peoples. I am comfortable saying American Indian rather than Native American because I came to learn that many refer to themselves in that way. It’s also the language my mother used to teach me of the origin of my maternal grandmother so I didn’t question it. On her father’s side, she said that she was Chinese. This was less specific but I was told of a grandfather named Wy Lee, a great aunt named Mae Ling Pang, and Chinese uncles, the names of whom escape me.
Needless to say, I believed my mother and didn’t doubt her regarding my ancestry. I was an extremely inquisitive child, often requiring answers which were far beyond the reach of my mother’s knowledge. I often asked her to tell me more about my ancestors. How do you know which tribes we have links to? What were their customs? Do I have a native American name? Are Chinese people tall like me? I have straight fingers, is this a Native American trait? Teach me a Chinese word. Well, you must know some… To be fair to my mother, inquisitive might not be strong enough a word to describe my young self. I would demand answers of her ranging on all topics. When she was not able to answer questions such as, “could there be a way to get energy from sources which are not hot or burning?” a question that I thought up when I was about 10, she would admit that she didn’t have answers for me. This led me to demand her to guess. She would go on by saying that it wouldn’t be fair to just throw out an answer, but I was persistent. Eventually, she would break down and offer up a line of reasoning to which I would immediately offer a rebuttal if I deemed her answer to be faulty in logical construction. It must have been infuriating.
To the issue of ethnic origin, she did have many answers. These answers are likely to be entirely false. I was told that I did indeed have an Indian name. It was Hiawatha. Upon reflection, I think that this is a rather good choice for fabrication because the historical Hiawatha was perhaps a leader among 16th century Mohawks, a tribe to which my grandmother supposedly belonged. Here’s where it gets tricky. I was told that my Grandmother’s maiden name was Mantancowa. This combination is egregiously false. Mantan is the name of a potential ancestor and Cowa is the name of someone else entirely. There was also a long name which my mother called herself on occasion for which I have absolutely no explanation. Kim-sita Buquita Bernadette Tickawitha Mantan Cowa Lee. Mantancowa was always said as one word and to a child, it bears a familiarity to Hiawatha which was verifiably and indisputably American Indian.
When I hit pre-adolescence, I started getting to know people from my mother’s side of the family. They were black. Sure, everyone was some combination of ethnicities which mixed black with something else i.e. Italian, black south American, Hispanic, Hawaiian, but these people were certainly not Native American. My cousin Johnny was someone who I looked up to immediately. He was an athlete and still is, competing in marathons and cycling races. He was a hero to me with unsurpassed coolness along with his sister Gia. They both grew up in the Bronx so their accents were distinctly urban and yet not ghetto or uneducated. Their mother and my mother’s sister, Margo, has a very dark complexion. She has always been lovely, intelligent, and even-tempered. She was and is unusually stable for a member of my family and this stood out.
The following is one of my favorite stories to tell. I was staying over at Johnny’s apartment in Tuckahoe. I was probably 13 years old. I drove somewhere with him in his white 80’s Toyota sports car. It was so cool that every time I see a Japanese car from the 80’s in good condition, I smile and desire it. I asked John why he refers to himself as black rather than black, American Indian and so forth. He looked at me and said, “American Indian? Who told you that? Your grandmother was as black as the night itself. You know how you can jump higher than most of your friends? Have you ever thought why that might be? Ya Black! Have you ever been at the store and saw something that you wanted but couldn’t afford? Have you ever thought of stealing something before? Ya black!” He went on and on listing embarrassingly typical racial stereotypes. He said it, of course, to make me laugh as I am laughing while I write this account.
That night I had a dream that I acquired African features; much darker skin, more pronounced lips and a nose which flared out to a greater degree than mine did. When I spoke to my cousin in the morning I told him about my dream. He said, “I understand, I cried when I found out that I was black.” He was joking, at least a little bit. I wasn’t distressed by this knowledge but I was somewhat let down by the fact that my mother had either knowingly or otherwise misled me into believing that I had American Indian ancestors.
I had, of course, asked her if we were black. Believe it or not many of my black friends growing up asked me if I was biracial. She always denied having an African American background.
A Quick Note On Race:
The human species is not subdivided into racial categories. The whole topic of race is language borrowed from a less informed time. People perpetuate attitudes and behaviors based on their perceived race or the races of others but make no mistake, there is just one race of hominids and it’s Homo Sapiens aka Humans. We’re it. Find the weirdest looking person you can think of. You’re the same race as them. (2016 update) I think it’s really obvious that the social construct of race is VERY real. People see race and identify with race. Some people benefit greatly from privileges that come along with the race that they are perceived as and other endure great suffering under the same condition. So, race is real in as much as the concept of race has real world consequences.
Having been brought up with conflicting information regarding my now debunked racial origin had its disadvantages. My mother occasionally called me White Boy. This was disconcerting because I knew of no positive context for this expression. I would complain when she called me that and she would say, you should be proud of your heritage. I call this deflection. I eventually disallowed my mother from calling me that which resulted in her coming out to me as a black person. This was when I was about 24 years old.
I have a really fond memory of hanging out with the Asian kids when I was in 7th Grade. I had just learned about Asia in my world studies class and I was eager to make friends with more of my kind. None of the kids objected to me tagging along. They didn’t ridicule me or show skepticism toward my obviously non-asian features. It was nice.
When I was in High school I didn’t have a lunch table. I was a floater. A free agent if you will. As a freshman, I spent some time with the minorities who seemed to clump together around two tables which were closest to the a la carte section of the cafeteria. I wonder if there is a joke somewhere in there? Anyway, this lasted for a short time and then I would go off to another table for a while. Being a sensitive kid who didn’t understand ironic humor made school a difficult place for me. There is much to go into on that subject which I will save for another post.
I remember some friends inviting me to a minority club. We got together, listened to rap, and ate fried chicken. I’m not even kidding. I ended up not going to many of those meetings. It was transparent even to me, an oblivious teenager. There might have been and illustration being made but I didn’t understand irony at that point so I didn’t stay to find out if that was the case.
One afternoon there was a pep rally. A girl who I had a crush on invited me to sit with her in the bleachers. She said, come on, all of the minorities will be sitting in the same section. I became immediately disinterested because the purpose of a pep rally was to represent your graduating class, not to segregate into color groups. This is the day that I stopped caring about race.
At that point, I was still very unclear about my background. My mother had regained ground in casting doubt that I was black. I was often asked about my family origins. I told people that I was American. That was good enough for me but to many Americans, this is not an acceptable answer. You can’t just go around with a perma-tan and call yourself merely American. “What are you really?” was a common response I would get. I sometimes gave more information but the truth is, I didn’t have very much to give. I know that my dad was Irish and Lithuanian, not German at all. My mom is for all I know only black but I have reason to believe that she could be Indonesian or East Indian. Her birth certificate says that her father was Sanka Mantan of Indonesia. I only have a sliver of information regarding a grandfather who might have been from India but it’s from an unreliable source. I suppose it’s also possible that my maternal grandfather was actually Chinese. These things are all currently unconfirmed so I will continue to give the short form answer when pressed. I’m black, Irish, and Lithuanian.
These things all bear a diluted meaning to me. I spent a lot of time identifying with various groups so now, I feel as though I’m a part of every group. Middle eastern people often ask me if I’m from one of their countries. Hispanic people regularly claim me as one of their own. Italians tell me that I look Italian, black people tell me that I look white. White people usually don’t care either way unless their racist in which case I sometimes become the subject of their indignity.
I believe that my mother came out as black in the year 2005. She had just returned from being away for a long time (jail) and we were reestablishing contact. We were having a great conversation on the phone and she called me a white boy for some reason. I simply replied, “You no longer have permission to call me that anymore. It never means anything good.” To this, she broke down. She admitted to me for the first time in my life that she was black. She told me of how she was able to pass for something else. She has thin lips and wavy hair rather than tight curls. It’s just enough to cast a shadow of doubt on her origin. She had struggles growing up that I won’t begin to understand. It was the past and as with almost everything, it was worse, less accepting, and more ignorant. People on both sides of the racial divide were likely intolerant of her. Although she grew up in New York City, she was unable to cope with this part of her identity.
After my mother told me this story, she asked how I felt now that I knew that I was black. I told her that I had known for over ten years at that point and that I felt the same as I had before. In the following weeks, she purchased a black Barbie for herself and purchased me two FUBU jackets the size of sleeping bags.
When she presented them to me, I tried to look grateful but was confounded by how ridiculous they were, fur collar and all. I declined and said that they didn’t fit the way I like my clothes to fit to which she replied, “But baby, they’re For Us, By Us!”
This is really just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about racial identity. I think that overall, I am at an advantage having identified with so many ethnic groups. Coming to the understanding that race is a hoax anyway had led me to be a more inclusive person. I like identifying with everyone I meet. I hope that more people have the opportunity to be as racially confused as I was.