Watching My Back: Part Two

A little over a year ago my mother’s family held a reunion in Denver, Colorado: home to an aunt and a few of my cousins. When I reviewed the downloads from my camera after returning to Michigan, I speculated what assumptions people would make of my family; our appearances and origins. Those recent images paint a diverse brood: those African-Americans that might not look typically American, as well as ‘European-Americans’ and Mexican-Americans. This is my family at present and yet not too dissimilar from the deep past.

Photographs of my maternal lineage that date from the turn of the 20th century betray similar diversity, namely the outward appearance of ‘White’ and possibly Native American (Cherokee) blood ties. My great-great grandparents are the earliest recorded ancestors within the family record. According to census documents dating from the mid-nineteenth century they inhabited the world of the Southeastern States; spirited, I imagine, in a waking nightmare of slavery, humidity, blood, and the hot-sand earth of Carolina and Georgia.

My maternal grandfather’s name of ‘Johnson’ cloaked his ancestors’ identities: it is a name that virtually makes one’s past innominate.  Family history during the days of enslavement is lost. My maternal grandmother’s line, however, can be traced towards the beginning of the 18th century. Records from the 1830s possibly provide a reason why this side of my family, known as Christie, can be followed farther back. The earliest woman is defined as “mulatto” in South Carolina records. Her family was given FPC, or Free Person of Color, status before emancipation. This designation allowed my ancestors ––as well as a few other ‘free Negroes’ to own land and work for wages.

Personally, I find this slight offering of antebellum emancipation to be a shared, inherited heirloom of sorts: one that defines a good share of our family identity. Not one for believing in ghosts, dybbuks or djinns, there is nonetheless this pervasive influence as old as attic dust that pollinates the business of the present; it is the mixed privileges from our FPC past. The ability to live outside the majority experience because of the color of one’s skin, and also outside the minority experience because of the same, is the history of outsiders. It is a history ––from the standpoint of my maternal family–– absent of openly fervid, restless confusion: absent of that myth that homogeneity breeds harmony. Perhaps like a winter blanket, reason and inalterable patience can only replace and cool the mindless, quick heat of our country’s ‘race’ mania.  Love helps too.

I can only imagine my grandparent’s sense of humorless and stern character from stories and those mute remembrances of sunlit visits my unsmiling grandmother made to her daughter’s suburban home. After moving north with the African-American migration from the South after the First World War (a campaign my grandfather served, albeit stateside), my mother’s parents settled in Detroit where they raised seven children. Roman Catholicism and an oak-hard realism offered little, if any support for their children in pursuit of the post-World War II American dream. Keeping one’s head down’ in an age of race riots (Detroit, 1943) and Jim Crow on both sides of the Mason-Dixon was practical behavior.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother along with her sisters and brothers were far less rigid. My grandfather valued work over higher education; perhaps an understandable position since African-Americans were, at a time, more likely to be guaranteed the former and not the luxury of the latter. Yearning to become a teacher, however, my mother was strong-willed enough to ignore her father’s pessimistic fatalism by putting herself through college. She and several members of my family ––both immediate and extended–– have been involved in education, either as teachers or administrators. Coupled with my father’s sense of social and political responsibility, my immediate family culture, consequently, is one that values teaching as a means of informing society of their responsibilities as diverse, and civic-minded citizens.