Tuesday, January 8

The (Not So) Tragic Mulatto

My maternal grandmother’s honeymoon was 18 months as a guest of the State of Massachusetts. By marrying my grandfather she had broken the miscegenation laws. They were rarely enforced unless one party was turned in, which she was, by her family and so my eldest uncle was born in jail.
Mama G has always publicly identified herself as a Black woman. Up and down the New England seaboard we’re known as Portagee, these Portuguese/African families from Cape Verde. We have our own festivals (usually on Saints days), our own food and our own version of the Portuguese language. Julia Roberts’ played a character based on us in Mystic Pizza (she didn’t get the tan down). However, once you get inland or start moving south you’re Black and so that’s what Mama G has been. She has been a blond haired, blue eyed Black woman for years now.
I cannot begin to understand what it was for my mother to grow up in her family in her time. To make it worse there was no money. None. And so my mother grew up with an outhouse and as an outcast. The woman she is today is amazing: strong, vibrant, giving and loving. She is also scarred.
If I hear the term ‘tragic mulatto’ one more time I might just take someone’s head off. No more ‘half and half’ or ‘oreo’ either, thanks. Is it a cliché – the poor mixed race child strung like a bridge between two worlds? Sure it is. But until you’ve been the rope fraying as it is walked across please shut your mouth.
The fact is that with all the strides we have made as a country it is still not possible to live in both worlds simultaneously. You must give something up in order to move between the two and so you shift pieces of your identity around like toiletries trying to decide what is necessary for each trip. At some point my mother laid down her English heritage. She doesn’t ever mention that we are Mayflower descendants (not even to shut up annoying DAR types) and she rarely speaks of her family’s betrayal of her mother or of her mother’s strength. It is a choice she made and has had to live with. I don’t feel sorry for my mother, her life is too rich to allow room for pity (and she’d knock me on my ass) but I do get angry at the world that forced her into such a choice. I get angry at the world that has tried to force the Irish out of two of my sister’s or has tried to divide my sister’s and I along color lines.
No one wants to talk about it but there are tests you have to take every day in the Black community when you are a child of mixed race. They happen on the street and in church, in the office and at my own family gatherings. (T&K are the ‘black’ daughters; L&G are the ‘white’). So your skin gets tough and your identity becomes a hard fought for, prized possession. To the white community you are not ‘really black’ either. They can tell the jokes in front of you, make the borderline comments with much less care. Or so they think.
There is not a damn thing tragic about it for me. If the world can afford to deny the gifts, talents and insights of my mother, sisters and the hundreds of thousands of people like us on the basis of our races go right on ahead. Throw the tests at us, the insults and the jokes. Deny us and turn us away from your community. It will be your tragedy, not mine.

Pundits are now saying that sine Barack Obama has won Iowa and is likely to take New Hampshire the Black community is more likely to take him seriously in South Carolina. People have also questioned whether the Black community is ready for a Black President.
I happen to think it’s a little more complicated and sad than that, but there is no tragedy here.

12 Comments:

Jay said...

Of course it's much more complicated than the simple-minded people in the American press can contemplate.

And the last thing they are going to do is try to talk to actual people about these things. They think they know everything.

When I lived in San Antonio I had a lot of coworkers who were mixed race. Mostly Hispanic and White, but some were Hispanic and Black. It always seemed like a big deal to some people to point out the mixed race people at the factory I worked out. I never understood why it mattered though. Didn't make any difference to me.

WNG said...

I don't know why it seems to matter more for the minority part of the mixture, Jay. Maybe it's honestly because for most white people you are white or not. Once you start mixing races there seems to be, at least in my experience, that we have some kind of 'choice' that others lack. I don't believe that is true, but it doesn't change the perception.

Susan said...

I know this may not compare but my family is of strong Irish decent. We aren't the firey red hair Irish, though, so if you go somewhere and were to state it--for example in an Irish pub--they scoff. Somewhere back before I graced this planet with my sunshine, my family stopped talking about the Irish..they only claimed the English. I didn't find out until an advananced genealogy the truth.

It's a strange world when you're not only judged by your skin tone but also your hair color..

(a strange aside: I also found out I'm the direct decendent of Robert E Lee & Lord William Cordelle..do you ever look back at things like that and wonder if people from that far back made you who you are (or aren't) today?)

WNG said...

They obviously don't know the Robert the Bruce was called 'Black' Irish because he had black hair and eyes. Tell them to learn some history. Or just laugh at them because they drink Guinness cold.
My father's grandfather worked the land on Seabrook Island before he was freed. My father now owns lands on that island. Two generations. Yeah, I think about the people that came before. I think about John Alden coming from England, I think about my great grandmother Nona coming from Cape Verde, I think about my Papoo coming out of slavery. I think of them all, the good, bad and ugly and I think " I, too, am America."

NoRegrets said...

I'm amazed that she would get turned it, but I guess not really surprised. I'm glad it was 'only' 18 months of jail though. Could have been perhaps a lot worse (in the south?).

WNG said...

Plymouth, Massachusetts. The womb of America.

NoRegrets said...

No, I meant it could have been worse if they lived in the south.

guerreiranigeriana said...

interesting read/post...didn't know that they were sooo hell bent against miscegenation (sp?) that they had laws like that...sounds similar to brasil in the sense that within a family you can have the 'black' daughters and the 'white' daughters...treatment is then doled out accordingly...there, you don't really have the tests...except maybe the test of proving relation...

...this whole 'race' thing is damn weird to me...the fact that technically speaking, if we decide to play along in the game that race does exist, obama is both black and white, yet he would be the first 'black' president, as if the white part doesn't exist...white people definitely seem him as black...and black people are just now starting to see that the guy has black blood...thanks for sharing...didn't know you had cape verdean and irish heritage...

guerreiranigeriana said...

dammit...your post made me forget that i also came here to let you know that i have tagged you...please come to my page and find out about all the festivities!!...;)

WNG said...

NoR - I actually don't think it would have been worse. Instead of being ostracized by both communitie, mixed race couples in the south usually found some solace within the Black community. Maybe it was because the stakes were life and death. I don't know.

Guerre- The last of the laws weren't struck down until the early 70's I believe. Sick. I don't know how it is in Brasil but in my (extended) family the 'white' daughters were put down and made fun of while the 'Black' daughters were seen as better, more authentic somehow. Everyone always wants to have things both ways, and that is really what this comes down to. The Black community seems to want to shun and claim him (and all the rest of us) at whim. I must admit it pisses me off.

His Sinfulness said...

Being a white male living in the Siberia of the Americas, it's easy to forget about race issues... thanks for keeping me grounded, WNG.

WNG said...

It's why I'm here! It's part of my Muse/Minx double threat (or treat, depending on my mood)