Race in the US: What if your identity was a lie?
“There are no qualifiers to my blackness, and I will never again be Not Black Enough. I am a black man, and I am angry.”
My father’s anger was a storm.
Like many other boys, I was carefree and careless with a thoughtlessness that bordered on stupidity. The world revolved around my desire to laugh and run in a bubble of fun and I rarely noticed the wake of catastrophe that cast out behind me. But I was always aware of my father watching me, and I was aware of the storm.
He was a giant of a man, with a voice like thunder in the distance. I was a butterfly, small and frightened, observing the horizon of his brow, watching to see if the storm clouds were coming near, waiting for the winds to blow in my direction.
Surprisingly, despite my raucous behaviour, they very rarely did.
There was a deep anger in my father, but that storm ravaged other lands. Most often, my delicate wings felt only his whisper. But the whisper of my father was still a very powerful thing.
Each of my siblings have their stories about these whispers, about the times my father sat them down to have A Talk – a proper noun that is capitalised in our childhood memories the way A Beating is for some children. A Talk was a gruelling ordeal of mental torture where your mind felt like a balloon filled with too much water.
I, the only son of his six children (and his least intelligent child by far), was often caught off guard by A Talk.
“Let’s take a walk,” my father would say, and we would go outside and sit down on the stoop, walking nowhere. He would ask me innocent questions about my day, enquire about my opinion on random matters, and generally just chat with me until I suddenly became aware that I had irrevocably incriminated myself, and that he knew every detail of the childhood crime I thought I had gotten away with two days earlier, and had all but forgotten.
At which point, he would begin to fill my mental balloon with water, taking me to task for my misdeed with a complexity of words that my eight-year-old mind couldn’t possibly comprehend. I would spend the rest of the day reeling with confusion, my mind unable to focus on anything I was doing, trying desperately to absorb what he had told me.
A Talk was torture. My siblings all got different versions of A Talk, but we each joke to this day that we would have rather had the beating and be done with it. The beating, we say, would have been easier on us.
‘Black, but not culturally black’
“Talking,” my father said, “is what Indians do. We use language the way some people use a sword.”
We are Black Indians, a racial and cultural mixture of escaped African slaves and Native Americans who disobeyed the laws of their time and found refuge in each other’s brown skin.
“We are racially black, but culturally Indian,” he told me, “there is a great deal that we’ve lost because we lost our language, but we are still Indian. The government doesn’t recognise our tribe because we refused to move when they told us to, but we are still Indian.”
My father told me this during A Talk that I do not think my sisters had. Being his only son, I was granted other knowledge, a pointer to a patriarchy I don’t want to believe I’m a part of, but which I inherited nonetheless.
“We are Indian,” he said, pointing toward the street, “but out there, I am just a black man.” His voice darkened as he said this, and I saw the storm clouds rolling closer to me as he spoke, the winds building.
“When I walk out that door, no one cares about my history, or my culture. They don’t care about who I am, or what I do, or what I know. When I walk out that door, they don’t see me, they see a black man, and that is all I am to them. Remember that.”
This was the most difficult Talk my father gave me, because it was then that I learned who we are, and where we come from, but when I also discovered that none of that mattered. When he said this to me, I had my first real view of the complexities, and the difficulties, of race.
I’d had glimmers before. My mother is white, and so I saw differences between members of my family that many others never see. Still, glimmers were all I had until that day, when the raw truth was laid out before me.
From then on, race and culture were always present, but always somewhat fluid. I fluttered in race like a butterfly in a garden, as comfortable with German stollen at Christmas as I was with fry bread at a powwow. But even as a child, those glimmers of complexity glinted when I was with my black friends.
My father’s family was black, but what some people in the 1980s called ‘Cosby Black’ – and what others called ‘articulate’. My father never allowed his children to speak unless we spoke “proper English”.
“Speak correctly, or don’t speak at all,” he would tell me firmly.
Consequently, I grew up feeling like I was on the fringes of black culture, never entirely comfortable that I fit in because my language was different from that of my friends. I was an Oreo Cookie. Not Black Enough. This was something I had difficulty accepting as a child, and I didn’t understand why I was such an outcast until that Talk when my father told me of our people and where we came from, until I understood that I was black, but not culturally black.
Later in life, the complexities of race deepened as I met other black people with similar stories. Black friends who, at one time or another, had felt or been called Not Black Enough; black friends without a white parent, without another culture underlying their race.
As an adult, I see this construct of ‘black culture’ more clearly. I would never expect a white person to feel comfortable around every group of white people simply because they are white. I recognise that different groups of white people have different backgrounds and different cultures – ethnic cultures, family cultures, regional cultures. We interact in layers of culture. But somehow this doesn’t count if you are black because there is ‘black culture’. It is, of course, an obscene fallacy, but such is the internalisation of race.
As a child, I internalised race, internalised otherness, within myself so much that I became convinced that black was a single defining characteristic. I internalised the fallacy that if I didn’t automatically fit in with another group of black people, it was not because we have a different family culture, but because I was Not Black Enough.
Of course, I had an excuse. I am, after all, culturally Indian.
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And I take my Native American culture very seriously.
“You can be half white,” my father said during A Talk, “and you can call yourself half black, if that’s what you want to do. But you are either Indian or you are not an Indian.”
My father raised me to protect our culture, to be annoyed with meaningless displays like dreamcatcher earrings and stupid Indian names. Native American culture is simultaneously romanticised to the point of Disney, and ostracised to the point of genocide. We didn’t have our Martin Luther King, and we don’t have our Jessie Jackson or our Barack Obama. There are so few of us that we all must fight, every one of us, to protect our culture.
And so while I was a member of the Black Student Union in college, I was the president of the Native American Student Association. I fought Native cultural appropriation wherever I saw it, because I would be damned to see someone skipping around in blonde hair, spouting their Indian name, while they danced on the land stolen from my people.
The older I got and the more I saw Native cultural appropriation, the more I came to see the storm clouds on my own horizon, to hear the thunder in my own voice.
My sisters were interested, but not as interested as me. My four older sisters are black, my younger sister is white. I am the only boy, and so the only one my father raised Indian. That you can have siblings who identify with different races is the reality of race in many multicultural families.
My sisters and I often talk about race and our family’s odd history when we are together. So it came as no surprise to me while visiting last Christmas to learn that they had participated in the National Geographic ‘Genographic’ study.
The study tracks the human genetic markers of a person’s history to find out where an individual’s ancestry was – what the path of their human migration was through time. By studying people from across the globe, and analysing specific populations, we can know various average, or expected, make-ups of different populations.
For instance, the average African American has roughly 20 percent European/Mediterranean DNA, primarily because the history of black women is typified, if not dominated, by rape. African Americans also have, on average, one to three percent Native American DNA, because of historic interbreeding with another oppressed population of brown-skinned people.
My sisters, taking a sample from my father’s brother, wanted to know just how Indian we were. Was it barely enough to be listed on tribal roles if the government did recognise our tribe? Or was it, as I suspected, a much greater percentage?
The result was beyond what any of us suspected and rolled over me like thunder: It was zero.
There is absolutely zero Native American DNA in our family – a result confirmed when I took my own test that concluded that I am a near perfect mathematical average of the average German and the average African American reference populations.
Zero Native American DNA.
Less even than the one to three percent in the average African American. My family is, in fact, more Neanderthal than we are Native American.
In other words, my family, the family that taught me to fight against the appropriation of Native American culture, appropriated Native American culture.
As I learned this, and realised the implications, I closed my eyes, and watched the storm clouds build on the horizon of my mind.
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I am a black man … and I am angry
Being black in America is meaningful.
Race is a completely meaningless concept, denied by everyone from anthropologists to geneticists. The fact that there is far more genetic diversity between two African populations than between an African population and a European population proves in itself that race is pretty much meaningless. Race doesn’t exist. Race is a myth.
But black? Black is very, very real.
When my father, when my grandmother, when any of my ancestors, walked out of their door, that reality was proven. How many of my ancestors died for that reality? They were not seen as who they were, they were a black person.
Whoever among them made the decision to appropriate Native American culture – whoever created the lie – needed to do it. It was not right, but it was needed. Whoever passed that lie to their children wanted to give them something better. They didn’t believe that America, their own home, would ever truly accept them. Maybe they, like me as a younger man, in some ways could not even accept themselves. They wanted to give their children hope, the hope to be someone this country would accept. Hope to be something more than a black person.
One of my older sisters said that we can’t know the pain that our older generations felt during the Civil Rights Movement, and the fear before that, when equality wasn’t even something worth hoping for. We can’t know what it felt like to be thought of as less than human. We can’t know what it was like to live in a world where the best thing you could hope to do for your children is to lie to them about who they are so that they could be just a little bit less black.
I can never know what it feels to live in that world, but I know what it feels to live in this one, now. I know what it feels like to live with that lie as my family history. And I know too what it feels like to live with anger that comes as a storm, with black clouds that pour a torrent.
I am black. I am not just racially black, and I am not half black. There are no qualifiers to my blackness, and I will never again be Not Black Enough. I am a black man.
And I am angry.
I want to be angry at my family. I want to be angry at my father, or my grandfather, or whoever it was that started this myth about who we are, whoever lied to their own children. But I can’t, because I can’t know what they went through when they created that lie. But I can know what they wanted, why they did it.
I’m not angry at my family for doing what they thought they had to do. I’m angry that they lived in a world that made them feel they had to do that. And I’m angry that we still live in such a world. I’m angry that a woman named Sandra Bland drove to a job at her Alma Mater and died in a police cell for no other reason than that she was a black person. I’m angry that a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice was shot for no other reason than that he was a black person. I’m angry that Walter Scott, a man whose life mirrored that of my own father, was shot in the back by a cop for no other reason than that he was a black person.
I understand my father’s anger a bit more now.
READ MORE: Know your history – Understanding racism in the US
Race is a complex topic. It is fluid, and a person like Barack Obama might feel just as comfortable in a white family as a black one and still be a black person. The experience of being black in America is complex and contextual, and no person or group can speak to it wholly.
But there is one aspect of it that I hope we can all take to heart, one aspect that my father’s family could not accept, but that I will teach my children. They will be black without qualifiers.
“Your father,” I will say with a voice like thunder in the distance, “is proud, and you should be proud, to live without qualifiers. You should be proud, and help others to be proud, about being a black person.”
About the author: John Metta has worked as a cook, groundskeeper, store clerk, park ranger, Navy submariner, Army wartime medic, hydrologist, school teacher, software developer, mathematical modeller, and underwater archaeologist. Before any of these jobs, and during them all, he was writing. Always writing.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
This article first appeared in a special edition of the Al Jazeera Magazine exploring race in the US.