Kiss Me, I’m Irish!

James Joyce

“Your battles inspired me – Not the material battles, but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” – James Joyce

Here’s a fun fact:  Every year, on 2 February, I share a birthday with James Joyce. I’m not sure why that is the one prolific shared event to shame all others in my mind.  Some pretty significant events have taken place on February 2nd: New Amsterdam became an official city, later to be named New York Cit-ay (1653). Al Capone finally went to prison on charges of tax evasion (1932). The German Army surrendered at the battle of Stalingrad, thus marking the turning point in World War II (1943). Let’s just say I’d rather remember it as the day that one of the most mind-bogglingly brilliant writers and intellectual terrorists to have ever lived, meaning Joyce, was born.

No no…don’t worry. My ego has been far too deflated by recent events to even entertain the parallels to which you might think me alluding. I’m just entertained by this fact more now than ever, now that I also know that I am certifiably Irish.  James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake, a book which most literary enthusiasts agree will forever remain notorious for being either a stroke of sheer genius or textbook Freudian psychobabble; either way, he is immortalized for this psychotic genius on my bookshelf…and the infinite notes that I have taken for each of the three times that I have tried to read what is most commonly referred to as the most unreadable literary work of all time.

The book itself is a 628 paged exercise in suspending the conscious patterns and decisions that we make every day to judge the progress of the human condition. What’s right, and what’s wrong. What we should do and what we shouldn’t. Who I am relative to who you are, and how I define myself through the behaviors and actions of my friends, co-workers, family…for example.

Because this is a book and not the Higgs Boson Headquarters (CERN) in Switzerland, Joyce, in order to completely devastate everything you think you know about the world in which you exist, utilizes the only tool at his disposal – language, through a method called psychography – automatic writing meant to reflect a subconscious thought stream, or as we in the realm of the living call it, dreams.  If you’re never tried it yourself, you should. Just sit down at a table, with a blank piece of paper and a pen in hand and start writing for an hour or so. Don’t think. Don’t meditate. Don’t count sheep or go through that mental check-list stapled to the front of your brain. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you make spelling or grammatical errors. It doesn’t matter if it’s in English, Spanish or Elvish. It doesn’t matter if you make up new words or colloquial. It doesn’t matter if you use the American or Queen’s lexicon, or both at the same time! It doesn’t matter if your work looks like a finely edited paragraph from the NY Times (it won’t) or if it looks like a gigantic ball sac sprouted two legs and jogged madly all over your keyboard (it will). Write quickly enough to prevent you from thinking, to prevent you from reacting or feeling ridiculous about what you’re doing…write without anyone in the room to distract you by reminding you of how ridiculous you should feel for doing it. Just write.

I think most people are surprised to come face-to-face with the string of nonsensical (and sometimes overtly sexual or violent) thoughts seething just beneath the surface of our carefully crafted physical appearances. But it’s there nonetheless. Beneath the composure, political correctness and assimilated mannerisms, lies complete and total pandemonium of the brain. It makes you realize just how much effort we put into “keeping our shit together,” when we are all on the verge of losing it. But the societal construct in which we live, with its laws and acceptable norms, is the glue that keeps everything from, basically, falling apart. Monkey see, monkey do.

But always, always within us, these two natures, or brains, are constantly at war.

Now, you might just sit down and try to do this. And! You might be thinking to yourself “What’s so hard about this? It’s just me rambling about mindlessly on a piece of paper. I could do this all day long!” And then I might say that your logical brain is just trying to get you to quit while you’re ahead, because it’s doesn’t like being told to take a time-out. It’s actually extremely difficult to keep your conscious brain at bay for an entire hour. It’s easy to stop speaking, but to stop your brain from taking over while you’re writing automatically and, instead, get you play Fruit Ninja on your iPhone? Try it. TRY IT.

I’ve tried it. Hell, I’ve tried almost everything. Meditation. Boxing. Yoga. Pilates. Reiki. The only things that DO seem to work are 1) Savasana pose at the tail end of a Yoga session 2) Reading 3) Tibetan throat chanting and 4) Counting. I do this nightly, as I drift off to sleep counting from 1-10 with my hand resting on my stomach as I count. This process is infiltrated by the relentless invasion of other conscious thoughts: “Must find a new apartment. Where can I get a new fridge? I love puppies. Nutella. Richard Graham. Michael Fassbender. I’m single again. Zanzibar. Puppies. Single. ROAD TRIP!!!”  Sometimes, the counting gets kind of convoluted…the numbers sometimes start doing the macarena or are covered in glitter or cowboy costume. All of this to keep the counting interesting enough so that my other conscious thoughts are kept at bay.

That’s a lot of hoop-jumping, just so that I don’t have to think. Don’t ya reckon?

The point of this whole exercise is that, through this self-imposed chaos, through this journey into the un-waking darkness of your subconscious, should arise a kind of new, indefatigable truth about yourself. In the pieces that I have been able to put together (and have confirmed through various essays written by Joycean scholars, like Wikipedia) I am able to determine that, in the case of Finnegan’s Wake, through the 628 pages of incoherent prose, there is actually a fairly simple plot…about a family; and a crime, sexual in nature, committed by the father against his daughter as bared witnessed to by the other members of the family. Always, in the periphery of this story is the familiar backdrop used in all of Joyce’s work: Ireland

Ireland used to be one of those places where I thought, “yeah, maybe, one day if I’m in the area or if I have a layover on the way to some place more interesting…” I mean, bad weather, dark beer and British oppression. Where do I sign up?!

But since I learned about my Irish relatives, I have to admit, I’m singing a different tune:

  • Robert Smith (20 June 1760 – 19 June 1853)
  • Ferguson Wilson (1 November 1767 – 19 June 1853)
  • Michael Wilson & Margaret Wilson (Fergie’s parents)
  • Huey Smith (1737 – 1822) Robert’s Father
  • Nancy Farris (1700 – 1772) Huey’s mother
  • John Smith (1690 – 1766) Huey’s father
  • Richard Smith (b.1655) John’s Father
  • Katherine Garland (b.?) John’s Mother

I don’t know much about any of them, except that they came over on a boat from Antrim, in modern day Belfast in the late 1700’s and settled in modern day Butts County (hehe…), Georgia.

I can see that, given both Robert and Ferguson’s shared date of death, their passing was probably of unnatural causes…although I can’t guess what since planes or cars didn’t exist at the time. Buggy perhaps? And they are all the descendants of Rosannah Smith Torbet, my great-great-great-great grandmother. Rosannah gave birth to Mary Jane. Mary Jane was raped by Walton Greer when she was 11. They had Mollie. Through all the branches of chaos that I’ve uncovered thus far, the one instance that stands out the most to me and haunts me the most while awake or sleeping, is this one; the crimes of the father, not just being committed against the woman whom (I assume) was forced to marry him later on, but against his daughter for wearing the reality of how she came to be…for the rest of her life. I think of this as a metaphor for all slavery. Not just this story, but the “plot” of Finnegan’s Wake. You take a large group of people from various parts of the world, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, America, and you put them together in random order…next to each other, on top of each other, beneath one another, inside the other, killing and raping each other…and out of all that chaos…is me!

Hiiiiiiiiiiii…..!

Finnegan’s Wake , while nonsensical, random and sexually overt, is no more so than the history of slavery, which predicates my very existence.

But more than that…is it weird to say that, the more of Joyce’s work that I read, and the more that I read it, the less incoherent and random my own thoughts seem to me? And even though I have no evidence to suggest that he and I are related directly, there may be a small token, or gift, of his that I have inherited somewhere along the bloodlines?

From what I hear about Ireland, Northern Ireland in particular (editor’s note: Joyce was from Dublin) the people there have a strange affinity with African American history and culture. I have never met an Irishman who didn’t know and revere Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey or President Obama. My Australian friend Murph, from Belfast, will literally chase me around the house/club/bar/beach every time I see him to talk about his unbridled love and admiration for President Obama. Everything Obama says is brilliant. I’m lucky that he’s my president. Anyone who doesn’t like Obama is a fucking moron! Every move he makes is magical! His tears are the things made of unicorn horns and glitter! He has the eloquence of a modern day Martin Luther King, Jr.! These are all correct statements, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to hearing them come from a white guy from Belfast!

They want to talk for days about the Civil Rights movement. They want to pick my brain on the critical state of hip hop today. And when I walk by a group of them sitting outside of a bar on a warm summer’s day, I receive no less than five marriage proposals (yes, I will talk about ‘tokenism,’ but later on).  And when I mention Frederick Douglass, they all…go…ape shit.

Frederick Douglass, for those of you who are not familiar (or Irish), was the most influential abolition activist of the Civil War era. What? No, not Abraham Lincoln. Frederick Douglass. An escaped slave himself, and a by-product of a slave/slave owner relationship, he didn’t even know his own birthday. Because his nick name was “Valentine,” he just adopted 14 February as his date of birth and celebrated it hence forth.  After he escaped, Douglass turned to literature to aid in his transition in becoming a freed man and, as a result, became renowned for his writing, his speeches and the newspapers that he founded and for which he became editor-in-chief. He was shockingly brilliant, educated and eloquent. Not just “for a man of the times,” and not just “for an ex-slave”…he was brilliant for any man of any time, of any color. Douglass wrote three amazing autobiographies, numerous articles and letters to and criticizing President Lincoln openly. He even wrote an open letter to his ex-owner condemning his participation in the slave trade and treatment of his mother. Then, fearing potential legal retribution that could potentially call him back to the old plantation, Douglass travelled to England and Ireland, where he gave numerous talks on the state of slaver y in America to mass critical acclaim, and raised enough money to head back to America and legally purchase his own freedom. AND…in case you STILL don’t feel like giving this man the “G” status the he so deserves, to add insult to injury, after his first wife passed away, he married a white woman twenty years younger than him. JUST so he could rub his balls in people’s faces.

Frederick Douglass…original badass.

*in my best movie trailer voice* Against all the odds, in a time of war…one man will risk is it all…to tell his violent oppressor and society at large…to suck his salty, chocolate balls.

Coming this fall.

Have you ever heard of the Stockdale Paradox? It’s based off of an experience of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who flew planes during the Vietnam War. James was captured and held as a POW for seven years, in which time he was routinely beaten and tortured. He was put in leg shackles. He slept in a cell barely the size of a toilet stall with a light above him that never turned off. His back was broken and both his shoulders had been dislocated from their sockets. In order to prevent his image from being used in propaganda to exploit the US Government, he would bash his own face in or cut his scalp. He also slit his own wrists so that he could not be tortured for confidential information. When he was freed, he filed charges against several of his fellow Naval captives for not resisting the influence of the enemy to his satisfaction. In other words, they caved in to the torture like the giant, plush pink pussies he thought them to be. The Stockdale Paradox is essentially a heightened will to survive that, contrary to what you might be tempted to think, is NOT inherent in all human beings. This has been an issue of particular interest to geneticists, who have attempted to apply this principle in the scenario of mass genocides as a kind of genetic factor. Some scientists believe, and I am tempted to concur, that a heightened sense of survival is, genetically, no different than inheriting curly hair or green eyes. After all, despite the fact that nobody should have endured the Cambodian Genocide, and that nobody should have endured the Armenian Genocide, and absolutely no one on earth should have endured the Rwandan Genocide, why did some survive while others perished? Why did certain people survive Vietnamese POW camps while others didn’t even make it a week? Why did certain people survive the Holocaust, through two, three, five years of starvation and brutal physical labor, knowing that their entire families had been killed off in gas chambers, while others wasted away in a matter of weeks?

Why did certain slaves survive the transatlantic passage, their subsequent purchase and procurement by slave owners, and endure, while others never even made it off of the boat? I know that none of us like to reduce the horrific experiences of those long past to DNA, but I think it’s important to understanding ourselves.

To me, Frederick Douglass is the textbook example of the Stockdale Paradox (or rather, Vice Admiral Stockdale has the Douglass paradox. What do ya think?). There is absolutely no way…no WAY that he was supposed to survive his circumstance. He was thrown into an environment where no one can reasonably expect another human to walk away. Slavery itself was then as it still is now, unfortunately in certain parts of the world, a death sentence.  There were millions of slaves in America back then. Millions. For the near four hundred years that slavery endured in that country. And I, like many of you, am a direct descendant of the ones that managed to survive. Either they escaped or they were freed. But they made it. And when I think of the countless number of bloodlines that were cauterized at the root, murdered by transatlantic passage or cruel owners or disease and ruin and rape and heart break (which I would definitely classify as a cause of death) …I can’t help but think to myself that, perhaps there is a small part of that incredibly keen drive to, not only survive, but to succeed and to thrive, within me. With all of the descendants of slaves that are alive today. Through all of that nonsensical, arbitrary chaos, there lies an indomitable gene that never says “die.”

I have managed to identify two factors that may have contributed to this:

  1. Market Domination – My mother is one of twelve. My father is one of five…or six. I don’t really know. Richard Graham, my Great X 3 grandfather was one of twelve. His son also had twelve children. Fergie Wilson listed above? Ten children. Darwinian Theory dictates that my ancestors procreated extensively due to the harsh reality that only a fraction of their offspring would live long enough to reproduce themselves. Fisherman call it “casting out a wide net,” in the hopes that their returns will at least be adequate enough to survive. You could call it survival of the fittest, but either way, there was a method to their madness . My grandmother had twelve children who made it to adulthood and went on to have children of their own…but she actually had 18 children (that we know of). Six did not live through infancy. At least two of these were still-born.
  2. Market Integration – Have you ever heard the stereotype that all black people look alike? How the hell can that be when we are all result of multiple continents getting together and playing seven minutes in heaven? It isn’t. We don’t. Spanish, English, French, Asian, Native American…African; Nigeria, Liberia, Mauritania, Ghana…like the Pan-Indian identity, we have survived because we have integrated with many other colors of the rainbow, whether by force (as we know) or by choice (like me). And let’s face it. With the internet and rapid globalization, one day in the not so distant future, we’re all going to be an almond-eye shaped variety of beige. That is really the best way to ensure survival.

Douglass got onto this early, with two marriages to women of different races. Douglass wrote about his time in Ireland like it was a revelation. In My Bondage, My Freedom, he said that, when boarding a ride or entering a beautiful cathedral, he was afforded the same respect and consideration as any white person. He very romantically extended a warm welcome to their struggles and developed many long-lasting relationships with activists and government personnel, including Daniel O’Connell, a noted Irish Nationalist.

Now, of all the white people in Europe, it is my impression that the Irish, specifically the Northern Irish, are the most resilient, the most obstinate and the most oppressed.  I think of them as the Negroes of the North. Within a forced British occupation, Northern Ireland actively participated in open guerrilla style warfare with the British government for thirty years (known as “The Troubles”) resulting in over three thousands deaths. There was even a Civil Rights-style inspired resistance meant to end anti-Catholic discrimination! Go ahead, and tell me that’s a coincidence!  I remember hearing about it on the news when I was a little girl. I remember hearing about Bobby Sands and his hunger strike, whispered between my parents many years after his death (which was before I was born). My mother never really showed emotion about many ethno-political struggles. But I remember her, very specifically, shedding tears when I asked her about Bobby Sands when I was about 8 years old. She told me that he died for a cause for which he could no longer fight in life.  I had no idea what she was talking about then. I wouldn’t for many more years to come…

I know that this chapter may be less of an account of my own experiences, as it may be a small history lesson. And I know that it looks like I’m trying to jimmy my way into a category of historical giants to which I have absolutely no right to compare myself. You’re right, I don’t. They are so beyond me…so completely above and beyond even the stars and the galaxies of the dimension in which I exist, I couldn’t even jokingly compare.  But this whole exercise, the mapping, the DNA, the utopian dream trip to Africa all wrapped up in my hopes and dreams this year…I really only want to understand myself a little bit better. I wish that Richard Graham had written a book using psychography. I wish that Rosannah S. Torbet or Alexander Torrey Purcell had written three autobiographies each, or hell, between them! I wish that they were able to share with me a small piece of who they were, instead of the relentless guess work and research that I have to do in order to even learn their names. I wish that my mother would talk to me about her family without breaking down into tears and, 24 hours later, clawing her way out of despondency to not speak to anyone for a week. I wish, I wish, I wish.

But I know, as sure the sun is to rise in the East as it is to set in the West, that these people…with their names, their US Census records and their incredibly accurate hand-sketched likenesses, will always be less familiar to me than James Joyce or Frederick Douglass. Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far in this process is that, no matter how much it frustrates me, there are some questions to which there can never be answers. That is my own battle, waged daily behind my forehead. And I hate it.  There are some people that I will never know. In a way, it provides me with the creative license I need to fill in the gaps with my own studies, my own experiences and my own historical heroes. I don’t think Richard Graham would mind. I don’t think his mother, Sara would either. I think, if they knew me at all, they would know that I do so out of love…and gratitude…and a searing need to understand. I hope that, if there is some parallel universe from which they can observe my ridiculous quest, it makes them proud to know that I now know their names and that, should the day ever come, my children will too.

As Frederick Douglass, original badass, chose to define his birthday, and to re-define himself after slavery…like James Joyce chose to subvert his conscious brain with the arbitrary pulse of his subconscious, I think that I too will have to choose what this all means to me. But now, there will be something that I can leave behind for someone else to discover. I hope you’re listening. I’m doing this for you as much as I’m doing it for me. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Don’t forget me.

The Dark Branch Of The Tree

“My mother, poor fish, wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a week, telling me to be happy: “Henry, smile! Why don’t you ever smile?” and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw.” –Charles Bukowski

 

About five years ago, when I was just starting as a student at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, I attended an exhibition by the graduating MFA students of that semester. It was pretty much as you would expect from a bunch of self-indulged, twenty something white kids living on their parents’ dime. There was your token flamboyant gay man, dressed in Rocky Horror tribute, complete with requisite corset, makeup and thigh high nylons. There was (another flamboyant? Attention starved? Probably molested as an infant?) gay man dressed in a giant, fluffy penis costume. Clown attire.  Vaginally-shaped henna drawings. Damaged walls designed to resemble outdoor plumbing…and a creepy girl with a bad perm in gaucho pants singing ‘We Are The World,’ while her unshaven sidekicks handed out postcards boasting images of bloated African children. I say ‘boasting,’ because she was just narcissistic enough to want YOU to acknowledge her ‘awareness’ of poverty and starvation in Africa, but not vested so much to present strategies on how to combat those issues. In other words, just another art kid.

Oh yeah, there were a few paintings too…

There was also a young woman, dressed in completely normal attire, for a change, walking around handing out buttons. When I approached her to uncover the purpose of her project, she wouldn’t tell me what it was about. What she DID say was that I could have a button, if I promised to wear it for the rest of the evening. When I looked in her basket, I saw that every button voiced a statement, and that each statement began with the words “I fear…” But it wasn’t your normal “I fear spiders,” or “I fear swallowing,” kind of declaration. These were fears that provided a small window of insight into the bubbling cauldron of denial from which most of us source to function.

“I fear failure.”

“I fear never living up to my parents’ expectations.”

“I fear that nobody could ever love me.”

The project was pretty telling and, in the blink of an eye, I understood her objective. It was just one of those (very few) performance pieces that actually made sense…so much so that I still think about it five years later, from across the other side of the world. I still have my button. The rest of the exhibition didn’t even come close to this one piece. All those kids, spending THOUSANDS of dollars of their parents’ money to go to the alleged best art school in the country, wanking on stage and then go cutting themselves the day after, when they should’ve just learned Photoshop and gotten a therapist like everyone else. But THIS girl…got shit.

Think about the fears that we walk around with every single day, but never acknowledge out loud. We bury them, we internalize them, we try to dress them up with clothes, cars and alcohol-fueled rants at 3 in the morning…and, in turn, they manifest with the most predictable of consequences…infecting our most intimate relationships with anger, bitterness and resentment like a pus. Those fears end up controlling an inordinate amount of our lives, simply because the only thing that we fear MORE than that actual fear coming to fruition, is the idea of facing that fear before it becomes a reality. Amazing!

I fished through the buttons, thinking then as I had for many years before, that I was, essentially, fearless.

…Until it was staring me in the face from the palm of my (henna tatted) hand. And, like most honest things in life, you know the truth when you see it:

“I fear I won’t be a good mother someday.”

Image

One of the most common ‘side-effects’ of the middle passage is widely known to be the deconstruction of the black family unit. The whole concept of the ‘nuclear family,’ consisting of mom dad brother and sister has evolved, for the sake of survival, into something completely different.  With slavery came a complete disassociation from the motherland and a shredding of the usual suspects that comprise a family. With mothers and sons and fathers and daughters being separated from the moment they stepped off of the boat, a period of disenfranchisement began, I think, that persists to this very day. Boys become fathers before they become men. Girls become mothers before they become women…but many of them are not taking care of their children. As a result, many grandparents, aunts and uncles have stepped up where moms and dads have left off. This isn’t just a Gen Y thing, or a sign of the times…it’s been going on for ages. For example, my father called his grandmother, Ethel, mom and called his mother, Mary. My mother called her oldest sister mom, and called her mother Eliza. My sister and I don’t share the same father…or mother. She is my cousin, but she calls my dad her own, and calls our Aunt Irene, her mother. Parenthood is basically a transient term used to refer to the person who steps up to the plate, and not the person who’s blood flows through your veins. If your mother ran off to join a group of Gypsies and travel through the Midwest, someone else was going to make sure that your child made it to school and back every day. If someone’s father left to be with a younger woman, there was usually someone to drop by and help fix things around the house. I equate this a lot with the Pan-Indian identity…how indigenous tribes across America came to adopt anyone who shared an ounce of Indian blood, regardless of what else it was mixed with, in order to maintain bloodlines and survive in an increasingly complex and industrialized society. Unfortunately, it also makes shit really hard to trace.

It may sound sad to someone looking in from the outside, that a lot of times a father can’t be a father, or a mother can’t be a mother, but trust me…sometimes it’s better to have someone else step up to a job that isn’t necessarily their own, then to stay just for the sake of saying that they did when they were never emotionally invested.

Since I’ve started this heritage journey, I’ve become acquainted with some pretty amazing facts. I am part Choctaw Indian. I have a Scottish crest. I have hundreds of cousins and, consequently, I can’t sleep with any black guy (of any tint, hue or shade) in the Southeastern part of the United States (or Scotland) without possibly committing an act of incest.

There is something else that I’ve learned or, rather, acknowledged since I began this journey.

As I’ve said before, the search on my mother’s side of the family has been thus far uneventful. In fact, the only information that I’ve gotten has been from my mother’s stories…and she doesn’t like to discuss the subject to any satisfying length. My mother, while not social, is certainly talkative to her immediate family (me, my brother, my father). She’ll talk your ear off about anything…does the weather seem like a two sentence conversation to you? Try two hours. How was your day? Well, apparently, hers was an epic battle between good and evil that waged all day, and requires a synopsis that will last all night.

But when you ask her about her family, she shuts down…completely. She gets anxious. She walks away. She’ll come back later visibly agitated and looking to start an argument. Up until recently, the solution has been simple: Don’t talk about it. But now, with both grandparents on that side deceased and no functioning relationship with any of her ten remaining siblings…I didn’t really have a choice. The following information, details the conversations that I’ve had with my mother about her family:

My maternal grandmother, my mom’s mom, didn’t love me. Hell, she didn’t even like me. She didn’t like me, or my brother or even her own daughter. She…hated us.

To some extent, I was always aware of this, but never fed into it past a fleeting thought. Since her death in 1999, my thoughts of her have largely been reduced to a thick concentration of only a few memories: I remember going to her house when I was a little dude and literally counting down the minutes of the requisite two hour visit until I could start hinting at an escape. I remember that her house was small…really small, and that rats lived there. I saw them scurrying from corner to corner, some as big as ground hogs. I remember not being able to sleep there; staying up to watch the long shadows turn short as an indication of dawn approaching and, therefore, pending escape. I remember that she made my grandfather sleep in the garden shack in the backyard. I remember the bitter gumbo that she made out of chopped tomatoes, squash and raw okra that had too much salt and too much bite. I remember that my grandmother did not have a television or a radio or, check this out, books. In fact, the only book in her house was the bible. And there were several to choose from…one with what appeared to be blood stains turned brown that she kept on her nightstand, and never left.

She never hugged me. She never hugged my brother. She never hugged my mother or my father. She never hugged her husband. She never kissed him.

“She never touched anyone except to beat them,” my mother told me once.

…and she NEVER smiled.

There are photos of the old family reunions in the eighties and early nineties; my grandmother surrounded by her dozen living children, and fifty more grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are smiling from ear to ear in their best Sunday dress…and in every single photograph her face is long and hard with dozens of dramatic lines deeply drawn at each corner of her sun-weathered mouth that appear to be less an indication of her mood at the time, and more an expression of her general attitude towards celebrations as a whole: Shit. Waste. Garbage. Excess.

Photographs might be necessary…but enjoying yourself while they were taken? Optional. Food might be necessary, but taking the time to make it taste delicious? Pointless. Speaking might be necessary, but discussing philosophical truths that did not contain the words “book,” “chapter,” or “verse”? Get the fuck out of her house.

And despite her naturally course disposition, she was never so hard as she was when she interacted with my mother. I know this, not just because of what my mother told me, but because of what her sisters told me (when they were still speaking to each other, of course). I’ve become re-acquainted with these fond memories since researching her side of the family. When I spoke with my mother yesterday, close to an hour passed where I asked her round after round of questions, leaving both of us frustrated and angry.

My mother is anti-social, paranoid and suffers from a combination of depression, bi-polar disorder and borderline personality disorder. I only say this, because I want you to understand how difficult it is to try and get any information from her at any point in time…on anything. She has trouble concentrating. She can’t string together a cohesive sentence. She can’t answer a simple “yes or no” question. She can’t look you in the eye. When she speaks, you have to put your ear right up to her mouth to hear what she has to say, because she’s incredibly insecure about saying the wrong thing. She lies. A lot. She will get so turned around in her head, that she has actually been known to make up whole situations in her mind about reasons why she dislikes people whom she’s never even met. And nothing that anyone says or does can ever convince her that she’s wrong in her assessment. She hords…like, pardon the pun, crazy. Because she grew up in a very small home with absolutely nothing, where she and her twelve siblings played musical chairs with two beds, she places an obscene amount of importance on physical possessions; the volume of which is directly correlated with the amount of approval/affection/love she did not receive from her mother. Essentially, each purchase is an impulse to fill a well of emptiness inherited from her family. The more zeroes attached to a particular item, the smaller the void seems in that moment. In her head, she’s an expert on antiques, fine China and crystal, because they are expensive. She’s more of an expert on the price of all of these things and is more quick to tell you the cost of each item in her living room, than to offer you a cup of tea. She doesn’t want you to look at her. She doesn’t want you to enquire about her life. She wants you to look and marvel at the exquisite excess of her home and, as a result, think better of her for it. She doesn’t trust anyone. She doesn’t trust my father. She has made an especial effort to isolate him from his family, in particular, his mother. Last Thanksgiving, she sat in the corner and didn’t say ‘hello’ to anyone. She has mood swings that would make a Darwinist believe in the concept of possession.  There have been moments when she kissed me one minute, then pointed a knife at me and told me to get the fuck out of the kitchen or she would fucking kill me the next. And then, when the dust settles after her temper tantrum, she breaks into a cold sweat and starts convulsing…literally drained of all vitality, and sinks into the leather folds of the couch to such a point that I could swear she actually disappeared…

But she loves me. She loves me more than she loves herself. She’ll stand outside of my bedroom when I’m home visiting, lurking, just waiting for me to open up the door and say something. She tries so hard to talk to me when I call, usually picking up the phone in a breathless hurry before I speak to my father. She writes me e-mails every single day from work. They’re usually short, and can be condensed to “It was great talking with you on Saturday. It’s busy here. I have to go. I love you.” She’s stopped talking to me about religion, because it made things very difficult for us for a long time…

And while she drives me insane…and while she and I haven’t had a decent conversation since I was a teenager, I cannot deny even for a second that I am who I am because I never had to question her love for me. There’s never been a moment, not a single moment, even when she was pointing a knife in my face, that I questioned her love or commitment to me as her child. There have been moments when, while we were embracing, I got the distinct feeling that she wasn’t hugging me so much as she was imagining hugging herself as a little girl. There have been moments when I saw so much sadness in her face that she looked like a completely different person. There have been moments when I saw her face morph into a child herself, looking to me as the mother that she never had and, sometimes, that’s a role that I have filled when need be.

Sometimes, those are the kinds of things that we do for people that we love.

But when I think of her as a child, as a gorgeous little girl with twists in her hair and gaps between her teeth, I ask myself “How in the hell could you not love this child?” She would have been so kind, curious, creative, affectionate precocious and sweet. She would’ve had dirty diapers and cavities, wanted dolls and pretty pink dresses…but she didn’t get any of that. My mother wasn’t bathed as a child. She didn’t have any clothes. She went to school covered in dirt and rags. Her teeth rotted out of her head (as evidence by the extensive dental work she’s had as an adult). Her hair was so uncombed that it knotted up entirely and had to be just cut out on more than one occasion. She didn’t eat. She didn’t go to school with a bagged lunch, nor did she get money from her parents to buy it. She starved, feeding on the scraps of her schoolmates or whatever the teachers could spare. It wasn’t because her family was poor (and, believe me, they definitely were that too) and it wasn’t because they had eleven other children to feed…the rest of them ate…some quite profusely. My grandmother hated my mother, because my mother was named after her father’s mother; my grandmother’s mother-in-law.

My grandmother, Eliza, was born 1915 in Albany, GA. She was raised by her father, Elijah, and her step-mother, LeBertha. Her blood mother died when she was a baby, apparently. My grandfather, Eddie, was born 1906 in Thomasville, GA. They met and married in 1931 and then moved to Mulberry, Florida, when my grandmother was just 16 years old…this was, apparently, driven by my grandmother’s desperate need to escape her step-mother, whom she hated deeply. No other details as to why are known. My grandfather’s mother, whom he loved deeply, apparently did not approve of this union and was very vocal of her distaste for my grandmother, to the point where she wasn’t even welcome to their home.

Why?

She didn’t approve of my grandmother’s family. She thought they were low and beneath the standards of her first born.

Why?

Because my grandmother’s sister, Hattie, killed another woman with whom she had a lover’s quarrel over, and I’m guessing here, a man (hey, an adult becoming so enraged over not being able to express their homosexual desires that they kill someone? Stranger things have happened!). Grand-Aunt Hattie served time in prison for the murder and, when she was released, moved right across the street from my grandmother’s house in Mulberry. My grandfather, becoming estranged from his mother to keep peace with his wife, did what any loving father would do…he named one of this children after her: My mother, Emma. It is still said, that my mother was his favorite. He was then kicked out of the house and spent the remaining 43 years of his life living outdoors with the possums and searching for his balls. My grandmother took this as a personal mark against her and never let him, or her daughter, forget it.

And my mother became her mother’s least favorite person on earth.

She didn’t choose her name. She didn’t choose her parents! She was just a kid wanting what every other kid on earth wants.  But she never even had a chance… It’s so unfair!

In the 83 years that my grandmother was on this planet, she never said the words “I love you” to my mother. Even on her death bed, when she was in the hospital and my mother was at her side, there was nothing. In fact, there was so little of nothing that my mom invented an entire scenario of reconciliation just to help HER to move beyond the nothingness that my grandmother offered.

“Mom’s at peace now. I saw it in her eyes, and I knew…that there was love between us.”

Look, I know that sometimes people have a difficult time voicing their feelings. And I know that actions speak louder than words, and that some people are better at expressing their love rather than voicing it. And sometimes voicing things aloud makes them more real than they were when you didn’t acknowledge them at all… But that was her MOTHER. And if you’re a mother, and you’re about to meet the big, black empty darkness of death and you’re staring your child in the face and you have nothing to say to them…you’re not a good person. You are an AWFUL person. You are NOT a good mother.  So, she died. And I went to her funeral, and I didn’t shed a single tear.

But my mother was a wreck…and I get it. She wasn’t grieving for her mother’s death. She was grieving for the myriad of lost opportunities to be loved by her in life. And I struggled then, as I do now, with the question of whether or not I should push her to accept the reality of her mother, or if living in denial is really a better way of coping with the ugly, brutal truth? Just because I’m the kind of person who NEEDS to know the truth, no matter how much it hurts, doesn’t mean that everyone else handles personal tragedy similarly. Our brains are amazing, in that they often protect us more than we realize by burying painful memories or covering them up with pleasant ones. And I think my mother’s brain has devised this protective strategy, inventing an amicable reconciliation that never actually happened, to keep from living a life with the knowledge that she did not have a mother’s love. I don’t think that it’s made her any happier, but if that’s what she needs to do to function…than who am I to judge?

A few days ago, when we were talking, I asked my mother about her oldest sister, Eddie Mae, who died when I was just an infant. I recall how, when I was younger, she spoke of her sister as her mother. But when I ask her about Eddie Mae now, she puts up yet another wall, saying that she wasn’t pleasant either. This came as kind’ve a shock, because she’s never uttered a foul word about her in the past…in fact, she’s the only sibling of whom she ever spoke favorably. When I called her out on this discrepancy, she dug her heels in and stuck to her modified statement. “She was cruel, angry and filthy.” I put the question to her…maybe it’s just easy to group all of her siblings into one category of crazy, to make it easier for her to live without a functioning relationship with any of them, if she just decides in her mind that none of them, living or dead, are worth knowing?

She denies it.

And then I realize…how lonely my mom is…completely shut off in her own world, estranged from everyone who knew her as a child.

Don’t get me wrong. I kind of get it. I’ve thought about reaching out to my aunts and uncles on a number of occasions, but the thing is…I don’t like them either.  They’re loud. They talk for hours without saying a single damn thing. Every sentence ends with the word “Praise God” or “Hallelujah.” None of them exercise, but all of them eat fried chicken from Popeye’s. They’re bitter. They’re closed minded and revel in their ignorance. None of them read books by people who aren’t ministers.  If you succeed somewhere, it’s because of God. If you fail somewhere, it’s because you didn’t give praise to God. God made all things beautiful and all people as brothers and sisters…except white people. One of them, my Aunt Elaine, was visiting once about eight years ago when I was still in college, and stayed at our home. Upon entering my bedroom, which was covered wall to wall in photographs of my friends from high school…many of Asian, Hispanic and White at the time…she lifted her head from the trough of chocolate turtles greasing her multiple chins and said “Jennifer obviously doesn’t like black people.”

No, Jennifer obviously doesn’t like cankles. Jennifer doesn’t like hypocrites. Jennifer doesn’t like cankle-clad hypocrites. Jennifer doesn’t like people who prefer to be referred to as “Dr” when their doctorates were earned from the University of Phoenix. Jennifer doesn’t like racists of any color or people who subscribe to the idea that race should dictate behavior and speech pathology. Jennifer doesn’t like her blackness being measured by people who source their opinions from BET. And Jennifer sure as shit doesn’t like people who make themselves at home in her bedroom without respecting the people who lend it to you.

Jennifer doesn’t like her aunts or uncles either. But I would be willing to TRY…if my mother stood to gain anything from the (strained) friendship. But she’s convinced that there isn’t anything…that there is no affection love or friendship lost by severing this tie.

And it makes sense…there are a few basic elements that we all need in life in order to prosper, or at least have the basic tools to prosper: Food, water, shelter, clothing and love. The first four are obviously needed for basic survival. But what about the last one? Love? I think that’s the one need that elevates the verb of ‘survive’ to ‘prosper.’ Think about where you are now, and think about where you would be if nobody had loved you as a child. I won’t quote songs or verses or anything trite like that, but all the clichés are true. You aren’t really anybody until somebody loves you. There’s something primal about the need to care for your child. Something innate and driven, like the urge to procreate. It’s a strong urge, I imagine, for the people who want to have children. Almost unquestionable. And if it’s as strong as the urge to eat, sleep or have sex, then can you imagine the illogical amount of exertion it would take to completely ignore it. And that’s what my grandmother did to my mother. She just didn’t care.

So, this is the dark side of the family tree.

It is a branch so dark that I’m pretty sure that any remaining good would be obscured in its presence. And I think about this stuff, and I think about my mother…how she’s come leaps and bounds ahead of her mother to keep my brother and I perpetually buried between her tits, and smothered in attention…and I know that she did the best that she could. She didn’t want us growing up with the same pit of despair that she’s carried around with her those entire 61 years. I have enough confidence to go to a job interview and look at the manager in the eye. I have enough confidence to say ‘no,’ to the wrong types of men. I am secure enough in myself to look at the things that I want to change in my life, and make them happen. So, I guess, she was successful.

But I’m still terrified that all of that poison still runs through these veins. And it has to come out somewhere….

That’s the reason why I’ve kept that button all these years; because that is a fear that I’ve never actually eradicated. After all, there’s really only one way to prove or disprove that theory and that’s by getting knocked up and finding out for myself! I’m not that desperate to find out…not yet, anyway.

The Good The Bad and The Ugly

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“We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” –Joyce Carol Oates

In my grandmother’s house, hanging in her living room, is a photograph taken, I think, around 1920. It’s a picture of her mother, my great grandmother, Ethel , around the age of 27.  In the photograph, she’s wearing a simple shirt with a turned down collar and her hair is naturally straight. Right next to her picture is a picture of me taken in 2000, when I was seventeen years old. Two portraits taken 80 years, and three generations, apart. And yet, the first thing that you notice isn’t that Ethel is clearly a grown woman, while I was a teenage girl verging dangerously on the precipice of adulthood. You don’t notice that I obviously didn’t know how to apply my makeup (or pluck my eyebrows) and she obviously did. You don’t notice that her hair is a lighter, I presume a reddish shade of brown, and that mine is jet black. You don’t even notice that Ethel’s portrait is in black and white, and that mine is in color. The first thing that you notice when you look at the two portraits aren’t the differences…they’re the similarities.

Both of us have our heads tilted at perfect 30 degree angles to the left. Both of us have our hair straightened (although mine was chemically treated and hers was not)…parted on the right side…and lightly brushing our shoulders. Both of us are wearing blouses that button up, with down turned collars. Both of us have diamond shaped faces, small button noses and clearly defined cheek bones that look like they’re about to leap out of the photograph and smack you across the face!

And while I’m sure that she saw me, that she probably held me and said how much she loved me…I don’t remember her at all. Ethel died in 1984, when I was only one year old.

While that is only one blood line, my paternal grandmother’s blood line, and I am obviously made up of many (like all of us), I can’t help but think of the striking similarities that I still share with this person; a person whom, for all practical purposes, is a complete stranger. It makes me think about other things that we might share. What are some of those other commonalities that decades of time have washed away, seemingly forgotten, reincarnated as I egotistically claim them for my own “individual” present day traits? How did her mind work? What did she like? Not just like, but you know…LIKE, like. If presented with the opportunity, would she have played guitar like my brother, or piano like me? Would she have preferred Apple or Android?  Did she always leave the last piece of broccoli on her plate after she’d eaten everything else, JUST because it was broccoli and it was the last piece of food on her plate? Did she put the moves on my great grandfather, because she was the kind of girl to go after what she wants instead of waiting around for life to happen to her? Did she bite her lip when she was anxious? Or pull her hair out? Or punch people in the face?? Oh! Oh!  Did she ever stick her index fingers out on each side of her breasts all cock-eyed like and proudly proclaim them to be “Orangutan titties!”

Hm. Maybe not.

BUT! Who’s to say that I didn’t inherit those charming characteristics from another ancestor? Or a combination of SEVERAL ancestors?

To be honest, it’s never something to which I’ve given much thought. Like most of you, I’ve lived under the misguided belief that I’m completely original. Yes, I, Jennifer (a name given to no less than 1,423,950 women in the US alone, and YES I checked) born to two parents who don’t like each other (because, you know, that’s practically unheard of for people who get married so young dot…dot…dot) moved as far away from home as I could possibly imagine (nope, not running! Nah!) to spend my hopes, dreams and savings on a relationship with someone that I loved (that didn’t last).

Not cliché at.all.

If there is anything that I stand to learn…an insight into my impulses, actions, thought processes or experiences that I have not yet already thought of…then this is something that I should have done years ago. So, without further prologue, I present to you my findings thus far:

The Good News:

I am lucky enough to know my paternal grandmother, and to have known my paternal grandfather in this lifetime. My grandmother, who has been recently diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of Alzheimer’s Disease, is the direct descendant of Cherokee, Blackfoot, Scottish and African slave ancestry. And her father, my great-grandfather, is a descendant of the immigrant Scottish clans Graham , Gilchrest and MacMillan dating back to 1698 in Kilbride, Argyll and Paisley Scotland, who moved to North Carolina around the Bowmore/Robeson communities in the 1700’s. From what I can tell, the first union between Scot and African slave (on this particular branch of the family tree) occurred in 1840, at the birth of my great-great-great grandfather, Richard Graham. Richard was the son of Alexander Torrey Purcell, the plantation owner, and a slave by the name of Sara, Sarai OR…and I shit you NOT, truth is SO INFINITELY stranger than fiction…Darki. Darki. That’s the name printed on official census documents. Darki.

Even though this happened 173 years ago, it still makes my blood boil. And I can’t decide if that’s because the name is a verbal brand that was meant to anchor those internal self-hating mechanisms that black people are SO good at imposing on each other, OR…the sheer lack of imagination! Darki. DARKI! Not even brownie, or blackie, or Red Ochre-I, or mulatta-i…just a resounding, obscure, it’s gonna-follow-you-for-the-next-173-years…Darki. Daaaarkness! Darkness is in the building everyone! It is for this reason that I shall, from this point on, refer to her as Sara and nothing else. If she didn’t have that dignity in life, I can only presume to extend that very basic courtesy in death.

In my remote searches through ancestry.com, I managed to obtain a photograph (or, really, an artist’s rendering) of Sara’s child, Richard Graham. The McLaughlin family, still based in North Carolina, branch off at this point in our family tree. It is through him, that we are united. The McLaughlins have, I discovered, embarked upon this quest years before me. And I found this photo, made public on their family tree, posted on ancestry.com.

Just as many others look at the photograph between my great-grandmother Ethel, and seventeen year old me, when I first saw this picture several days ago…I did not see the differences, but the similarities between his photograph…and photographs of my father. The eyes, the smile, the shape of the face…those eyes, Jesus…even though Mr. Graham is rocking the most amazing chops of all time, and he appears to have a lighter complexion and (a pimp named) slick (back) hair…that man is speaking from beyond the grave, alive and well, making his mean-ass beef briskets and voting Democrat (thank God) in Orlando, Florida to-DAY.

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It’s…amazing. Absolutely uncanny resemblance.

There are so many mysteries in the blood. Even after over a century of space and time and births and deaths and civil rights and war, we are still so connected to people we never even knew. Lately, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I try to imagine that I’m on one side of the mirror and that Richard Graham is on another. If we didn’t know who was looking back at us on the other side, would our movements and actions be the same? Our posture? Our pronated ankles? Would we like each other? Or would his personality be more like, say, my brother’s? I picture us getting into a shit-talking contest and then marinating some ribs together and having a “Game of Thrones” marathon.

Or, if he was more Scottish, maybe he would just start slamming ale and choking out livestock in a kilt as part of the ancient Highland tradition of familial bonding?

What? Too much TV?

Richard went on to inherit land from the Grahams and Purcells and eventually became a wealthy farmer. He built schools and churches, including one in Bowmore, and went on to father about a dozen children himself. One of them, John Edward Graham, my great great grandfather, married Julia McBryde and had another twelve children by her…just by her. My great grandfather, Alexander Graham, was the product of an extramarital affair by a woman nobody seems to know the name of.

It was my great grandfather, Alexander, who migrated down to Florida and planted his roots in Polk County.

Moving on from the Gilchrests, Grahams, MacMillans and MacNegros. Let’s take this story of wholesale multidirectional fuckery down to Georgia, the home of my paternal grandfather.

I knew him in life too, and was very close to him up until the onset of dementia shortly before his death in 2004.

In fact, he died 6 days after my 21st birthday. Maybe it was because we moved around a lot while my brother and I were growing up (every three years in fact) or maybe it was because my father wanted to encourage my reading and writing from a very early age, but the first letter I ever wrote to anyone…was my grandfather. Because I was not yet familiar with the concept of a brain-to-mouth filter, I would tell him anything that was on my mind: Cartoons. School. Fights with my brother. New and interesting ways to incorporate new vocabulary. I remember in one particular letter that I wrote to him after a fight with my brother (which centered around sharing a pizza) that my heart was “a cesspool of devastation.” He sent me $20 and told me to keep my grades up in school.

My grandfather was awesome. AWESOME. He was dignified and kind, strong and encouraging. He loved my father completely, and cuddled me senseless as a little girl. After he retired, I would usually catch him down by the community center playing chess with his friends. He never wanted to be a burden on anyone; always insisted on pulling his own weight. He never asked for anything from anyone, and he never laid a hand on anyone if he didn’t have to…but he never hesitated if did have to.

He always told the truth. And it’s here that I know that he’s my grandfather.

But aside from the stories that I have of him, and the stories that my father has shared of him (and there are some gems, let me tell you) I don’t know much about my grandfather. I never have. I knew that he moved to Florida from Woodland, Georgia; a town with only one traffic light and nothing else. Woodland is less like a town and more like a village. I went there once with my dad when we lived in Tallahassee, and all I saw was farmers and butchers. Peaches and pig shit. My grandfather left when he was 15 years old and moved to Polk County. He never really spoke to me about his family…the only thing he ever said was that he would never go back. Dad tells me that he was very close to his siblings, especially his sisters. But even my father doesn’t know much about his father’s side of the family. I have to admit, I thought that story was largely lost…reduced to a pile of letters exchanged between me and him, and government documents about his time in World War II, and his service to the Citrus industry.

Until now.

For my entire life, I thought that my grandfather was a “Junior.” In fact, that’s what everyone called him: Junior. But according to military enlistment papers and US Census Bureau reports, he is actually a third. That would explain why I didn’t get much information on him the first time I inputted his birthday and date of death into ancestry.com! But when the website corrected me, there he was, plain as day; correct birthday and date of death. Place of birth and place of death. I wonder if he even knew? I spoke to dad this morning and he said that it was possible, because he was a man of simple means and it’s probable that he ignored the suffix part of his name entirely.

Through my updated research, I was able to determine that my paternal great-great-great grandfather was named Walton Greer. And, according to the soft copy of the “Five Civilized Tribes” enrollment form, he was a Choctaw Indian. He was born in 1835 and lived to be 105 years old. His daughter, Mollie, married my great great grandfather when she was 19 years old. Because I don’t know the date of death of my great-great grandfather, I can’t say if her SECOND marriage (when she was 24 years old) is a result of divorce…or death.  At the moment, the trail appears to end there.

In fact, it appears that I have Native American ancestry in every…single…branch of family! I would never have thought to even mention Choctaw in my repertoire. It’s always been Cherokee, Cherokee, Tsalagi (that’s supposed to rhyme, so say it right!).

But wait. There’s more…

Walton Greer’s wife, Mary Jane Roberts, had her daughter, Mollie, when she was only eleven years old. Mary Jane was born in 1853 and had Mollie in 1864. But Mary Jane and Walton did not marry until 1868, when she was 15. This fact leads me to conclude that neither the consummation nor the union were consensual. Just was I was beginning to get excited about the idea of listing Choctaw as one of my definitive lineages…I have to wrestle with the idea that great X 3 grandfather might have also been a rapist.

And that…is a hard pill to swallow.

This leads me to the next part.

The Bad News:

But just as my father is the complete polar opposite of my mother, my search on her family has been as stifling as the search on my father’s family has been illuminating.

I expected to hit a wall…but not this early in the search, and not on her side of the family. The history of her family is well documented, but it turns out that is only up until two generations ago. My mother is actually the second youngest out of twelve children (and those are only the kids that made it past infancy). My grandparents had their first child in 1933, and their last one in 1954. My mother was born in 1951. They all recycled the same bed, room and clothes amongst each other in a very small house in Mulberry, Florida. The town was named for a mulberry tree that used to be in the center of town, where they lynched black people up until the civil rights bill of 1964. My mom told me that they would leave the bodies to hang as a warning to the other uppity negroes to watch their step. I don’t know when they cut the tree down…but she says that it wasn’t until much later.

I’ve been using the assistance of ancestry.com to cross reference birth certificates, death certificates, social security records, military records and Native American enrollment papers to go beyond that. But I get nothing. I have the names of my mother’s grandparents (my great grandparents) but nobody can seem to agree on a birthday or a date of death. And, from what I can tell, there appears to be no public record of them ever existing.

This is only three generations ago.

I am led to a few conclusions based on this:

  1. My great grandparents moved from somewhere else. If my grandfather was born in 1906, and my grandmother was born in 1915, then THEIR parents (my great grandparents) would have been born sometime around (and this is purely a guess) 1880. That means that they were the children of slaves. And when slavery ended in 1863-4 (the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but the Civil War didn’t end until 1864) there was a great migration of freed slaves, and their families. Slaves who lived in Virginia moved to Kentucky. Slaves who lived in Mississippi moved to Arkansas. Slaves who lived in Louisiana moved to Alabama. And on, and on. Everyone wanted to move AWAY from the place where they had been enslaved. Aside from the obvious logistical sense that this makes, people wanted a new start in a place; they wanted to make homes for themselves. And they wanted to do it without the watchful eyes of “massuh” on their backs. SO, knowing this, I can safely assume that my great grandparents probably came to Florida from somewhere else. I’ve heard Georgia being tossed around quite a bit. Plus it makes sense. You can only go so far by horse and buggy.
  2. While records may be a common practice for keeping track of MOST Americans, let’s be honest, people of color weren’t extended the same courtesy in regards to their citizenship. I’m aware that there is a Census, and that it’s taken every year, and yes, I have seen some of the names of my ancestors on census papers dating back over 100 years. But a lot of names are also NOT on those papers. And let’s be honest…did white people really give a shit back then? Would you be fined for not lining up with everyone else? Would the police come knocking on your door and demand to see your ID? Do they even have ID’s? Were they eligible? Probably not. So, many of them probably don’t have a paper trail. I know that, no matter how much I look, I’m pretty sure that I won’t find my grandfather’s birth certificate, because he never had one (but his death certificate does exist). So, how does the US Census handle that? They don’t. How many other people slipped through the cracks of the system? How many others have no paper trail to even suggest that they are citizens on this country?
  1. The Trail Of Tears – The forced relocation of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their homes, over a journey that encompassed nine states, to reservations half way across the country to make room in the Southeast US for white settlement. This move cost thousands of lives (including 4,000 Cherokee) and is a genocide rarely spoken of in American history. The people who did NOT cooperate with the move, went elsewhere. And the records of their participation in tribal activities might have dissolved in the process. Because I KNOW that I have native blood on this side, it’s very possible that one of my grandparents was part of that tangent process.

So, unfortunately, I’ve had no choice but to hang an “Under Maintenance” sign on that branch of our family tree…for now. I’ve enlisted the help of my parents, still in Florida, in furthering the quest for information. My father managed to get my the names and birthdates of all of my aunts and uncles, and he’s meeting with one of his sister-in-law’s tomorrow. He said that she’ll bring some documents from the safety deposit box that might help, and I’m relying on him to make and send soft copies so that I can use them in developing my ever expanding family tree. My mother, unfortunately, does not have a functioning relationship with any of her living brothers or sisters, but she promised me that she would take a trip to city hall to leaf through the archives. Whether she will or won’t remains to be seen…

The Ugly News:

I was kindly reminded by my father the other day that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. 150 years ago.

That really isn’t that long.

I know that I live in Australia, and that I am lucky enough to have access to things like universal healthcare and commonwealth supported schemes to pay for my tertiary education…but I’m not that far away from the days when my father had to use the back door to enter restaurants, or when a railroad signified the division between white neighborhoods and black. That was one generation ago. One.

And when I think about that, I am reminded about how fragile our progressive journey really is. It’s not as solid or resilient as some might have you believe.

I’m reminded on this as I research on my family. It’s been less than a week and I have actually uncovered already…three rapes. And, while I KNEW that I would learn something along the lines, while I knew that the Scots wanted a little brown sugar in their bowls…I guess I didn’t expect to feel so upset. For example, when I learned about Sara and her other name, I felt a small pinch. Just a pinch! An “ow” in my side. And I can only wonder if, by virtue of our shared blood, that was her speaking. I know I know…esoteric and unlikely, blood doesn’t speak or feel…wait, but does it? Does it? Seriously. Does it?

Maybe the average reader doesn’t know this, but rape is a real part of present day culture. Internationally. I can’t help but feel disheartened over the progress that we’ve made with racism (even though it is FAR from being eradicated) but not over the basic right that everyone has to consensual sex. I could look at Sara and Mary Jane’s experiences and say that “those were so long ago…thank goodness that we’ve come so far!” But I can’t, because we haven’t.

What makes me sad…is that I know the one thing that has NOT changed in those 173 years, is a woman’s right to her own body.

And I know that once my mother’s family starts to unfold…I’m going to delve even deeper into this phenomenon, because I can tell you one thing…where there is a broken family of such epic proportions as my mother’s family…there are a broken man and woman behind it.

And Then There Was One.

Slavery

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another”

-Toni Morrison, Beloved.

Happy New Year, everyone. Happy 2013. Happy clean slate. Happy new beginnings. Happy new year’s resolutions. Of course! Happy promises to make more and to eat less. Happy once concerted effort to quit smoking, and to exercise regularly. Happy mid-February collapse of will power. Happy one pack a day won’t kill me. Happy it’s too cold outside to go to the gym. Happy pizza take out menu is within arm’s reach. Happy total and complete regression. Happy self-imposed guilt trip. Happy you knew this was going to happen anyway. Happy annual trip of self-doubt circa June/July. Happy maintaining a standard of living that is comfortable, albeit mediocre. Happy you still don’t stand up for yourself when your father speaks to you like you’ve just peed on the carpet in front of everyone at Christmas dinner. Happy continue to settle for less and want more from your partner. Happy continued lack of insight into your beliefs, relationships, or systemized every-day interactions and habits.

Happy you didn’t really want it anyway.

…Or maybe not.

Equally as important….

Happy end of 2012. The year where happiness went to die. Happy left-another-horrible-job year. Happy my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-year. Happy my-relationship-of-five-fucking-years-just-ended-year. Happy-my-father-almost-died-year. Happy-just-make-it-stop-year.

Happy go-away-and-let’s-never-speak-of-it-again-year.

So I, much like the rest of you, rang in the new year in true celebratory fashion last night: By toasting a sharp ginger ale with no less than twenty drunken Irishmen congregating around my afro like the last remaining four-leaf clover on earth, alternating between verses from Auld Lang Syne and cider-fuelled gibberish about Margaret Thatcher and potatoes.  I, along with my newly appointed ex-partner, met up with friends on a roof top overlooking Elwood Beach and watched the fireworks rain down at midnight across the Melbourne skyline. Bad DJ. Beer. Good people. Whiskey. Cold breeze. Wine. Strobe lights. Cider. Chumba Wumba.

…And then there was me leaving.

2012 has been…was…an awful year. I remember literally sitting through therapy some days unable to even speak through the tears. I remember stressing so hard over work, that I would actually cry on the train back from the office on a Friday night even THINKING about going back on a Monday morning. I remember having my insides torn out by lasers in a last-ditch effort to ensure that I can still reproduce one day (and the good news is, that I can). I remember staying up nights waiting to hear if my father had lived or died. I remember the moment when “he” and I looked at each other and knew that it was over.

That’s what I remember from 2012. Those were the thoughts running through my head last night as I counted down the seconds before midnight. And all I could think to myself when I was swatting hands away from my increasingly frizzy fro, was “Please, please, please, just let it end and I will do better next time. I will NOT re-live this year again.”

I will be happier. I will be healthier. I will be better. But I also want to be more knowledgeable.

As I was making my great escape, a young guy who couldn’t have been more than twenty five he looked so sweet and his curly locks were so fresh, stopped me as I turned my back to walk through the illuminated stairway…”What’s your new year’s resolution?” he asked me.

I told him that I didn’t have one. Somehow, emotionally vomiting all over his dew-eyed expression just seemed sadistic.

But I do. And it actually is perfectly aligned with the aspirations listed above. If you think about it…if you know me at all.

I’m going to trace my family tree back to the slave trade. The problem was, and still is, I seem to lack the words to convey just how meaningful this resolution really is. I also hold a distinct belief that Australians, as a whole, couldn’t be less interested in learning about the middle passage and its significance to people of African descent, particularly African Americans. Australians want to drink, and they want to party. They want to travel, and they want to spend money. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not judging the lifestyle. It does, however, stifle the overwhelming urge to share my adventure with passers by…like, say, at roof top parties on New Year’s Eve.

Besides, everyone here knows where they came from. Everyone here has a tangible history behind their names, their facial features, their genetic food intolerances. It’s so weird to live in a city where everyone is Greek, or Italian, or Russian, or Polish, or Mauritian, or Indonesian or Chinese Malay, or Malaysian Hindu. So the topic is not only uninteresting, it’s irrelevant!

When I tell people that I’m American, there is this unsaid question that I can feel emanating from their gaze. “Go oooooon….” they say to me. “Aaaaaaand?” But that really is the end of the line, isn’t it? I don’t know how else to address the question. And it doesn’t seem right, that someone as intelligent and educated as I am, should not be able to answer something so simple.

But it is actually ANYTHING but simple. So, allow me to explain, if I can, a little bit of why this is so epic.

A Brief History of Slavery:

Disclaimer: I am not, in fact, a historian. I’m not a scholar on African-American studies like my friend Cassandra. I am not up-to-date on the latest Jay Z retirement plan, and I didn’t see “Do The Right Thing” until three years ago. In fact, I consider myself more of an expert on pop culture. I can sing to you the entire theme song of Fraggle Rock. I’ve practically memorized the fight scenes from the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy, and I can spot a hipster from a mile away. Having said that, I am a prolific reader. Everything from Gregory Maguire to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I speak three different languages and play two different instruments, and the only thing that annoys me more than mean people, is mean people doing stupid shit (and that’s all of them).

Once upon a time, in the early 16th century, in a land approximately 26,000 km’s away, there existed an increasingly hostile occupation by the Spanish. Indigenous tribes of the area that were not wiped out by foreign disease and violent colonization, became enslaved and tended to the every whim of their foreign leaders, led by Bartolome De Las Casas, a revered friar and Spanish historian of the time. Having witnessed the effects of slavery first hand, De Las Casas grew sympathetic towards the native people and petitioned King Charles V for an immediate overturn of domestic policy to free the indigenous people from the tyranny of the crown. With all of that unfinished lawn work to do, De Las Casas instead recommended the creation and implementation of a new, bigger, blacker slave 2.0 known as the African; a being built for hard labor, violent oppression and, just as a bonus, they also  happened to qualify for a cleaner, whiter name, religion and identity.  Fuck you. The end.

Thanks Spain!

Maybe some people know that. The information is, after all, readily available…from anywhere.

But you would be remiss to think that the story ends there.  Now, I’m only speaking to people who don’t know anything about this.

In order to have a slave (not like I would know) there has to be a systematic breaking and deconstruction of the human spirit. I do not know this from personal experience, thank goodness, but I can imagine that being stripped of your free will is a bloody good start. Imagine, as an Australian, you go from hanging out at cafe’s on Saturday mornings and shopping in the afternoon, to being beaten up, netted like fish and placed in iron shackles instead. You speak when spoken to. You do what you’re told. You are imprisoned mind, body and soul to the extent that you even refuse to think for yourself; to have an opinion, a hope, a thought, a dream or a desire. You are no longer a person, but an object…a piece of property like a fridge or a coffee table.

Imagine chillin’ with your family in your home one minute, and on a boat surrounded by complete strangers, half of whom are dying of plague, the next. Imagine having your own language, your own name and your own religion. And then imagine that you are given a new name, a new language and a new religion to which you MUST adhere, less the punishment be torture or death. Imagine the threat of a whip every time you mentioned your original name…being so frightened to even think it, that you forget it altogether. Imagine your children being plucked from your arms and given to complete strangers, many of whom do not survive.

Imagine your mothers and daughters and wives being taken as house slaves that exist solely for the forced sexual gratification of their white owners. Imagine not being able to keep the children from those rapes but, instead, having them recycled back into the slave trade to have the same things done to them. Imagine never seeing your family again. Imagine being unable to trace them, because the name by which you knew them before, is now different and completely alien. Imagine having a religion based on nature and your history, passed down by a great oral tradition from parent to child, replaced by white guy with a crown of thorns that means as much to you, as your basic rights mean to your owner. Imagine being denied an education, because your ignorance must constantly be nourished less you realize just how powerful you really are. You must be stripped of any tool that could eradicate your situation. Pride. Love. Self-esteem. Joy.

And now imagine this…you are not you. You are who you belong to. That’s it. That’s how people will identify you, not just for the duration of slavery, but for the remainder of history. That is the origin of my surname. My Irish surname. It is not my name. But an obstinate reminder of who I belonged to several hundred years ago.

Now imagine, if you will, after three hundred years of systematic deconstruction of the human spirit, being told that you are “free.” You would be happy, right? Praise tha Lawd! I is free! Except, what if you are not actually free. What if you are actually the ready-made pie-crust version of free? Meaning, technically, yes it fits the criteria, but it’s not the real deal.

You’re no longer wearing shackles. The defeat of the Confederate army during the Civil War now dictates that you are no longer bound to the land of your owner, and you are even given 40 acres of land and a mule just to sweeten the deal.

And yet…the only jobs you can have are maid, wet nurse, kitchen hand or farm hand. You cannot gain admittance to any university. You cannot vote. You cannot have a bank account. You cannot use the toilet. You can, however, go dig a hole instead. You cannot learn how to read or write still. You cannot speak to any white person unless you work for them and you have been spoken to first. You cannot travel. You cannot appear to be intelligent. You cannot defend yourself against a white assailant, should they threaten your livelihood. And if you are killed by a white person, nobody will look into your death. Nobody cares about you. You are all alone. You have no idea where your family is, and there is no assistance to help you find them. Your voice remains non-existent. And you still have that damn…owner’s…name.

So, who the hell are you? To anyone?

And imagine this…because of the multitude of light skinned black people that resulted from rape, you begin to hate yourself, because you have come to associate lighter skin with “better,” and blacker skin with “worse.” Because you cannot defend yourself against your actual oppressor, you begin to hate each other. You begin to bring each other down. If you have light skin, you hate yourself because you are a reminder of that very oppression. If you have dark skin, you hate yourself because you are not light skinned. Maybe you seek light skinned partners to breed out your blackness. Or maybe, you seek dark skinned partners to breed out the whiteness. Either way, you are reacting to the meaning of your skin tone, because you know…that your life would have been completely different if only you had been born white instead.

Now imagine that two more centuries pass. You now have voting rights. You can no go to a university. Your child can attend the same school as a white child. It is no longer illegal for you to date outside of your race. You can drive a car. You can own a home. You can have a bank account. You can have a passport. You can prosecute your assailants. Somehow, after the unchecked murders of countless activists, protestors, philosophers and religious leaders, little girls and boys and people who you will never know of, you now have a voice that nobody can ignore. A right that you have fought to have, but must fight even harder to keep.

Imagine that you have lived to see the election of your first black president.

And now imagine that you’re living in modern day…having a coffee with a friend. And they ask you this:

“So, where do you come from?”

…….

Imagine not knowing. Not even knowing where to BEGIN to know. Imagine not knowing more than the names of your grandparents.

Imagine looking at the color of your skin and knowing that there is a rich, vast history behind it; that people have died for you to be where you are now, but not having a single clue as to who those people are. At this point in history, your history, it is not just Africa that concerns you. Your family tree would look  more like a map of tributaries…with rivers flowing in from all corners of the earth to make the person that you are today. Ireland. Scotland. Cherokee, NC. Asia. Africa…but those places are as foreign to you, as you would be to the people of those places.

And aside from that, Africa is a big fucking continent. I know it’s hard to believe, but in that ONE land mass, lies many different countries! Seriously! They speak thousands of different languages, and they follow different belief systems. And the African populace, contrary to popular belief, is actually as varied as the number of species on earth. Light skinned, dark skinned, caramel skinned, almond eyes, round eyes, wide noses, small noses, pointed noses, straight hair, course hair, curly hair. And with the history that you have acquired, how is there any way of knowing which people are yours?

What if you have a distant cousin somewhere in Kenya who looks just like you?

Like I said before, fuck you. The end.

But I have decided…it isn’t, anymore.

Being New Year’s Day, I have one month and one day until my 30th birthday. Thirty is supposed to be a big time. A massive time. A time where I come into myself and finally know who I am and what I’m about, while refusing to compromise any ounce of that newly gained insight for anyone else.

I say…how in the HELL can I do that if I’m NOT actually doing it? This isn’t metaphoric. I know I like to travel. I know that I like to read. I know that I have a new found taste for salted caramel ice cream with chocolate coated hazelnuts. I know that yoga is the only thing that quiets my mind, and I know that no matter what I do in life…I will never be able to satisfy my parents, so I stopped trying years ago. I know that I am my own worst enemy.

But I do NOT know where I come from. And I am tired of not knowing the answer to the most basic of questions.

So, because no goal has ever been accomplished without one, I have a plan:

  1. Get a DNA test. You can order these online now a days. You get a kit in the mail, you take a swab of your mouth with a q-tip, and send it back in plastic baggies…several weeks or months later, you get a full DNA map of your genetic background and a list of any living distant relatives. These are, however, very expensive…and I am, as you may already know, newly single, going back to school and struggling.  There is also a wait list on any reputable DNA testing website. So, I will submit my details and pounce on the opportunity when it presents itself.
  2. Hire a genealogist to take a ‘grass roots’ perspective on my situation. Mill through city hall records, and birth certificates, because I actually know very little about my grandparents…particularly on my mother’s side, where I am led to believe that my grandmother ran away to marry my grandfather at 16 years of age, leaving her own personal hell behind.
  3. What would any journey of personal discovery be, without a trip to ground zero? I’m told that Zanzibar was the port of call where all of the records were kept throughout the middle passage. Whatever answers that I do not find myself, I am hoping to find there. At the very least, I owe it to myself to visit the place that is so important to my personal history…and history in general. I’ve been almost everywhere else EXCEPT Africa. I know more about Australia than Africa. How is that right?

So, in the end, why am I doing this? What is the point?

People of African descent in America may be free, but I do not think that we will be able to take full ownership of that freedom until we have fully traced the origins of our bondage. I do not think that our history defines who we are, but surely it is imperative to understanding. I mean, I can’t be the only one who genuinely wants to know! Surely it is imperative that are able to pass on something to our children aside from lessons of hard knocks. SURELY, the millions of un-named people who have died before us, FOR US, would WANT us to know their names. I find something so incredibly sad about the fact that my great-great-grandmother has somehow vanished into the unimportant details of history. It IS important. It’s important to ME.

The older I have become, the more I feel like I’m just randomly bouncing off the walls of circumstance. Start a new job here. Travel over there for vacation. Pay bills. Paint something. Cook something. Laugh. Whatever. I think that, by connecting the dots of my lineage, I will feel more anchored in this life. Home does, after all, start from a small place within. And I feel like I will have more to offer the people around me. This is not to say that I have nothing to offer. I know that I’m awesome. I mean..come on…did you read what I just wrote?

But life isn’t about being stagnant…it’s about growing, developing, and continuing to challenge yourself by learning. Awesome has a price, after all. You have to be willing to make those monthly instalments…and if I don’t do this now, I’m afraid that it will never happen…