People in Me


I don’t know how many times people asked me that question. “Are you Puerto Rican? Dominican? Indian or something? You must be mixed.”

My stock answer rarely changed. “My moms is from Jamaica but grew up in New York, and my father was from North Carolina but grew up in Boston. Both black.”

My family has been living with “the question” for as long as I can remember. I come from a family of “exotics,” all cursed with “good hair” and strange accents — we don’t sound like we from da Souf or the Norwth, and don’t have that West Coast by-way-of-Texas Calabama thang going on. The only one with the real West Indian singsong vibe is my grandmother, who looks even more East Indian than my sisters. Whatever Jamaican patois my moms possessed was pummelled out of her by cruel pre-teens who never had the benefit of sensitivity seminars in diversity. The end result for us was a nondescript way of talking, walking, and just being that made us not black enough, not white enough — just a bunch of not-quite-nappy-headed enigmas.

Polycultural Enigmas

My mother never fit the “black momma” image that dominates the media — from Esther Rolle in “Good Times” to “Big Momma” of the recent film “Soul Food.” In fact, we never called her “momma.” The beautiful, demure, light brown woman we called “mom” or “mommy” didn’t drink, smoke, curse, or say things like “Lawd Jesus” or “hallelujah,” nor did she cook chitlins, greens in fatback, or gumbo. A vegetarian for most of her life, she played the harmonium (a handpumped miniature organ), spoke very softly with textbook diction, meditated religiously, followed the teachings of Parmahansa Yogananda, and had wild hair like Chaka Kahn. She burned incense in our tiny Harlem apartment, sometimes walked the streets barefoot, and when she could afford it, cooked foods from the East.

To this day, my big sister gets misidentified for Pakistani or Bengali or Ethiopian. (Of course, the fact that she changed her name from Sheral Anne Kelley to Makani Themba certainly has not helped matters.) Not long ago, an Oakland cab driver, apparently a Sikh who had immigrated from India, treated my sister like dirt until he discovered that she was not a “scoundrel from Sri Lanka,” but a common Black American. From that point on, he was courteous, verging on charming. Talk about ironic: how often are black women spared indignities because they are African American?

The “what are you” question dogged my little brother more than any of us. His father was white and he came out looking just like him. In the black communities of Los Angeles and Pasadena where he came of age, my baby bro’ had to fight his way into blackness, usually winning converts only when he invited his friends to the house. When he got tired of this, he became what people thought he was — i.e., a cool white boy — until he was ready to re-make himself all over again. Today he lives in Tokyo, speaks fluent Japanese, and is happily married to a Japanese woman (who, by the way, is actually Korean passing as Japanese!). He stands as the perfect example of our mulatto-ness: a black boy trapped in a white boy’s body who speaks English with a slight Japanese accent, and is the proud father of a son who will spend his life confronting “the question.”

Although folk had trouble naming us, we were never blanks or aliens in a “black world.” On the contrary, we were and are “polycultural.” By “we,” I’m not simply talking about my own family or even my `hood, but all peoples in the Western world. It is not our skin or hair or walk or talk that renders black people so incredibly diverse. Rather, it is the fact that most black people in the Americas are products of a variety of different “cultures” — living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us everyday, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. In this respect, I think the term “polycultural” works a lot better than “multicultural,” since the latter often implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side — a kind of zoological approach to culture. Such a view of multiculturalism not only obscures power relations, but often reifies race and gender differences.

Blackness as Multi-Ethnic from the Get

Blackness, black culture, and black life have never been easily identifiable, secure in their boundaries, or clear to all people who live inside or outside our skin. We were multi-ethnic and polycultural from the get-go. Most of our ancestors came to these shores not as “Africans,” but as Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, Kongo, Bambara, Mende, Mandinga, etc. And some of our ancestors — and this we cannot deny — came as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Irish, English, Italian, etc. And more than a few of us, here in North America as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America, have some Asian and Native American roots.

Our lines of biological descent are about as pure as O.J.’s blood sample, and our cultural lines of descent are about as mixed up as a pot of gumbo. Black folk cook with woks, write detective novels, and have been spotted purchasing classical music CDs. What we know as “black culture” has always been fluid, hybrid, and polycultural. In Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nehru suits like the ones worn by the first Prime Minister of India (after whom the style was named) were as popular — and as “black” — as dashikis, and martial arts films placed Bruce Lee among a pantheon of black heroes that included Walt Frazier of the Knicks and John Shaft of blaxploitation cinema.

And if you still don’t believe me, just consider how multicultural “hip-hop” has always been. Not only were the pioneering dj’s, rappers, and break dancers African American, West Indian, Puerto Rican, and strongly identified with the African diaspora, rap artists wrecked all the boundaries between so-called “black” and “white” music. Hip-hop and punk united for a moment and got busy at the New Wave clubs in New York during the early 1980s. Afrika Islam recalls that in the Bronx they were already playing “everything from Aerosmith’s `Walk This Way’ to Dyke and the Blazers.” As Grand Master Caz explained in an interview with writer James Spady, “Yo, I’d bug you out if I told you who I used to listen to. I used to listen to Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and Simon and Garfunkel. I grew up listening to that.”

Black culture is not the secret root of all American popular cultures, nor has it remained pure and unaltered, nor can it be reduced to the cultural/racial binaries of African/European. How do we understand the zoot suit — or the conk — without the pachuco culture of Mexican American youth, or low riders in black communities without Chicanos? How can we begin to discuss black visual artists in the interwar years without reference to the Mexican muralists, or the radical graphics tradition dating back to the late 19th century, or the whole body of Latin American artists influenced by surrealism?

Vague notions of “Eastern” religion and philosophy, as well as a variety of Orientalist assumptions, were far more important to the formation of the Lost Found Nation of Islam than anything coming out of Africa. And Rastafarians drew many of their ideas from South Asians, from vegetarianism to the use of marijuana, which was introduced into Jamaica by Indians.

Major black movements like Garveyism (1916) and the African Blood Brotherhood (1918) are also the products of global developments. We really will never understand these movements until we see them as part of a dialogue with Irish nationalists from the Easter Rebellion, Russian and Jewish emigres from the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and Asian socialists like India’s M.N. Roy and Japan’s Sen Katayama.

Indeed, I’m not sure we can even limit ourselves to Earth. How do we make sense of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Lee “Scratch” Perry, or, for that matter, the Nation of Islam, when we consider the fact that space travel and notions of inter-galactic exchange constitute a key source of their ideas?

World as One

Is there a moral to all of these stories, one directly relevant for the coming century? I think there are many morals, an obvious one being that so-called “mixed race” children are not the only ones with a claim to multiple heritages. All of us, and I mean ALL of us, are the inheritors of European, African, Native American, and even Asian pasts, even if we can’t exactly trace our blood lines to all of these continents.

While this may seem obvious, for some people it’s a dangerous concept. Too many Europeans don’t want to acknowledge that Africans helped create so-called Western Civilization, that they are both indebted to and descendants of the very folk they enslaved. They don’t want to see the world as One — a tiny little globe where people and cultures are always on the move, where nothing stays still no matter how many times we name it. To acknowledge our polycultural heritage and cultural dynamism is not to give up our black identity or our love and concern for black people. It does mean expanding our definition of blackness, taking our history more seriously, and looking at the rich diversity within us with new eyes.

So next time you see me, don’t ask where I’m from or what I am, unless you’re ready to sit through a longass lecture. As singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln once put it, “I’ve got some people in me.”

Article copyright ColorLines Magazine.

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