How do family traditions and cultural legacies contribute to and/or inhibit an individual’s self-identity? What do you know about your family history? How is this history shared, and how is it valued among individual family members? Beyond its literal meaning, what are the broader implications of the cliché “keeping the family name alive”? Or has this cliché outlived its validity? A number of readings in this chapter address an aspect of family tradition/cultural heritage and individual identity and fulfillment—for example, Walker’s “Everyday Use” (page 385); Rich’s “Delta” (page 412); Kelley’s “The People in Me” (page 424). Drawing on evidence from several readings and your own experience and observations, write a claim of value argument about an aspect of family heritage and individual identity.
for your grandmama
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never learned to say to her.
You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has “made it” is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other’s faces. Sometimes the mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft-seated limousine I am ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers.
5 In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. But of course all this does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.
But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature.
“How do I look, Mama?” Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she’s there, almost hidden by the door.
“Come out into the yard,” I say.
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground.
10 Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure. She’s a woman now, though sometimes I forget. How long ago was it that the other house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee. I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot brick chimney. Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.
I used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised the money, the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good-naturedly but can’t see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by. She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face) and then I’ll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself. Although I never was a good singer. Never could carry a tune. I was always better at a man’s job. I used to love to milk till I was hooked in the side in’ 49. Cows are soothing and slow and don’t bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way.
I have deliberately turned my back on the house. It is three rooms, just like the one that burned, except the roof is tin; they don’t make shingle roofs any more. There are no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides, like the portholes in a ship, but not round and not square, with rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside. This house is in a pasture, too, like the other one. No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down. She wrote me once that no matter where we “choose” to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends. Maggie and I thought about this and Maggie asked me, “Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?”
15 She had a few. Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school. Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye. She read to them.
When she was courting Jimmy T she didn’t have much time to pay to us, but turned all her fault finding power on him. He flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy people. She hardly had time to recompose herself.
When she comes I will meet—but there they are!
Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house; in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand. “Come back here,” I say. And she stops and tries to dig a well in the sand with her toe.
It is hard to see them clearly through the strong sun. But even the first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style. From the other side of the car comes a short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head a foot long and hanging from his chin like a kinky mule tail. I hear Maggie suck in her breath. “Uhnnnh,” is what it sounds like. Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road. “Uhnnnh.”
20 Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it. I hear Maggie go “Uhnnnh” again. It is her sister’s hair. It stands straight up like the wool on a sheep. It is black as night and around the edges are two long pigtails that rope about like small lizards disappearing behind her ears.
“Wa-su-zo-Tean-o!” she says, coming on in that gilding way the dress makes her move. The short stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning and he follows up with “Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!” He moves to hug Maggie but she falls back, right up against the back of my chair. I feel her trembling there and when I look up I see the perspiration falling off her chin.
“Don’t get up,” says Dee. Since I am stout it takes something of a push. You can see me trying to move a second or two before I make it. She turns, showing white heels through her sandals, and goes back to the car. Out she peeks next with a Polaroid. She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead.
Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie’s hand. Maggie’s hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she keeps trying to pull it back. It looks like Asalamalakim wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy. Or maybe he don’t know how people shake hands. Anyhow, he soon gives up on Maggie.
“Well,” I say. “Dee.”
25 “No, Mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!”
“What happened to ‘Dee’?” I wanted to know.
“She’s dead,” Wangero said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.”
“You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie,” I said. Dicie is my sister. She named Dee. We called her “Big Dee” after Dee was born.
“But who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
30 “I guess after Grandma Dee,” I said.
“And who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
“Her mother,” I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. “That’s about as far back as I can trace it,” I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.
“Well,” said Asalamalakim, “there you are.”
“Uhnnnh,” I heard Maggie say.
35 “There I was not,” I said, “before ‘Dicie’ cropped up in our family, so why should I try to trace it that far back?”
He just stood there grinning, looking down on me like somebody inspecting a Model A car. Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head.
“How do you pronounce this name?” I asked.
“You don’t have to call me by it if you don’t want to,” said Wangero.
“Why shouldn’t I?” I asked. “If that’s what you want us to call you, we’ll call you.”
40 “I know it might sound awkward at first,” said Wangero.
“I’ll get used to it,” I said. “Ream it out again.”
Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name twice as long and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he told me to just call him Hakim-a-barber. I wanted to ask him was he a barber, but I didn’t really think he was, so I didn’t ask.
“You must belong to those beef-cattle peoples down the road,” I said. They said “Asalamalakim” when they met you, too, but they didn’t shake hands. Always too busy: feeding the cattle, fixing the fences, putting up salt-lick shelters, throwing down hay. When the white folks poisoned some of the herd the men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and a half just to see the sight.
Hakim-a-barber said, “I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style.” (They didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask, whether Wangero (Dee) had really gone and married him.)
45 We sat down to eat and right away he said he didn’t eat collards and pork was unclean. Wangero, though, went on through the chitlins and corn bread, the greens and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs.
“Oh, Mama!” she cried. Then turned to Hakim-a-barber. “I never knew how lovely these benches are. You can feel the rump prints,” she said, running her hands underneath her and along the bench. Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over
Grandma Dee’s butter dish. “That’s it!” she said. “I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have.” She jumped up from the table and went over in the corner where the churn stood, the milk in it clabber by now. She looked at the churn and looked at it.
“This churn top is what I need,” she said. “Didn’t Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree you all used to have?”
“Yes,” I said.
50 “Uh huh,” she said happily. “And I want the dasher, too.”
“Uncle Buddy whittle that, too?” asked the barber.
Dee (Wangero) looked up at me.
“Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash,” said Maggie so low you almost couldn’t hear her. “His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.”
“Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s,” Wangero said, laughing. “I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,” she said, sliding a plate over the churn, “and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.”
55 When she finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment in my hands. You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.
After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.
“Mama,” Wangero said sweet as a bird. “Can I have these old quilts?”
I heard something fall in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed.
“Why don’t you take one or two of the others?” I asked. “These old things was just done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died.”
60 “No,” said Wangero. “I don’t want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine.”
“That’ll make them last better,” I said.
“That’s not the point,” said Wangero. “These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!” She held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them.
“Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come from old clothes her mother handed down to her,” I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved back just enough so that I couldn’t reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
“Imagine!” she breathed again, clutching them closely to her bosom.
65 “The truth is,” I said, “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas.”
She gasped like a bee had stung her.
“Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”
“I reckon she would,” I said. “God knows I been saving’ em for long enough with nobody using’ em. I hope she will!” I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style.
“But they’re priceless!” she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. “Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!”
70 “She can always make some more,” I said. “Maggie knows how to quilt.”
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!”
“Well,” I said, stumped. “What would you do with them?”
“Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.
Maggie by now was standing in the door. I could almost hear the sound her feet made as they scraped over each other.
75 “She can have them, Mama,” she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. “I can’ member Grandma Dee without the quilts.”
I looked at her hard. She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff and it gave her face a kind of dopey, hangdog look. It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn’t mad at her. This was Maggie’s portion. This was the way she knew God to work.
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open.
“Take one or two of the others,” I said to Dee.
But she turned without a word and went out to Hakim-a-barber.
80 “You just don’t understand,” she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
“What don’t I understand?” I wanted to know.
“Your heritage,” she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.”
She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin.
Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared. After we watched the car dust settle I asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.
The Writer (1971)
In her room at the prow of the house Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden, My daughter is writing a story. I pause in the stairwell, hearing 5 From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy: I wish her a lucky passage.
10 But now it is she who pauses, As if to reject my thought and its easy figure. A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking, And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor 15 Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago, How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it; 20 And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door, We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
25 And wait then, humped and bloody, For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back, Beating a smooth course for the right window 30 And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling, Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish What I wished you before, but harder.
The People in Me (2003)
Robin D. G. Kelley
“So, what are you?” I don’t know how many times people have asked me that. “Are you Puerto Rican? Dominican? Indian or something? You must be mixed.” My stock answer has rarely changed: “My mom 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 lived with “the question” for as long as I can remember. We’re “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 mom possessed was pummeled out of her by cruel preteens who never had sensitivity seminars in diversity. The result for us was a nondescript way of talking, walking, and being that made us not black enough, not white enough—just a bunch of not-quite-nappy-headed enigmas.
My mother never fit the “black momma” media image. A beautiful, demure, light brown woman, she didn’t drink, smoke, curse, or say things like “Lawd Jesus” or “hallelujah,” nor did she Cook chitlins or gumbo. A vegetarian, she played the harmonium (a foot-pumped miniature organ), spoke softly with textbook diction, meditated, followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, and had wild hair like Chaka Khan. 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, changing her name from Sheral Anne Kelley to Makani Themba has not helped.) 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. Talk about ironic. How often are black women spared indignities because they are African American?
5 “What are you?” dogged my little brother more than any of us. He came out looking just like his father, who was white. In the black communities of Los Angeles and Pasadena, my baby bro’ had to fight his way into blackness, usually winning only when he invited his friends to the house. When he got tired of this, he became what people thought he was—a cool white boy. Today he lives in Tokyo, speaks fluent Japanese, and is happily married to a Japanese woman (who is actually Korean passing as Japanese!) He stands as the perfect example of our mulattoness: a black boy trapped in a white body who speaks English with a slight Japanese accent and has 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.” We were and are “polycultural,” and I’m talking about all peoples in the Western world. It is not skin, hair, walk, or talk that renders black people so diverse. Rather, it is the fact that most of them are products of different “cultures”—living cultures, not dead ones. These cultures live in and through us every day, with almost no self-consciousness about hierarchy or meaning. “Polycultural” works better than “multicultural,” which implies that cultures are fixed, discrete entities that exist side by side—a kind of zoological approach to culture. Such a view obscures power relations, but often reifies race and gender differences.
Black people were polycultural from the get-go. Most of our ancestors came to these shores not as Africans, but as Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, Kongo, Bambara, Mende, Mandingo, and so on. Some of our ancestors came as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Irish, English, Italian. And more than a few of us, in North America as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America, have 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. What we know as “black culture” has always been fluid and hybrid. In Harlem in the late 1960s and 1970s, Nehru suits 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 New York Knicks and Richard Rountree, who played John Shaft in blaxploitation cinema. 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 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 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 marijuana, which was introduced into Jamaica by Indians. Major black movements like Garveyism and the African Blood Brotherhood are also the products of global developments. We won’t understand these movements until we see them as part of a dialogue with Irish nationalists from the Easter Rebellion, Russian and Jewish émigrés from the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and Asian socialists like India’s M. N. Roy and Japan’s Sen Katayama.
10 Indeed, I’m not sure we can even limit ourselves to Earth. How do we make sense of musicians 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 intergalactic exchange constitute a key source of their ideas?
So-called “mixed race” children are not the only ones with a claim to multiple heritages. All of us are inheritors of European, African, Native American, and Asian pasts, even if we can’t exactly trace our bloodlines to these continents.
To some people that’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 those 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. 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 long-ass lecture. As singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln once put it, “I’ve got some people in me.”