This guest post is by Lisa Kelly, who shares how learning about her family history led her to rename her White Grandma to White Indian Princess Grandma. And how labels cause her to think of how her daughter will respond to assertions about her race.
When not slightly hunched over, my grandmother was a striking woman. She stood at 5’7” and had a crowning glory of jet-black wavy hair, that when let down from the ballet knot she sported fell down to her waist. She had a fair olive complexion and dark eyes. For years I referred to her as White Grandma because, in comparison to me, she was white.
In reality, she was mixed, as was one of her. When my mom told me White Grandma was in fact Black, I was shocked. I don’t recall the exact motivation my mom shared this, but it likely came after a homework assignment in which I colored in all the figures but one in brown. Thus began the start of many conversations about race and ethnicity engage in with my own family, and with the outside world.
For years I referred to her as White Grandma because, in comparison to me, she was white.
In a 23andme-esque chat, my cousin explained that our grandmother was Caucasian (possibly Irish, though I’m not sure how they reached that conclusion), African-American (Black – it was the 70’s), and Native-American (Cherokee, but I see more resemblance with the Sioux). We lounged pool side as my older cousin broke her research down in bite-sized pieces for her me to absorb. By fifth grade, my grandmother went from being called White Grandma to White Indian Princess Grandma. Somehow Black never made label status. She still didn’t look Black to me.
By high school, I’d begun an ad-hoc ancestral research project. This was some 30 years ago and DIY DNA testing was nowhere on the radar. The process was more ethnographic and required conversation instead of Google searches. The results were more puzzling than the questions and instead of offering clarity and simplification, they served up layer upon layer of more culture, ethnicity, and secrecy.
When my grandfather, a dark Black man with features like White Indian Princess Grandma passed away, I discovered he was Jewish. There’s nothing like a eulogy and obituary to bring truth to the surface. This explained why growing up, despite being members of an Episcopal church, my mother and I observed the Jewish holidays. So much so that at 13 years old, I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Yet as soon as I discovered my Judaism, I was told my grandfather had converted, and therefore, I wasn’t truly Jewish. I was disappointed.
In my twenties, I met a man who shared my same last name. We met in a restaurant, in the most casual of ways – a friendly flirt at the bar while waiting for our friends to show up. As he paid his bill, I noticed the name on his credit card. He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed German American who after I asked, generously downloaded the genealogy of our ancestors. He knew dates, names, and references. He was proud of his heritage, and proud that in the past his people intersected with my people and we were family in a way. When I asked about the likelihood that the name was a slave owner’s given name, he replied with a certainty that suggested thorough consideration infused with familial pride, No, the Germans who settled then did not own slaves. They did not believe in slavery.
In Europe, I am often mistaken for North African, Brazilian or another blend of cultures to which I cannot claim to belong. In Asia, I’m seen as Thai, Middle-Eastern, Indian, or American. There’s no white or Black. It’s liberating. Yet, when I reveal that I’m African American, that which I thought they could clearly see, that which is also expansive, global and liberating because of it’s multi-layered richness, I am quickly placed in a box that is bursting at the seams.
Looking at my daughter – who like my grandmother is mixed, fair, and dark-eyed – with wavy black hair down to her waist, I wonder how she’ll respond when others articulate how they see her. Will she assert her African-German-Irish-Converted Jewish-French-Sioux-American heritage? Or will she quip, Black girl magic trapped in white girl shade? For now, I am delighted when I hear her say, I’m Shoshanna, my mother’s daughter.
Will she assert her African-German-Irish-Converted Jewish-French-Sioux-American heritage? Or will she quip, “Black girl magic trapped in white girl shade?”
About the Author: Lisa Kelly was born in the US to African American parents. She is a Sustainability Lifestyle Strategic Coach and Editor in Chief of The Homeseteadista, a site and service advocating an inclusive and progressive green lifestyle in the hustle and bustle of the city.