“Do you ever feel sad that you can’t really trace your history back to like, a country or something?”
This was a question asked of me by a young man of 22, the child of two immigrants. “I mean, I can trace back to where my family is from for 500 years in two different countries.” It was a difficult question to be asked, and even more difficult to field in an unfortunately named Mexican restaurant which I highly suspect is not owned by people of Mexican descent. (I’m basing that on the name of the restaurant, not the physical appearance of the owner, but I digress.) The question has been showing up for me a lot lately in various ways. I find myself feeling jealous of friends who talk about some physical nation in which their bloodlines are deeply rooted, despite the fact that their presence in the US often follows a fraught journey–one of physical, spiritual, emotional separation. In my younger, snowflake-ier days, I used to describe myself as “plain old American black.” It’s more of a dig when I say it now, a jab back at people who assume that being interesting or attractive or any other positive attribute must be associated with foreignness or whiteness to offset how “unremarkable” it is to be a black US American.
I admit that I’ve agonized over this post some, worried that I can’t express the ideas floating in my mind in a way that successfully conveys them to folks who don’t live in my brain. But I really have been experiencing a crisis regarding my identity these days, catalyzed by my estrangement from my family. I feel like it could be ameliorated by guidance or connection to my predecessors. Still, I’m often frustrated by my desire to reach back to ancestors whose names I don’t know, and indeed, can’t know with the meager resources at my disposal. My (maternal) family history stops in Eufaula, AL in the late 1700s. I know that’s further back than a number of black folks can trace, and I feel grateful for the knowledge, but it’s still…unsatisfying.