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Who Am I? Whom Do I Look Like?

No one wants additional homework, especially not when already teaching and grading high school essays. So I dutifully submitted my original “Personal Intro” so that members of the class would have time to create questions for me. The response from Dr. Lemons was not the one I wanted. “Heather,” he began, “I have read much of this before.” Of course you have, I thought. It’s what I read in class a couple weeks ago. You should be familiar with all of it. And then this man issued a challenge. I hate challenges, especially at a time when I am already feeling taxed. Have I mentioned my job, a student getting horribly ill Friday and me being her lifeline? Anyway, the challenge is to write about the “complexity of ‘color’” in my family, specifically related to my mother being mistaken for a woman of color.

To me, Mom is no more a woman of color than I am a cat, but apparently people wonder about both assertions. Meow! I called Mom. Fortunately, Mom and I have a pretty open relationship. If I want to know, I’m to ask. If I don’t like something, I’m to let her know, nicely. So I called her and asked questions. When Mom was in the third grade, her white male homeroom teacher asked her to say that she was an Indian. Mom grew up in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, south of Tulsa. I believe she moved there when she was five, so Mom would have been in third grade around 1959. The Creek Indians had intermarried with blacks, and Mom’s teacher thought she could pass as a mixed race girl. Mom was insulted because of the racism against blacks and Indians. She had heard the adults talking and did not want to be thought of as Creek, a “dirty people.”

I had never heard my mom speak about “dirty people.” It was like hearing her refer to the neighbors up the street as “white trash” when I was in elementary school, as in, “Don’t play at Chrissy’s house because they’re white trash.” But Mom had grown up dirt poor. Shouldn’t she have more empathy? I remember Mom telling me a story about an aunt visiting her family when she was young. She told me about her father getting onto his sister for putting the pot on the table instead of putting the food in a serving tray and putting that on the table. Mom looked at me with that “Ah ha” look, but I didn’t get it. I told her I didn’t get it. She said, “You don’t put the cooking pot on the table. We weren’t white trash.” Needless to say, I prefer to serve some of my dinners from the pot. It’s safer, though, if I keep the pot on the stove. I am less likely to burn myself. There are also fewer dishes for my husband to clean up. I am a horribly messy cook.

Mom told me about the “dirty people” on the phone, and I decided to speak up. “But,” I said, “weren’t they considered dirty because they didn’t have sanitary conditions on the reservation. I mean, we sent them there, and there really wasn’t anything there. How can you get clean if you don’t have running water?” She had a double-seater outhouse growing up. She should know about running water and cleanliness. Mom conceded that point. She then said that the government then began to bring the Indians into town. Actually, she said “THEY” brought them into town, but I surmised that she meant the government. “They gave them houses. Even the Cherokee and the Comanche thought the Creeks were dirty.” Sheesh! I’d never heard such tones of racism from my mom. She’s the one who went across the railroad tracks, literally, and ate roadkill raccoon at a Black girlfriend’s house and then burned her bra with the friend.

Really? My mom? Racist? I guess I take the more patronizing view of the noble savage. I don’t know which is worse. We then discussed the term Black Dutch. There were rumors that ancestors on her father’s side had intermarried with Indians. Mom was in the middle of something or I was asking too many questions, so she told me to Google it. She had to get off the phone. I googled “Black Dutch.” It’s a term that means that there could be a black or Indian ancestor in the family. Before the Netherlands became its own country, Spanish soldiers were garrisoned there. The bastard offspring of the soldiers and Dutch women were called Black Dutch because they had the swarthy coloring of the Spanish and not the pale coloring of northern Europeans. In America, the term was used by those who had black or, more often, Indian ancestors. The Cherokee, in particular, tried to assimilate with white society, and after they were moved off their lands in the east, those who remained referred to themselves as “Black Dutch.” Interestingly, the term Black Dutch also refers to ethnic Germans who live in Pennsylvania and who migrated to Virginia. They are also referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The German word for German is “Deutsch,” which looks and sounds a bit like the word “Dutch.”

My Grandpa Carr was from Pennsylvania and that part of West Virginia between Ohio and Pennsylvania. His father died when he was eight, and by twelve years of age he was working in the coal mines, supporting his mom and siblings. My blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Granny is from the Pittsburgh area, and her mother’s parents were immigrants from Germany. Granny remembers her grandfather, instead of calling her Catherine, referring to her as Katerina. So my mom and her four brothers are “Pennsylvania Dutch,” though not the Amish variety, and based upon Grandpa’s history, there probably are black and Indian ancestors in the bloodline.

Before we go any farther, I think it’s important that you know that I consider myself, my parents, and my brother white. I was also raised middle class, though there were a couple times when my dad was out of work that we probably weren’t truly middle class. My dad met my mom in Okmulgee. Dad had left Iowa to attend Okmulgee Tech. His parents had been cattle farmers, but they sold the farm when Dad was fourteen, and when he (the youngest of two) left home three years later, they moved out of the house. Grandpa Carr brought Dad and a bunch of the other boys home to socialize when Mom was about sixteen. Apparently, my parents never went on a date. One day Dad asked Mom what she would say if he were to ask her to marry him. Mom ran into the house saying she was engaged. Mom once said that she knew if she didn’t, it would be forever before he actually proposed. On June 24, 1968, my parents married. I was born in Iowa as was my younger brother, and we moved to Florida in 1980, when I was five and my brother was almost 3.

In Iowa, I imagine my Dad turned bright red every day he worked in the sun. Dad and I have the same fair complexion, but instead of staying red, Dad would tan a bit. Even as a child, I remember my dad working in our yard. He’d sometimes get so dirty that he’d take his shirt off in the garage. He definitely had a farmer’s tan. My brother and my mother have olive skin and would simply get darker as they got more sun. I burned. Sometimes my skin would turn brown, but then it would start peeling off. I stayed pale or pink. Since we lived in Florida and my parents love the beach, Mom and Dad purchased a timeshare in Sarasota. We went for a week every summer. The four of us were crammed into a one bedroom, one bath timeshare, and I had to share the foldout couch with my brother. I never was one to sit on the beach and try to look good. I think that is because I have a tomboy for a mother. If I had to be outside, I would build sandcastles, play in the waves, or swim in the pool, but I would have preferred being inside with a book. But no matter what, though, I ended up getting burned.

During the weeks of summer that we didn’t go to the beach, Mom would kick my brother and me outside and lock the doors. She used that time to get housework done. We’d be out for two or three hours, and she would never tell us when she had unlocked the doors. I needed the color, everyone in my family would say. Doctors say that it only takes one good (or bad!) sunburn before age eighteen to significantly increase the risk of melanoma. How many did I have before I was eighteen? At twenty-nine, I experienced the first biopsies and now have a scar down my back where the dysplasia (read that as “it will become cancer if we don’t get it out”) was cut out.

So, I didn’t really pay that much attention when as a kid a black woman at the door asked to feel my mom’s hair because she thought mom was trying to pass as a white woman. It was curious. I can only imagine what she thought when she saw pale me and my brown brother! Mom is just my mom, and my issues with color are along the lines of “Why aren’t you tan?” At fifteen, when I went back to Iowa for the first time in ten years, I had to explain to two kids in the Sunday School class that living in Florida does not mean getting a tan. I don’t have Victorian-pale skin, but ever since my near-cancer experience, that is my holy grail. It took a medical incident for me to say, “No, I don’t have to have a tan to be healthy.” It isn’t as if I had ever sought a tan, but now I have some medical-ese to back up my preference not to burn.

My mom, with the deep black hair she had when she was younger, her brown eyes, and her olive complexion, could pass for white, Black, or Indian, but that depended upon who was looking. My brother, with his brown eyes, brown hair, and brown skin, has been asked if he’s Jewish or Mexican, and he’s been stopped at airports because they thought he was Arabic. Dad just looks like some overly tanned farmer. And me, I look like me. I have my mother’s body shape, my Granny’s coloring, my Dad’s lips and feet, and I’ve developed my younger brother’s smart aleck ways. Who am I? Just me.

Originally posted 2/14/12

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