What I Ain't: On Being Racially Homeless
The view from Fort Nowhere.
Jamie Paul here. This week’s article is a post by contributor Timothy Wood, but I have a piece out in Queer Majority: “Let the Cops March at Pride.”
Over here in the stunted hills of Appalachia, when you tell someone you’re NDN, people roll their eyes a little. Every third sunburnt white dude would love to tell you about his native roots if you let him. He probably has a dreamcatcher hanging at home somewhere next to an overdramatic portrait of a Lakota guy who’s a thousand miles in the wrong direction from anyone he might actually be related to. If you play your cards right, maybe he’ll throw some love in the direction of the jukebox and treat you to the 1994 hit single “Indian Outlaw”, incidentally by Tim McGraw, who turns out to be Irish and Italian. Maybe you’ll get some
clever tired trope, like “Feather or dot?” No friend, that’s why people coined “NDN”, to differentiate somebody from Chennai.
For the uninitiated, “NDN” (in-dee-in) is a part of this long-standing drama where the wrong term (Indian) was applied to the wrong people (a whole hemisphere’s worth of folks with different cultures, beliefs, complexions, and languages), became official policy (e.g., Bureau of Indian Affairs), became taboo (Native American), and then was reclaimed by the people it wrongly described. Thus, NDN.
For my own part, I’ve lived my whole life in a sort of limbo. I never wanted to be homeless like this, adrift among a chorus that told me I needed to have an identity. For a long while, I didn’t even know I was lost. We were an Army family. I was born in Bavaria, Germany while ole dad was busy blowing stuff up with the field artillery. Army was the job, the community, the family. Heck, it was the everything. None of us spoke German. I was still busy learning English. Best I can tell, I’m probably Cherokee. At least that roughly corresponds to the place my family is originally from, near Pennington Gap, Virginia. But forced relocation has a way of making it hard to find official records for a people who weren’t legally citizens until 1924.
So I end up finding myself in spots like listening to an interview with Maryland local politician and author Will Jawando, who just published a book called My Seven Black Fathers (2022). He’s talking about the sense of community he felt when he finally got to go to a real-life black-folk barbershop as a kid, instead of being sheared in the bathtub at home. Surrounded by people who lived in the same reality he did, in all the little ways that nobody notices unless they’re there along with you.
“That must be nice,” I think. “I wonder what that’s like.”
I didn’t truly get to share in Will’s epiphany. I never had a mentor moment of someone telling me that this is who I am. I didn’t realize I was anything, or that there was anything to be. By the time we’d settled down in the hills of Kentucky, what I got at age 11 or 12 was an introduction into what I’m not. Not self-identification, but others letting me in on the secret that I didn’t look the same way they did. I wasn’t them, and so I must be something else.
If someone is being polite, they’ll ask “So where are you from?” Of course the honest answer is that I’m from Fort Nowhere, but I’ve lived around Appalachia for most of my life. And you get a pained expression that seems to say “That wasn’t really what I was fishing for, but I’m not sure how to say this differently.” They’re angling for something like “I’m Dominican.” Or maybe “I’m Mexican”, since half the country seems to think Mexico starts in San Antonio and goes all the way to Chile.
If we’re getting the uncut version, it’s more like “What are you?” Um… mammal? Sorry, friend. I don’t really have a deeply satisfying answer to give you there. I wish I did. It’d be easier for everyone involved. I walk like you and talk like you, but I tan real easy and it stays a long time. I didn’t think much about it until “you people” felt the need to inform me, but you do seem quite keen on making sure I’m informed.
Our friend Will seems to have gotten something entirely different — a positive identity. He got something he shared with others. He got something, instead of the absence of something.
I think the closest I’ve gotten to Will’s barber shop is reading There There (2018) by Tommy Orange, a book I devoured when it first came out. It’s a bit of fiction about so-called “urban Indians” living in Oakland, California. And hey, I’m already on board with the ambivalent despair. My main memory from Oakland is going to an A’s game, walking the quarter-mile causeway from the BART to the stadium, and thinking, “I’ll be damned. They really did just build a whole dang bridge to keep people from having to exist in the crappy part of town while they went to a ballgame.”
Tommy has this passage of reflection from a kid in his story:
“You were white, you were brown, you were red, you were dust. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together in the same body.”
I’ve never heard anyone put it so succinctly and viscerally. You are both, not, and neither.
There’s a place not too far from where I live where they host annual “pow-wows”, and it stuck in my head, since that’s the organizing theme of Tommy’s plot. All his characters coalesce around a big pow-wow in the middle of concrete nowhere, a place where there’s no “there, there”, a reference not to Radiohead, but to writer Gertrude Stein’s reflections on Oakland itself. My wife asked if I wanted to go. She said it might help me reconnect. Well, not specifically reconnect, because that requires some kind of connection to start with. But I can’t. I won’t. The palatable answer is “It’s just going to be a bunch of sunburnt white dudes with dreamcatchers.” The real answer is that it might also not be — and if it isn’t, I don’t belong there either, and trying to act like I do feels awkward and rude.
What am I going to say to someone who’s legit NDN? I don’t know you, or this. Everything I know comes from reading and writing history. I don’t want to insult you by trying to LARP a life that I’ve never known. I don’t want to do you that disservice, because you deserve better than me. And I hear the words of Tommy’s Oakland, “I feel bad… even saying I'm Native.” It’s a purgatory I belong in, because that’s where you belong when you don’t belong anywhere else.
And well, so long as we’re having our little therapy session and you, dear reader, are still along for the ride, we may as well throw one more conflicted, ugly, shameful thing atop the pyre. When my daughter was born, there was a twisted kind of painful relief that she came out light-skinned. Is that betraying myself? My people? The people who should be my people? Some larger cause? I don’t know.
If I had an answer for you then it wouldn’t be something that haunts me. But I felt it. It was there. She won’t have to deal with any of this. She’ll sail through nice and easy, and if she doesn’t get a wild hair to start going through daddy’s old notes and hard drives, she’ll never even know.
I have a friend, a black guy from Louisiana. Cuts hair for a living, as if we needed a gratuitous reason to circle back to Will’s barber shop. We were sitting around shooting the shit about our kids, like dads do. He brings up having “The talk.”
“Hold on, now,” I think. Your son is about the same age as my girl. A little early to be getting all into the birds and the bees. But he meant a different talk. He meant the talk where you sit down with a little kid and tell him that he’s not just a boy, he’s a black boy. And some people are going to see and treat him differently because of it. And my main feeling is guilt for being relieved that I knew I didn’t have to have my own “talk” about being a brown girl. Maybe my little girl and his little boy will go on to do great things, and we can stop having “talks.” I hope so.
Maybe it’s also okay to be nothing. Maybe I’m not the one who’s wrong here for having to invent a costume for the convenience of the “What are you?” question, as if we’re dressed up to go trick-or-treating. I hadn’t put that much thought into it, but now that you ask, no, I’m not Johnny Depp. If I have to pick a particular pirate I’ll be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver, thank you very much. That’s not nearly as satisfying, because you probably don’t remember Jim Hawkins, but you remember Jack Sparrow, and it provides an accessible narrative. But when I put this whole thing together, I wasn’t trying to be a character; I was just trying to be a person.
See also: “What Does It Mean to Grow Up?”
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