Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Identity

I started this blog as an outlet to express my own thoughts and understanding of race and identity. As an African American woman, these are issues I have grappled with throughout my life. For the majority of Black people in this country, where we come from is a mystery. And for some folks, the not knowing is fine. For others like myself, it is heartbreaking, and that subconscious pain is something we carry around not quite knowing how to describe.
From a very young age, I remember wanting to know more about Africa. I knew that I was African, and I wanted to know what country I came from. I'd ask my parents, who of course told me they didn't know because of slavery. Our collective memory was beaten right out of us. Over the years people told me to "get over it," and that where I was from didn't matter. That didn't take the yearning away. The West African sankofa concept, of learning from one's past to have a brighter future, is one that resonated deeply with me. And I was able to live that concept by taking Black Studies courses while in college at San Francisco State University. This deep study of history empowered me, and made me feel less alone. I was surrounded by other strong, seeking minds and learned how much of my people's past had been hidden or simply glossed over in junior high and high school. I studied the speeches of Malcolm X, the history of Kemet (aka Egypt), and Civil Rights law. I also took a class on the shared history of Blacks and Native Americans, which encouraged a deeper study of my own family's histrory.
This is what I know for sure: My father's family came from Texas, and my mother's family from the midwest (Oklahoma). I know my mother's people settled in Oklahoma during the Land Rush of the late 1880s. I know that we have Cherokee roots on my mother's side, and Chicasaw roots on my father's side, both from about two generations ago. I was told that my last name, Arterberry, is Scottish. I've thought about changing it (since it is the name of someone that enslaved my ancestors), but I've changed my mind in recent years. It may sound silly, but the damn name suits me. Arterberry. I'm a painter, and my last name has "art" in it. It's also distinctive. So I am going to stick with my "slave name." I feel that in some ways I've made it my own.
Coming to terms with my identity has not been easy. People would constantly tell me I looked mixed because of my features and skin tone. I remember one moment in particular when I was hanging out with a group of my friends, all of whom had gorgeous ebony skin. One girl went around the group looking at everyone's features, and said "hmm, you look like you could be from (insert West African country here)." When she came to me she stopped. "You're too mixed up," she said. "I can't tell where you're from." That hurt. But I had reached a point in my life where I could not deny any part of my ancestry. I could feel my people standing proud, and I wanted to honor them. If other people had a problem with that or thought it made me "less black", fine. I choose not, however, to honor my caucasian ancestors. I remember talking to a friend about this, and she said matter-of-factly, "I honor all my ancestors, except the ones who raped and colonized my family." I adopted her belief. So although I keep the Scottish name, I do not venerate the Scottish ancestors. It's a simple reality of my ancestry, and I leave it at that. You won't catch me wearing a kilt like Andre 3000.
Studying history opened so many doors for me in understanding who I am. The other component to that journey was spirituality. I've always been a deeply spiritual person, but Christianity (the faith I was raised in, although my family rarely attended church) just didn't speak to me. It was when I discovered the Orisa faith (practiced in many different ways with roots in Cuba, Brazil, and Nigeria) that I found something which spoke to me. The deities looked like me, the drums and singing stirred my soul, and the sacred stories (patakis) resonated deeply with me. Something inside me began to wake up, and although I could not precisely identify my ancestors, I could feel them close to me in a way I hadn't before. A friend who was also a practitioner of the faith for many years sat with me and my ancestors once. "Your ancestors are from all over the place," she told me. "They are speaking to you in all different languages." She went on to say that they are closest to me through music, and they are the reason I feel connected to Latin America. She put into words what I had been feeling for so long. I didn't have all the answers, but I had what I needed. My search continues, but it continues with joy, and not a feeling of yearning emptiness. When I want to feel close to my ancestors, I play traditional music that reflects my heritage. I sit and talk with them. Others may think it's strange, but it has brought me peace. I know who I am in my heart and my spirit, and that is the most important thing of all.