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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water - Mixed Blood

When we read books, especially when we're young, we're especially alert for things to recognize, clues to help us place ourselves in a confusing and daunting universe in which gender, age, economics, and identity itself are muddled by too much information, too many possibilities. We are externally ordered by one constellation in our immediate household, another in our social or school setting, many others on television. Where do we fit? What is the community of "us" to which we comfortably and securely and enduringly belong?

Such questions, I've always imagined, must be easier for some people to answer than they have been for me. Blond Lutheran Norwegian kids, growing up in Oslo, are clearly Norwegian. Oh sure, they're free to reject such a closed category, to become iconoclasts by embracing Mormonism or learning to love Thai food or cross-dressing as Swedes, but the base from which they operate, the thing they're desperate not to be in their rebellion--and therefore surely are--is Norwegian.

It's a trickier proposition if, like many Americans, we start off in ambiguity. When self-definition is contextually dictated or ascribed variously depending on who we're talking to, when a string of adjectives joined by hyphens prefixes our name in any introduction, and when, in terms of ethnic phenotypes, our eyes "look" this way, our accent sounds that way, our nose doesn't match our lips, and our hair texture is at odds with our skin pigmentation, we could be anyone--which translates, until we know better, into nobody at all.

I've spent too much of my life as one of those could-bes, torturously explaining to those bold or skeptical enough to ask how it is that DNA-wise I'm a compound, an alloy, rather than an element. Early in my youth I learned that it was useful to have my complicated genealogy at the ready, available as a public service to be cross-checked, weighed, judged, and passed upon by people I barely knew but whose opinion on my pedigree, somehow, was supposed to matter. Around the house, among my relatives, I was simply me. In the outside world, I had to make the case.

Blah-blah-blah. My late father was Indian by way of and to varying degrees via both his parents, who themselves were also descended back through history from an occasional English or French ancestor. My mother is a union of rural Kentucky lace-curtain Irish and Indiana Swiss. My parents met and fell in love during World War II when my father was in the army and stationed at Fort Knox, and for a long set of complicated reasons, some of them ethnic-related, they had to go to California to get married. I had, as a result, a lot of relatives who were darker than I was, and a few who were lighter, and I could account for each feature of my being through reference to a different and color-coordinated gene pool. Some of my kinfolk were Roman Catholic, some weren't. None were rich, a few barely middle class, but the majority of whatever hue were poor. I felt, one way or another, at one time or another, equally comfortable or uncomfortable living on a reservation, in a city, on a farm--and because of my immediate family's economic situation, I seemed to stay in no place long enough to fully blend in. Satisfied?

All this palaver usually made me anxious, then bored, then angry. It was so much preamble, a kind of endless Japanese etiquette ceremony that preceded real encounter, a repetitious ritual that, more than anything else, ultimately inspired me, during my teens, to either say an instant "yes, you're right" to the first guess a perfect stranger might throw out as to who or what I "really" was, or to stay home. Sometimes it still does.

And what did I do at home, with no resident siblings and often living too far out of town to walk to a friend's house? I read. Everything. I read my grandfather's slim volumes of Victorian poetry, my mother's Good Housekeeping magazines, the Hardy Boys mysteries, old National Geographics. I read cookbooks, newspapers, the ads in the back of Popular Mechanics, and hundreds of comic books. I read about the lives of the saints, the betrayals of Osceola and Crazy Horse, the adventures of A Connecticut Yankee At King Arthur's Court. And much as I enjoyed and learned from it all, hard as I looked without truly realizing what I was looking for, I never, not once, found myself.

Everybody I encountered in literature simply was unequivocally who they were--even the Green Lantern, depending on necessity, was either kelly green or picket-fence white, never a nice pastel. Nobody, unless one counted The Prince and the Pauper--who after all knew the hidden truth of their clear situation all along--ever just wasn't. Where were my role models? Where was Helen, Half-Breed Hunkpapa of Houston, or Murray, the Mixed-Blood Maverick, leaping conflicting ethnicities in a single, effortless bound? Look, up in the sky! It's both a bird and a plane! It's Super-Combo!

The absence of fictional or biographical protagonists possessed of a bi- or tri-racial background is curious because by its very nature multiple relatedness is dramatic and interesting. A character with an insider's knowledge of more than one group is potentially an ideal guide, both objective and subjective, sufficiently well informed to know the right questions to ask but detached enough to still be surprised at the answers. Persons linked to a broad and disparate network of culture can match the solutions reached at one place to the problems faced by another. Their very marginality requires that they listen more sharply, use words with care and precision, watch closely in order to learn how to behave. They can easily stand as a metaphor for the dislocations of children in an adult world, for a boy who finds himself among girls (or vice versa), for a city kid stranded in the country. Inasmuch as they must grapple as often with alienation as with affinity, mixed-bloods mirror the perplexity of every human being who must constantly pass from a seemingly stable state--childhood--into the flux of maturity. Their very resistance to facile definition renders them, in the end, more typical of human reality than people whose apparent stability in a monochrome identity is a fleeting illusion, an unsustainable luxury.

I've tried to give positive voice to this condition in my own writing. Rayona, in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), overhears her Native American mother talking to her African American father:

"We're the wrong color for each other," I heard Mom tell him a long time ago. "That's what your friends think."

"We may be different shade but look at the blend." Dad's voice had been low, almost singing. He probably wasn't talking about me, but he might have been, since my skin is a combination of theirs. Once, in a hardware store, I found each of our exact shades on a paint mix-tone chart. Mom was Almond Joy, Dad was Burnt Clay, and I was Maple Walnut.

Or, in The Crown of Columbus (1991), Louise Erdrich and I let the feisty Vivian Twostar proclaim:

"I belong to the lost tribe of mixed bloods, that hodgepodge amalgam of hue and cry that defies easy placement. When the DNA of my various ancestors . . . combined to form me, the result was not some genteel, undecipherable puree that comes from a Cuisinart. You know what they say on the side of the Bisquick box, under instructions for pancakes? Mix with fork. Leave lumps. That was me. . . . 'Caught between two worlds,' is the way we're often characterized, but I'd put it differently. We are the catch."

Brave words, Viv, but sell that one to me at age eleven, self-conscious about my light complexion at a powwow or listening, embarrassed and tongue-tied, while oblivious to half of my background all-white schoolmates tell cruel jokes about drunken Indians.

Growing up mixed-blood is, for too many of us and for too long in our lives, growing up mixed up. Dual identity may eventually be an advantage for empathy, may greatly benefit us if we become a psychiatrist or a writer or a counselor, but while it's happening it's usually not much fun. It demands wariness, humility, patience, and the lonely nurturing of a self-image strong enough to stand up to all challengers, whether intentionally malevolent or merely stupid. It inspires our jealousy toward those who don't seem to face the same problems we do because they look the way we feel, and simultaneous guilt because they often suffer or are discriminated against for that very otherwise enviable quality. It engenders instant recognition for and psychological bonding with another person of any age going through a similar trial. It wears us out even as we tell ourselves it builds character. It insists that we create an independent model for who and how we need honestly to be, then follow it because, finally and forever, for better or worse, mixed and stirred up is who we are.

 

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