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On Knowing Your Own History

By Nina LaCour

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[Image: Author Nina LaCour (Photo Credit: Kristyn Stroble)]

When I was a kid making my way through the California public school system, I took great care in bubbling in the demographic information on our standardized test packets. For the race/ethnicity section, I filled in as many circles as applied. My mother’s best guess for her mother, who was orphaned as a child and died years before I was born, was British, so I filled in White for her. I filled in American Indian for my maternal grandfather, because my aunt, the genealogist of the family, had found her grandparents had roots in the Cherokee nation.

My father’s family was Creole, from Louisiana, a culture comprised of French, African and Native American. With White and American Indian already filled in, I added Black for them. I liked the look of those filled-in dots on the page, like little clues about where I came from.

***

My new novel, Everything Leads to You, is the story of an eighteen-year-old named Emi, an emerging production designer who gets swept up in a mystery that leads her to love.  Her father is white and a Pop Culture professor. Her mother is half-white and half-black, and a professor of Black Studies. Emi’s race is not an issue in the book; it’s one facet of who she is in the world, and having academics as parents is another. This also applies to Emi’s sexuality: it’s a lesbian love story, but the lesbianism is not an issue. It’s all about the love.

When I was working on the early drafts, I was thinking a lot about an NYT opinion article titled “As Black as You Wish to Be” and its relation to my own identity. In it, memoirist Thomas Chatterton Williams takes the historical concept that “one drop” of black blood makes a person black, and brings it into the present. Williams has a white mother and a black father. He is married to a white French woman. He states that when he has children, their black heritage may not be visible, and argues the following: “Mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.”

Williams’ position struck me powerfully. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, four hundred miles away from my Creole family in Los Angeles and much farther than that from my mother’s family in Florida and North Carolina. In my daily life, I didn’t feel connected to any specific cultural or ethnic heritage. My dad made Creole food sometimes, gumbo and jambalaya, and sometimes we listened to the Neville Brothers. Otherwise, I only witnessed Creole culture when we traveled south for big family events, when my grandparents would reacquaint me with my elder relatives and I’d revel in their accents and expressions, their dark, soft faces and their reminiscences.

In some ways, I felt home among them.

But I also felt like an outsider.

In a recent conversation, my dad said that when he was younger he felt tied to his heritage, proud of it. He spoke of moving freely in and out of the houses of extended family and friends, of sprawling, weekly picnics in Griffith Park. He said he felt a part of something. When I think of the times I celebrated with all my great aunts and uncles and cousins, and the ladies of the family pulled out parasols and the men turned up the music, and the second line dance began—when I think of what it felt like to dance in that line surrounded by my family—I think I understand a little bit of what my dad must have felt.

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When working on my novel, I found an unplanned theme emerging. I’d be in the middle of a scene and a character would say something to the effect of how important it is to know your own history.

When thinking of my own history, I think of how census records for my dad’s parents read “Race: Negro,” of how my grandfather fought in the all-black troops in WWII, and how they left New Orleans for Los Angeles after the war in order to escape segregation and thereby have better job opportunities, and how my dad’s birth certificate’s race field says “Colored.”

I think about how my grandfather raised my dad to believe that he was black, until the Watts riots erupted in 1965 when my dad was eleven, and racial tensions ran so high in their Compton neighborhood that the disparity between identity and appearance became impossible to ignore.

I think about the night that Barack Obama was elected President, and how my dad cried, and then composed himself enough to tell us this story:

In around 1959, a traveling carnival visited Los Angeles. At that time his extended family and their friends, Creole people who had moved over a span of a few years in a mini-emigration from New Orleans, lived in a cluster, sharing households and occupying multiple units of apartment buildings. My dad’s grandfather usually stayed within their community, but they left the neighborhood one night to go to the carnival.

They parked several blocks away, and my four or five-year-old dad walked between his father and grandfather, holding their hands.

His grandfather was looking all around, taking in the scenery and the other fair-goers, until my dad felt something strange. His grandfather was shaking and his palms were sweating. My dad signaled to his dad that something was wrong.

“What is it?” his dad asked his grandfather. “What’s wrong?”

“We can’t go in there,” his grandfather said. “It’s not for us.”

My dad knew his grandfather to be a strong, unwavering man. He had never seen him afraid, but now he was trembling.

They stopped walking. His dad looked his grandfather in the eye.

“Dad,” his father said. “This is California. We can go wherever we want to go.”

***

Here is a sentence from Williams’ essay that haunts me:

[A]s I envision rearing my own kids with my blond-haired, blue-eyed wife, I’m afraid that when my future children — who may very well look white — contemplate themselves in the mirror, this same society, for the first time in its history, will encourage them not to recognize their grandfather’s face.

***

Black, White, American Indian. I can still see how those floating dots looked on the test packet and feel the satisfaction I found in coloring each of them in.

Passing as white, for me, is simple, and for most of my life that’s how I thought of myself, but it isn’t what I think anymore. I don’t consider myself black, either, but I agree with Williams, and with the characters in my book: it’s important to know your own history.

I am rarely asked to provide information on my cultural heritage anymore, but a year ago my wife and I had a baby, and a woman from the birth certificates office kept calling and dropping into my hospital room to see if we had chosen a name for our daughter. I had a complicated pregnancy and birth, and in the hazy days of recovery my wife and I took our time deciding. Finally, we had it, and after spelling it out for her, she asked what to put down on the long form under race.

“Oh,” I said.

I looked at my wife. She shrugged.

I hadn’t considered our daughter’s race, but she is fair-skinned with deep blue eyes and light hair.

“White, I guess?” I said.

“Anything else?” the woman asked.

I shook my head. And then when she was half way to the door I changed my mind.

“Actually,” I said. “Is Creole an option?”

She said yes.

We put that down, too.

The narrator in my book is much like me. People don’t register a specific ethnicity when they see her, but there is a lot of invisible history there.

No matter how many stories I’d heard about my heritage, how many photographs I’d seen of the darkly complexioned family members who came before me, when I looked in the mirror I saw straight brown hair and hazel eyes and fairly light skin. It was an article I read in the newspaper that made me reconsider how I see myself.

In a time when interracial families are more and more prevalent, more mixed-race children will choose, whether consciously or not, to remember who came before them, or to forget.

I choose to remember.

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Nina LaCour is the author of the award-winning Hold Still and the widely acclaimed The Disenchantments. Formerly a bookseller and high school English teacher, she now writes and parents full time. A San Francisco Bay area native, Nina lives with her family in Oakland, California. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @nina_lacour.

Heinz Strobl invented a technique called “snapology” or “knotology”, to fold paper strips into all kind of shapes you can imagine. The idea is illustrated here, for instance.

In the image above, you can imagine hexagons (in orange) and pentagons (in purple) surrounding the vertices. A curious mathematical fact is that you can vary the number of hexagons quite freely, but not the number of pentagons: there must always be 12 pentagons to fit into a perfect shape. To prove this, you need to play around with Euler’s polyhedral formula; I’ll explain the details in a future post!