Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Interesting Bit o' History & A Good Read - Black Indians


Today I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indians down in Bowling Green here in NYC. To be honest, the museum was a bit of a "womp womp" moment as it only had 5 exhibit halls in total and one of them wasn't even dedicated to American Indians and the other was an "eccentric" art exhibit reflecting Skin both as a metaphor and a literal meaning...but the art pieces were just odd with the exception of one that had to do with beading. (But I've never been one for eccentric slashes of paint as art kind of person - give me a real painting...but that's a topic for another day).

People who are close to me know that I have American Indian heritage, in total I'm a quarter American Indian - a combo of Cherokee and Black Crow. So, there was a very personal reason for why I wanted to go to the museum, I'm a history buff specifically as it relates to US history and I wanted to see what this museum had to offer on a topic that hits close to home. But, even though the NYC version of this museum wasn't quite what I was hoping for, I found an interesting book in the gift shop entitled "Black Indians" by African American historian William Loren Katz (read that as he studies AA history...not that he is AA). He writes about other things besides black history, but if you check out his website, he does quite a bit of coverage of the role, marginalization and and eventual progression of African Americans in US history. I found the book interesting enough that I bought it this afternoon and couldn't wait to get home, read it, and finished it.

Well this book peels back a layer on a really forgotten portion of US history - the symbiotic and intermingled relationship of Africans and Indians in the Americas (North, South, Caribbean and Central) and the various contributions that Black Indians (either described as Africans/former slaves who were adopted into Indian nations or as offspring who were the product of an interracial relationship) made in society. Many of the African American heroes that the average black child grows up hearing about can trace some form of Indian ancestry...Langston Hughes, Crispus Attucks, and Frederick Douglass to name a few.

But more than just beating us over the head by saying "hey Black Indians exist in real life", the book "Black Indians" also really highlighted how much two very distinct and definitely marginalized cultures - through which the "awesomeness" that is America was achieved on their misfortunes - relied so much on each other and when combined ended up being some of the most difficult foes that an expansionist/Manifest Destiny focused US government would ever face. Before reading this book tonight, I never knew how many Africans (i.e former slaves or free-born blacks) actually assimilated into Seminole culture and various Indian nations, and actually helped to lead during peace time and lead successful counter attacks in the years leading up to the Trail of Tears - these things aren't taught in traditional history classes which often present a very narrow minded view of US history and the roles of minorities within it.

But Katz also touches on something which is very huge in the African American community - that to embrace any other culture as a part of your heritage rather than being "just black" is to reject your "blackness":

"When Black Americans have pursued their genealogy, they have focused on their African roots and sought a meaningful black heritage. Children of the black awareness of the 1960s have rarely cared to mention an Indian ancestry because this might be seen as a denial of their African origins and the value of blackness. All this is part of a racial nightmare we have inherited."

 I've always embraced the variety in my background that is evident through the diversity in my family tree. Whether it's West Indian, American Indian, Creole or just plain white and black (all things in my heritage), I've never felt like identifying with one made me any less of an African American (I've always done a o_0 face to people who feel that way). To quote Katz again:

"Today just about every African-Amercan family tree has an Indian branch...Native Americans and Africans merged by choice, invitation, and love...and it explains why families who share this biracial inheritance feel so much solace and pride."

Anywho, I didn't mean to turn this into the super long post that it became, but books like this are essential...not just for African Americans with American Indian ancestry such as myself, but for all Americans. The other reason this book gave me an "ah-ha" moment was because all my life, I assumed Black Crow referred to a nation in general, but after reading this book and noting how Katz distinguishes between the "full blooded" indians versus those intermingled with African ancestry (referred to as Black Seminole/Black Cherokee/etc.), I now have to wonder if Black Crow refers to an actual subset of the Crow nation (blacks who had assimilated and probably later intermarried and had children) versus the entire Crow nation*.
*And if you're wondering why I refer to American Indians as nations vs. tribes...tribes makes a group sound archaic or barbaric, nations pays tribute to the fact that the various peoples had entire hierarchies and prosperous societies that existed & continue to survive today.

No one group's contributions and turmoil in this nation's history should be marginalized or ignored just to create a glossy "we all love each other" ideal; especially when reality and history have proven that this wasn't the case back in the day. And this is a huge concern with the amount of educational boards around the country who are choosing to "revise" text books to create an idealized form of US history. The purpose of books like Black Indians isn't to continue division, but to shed light on topics which are gritty, harsh, but a true reality. They put a face to a whole subset of people who haven't been officially recognized by the mainstream media for centuries.

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