This essay is a class assignment for Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s class “Afro-Americans and the Unitarians, Universalists, and the Unitarian Universalists.” It is an attempt to locate myself with regards to race, both in heritage and in belief.
My first memory of my “nana”, my father’s grandmother, is from when I was ten years old. We had just returned from living for three years in Hawaii. She was blind, living in a small hand-built house in Sparta, Tennessee. I remember complimenting her on what a wonderful “tan” she had. Tans were an important part of growing up in Hawaii. She smiled, and patted me on my head. It was only later my mother told me that it was not a tan, my nana was a Cherokee.
Cherokee had just been a word about our family, but I had no understanding of what it meant. I knew my sister’s hair was much darker than my blond haired, blue-eyed self, but we both had tans from the Hawaiian sun. When we moved back to the “States”, I lost my tan and she didn’t. I was jealous.
My father’s side of our family is Cherokee and English, with some of the usual Appalachian (Scotch-Irish) mix thrown in. My mother’s side is Irish and German, but with a great great grandparent (Grandpa Jinx) who was Cherokee. I was interested in this Cherokee part of me, and so my parents took me to the reservation in North Carolina, and found a Native-American heritage group for me to join.
Growing up in Hawaii, racial heritage was something I encountered almost every day. There is a word in Hawaiian, “haole”. Directly translated it means “without spirit”. It is applied to anyone who is not Polynesian, and specifically not Hawaiian. I first studied martial arts to defend myself from those kids who believed that I had no soul and was not really human, because of the color of my skin.
As a child of the military, it was much more important among my friends on post what rank our parents were than what we looked like. I hung around with children who were Black, Asian, Caucasian, and Latino, because we were all children of sergeants. We shunned (and were shunned by) the children of officers, even if we did not really understand why.
When I was ten, we moved from Hawaii to a military post in southwestern Louisiana. The local school district had been ordered a few years before to integrate the schools, and the way they chose to do that was by bussing the military children to the predominantly Afro-American schools. I did not understand why no one wanted to be my friend, why I was having to defend myself, just as I had in Hawaii, or why I was paddled by teachers so much.
There were less than 25 white children in this school. I remember how angry some of them were. That year was the first time I had heard of the “KKK” and the “Nazi’s”. For some reason I reacted strongly against this hatred, and found myself even more isolated, with almost no friends at all, white or black. My parents saw what I was going through, and at the end of that year they agreed to voluntarily separate, so mom and us children could move back to Tennessee while dad finished his last year before military retirement.
Our neighborhood outside Knoxville, Tennessee was lower middle class and partially integrated between Afro-Americans and whites. It was an older neighborhood, mostly built in the 1960’s. My school was about fifteen-percent Afro-American, and the rest white with a small percentage of Asian. We were all of the middle to lower end of the middle class. We all came from backgrounds that were financially stable, so long as nothing went wrong. In many ways, I returned to the kind of racial relationships that I remembered from living in Hawaii. What was distinctly absent was any Latino presence. When I attended a high school that was more racially and class diverse, I kept the kind of relationships of my childhood in Hawaii by joining the JROTC.
At 18, I joined the Army myself. There is racism in the military, but at the time it was fringe, and actively combated by command and the military Equal Opportunity system. I was assigned to a unit that was predominately Latino due to the need to speak Spanish.
I deployed several times into racially charged situations, in Latin America and in Bosnia-y-Herzegovina. In Panama and Columbia, I saw how directly skin color is linked to class. In Bosnia, I saw unimaginable hatred resting in a perceived racial difference that genetically does not exist. In El Salvador, I saw how the lighter skinned elite oppressed the darker skinned Indios, and witnessed the aftermath of the war that oppression fueled. In Colombia, I came to have compassion for the guerillas because of how trapped they were by the circumstances of their lives.
My wife’s heritage is even more diverse than mine. She is a first-generation American, with a Vietnamese father and a French mother. She too has witnessed racial and ethnic hatred and warfare. It seems appropriate to me that our relationship is founded on the shared experience of the war in Bosnia.
The experiences of racial and religious fueled warfare are what, in large part, set me on the path to Unitarian Universalism. I have seen the fluidity of racial and class hatred, and I have seen what they can result in. I have felt both physical and spiritual pain because of my own racial heritage. I came to the ideas of inherent worth and interdependence as Paul might have seen the light on the road to Damascus. I believe that pre-conceived hatred, in all its forms, is the primary challenge before our world. It is a challenge that will destroy the human race if we do not find a way beyond it.
Our racial heritages are real, and they are often our foundations of identity. It is a foundation that we need to learn to share with each other to multiply our diversity, not a foundation upon which to retreat. As I walked the bullet ridden, bombed out streets of Sarajevo in a flak-vest carrying an M-16, I remember thinking, “there has to be another way.” Part of my life’s vision, part of my healing from that war, is to find it.
Locate yourself in regard to race i.e. describe your heritage, class and neighborhood, when and how did you first become aware of race, what has been your experience with race, your current situation, your beliefs.
Yours in Faith,