That statement is true. I am Black, and proud. And it’s not like I ever had a choice in the matter: The password to getting into my Aunt Frankie’s boogie wonderland of a bedroom was to give the Black power salute and state, “My name is _______. I’m Black and I’m proud.” She would open her door, and say “Come right in!”
It is Black History Month, and I’m in. Not because it is important to be Black, but because it is important to belong to that which centers me. I am really proud of our heritage.
I feel Black.
I am Black.
But every year, throughout the month of February, I ask myself, “What about Chappie?” Every time I celebrate African American culture, I wonder what my grandpa would say- the guy who knew every baseball stat there ever was, and took me on fun field trips, and let his grandchildren eat chili and butter cookies in his bed on Saturday nights while our were parents out. He loved us deeply, and told us all kinds of things. Except, he never spoke of his heritage.
Chappie was not Black, and didn’t want to talk about it. All he would say on the matter of race was that he wasn’t Black or White. He was Creek. The fact that he didn’t want to talk about it is not to say he didn’t talk to us at all. He had things to say about almost any matter… Anything except being Creek.
I learned early on that the worst thing one could say with regards to race in the seventies was “I’ve got some Indian”. It meant that you didn’t feel like being Black, and you weren’t proud. We didn’t just have some Indian, we had one Indian in particular who was our grandfather. We weren’t ashamed or afraid in his presence, ever. But we hardly ever identified him to others as Creek, partly because we think about it much, and partly because we didn’t want to be outed. What is someone found out and made his race mean that we didn’t think we were Black? What if they used his race as an excuse to separate us, and tell us we weren’t Black Enough? I’d seen it happen, and it was a fate worse than anything I could imagine. So, Chappie was accepted back in our neighborhood as “light skinned”. And he was.
It worked for me.
Once, Chappie brought his grandchildren to get some proper moccasins. He said that shoes were no place for feet that were trying to grow, and we needed real moccasins if we wanted to be strong and fast. We rode a city bus to the side of town where Black folks hardly ever went – into a half deserted dusty store, and tried some on. Chappie paid the man, talked for a while about Oklahoma where they’d both been born, and we got back on the bus to come home. Later, Chappie walked us back up the hill to our house from his, and we were all wearing our new shoes. We asked him why we’d ridden so far for them and our Grandfather told us, “He’s Indian. He understands.” That’s all Creek was for me – old men with long hair and thick glasses who made sure you’d grow up strong and fast.
I recently joined ancestry.com, to find out some background on my family for a new novel I’ve been batting around in my head. I wanted to search census records and birth certificates, and it seemed easy. I also got a DNA test because some people told me, after Chappie died, that Creek wasn’t really anything at all, seeing as that title had been made for an amalgamation of leftover people from the Trail Of Tears. Ouch.
So maybe we were all the way African-American, even given that random smattering of European ancestry that comes with living in the Americas for generations. I’d already heard lots of stories about runaways and free people in our family stories. Or maybe I just came from people who found it easier to talk about Indians than rape.
I swabbed my cheek, and it turned out that I am:
43% Sub-Saharan African
37% Indigenous American
This, which should’ve been no big deal, somehow was. It filled me with questions, however fleeting, of what Black really is. Did the worst finally happen? I might officially be not “Black enough”.
What will I say to my daughter who is already defining herself as Black, although she’s actually something more like African-Armenian-Italian-American?
“Truth be told Honey, you’re African-Armenian-Indigenous-Italian-American.”
I’m not doing that.
She’s Black and proud, too. She’s okay with it, and so are my (not Black in any way) husband and I. So, I can see why Chappie might’ve thought it was better to keep things simple.
But the guilt goes deep. I traveled all the way to Senegal, seeking African roots, when I have only been to Oklahoma twice in more than forty years. TWICE!
I can DRIVE to Oklahoma, for Pete’s sake!
I can easily speak English there. I can visit the grounds of the Creek Mission School where Chappie once lived. I could appreciate the things that made him the man he was; a man who would leave his home with a wagon full of relatives, and be willing to give up his heritage to instill something in his kids that he believed in – Being proud.
My name is Michelle Marie Dobbs. I am Black and I’m proud. And, I think I’m going to Oklahoma.