Who Am I?

Whenever I go home to Florida, it isn’t my mother’s home cooking I’m starved for, though she is a fine cook in her own right. The minute I hit the state line, I start salivating for a bowl of pozole prepared by Nina, my sister-in-law’s mother. Filled with rich slabs of pork, hominy, and a sauce made from guajillo, piquin, and ancho peppers, it is simple and undeniably genuine. I ladle a serving into my bowl, cover it with onions, radishes, cabbage, avocado, and fresh lime juice, and eat until I can’t hold another bite.

It’s the same reason I love their Día de los Muertos observances. In order to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed on, families go together to cemeteries to clean and decorate graves. They build altars to welcome the dead back to the world of the living and offer them their favorite food and drink. They dress as calacas (skeletons) and revel in the streets to encourage the dead to linger and party with their loved ones. And marigold petals and blossoms are scattered from altar to graveside to help the dead find their way home after the merriment’s done. It’s colorful, lush, and built on centuries of ritual.

According to David Eagleman in his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, “There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

Diá de los Muertos prevents the third death because, each year, the living come to remember those who have gone on, to continue including them in communal traditions. Compare that to mainstream American culture where we relegate our elderly to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, effectively “burying” them before they’ve even experienced the first death. We push the very thought of mortality and decay away with both hands, squinching our eyes shut to avoid looking at the eventuality that will come for us all.

There are also words in Mexican culture that I adore. Take sobremesa for instance. It has no English equivalent. Essentially, it means “after-dinner conversation” or “words shared over a table.” It refers to the time spent lingering after a meal, when people speak, relax, and digest together. Another thing we do poorly here in the States.

That’s what I’m missing—words without equivalents, food that fills, traditions that extend back into time immemorial—things that tie me to a people, a place, and a way of life. And there’s nothing to satiate this powerful craving that’s deeper than hunger, somewhere below the belly.

But, here’s the thing, I do have a culture. It’s American. It’s white. And it’s the one shoved down everyone else’s throat.

To be white in America is to be a part of the dominant culture, a member of an obtuse hegemony that doesn’t understand who or what it is.

From what I do know of my family’s history, I am the product of two lines of immigrants—one from Germany and the other from Ireland. (My Irish ancestors were originally from England, but because they were practicing Quakers, they fled to avoid religious persecution.)

But we have no German traditions. No Irish ones either. We speak no second language, eat no distinctly German or Irish meals or celebrate any culturally-specific holidays. No one in my family is a practicing Quaker. Whatever “roots” I had are gone, lost to time and tide. And though I can’t explain why, I feel like I’ve lost some part of myself, some level of singularity, as a result.

This loss is due, in part, to the “racial bribe” offered to people like mine after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which pitted the poor (white and black, bond laborers and free men) against the wealthy planter class. According to Michelle Alexander, after the rebellion was suppressed and Bacon had died, “White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites.”

Essentially, people from Ireland, Italy, Greece, and other “lesser” nations—once thought of as “sub-human”—were integrated into “whiteness” when it was politically advantageous to the ruling class, when they needed to boost their numbers for political or economic reasons. (If you want to know more, there’s a fascinating two-part piece on this topic by Quinn Norton that I highly recommend. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg is also a winner.)

The impact of all this is still felt today. And it’s still going on. Don’t believe me? Look at the way Asian Americans are embraced by mainstream culture today or how many people of Hispanic descent now choose to label themselves as “white” when surveyed.

This is where the dissonance I feel comes from; it’s the reason I long for something authentic and gritty and tangible I can never seem to find. Somewhere deep down, in a place beyond words, I’ve always known that I’ve been sold a lie. That my “culture” is a construct, my “race” is nothing more than a box to check on legal and medical forms.

Perhaps racism, a hatred of the “other,” stems, in part, from jealousy. White people, whether we know it or not, our birthright was sold for a bowl of stew. To get a scrap of power and a wafer-thin portion of respectability, our ancestors submitted themselves (and us) to erasure. Hence, we’ve lost all sense of who we are. And to keep this flimsy social upgrade, all they had to do was harden their hearts and participate in atrocities that terrorized generations of people of color. And we continue adding to this problem by denying it ever happened.

I didn’t make that choice all those years ago, but I feel it. I have profited from it. But it has cost me something as well, though I could never put my finger on it until recently. I now understand that I have been handed an empty bag labeled “American culture” and told to protect it at all costs because it is precious. I was told I’m a denizen of a “Shining City on a Hill,” plunked in front of a flag in kindergarten and told to pledge my allegiance to it, to stand at attention with hat off and hand over heart to sing the national anthem with gusto.

And if someone takes a knee in order to draw attention to the fact that the flag and anthem don’t represent all Americans? If someone has what Atticus Finch calls the “unmitigated temerity” to speak up, to say that there is a deep racial divide that needs addressing in order to make the United States home for everyone? I’m told not to listen, to unequivocally shun him and his ilk, to protest the sport that gave them a platform to speak from in the first place. It’s not patriotism that motivates such a thought process, it’s nationalism—the shifty, drunk uncle that patriotism is often saddled with. And I ain’t buying.

Let’s be honest. A flag has no power of its own. It’s a few strips of cloth and a handful of fabric stars, an abstract representation of what America is supposed to mean. If we truly love it, we must be willing to lay it down and listen when a citizen speaks up and says that all isn’t well in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” When we can love and respect people of all colors and nationalities more than the narrative we’ve been sold, the one that flag promotes, we can do precisely what Langston Hughes encourages in his poem “Let America Be America Again”:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Notice the word “great” is nowhere to be found that last line. Why? America has never been great the way we think, never lived up to her potential. She hasn’t been America for all the people who call her home. But she could. She is rife with glorious possibility, power, and potential, but unleashing it will require some hard conversations and realizations on the part of white Americans. Things have to change if we are to make her again.

I cannot regain a sense of my own culture, but I can reject the ersatz one. I can point out what’s wrong with the nation I cherish and help heal what’s broken. I can lay down the lie and free up my hands to help create something better. Something more nourishing. Something more real.

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