Gorgeous and richly layered, Shonda Buchanan’s memoir, BLACK INDIAN, examines what it means to be African American and American Indian, as the author rewinds time to uncover the origins of her dual heritage–almost lost forever–hidden among family secrets, grievances and long-ago deaths. An excerpt of the book is followed by a Q&A with AFLW Senior Nonfiction Editor Christina Simon.
To tell you any of these stories, I have to tell you the first. The very first.
Somewhere in Mattawan, Michigan, there is an infant buried on top of a thirteen-year-old girl ’s grave. The infant, stillborn, was given a name anyway but the wind buried the syllables under its cool tongue. The child’s sutured eyes and never-kissed lips greeted that 1950s winter sky, the color of heron wings, when her father—my grandfather—opened another hole in the mute earth and laid his second unforgiving child’s body to rest in her sister’s slender, waiting arms. Finally, someone to hold. Frieda shifted and yawned into the earth. Together there, my two aunts, the virgin and the infant, kept each other safe. They shared the secret of each other’s bones.
And there were a lot of secrets.
Maybe I am the unborn child. Perhaps she returned in me to tell our story from my woman-child hands, Velma Jean’s daughter’s hands, fourth girl-child’s hands, since we are, after all, the baby girls and at once the sixth seed. We both prefer the dent of rain in the earth to the din of voices, the fists, the liquor laugh-screams at family gatherings. Equally, we cherish our silence. And if I am her, what did I see hovering over the farm before the last mound of dirt covered me? What would I say first? Maybe something about the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and the Ojibwa building wigwams on riverbanks, before French trappers, missionaries, and settlers came. Something about Mama’s sweet corn- bread and Daddy’s cold beer. The five little burnished-yellow Mattawan fairies. Mulatto skin. Pocahontas eyes. I would take you to the fields, to Wolf Lake, to the bait house. Push you on the tire swing laced to the top branch of the weeping willow in the front yard; push you until you were dizzy, and then I would say it:
What I don’t know I can’t tell.
“HEY MOMMY,” I say through the door crack. I cling to my nine- year-old daughter’s hand. It is hours past midnight.
“Hello.” Almost suspiciously, as if I bear more bad news under my blouse, in my airplane-tossed hair, my mother glares at me and cracks the front door one wedge further. I bite down on the useless how are you? when Death Happens, and there’s no point in asking.
“Come in,” she finally says and steps back. As we enter, the dank June humidity of the Midwest seeps in like a long-lost friend be- hind our bodies and luggage, palpable, leech-like. We pour in with it, the heat smoldering, the damp, hot darkness turning my daughter’s once straightened hair into a black puff pastry. She doesn’t know yet that pressing combs are useless trinkets in a Kalamazoo and Portage summer.
The city is a bowl-like valley “inherited” in bogus treaties from American Indians in the region, and all the moisture created by the sun pounding down on streams and lakes traps itself there until an autumn breeze out of Detroit by way of Canada wanders through, and suddenly it’s winter. Then the soft flakes and high winds can curl up a blizzard in two seconds flat—one that stays for weeks, closing schools, bingo halls, and roads, laying over the mitten state like a foamy white blanket.
“Hey Grandma,” Afiya says softly. Kind of ducking, my daugh- ter almost tucks her neck into her shoulders like a turtle trying not to be seen; I recognize that tactic. I did it my entire childhood, but in my family, I could never hide.
I hug my daughter to me to assuage her nervousness. A warm bread scent exudes from the crown of her head. My mother mutters a faint greeting, eyes puffy but dry, then wordlessly ushers us through the dim living room. Her sheer, pale blue nightgown flares around thick thighs as she walks; curlers stick out around her head, making her look a little like a Martian. My mother’s sallow face has sharp- ened with loss of her sister, my Aunt Phyllis, a middle daughter like me. But grief, for Velma Jean Stafford, turns into fury, into mirthless laughter: then a small storm.
Cautiously, I pad behind her: “Y’all staying in the star room.”
Somehow my mother seems shorter in the four a.m. darkness, as if she is shrinking, disappearing before me. She is no longer the sparkling shooting star from my youth, no longer all legs, smooth banana candy skin and luminously long, black river hair. Some- where between the raising of us hardheaded kids, taking care of other people’s old folks at Matheson Nursing Home for the last twenty-five years, spinning Ray Charles forty-fives and making bo- logna sandwiches for us to choke down like wolverines, my mother has grown old.
Unfairly, I hold this mother up to the one who raised me—a young buttercup-complexioned hot mama from the seventies, who gleefully called to me to “shake that money maker” when I was a kid. In pictures, her silk go-go boots laced up her firm calves spoke of her go-go dancer days. The tight polyester pants or those seventies softball shorts flaunted her beauty, her defiance, her wide hips—and she had thighs for days, even as a child. Before she cut her tresses, her black hair staggered like a heavy blanket at the back of her neck—that “good Indian hair” that became a convenient synonym for “Mixed blood” and was followed by “What you mixed with?” and “What are you?” To which my mother replied, “Human.”
“If y’all hungry,” she says, in a tone that says, I hope not.
If my mother knew anything about being Indian, the culture and practices of any Indian tribe, she never told me. Our Indian heritage was oral history until I tracked it down to Sampson, Hert- ford, Halifax, and Greenville-Northampton Counties, all in North Carolina and on the cusp of Virginia. I had traced one ancestor, a Manuel, back to the Revolutionary War and thought about joining Daughters of the American Revolution just to shake things up. My great-great-grandfathers, George Thomas Manuel, Jeremiah Staf- ford, Sr., and Willis Roberts, Jr., were all Mixed bloods, Free People of Color, whose forebears had married full-blooded Indian women or who themselves were born into those tribes. While my mother always thought our Indian blood came from the local Kalamazoo tribes, instead we were migrants on the Appalachian Trail, of the Coharie/Neuse and Eastern Band and Delaware Cherokee tribes; on my dad’s side I was Choctaw. But we didn’t know any history: we didn’t know our history. That was the Problem.
If my mother ever knew that Kikalamazoo was the original Indian name of Kalamazoo, meaning “mirage” or “reflection in the mirror or water,” or any history of our family and the migration we’d taken from North Carolina, she never told a soul. But Mama kept all her secrets locked up tight anyway, her grin hard and bright as a swamp star in her face.
We shake our heads: “Just tired,” I say. I wake with the rooster’s crow no matter where I am in the world. Mama wakes between three a.m. and four a.m. regularly, as if she is still feeding hogs on her daddy’s farm in Mattawan.
This big comfy house in Portage is the Waldorf compared to the houses we’d lived in, and most of all, to that farm where she grew up without running water, with a shanty-looking outhouse. With its modest backyard, close to the Kalamazoo county line, the Portage house hums with safety, unlike Southworth Terrace on the Eastside where we grew up—we were card dealers, always trying to hustle her. Here, she is happy, but age and worry show.
Maybe it only shows when we kids come home.
I can see the outline of her squat body and imagine the patch- work quilt that we, the seven children born there, had made of her once slender body. All our lives, we were pretty damn sure our mother hated us a little for our constant hunger, our need to be held, and most assuredly, for each new stretch mark and each scar that ripped up her flat dancer’s stomach. But maybe all mothers hated their children a little for this unintended slight; the first rup- ture started at sixteen and seemed never to stop. She almost died at forty, having the last boy. That was the year she cut off all her hair.
“Good night.” My mother disappears down the dark hall, clicking her door shut.
Afiya immediately crumples into the soft bed, travel clothes and all, and is snoring in seconds. I change into my pajamas quickly and climb in beside her. In the dark, I look around the room my mother reserves for me in her new house when I come home. The star room, I call it, because the ceiling is lined with miniature lumi- nescent crescent moons and stars that glow in the dark long after the light has gone out. It’s an appropriate room for me, the baby girl, the dreamer.
“She so special,” my sisters whispered behind my back when I was ten years old as I devoured book after book, starting at nine with Harriet the Spy, Ursula Le Guin, and Phyllis A. Whitney mystery books, then I Am the Darker Brother, with Harlem Renaissance poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes.
“Um-hum.” Bobbie Ann, the eldest, would roll her eyes hard until you saw the whites when she heard I had taken to reading in the bathtub atop a pile of blankets and pillows. “Touched. So backwoods. Just like her Mama.”
The bathtub was the only place I could find peace when they played or fought and it often sounded the same. When they were playing, the house thundered with their pounding feet and laughter; when they were fighting, the house was a wolf den, and they, we, were a pack of wolves, fists and fangs forever bared. Reading was the only way I could drown out the constant backdrop of loud voices, or train whistles and steel wheels crunching rusty railroad tracks that crisscrossed Kalamazoo like a lattice.
To hear my family tell it, despite my two English degrees, I still had “not a lick of sense.” Yet more importantly, I lacked an under- standing of myself in a family who would kick you just as soon as kiss you. Blacken your eye as soon as buy you a Twinkie. Growing up I never knew where the laughter, pinch, or jab was coming from. We reenacted that enslavement love. That Trail of Tears love.
Caught in a nightmare, my lanky daughter turns restlessly and unexpectedly, flings out her hand and smacks me in the face.
“Hey,” I hiss, blinking back stinging tears. “Move over.”
Afiya’s eyelids flutter. That over-hot bread scent oozes from her. In the soft dark, her oval face, more olive toned than brown, frowns up. In the half-awake, half-dream, she recognizes my voice, and the intention to push her off the bed if she hits me again, and she rolls back toward the wall. Her breathing evens and she lies still.
The house creaks and settles.
Excerpted from BLACK INDIAN with permission from the author
Shonda Buchanan on Tracing Her Roots in BLACK INDIAN
Christina Simon: The book’s title, BLACK INDIAN, refers to your mixed-race heritage. What has your journey to claim your identity as a RedBlack been like?
Shonda Buchanan: My journey to reclaiming my identity as an African American person who celebrates and honors my American Indian connection has been incredibly rewarding because I found us. I found them. My people of all ethnicities. Do you know how exciting that is for a Black person in America, who can’t trace the African heriage because of slavery, but to trace their some of my ancestors back 13 and 14 generations? There were so many times I cried when I located another grandparent or aunt or uncle. Along the way I have met so many other Black Indians who have the same story as mine. When we see each other at powwows we make it a point to at least greet each other because we know what our ancestors on both sides of the historical line have been through. We have our oral history of our Black Indianness, or we have our blood lineage, records and tribal enrollment card, or our ancestors are listed on federal rolls. For those who don’t know, the Dawes Rolls and other “rolls” that American Indians were forced to sign on the Trail of Tears. Those rolls reconstructed an identity, and dislocated us on our own land. Possessing a tribal enrollment card makes North American Indians prove their Indianness. Another way Blacks and Americans Indians came together was when enslaved Africans ran away from a plantation and were adopted into a tribe, then married into that tribe. They became relatives. Traditionally, when a tribe adopts you, and you participate in the ceremonies, you are a member of that tribe. The journey has also been frustrating when you are visibly Black, and the one drop rule (if you have one drop of blood in you, then you are Black) still applies overtly or covertly. That was such a racist concept constructed by laws such as the Racial Integrity Act and anti-miscegenation laws to prevent the mingling, mixing and marrying of the races, because eventually, they wouldn’t be able to tell who was white and who was Black.
CS: Your family didn’t talk much about your Indian ancestry so you compiled extensive research to trace your roots. Why did you decide to delve deep into your family history?
SB: They didn’t talk extensively about their Indian ancestry in specifics because they didn’t know their tribes but we spoke with a wistfulness. A longing. We were the dispossessed. We weren’t in possession of our full identity. We had lost that information on the migration trail from North Carolina and Virginia into Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and finally Michigan. Except there was a branch of my family, the Roberts, my great-grandmother’s people, who settled in Indiana and who always maintained that they were tri-racial. Known as Free People of Color back then, they passed down that family lore that their great-great grandmother was a Cherokee woman who married an African man. That African man supposedly the offspring of an English man and an African slave woman. So my oral history on both sides of my family knew those connection existed but just because you know a thing does it mean you can prove it. So I set out to prove it. I was like a dog with a bone, and I still am because I’m still in uncovering so much. Some of this will be in my second memoir, which hopefully will be finished by the end of the year.
CS: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your memoir?
SB: Goodness. I discovered so many things. I discovered something I have never admitted, which was that I was in fact a survivor of a violent childhood. And I never thought of it like that until maybe my late 20s. I kind of went through life thinking, “Wow, what a crazy childhood I had.” But this is what most survivors of abuse do — we recreate a reality in our minds that we can exist in. One that we are safe in. Another surprising thing I simply relished discovering was that I am related to a man, possibly full-blood Coharie, but labeled Mulatto, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and I am related to soldiers who are buried in the Arlington Cemetery who fought in World War 1 and World War II. This kind of information feels like pearls, diamonds and rubies to me. Which is why I wanted to write this story to show the American heritage and the Black, Indian and white intersections were real. This is the true American story.
The saddest thing I discovered was how uncared for my mother and her sisters were as young girls, as children and then later on as women who married far too early. They were babies really, 14, 15, 16 years old and getting married. They stayed in those marriages but were unhappy and abused. They birthed children that they really didn’t want but they didn’t have a choice. That sounds so familiar to some of the laws that are trying to repeal the right of abortion right now. But I digress. Women back then didn’t have an agency. Women in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s we’re not protected; the kids weren’t protected. Domestic violence wasn’t even a phrase. Anyone who was not white and male was not protected.
CS: You were raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with five siblings and a mother who worked in a nursing home. Money was tight and there was often conflict and abuse in the house. What compelled you to finally leave Kalamazoo for Los Angeles?
SB: I can either say fate was kind to me or that luck finally smiled on me. When I was 16, I met a journalist at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan, in a journalism workshop for high school students. The woman, Donna Britt, who worked for USA Today, kept in touch with me just in case she needed a new nanny. A few months before graduation she called me to see if I could nanny for the summer 1987. I said yes, shocking my mother who wanted me to go to a fashion school in Minneapolis. That nanny job turned into Donna flying me first to Indiana, then to Los Angeles. That’s how I got here. And guess what? I got here on October 17, 1987, and there was a major earthquake. I considered it a kind of welcome from the earth, from L.A.’s angels. I knew storms. I’d survived the worst Midwest tornadoes. I’d survived Kalamazoo. Earthquakes didn’t scare me.
I didn’t quite realize then that I had been granted an opportunity that no one in my family, or the kids I went to high school with, had been granted. A one-way ticket out of hell. As soon as that last sentence came out of my mouth, I laughed a little because it sounds so dramatic. It’s part youthful angst and part reality. I know my mother loved me, and I know my family loved me. But I also felt misunderstood in so many ways, the odd one out in my family. I was a writer after all. Even as a teenager, I always considered myself a writer. Everything that I saw happened through two filters. It happened through the experience itself and also happened through “how can I write about this later?” lens. I was what my eldest sister called “touched in the head.” I was different. I was always reading, always writing. Trying to escape.
CS: A friend took you to your first sweat lodge in the Los Padres National Forest, where you became a regular participant and in 2006 you danced in your first powwow. Was it intimidating to learn these cultural traditions you didn’t grow up with?
Not at all. The first time I danced in a West African dance for me, I was “mounted” by a spirit. It’s kind of like getting the Holy Ghost. Something just enters you and you don’t feel like your body is your own. It’s like you’re sharing it with someone. I couldn’t breathe. I always knew that that moment was a coming home for me and to my African ancestors. Those ancestors are just waiting for us to step into a space, to open our American psyche enough to reclaim the traditions. The sweat lodge felt like that too. I write the scene in my book but I almost refused to go into my first sweat lodge. I was afraid of what I would find there. But as soon as I entered on my knees and sat on the ground, I felt enveloped in a kind of sigh, like, “finally.” But I had to be silent to hear it. I had to submit. The lodge quieted the childhood ghosts. The sweat lodge became my church and therapy chamber. And for years, I learned to relearn things that my ancestors had known but that we had lost, and had been forbidden to teach me. On all sides of my family, African, American Indian, indentured servant white person, hybrids, they all lived close to the land. They respected the land.
CS: When you lived in Hampton, Virginia, you were astonished to find an organization, the Weyanoke Association: African Americans Honoring Our Native American Heritage. It became a significant part of your community—you eventually joined the board–and developed a wonderful circle of friends. Why was this group so important to you?
SB: This was the first time that I saw a group of African Americans celebrating their American Indian ancestry in public, with no apology. No whispers. No secrets. What a moment! They were uncovering deeply hidden secrets of the formation of the U.S. Census, how courthouses had “mysteriously” burned down with deeds of Indian and Free People of Color land to sever their ownership. Anita and Hugh Harrell, co-founders of the Weyanoke Association, brought together people who had information about specific historical intersection of Indian tribes and Africans since the first 19 Angolans landed in Jamestown on that Dutch ship in 1619. We’re commenorating the 400th anniversary of American slavery right now, in 2019. Across the country, people are honoring this pivotal and impactful moment in our history — the first forced migration we experience was slavery. Going to the Weyanoke events was like being dunked in years of secrets and coming out with a new awareness. It was like being in school all over again except it felt like this is what I really was supposed to be learning. My friends in Virginia became my family: We developed our identities around the knowledge of racial formation that had never been taught to us in the U.S. school system.
CS: Your book examines the complicated relationship between blacks and Indians in America, one fraught with brutality, anguish and beauty. What do you think most accurately defines the relationship between these two peoples today?
This is such a great question because it really speaks to how people of color have evolved in our society into separate racial categories and racial segregation. African, Negro, Colored, Black, African American. Why do Black people in this country keep being relabeled?
But even though I have been welcomed in so many circles, and some of my full-blood and mixed-race Indian friends accept and embrace me and other Black Indians because we are respectful and have learned the ways, there are others who think we are “hobbyists.” White racism created the racism in Indian Country. It was inevitable. And yes, I’ve experienced it myself. Several years ago, I was asked not to dance at a powwow because I was visibly darker than the rest of the dancers although they said it was because I didn’t have my tribal enrollment card. But two of my good friends who looked visibly full-blood Indian, a Cheyenne woman and a Seminole man, did not have their cards. But they were not asked to leave the circle. It’s hard because on the one hand, a tribal enrollment card is a kind of identity card to be proud of, but it was only given because American Indians were removed from their lands. It’s a catch-22. Except for the Fives Civilized Tribes owning slaves, the relationship between African Americans and American Indians for the most part has been one of solidarity because we’ve experienced the same things in America, oppression, inequality, divisiveness, discrimination, prejudice, and so many things.
CS: What’s next for you that you’d like to share with us?
SB: I’ve been on a book tour in full swing, including stops in L.A., Kalamazoo, New York, Atlanta and North Carolina, as well as in Amsterdam and Canada. My next three events are at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, on Tuesday, November 19th; Beyond Baroque in Venice on Saturday, November 23rd, and Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse on Saturday, November 30th.
My novel is complete. Very excited to share this. I’m editing it now to submit to an agent and hopefully a publisher in the next two to three months. After watching Toni Morrison’s THE PIECES I AM, while mourning her incredibly sad death, I felt like I needed to go over my novel again to make sure I’d gotten it right. My novel is a bit of a ghost story which continues my work in exploring those Black and American Indian intersections. In fact, I wrote my novel concurrently with my memoir over the last 10 years, but the novel is purely fiction. I started a second memoir, too, which will focus on how the men in my family and my ex-husbands loved. I’m so curious about how Black men are raised in this country, and then how they turn around and love or unlove Black women. It’s my Black girl’s EAT, PRAY, LOVE. I plan to be finished with my collection of poetry about Nina Simone by the end of December. That’s a lot, right? I feel like if I tell you anything else, you’ll think I’m an overachieving writer. But I also finished two screenplays and I’m turning BLACK INDIAN into a movie. Yes, that’s absolutely a lot, but I’ve got such big legacies to live up to, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, bell hooks, Sandra Cisneros, Lucille Clifton, Octavia Butler, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Gilbert and Joy Harjo. There are so many beautiful, hard-working, genius women writers whom I covet and adore. I am lucky and grateful to add BLACK INDIAN to that bookshelf.
Shonda Buchanan is the literary editor of Harriet Tubman Press, an award-winning poet and educator. She is the author of BLACK INDIAN, WHO’S AFRAID OF BLACK INDIANS? and EQUIPOISE: POEMS FROM GODDESS COUNTRY, and editor of two anthologies, VOICES FROM LEIMERT PARK and VOICES FROM LEIMERT PARK REDUX. A former PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, she is a member of the advisory board of Angeles Flight • literary west. To learn more about her vast accolades, experience and published work, visit shondabuchanan.com.
Don’t miss Shonda’s reading and signing events across Los Angeles: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, on Tuesday, November 19, at 7 p.m.; Beyond Baroque in Venice on Saturday, November 2, at 8 p.m., and Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse on Saturday, November 30, at noon.