by Karen Hamilton
Some poor white cracker made a little extra money by being a census man. His boss says, “What about them people down on Hog Key?” and the cracker says, “Them? Those people just a passel of blacks and injuns. What I have to go down there for?” His boss just gives him the evil eye. So he got out his skiff and poled on down to Hog Key.
He was met by five shotguns. After begging for his life he finally got those people to understand what he was there for. And he went on home and marked that census up. He didn’t know what those people were, so he just slashed great big M’s all over the page.
Cause he had heard that the old midwife Richard Hamilton used to be a slave up Marion County way. And that his ma was a Choctaw Indian. And his son, Gene, King Gene they called him down there, had married up with a Seminole. Richard’s daddy was a ‘dark as night negro man’ and was born and died a slave. So they said. That made every last one of them down on Hog Key great big M’s – mulatta’s down to the infant in his momma’s arms.
And we stayed M’s right up to the last census taken down in the swamps, right up to the time that the US government took away what had been farmed and fished and hunted and built so they could make a park out of it. And all of a sudden we were W’s – white, Caucasian.
Cause we could always pass. Even way back at the beginning when Richard ran from that plantation up Marion County way and joined up as a cook on a brig heading out of Key West. He could pass.
But word gets round as it always does, flies across invisible lines and roosts in places it has no business. And a body has no choice but to accept the fact that being able to pass and actually passing are two different things entirely. So no one knew what he was, what his children were, what the rest of us to come would be, and so they listed them all as M’s.
And so they moved on.
Finally, they settled in cities – Fort Myers and Key West – and there were so many people by then in their world that the word got lost somehow. And they finally passed – really passed – they passed so well that they forgot where they came from, they forgot the ‘dark as night negro’ slave man who married the Choctaw slave woman and had a son named Richard.
Richard became idolized in the family lore as the funny little man who was midwife down at Lostmans River. They married up with the Cubans and the Portuguese down in Key West. Those folks from Cuba and Portugal wanted to forget who they were too, so they denied their children Spanish names and traditions, they buried their Spanishness so well that the children and the children’s children lost all traces of being Cuban or being Portuguese. They forgot who they were.
And they moved on.
And now they are all over the world – passing all over the place and not even knowing it. But I know.
How much negro blood does it take to be a negro? How much Hispanic blood does it take to be Hispanic? How much Indian blood does it take to be an Indian?
So I go through life and don’t know who I am. What am I supposed to check on those little boxes that so many forms have? Black? White? Hispanic? Native American? My Cuban grandfather says they should have a box that says “American.” He says he always writes it in because that is what he is. A mutt, a product of the melting pot.
But I want a heritage, I want – inexplicably – to know. I don’t want to pass anymore. I want to be part of a family, part of a culture, part of a past. A mutt. Blood lines mixed. Am I black white native american hispanic what am I?
I try to move on.
I attend African American poetry readings – it makes me feel better sometimes. But mostly it reminds me that I don’t have a race; I don’t have a niche to squeeze into. They would laugh at me if they knew I wanted to fit in with them – what do I know about being black?
What do I know about being Indian (Native American)?
Or Hispanic for that matter.
What do I know of anything at this point? There is no little niche in the human race for me to cling to – holding hands with my comrades against oppression or hatred or just plain life. All I have is me, a mutt passing for white when maybe it is the last race I want to be identified with.
So I move on and take a class in Hispanic Literature. The first question they ask is ‘what defines Hispanic?’ The real Hispanics get upset when those of us who can’t even speak Spanish claim to be Hispanic. They say we have no idea what it is like to be Hispanic in a white man’s world. They bang their desks and insist we are not Hispanic.
Do I not cook black beans and rice the way my Cuban grandmother taught me? Do I not hug my Cuban Papa’s neck and have him ask me to read the Spanish Miami Herald to him (which I can’t do because he refused to allow his daughters to learn Spanish)? I tried to learn Spanish. But I failed at that – it was too depressing. I don’t want to speak proper Spain Spanish – I want to converse in my grandfather’s native tongue. I can’t pass as a Hispanic – they won’t allow it.
So I move on.
There is never even a question of trying to assimilate into the Native American’s world. But yet there she is – my great great great grandmother, Peggy Hamilton.
And the family lore differs on the parentage of her son, Richard. Some say his father was that ‘dark as night negro’ slave man on a neighboring plantation and still others say (Richard among them) that his daddy was the man who owned him – a Portuguese plantation owner from Georgia.
The children of that man insist my great great grandpa’s father was the ‘dark as night negro’ slave man. It is hard to tell. Grandpa Richard’s photos show only a tall wiry man of husky color – which could come from his black daddy or Indian mother or (if one is to believe Richard, and from the tales I hear no one ever did), from his Portuguese daddy owner.
So anyway, there is no hope of passing as Native American – they are a harder nut to crack then the Hispanics.
So I move on.
At some point I decide to just be a woman. There is a group I can assimilate with – any color, any race, any heritage – I am just a woman. I won’t be writing about what it is like to be a certain race (which is all the fashion these days) because I don’t see myself as anything but a mutt, and that is okay finally.
I’ll keep on passing, and I’ll keep on writing, and maybe someday the fashion will be to just be.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep moving on.
–2007 Karen Yvonne Hamilton