This post is brought to you by History and 23andMe.
HISTORY is recreating the iconic ROOTS mini-series. While I was not yet born when the original series aired, “Kunta Kinte” was certainly part of the cultural conversation growing up and I’m eagerly awaiting the new version which premiers on Monday, May 30th at 9pm ET. ROOTS is an historical drama of an African family through the trials and tribulations of slavery, and its impact through multiple generations and beyond. To build awareness for the show, I’ve partnered with HISTORY and 23andMe (A DNA genetic testing service) to bring the story of identity in general, as well as my own identity to the forefront of the conversation. This is part one of a two-part essay. Here, I’m discussing my own identity and how it’s evolved throughout my life. Then, in a couple of weeks, when I get the results from my genetic test, I will share if and how knowing the details of my actual genetic ancestry affects my own personality identity. And yes, this is probably one of the coolest marketing campaigns I’ve ever been invited to work on. Follow ROOTS on Twitter (#ROOTS) and Facebook, and to find out more, click here.
Over the years, I’ve been mistaken for Puerto-Rican, Brazilian, Moroccan, Italian, Israeli, Algerian, Indian, Hawaiian, Mexican, and Guatemalan. In the summertime I can tan to very dark and in the winter I can get pretty pasty and depending on the way my hair or makeup is done I can ‘pass’ for almost anything. The term I’ve heard most often to describe my look is ‘exotic’ and I think that being labeled as such for so many years has deeply affected my own cultural and racial identity. I often feel I have the ability to either totally blend in wherever I go, or totally stick out. Sometimes I think of my chameleonesque tendencies as a kind of superpower, honed over the years by hanging out with my diverse family/community and feeling simultaneously ‘part of’ and ‘alienated from’ different aspects of my races/religion/cultures at different times.
I’ve grown up knowing that my dad, who self identifies as Afro-American, is actually quite mixed with both white and Native American. Our family lore goes that my great grandfather, William Blakeney, was the son of a slave-owner. He had very light skin and eyes, and like his other mixed race brothers and sisters, he was sent by his father to be raised on the Cherokee reservation so as not to grow up a slave like their mother. He met my great grandmother on the reservation, Cornelia, who was a chocolatey-skinned poet with a college education –pretty much unheard of for the time period.
On my mom’s side, I’ve learned that my family came from Eastern Europe (places now known as Lithuania, Russia and Poland) at the turn of the last century to escape from the Pogroms and the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe. As far as we can go back, on my mom’s side I’ve been told that we are Ashkenazi Jews.
Being raised multi-cultural means that I carry with me pieces bits and pieces from many cultures. For example, from my dad’s side of the family I learned how to be part of a pack — a real ‘family comes first’ mentality as well as how to use family gatherings to experience highs and lows with grace. From my mom’s side of the family, I learned the value in upholding old traditions (like having Friday night Shabbat dinners together), and I also learned the value in creating my own traditions with respect for the past, but without being beholden to it.
For me, growing up ‘black and Jewish’ meant self-identifying as a person of color, as an ‘other’ (not part of dominant culture) and as ‘mixed.’ I had large posters of Lenny Kravitz on my ceiling (who is also Black and Jewish) and I anxiously awaited new episodes of The Cosby Show so that I could see what Lisa Bonet was wearing — another Black Jew that I identified with. As an adolescent I think that I took comfort in identifying as mixed. My boyfriend in high school was half Chinese and half Italian. Many of my friends were multi-racial and I identified with people who lived between or inside different cultures as I did.
I often think about how lucky I am to have been raised in Berkeley (a very diverse and liberal city) and to be born in the time period that I was born in. Had I been alive during slavery times in the South, I probably would have been a slave, and had I been alive in Poland during the Pogroms, or during the Holocaust, I likely would have received the same terrifying treatment that the other Jews received. This impacts me everyday. I feel that I have to make the most of my life because, in many ways, I feel like I got the golden ticket: I grew up in one of most liberal cities in the world and I live in a time where we elected our first mixed-race president. Lucky dice roll, huh?
One thing that’s clear to me about identity (perhaps the only thing that’s clear about it) is that it’s not something that one is born with — it’s a potion comprised of roots, culture, language, family, friends, sub-culture, context and it’s a fluid construct, that is ever-evolving. For example, after spending many years living abroad (I’ve lived in Switzerland for two years and Italy for seven years) I learned to identify as a foreigner, as a U.S. American, and as a Californian. There were so few Jews in Florence, Italy, when I lived there that I felt very connected to the Florentine Jewish community as well (even more so than when I’m ‘home’ in California.) I also identified with many of the African immigrants (mostly from Senegal) and we went out frequently together as we bonded over (and danced all night to) favorite hip-hop records, — hip-hop being a sub-culture/movement/community that I have also identified with over the years.
Now, as an adult, my identity has further morphed. While I still identify as mixed, as a person of color, a Black woman, a Californian and as a Jew, I also identify as a mom, as an artist (it’s taken time to own that one), as an entrepreneur and as a blogger. Will my identity undergo another shift once I get my results from 23 and Me? Will knowing my genetic makeup change the way I think about myself? I have no idea. Does knowing what one is made up of change who one is?
Whew. Things are getting deep over here.
One thing that I find so fascinating about identity is that while identity seems rooted in who you are, (in an essential kind of way) identity also seems like something that can be owned or discovered over time.
At the very least, I’m sure it will pique my curiosity about the lives of my ancestors. It’s crazy to think that had William Blakeney not been sent to the Cherokee reservation by his slave-master father, I wouldn’t be here today, or had my family not fled persecution in Lithuania, I would not be here.
Stay tuned for my next post when I reveal my genetic testing results and discuss if and how it changes how I think of my identity. Also, stay tuned for ROOTS airing on HISTORY Monday, May 30th.