“All Mixed Up”: The Lesson of the Churkendoose

Carol A. Hand

 “It all depends on how you look at things”
(Ben Ross Berenberg, 1946)

I remember when my daughter, Jnana, was not yet two years old, she was playing in her little plastic pool on a warm summer day. My neighbor brought her daughter over to join in the fun, and I watched with concern as her daughter began pushing and hitting Jnana, trying to claim ownership of all of Jnana’s toys. Of course, my neighbor only noticed when Jnana defended herself from the attack and wanted me to discipline my daughter for her response. I looked at my neighbor calmly and observed, “Your daughter started the conflict, and I decided to let Jnana figure out how to deal with it herself. As a multicultural child, it is a skill she will need to learn.” Predictably, my Euro-American neighbor became angry and replied in a tone verging on a snake hissing “Why did you ever have her then?”

This isn’t an easy question to answer, and at the time, I simply stared at my neighbor silently as she grabbed her daughter and went home, never to return to Jnana’s pool again. I must say, it was a blessing. At the time, we were living in an all-white neighborhood on the shore of the Housatonic River in the sleepy village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in a drafty, moldy summer cottage that my partner’s mother owned. As a Black professional, she had broken through the color line when she bought a summer cottage and out-classed many of the existing residents as a corporate vice president of Children’s Television Workshop. My neighbor tried to overcome her prejudice for the sake of social status, but a mixed-race couple and child were more than she could bear. Of course, she was not alone in her censure.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I was raised in the space between cultures and consequently was drawn to diversity. It was not a stance my parents could easily accept, nor was it easy for my partner’s mother. And despite the Civil Rights movement, my partner and I had already lived through a series of challenging situations before our daughter was born.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in 1969. Jnana’s father, David, was a senior and a teaching assistant in the history department at the University of Wisconsin. He was a gentle, quiet, good-looking Black man with an Afro, who appeared to be painfully shy. Yet, he was one of the co-founders of the Black People’s Organization on campus. It is amazing to remember the heightened racial tensions in the early years of 1970s. Even in Madison, I would often see people looking at David and me with disapproving stares as we walked down the streets laughing and holding hands. I would often wonder if there was something strange about our appearance – were our jeans unzipped or was snot hanging out of our noses? “Ah,” I remembered – “people are prejudiced.” A funny thing to forget, and sometimes, dangerous.

When I was about four months pregnant, David decided it would be a good idea for me to meet his mother in New York City. He had an old Ford and another mixed-ancestry couple asked if they could share the ride as far as New Jersey. We set off and somewhere on a rural stretch of interstate along the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, the car developed problems. We pulled off the road in a small town and were relieved to find a garage, at least for a moment. When we pulled into the garage, four large white mechanics surrounded the car, tapping the wrenches they held into their left hands as the owner told us they needed to replace the alternator, which they would do for twice what it normally costs. Of course we agreed although it took almost all of our cash to pay the bill. We were thankful to leave when it was finally done and continued on our way.

All was fine until we reached New Jersey. Just after we dropped off our colleagues and headed north to New York, we were pulled over by a police officer. David was stopped for “looking like a Black Panther.” Unfortunately, despite my warning, he had hidden a small stash of marijuana in the trunk of the car and the officer discovered it during his illegal search. We were driven to the police station and David was arrested and placed in jail. After a lecture on the dangers of associating with someone like David, the police drove me back to David’s car and let me travel on alone to NYC. I had the pleasure of meeting my future mother-in law for the first time and telling her that her son was in jail.

It took several days to get David released. He was a changed person when we picked him up. He had been forced to shave off his hair or face solitary confinement.  As he regrew his Afro, we returned to Madison. In the spring of 1970, David, his friend “Nelson” (not his real name), and I rented a house with several others in a “row housing” complex that lined the railroad tracks in an industrial section of town. (I don’t remember all of the ever-shifting housemates.) In August of 1970, David and I decided to get married, although neither of us really felt it was a legitimate social institution. Yet we realized that our child’s life would be difficult enough because of the ignorance, prejudice, and fear of difference that were so pervasive. We were married by a minister of some protestant denomination. (All I remember is that the ceremony took place in a park just west of the campus with two friends of David’s as our witnesses. Fittingly, the white minister’s last name was “Savage.”)

After we were married, I took David and his mother, Evelyn, to meet my parents who were living on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation at the time. I waited to introduce David until after we were married, knowing that my father held strong prejudices regarding African Americans. Evelyn’s presence and status helped keep my father in line. The most interesting outcome was something I only learned about many years later. An Ojibwe relative told me that my father had been trying to organize a group of Whites and Ojibwe from the community to go with him to burn down the minimum security prison that was being built in a neighboring community in order to keep blacks out of the region. His efforts were beginning to succeed, yet when word spread about my marriage to a Black man, my father’s credibility evaporated overnight and nothing ever came of his plans. So the child who had not yet been born was already bridging differences between people and preventing violence. Yet, the threats were not over.

Back in Madison in our row house, the threats continued. David and I shared a room on the second floor, and Nelson’s room was next to ours. It was late in the evening at the beginning of September, 1970. I was trying to sleep but was awakened by a rough-voiced man hassling one of our housemates downstairs. The voices were loud and increasingly excited, and what I could hear of the conversation was becoming more threatening and heated. I tried to wake David, but he was too far gone, so I was on my way to wake Nelson. We arrived at our hallway doors at the same time. Facing us near the top of the stairs was a Madison police officer, with his gun drawn and pointed at us. “Move, and I’ll shoot,” were the first words he yelled at us. I could read the fear in his eyes, and knew he would shoot. We surely looked like pinko hippies – Nelson, a tall handsome black man with an Afro and goatee, and a small 8-month pregnant light-skinned woman with long braided hair. As I looked at the officer calmly, I noticed the phone on the stand in the hallway that was within my reach. I was amused as I wondered who one could call for help and protection in a situation like this. I was so tempted to laugh, but I knew one of us would probably be shot if I did. “WHERE’S THE GUN,” the officer shouted. I can’t remember if it was Nelson or me who softly responded. “What gun? There aren’t any guns here.” We were finally able to convince the officer that we didn’t have a gun, although his grip on the pistol never relaxed as he backed down the steps. We later realized someone had called in a report of gun shots in our neighborhood. The officer went to the wrong address.

Not long after, our tiny daughter was born at the university hospital, on a Sunday morning, October 18, 1970. My daughter was given a special name, Jnana, a concept that held special significance for me. (In a class I took on Buddhism, “jnana” was defined as wisdom-knowledge, the deeper understanding that knowledge without the wisdom of compassion is incomplete.) As a child whose very creation symbolized the joining together of many ancestries, I felt our child should have a name that transcended differences.

The homogeneity and social isolation of Sandy Hook were more than I could bear. Shortly after the encounter with our neighbor, Jnana and I left with to join a commune to begin a new life. Unfortunately, Jnana has needed the skills her little neighbor helped her develop. When singled-out by her kindergarten teacher who told her “You’re bad because you’re Black,” Jnana stood up and replied “Under Massachusetts State Law I’m not required to be in kindergarten, so I’m leaving.” Half of the class walked out with her. Her exceptional abilities were always questioned – a “dark child” couldn’t possibly be in advanced reading, or couldn’t possibly write such creative stories on her own. Yet with tenacity and intelligence, with knowledge tempered by hard-won wisdom, she survived the racism and bullying. I am honored by the thoughtful, courageous woman she is today.

Our family tradition of bridging divides has continued. My grandson, Aadi, has added Korean ancestry to the mix, and Ava, perhaps more Ojibwe or Dakota. I know many purists from all of the ancestries we represent would not approve, and I wonder what box we should check for our “race” on the U.S. Census questionnaire – “human” is not among the options…

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Photo Credits: Aadi, me, Ava, and Jnana – 2008

We are proud to represent the colors of the rainbow – to be as Pete Seeger sings — “all mixed up.”

***

 

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30 thoughts on ““All Mixed Up”: The Lesson of the Churkendoose”

  1. Carol, this is beautiful post. Such struggle, but more than that, such strength! It takes my breath away. Your children, grandchildren, and all those who suffer discrimination will benefit by the incredible human you are. Thank you.

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  2. Lovely essay on the cultures which make us up, and how mixed our different heritages actually are. Congratulations on having a daughter who could speak out against being called ‘black’ and so ‘bad’! Strong woman! Did you see Kenneth Clarke’s doll studies? Buhle Zuma from UCT has written an article on the cultural contexts of them, but the studies, where ‘black’ children saw the ‘black’ doll as bad, was disturbing. It showed how damaging social prejudice is, even though people say children don’t see ‘race’. I think your teaching did your daughter an incredible justice.

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    1. Thank you for you kind words and inspiring questions, Nicci. I did read the studies about the preferences of Black children for White dolls. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages in Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace (1996). Kozol quotes the response of a 16-year old girl to a question he asked about how she thought people in New York viewed her primarily poor Black and Latino neighborhood. She replied. “If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person’s life – sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets and other ugly ruined things, and ruined people, a prison here and sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the worst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting for ten hours, police that don’t show up when someone’s dying, take the train that’s underneath the street in the good neighborhoods and put it above where it shuts out the sun, you can guess that life will not be very nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are” (39-40). When I think about the studies in the context of the lives of children in the neighborhood Kozol wrote about, and so many others around the nation, the results are not surprising to me. They are deeply troubling and cause for alarm. My daughter didn’t escape the messages, but I am grateful she developed the skills she needed to be proud of her many heritages…

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        1. I liked Savage Inequalities as well. I sill use Amazing Grace as one of the textbooks when I teach policy or social justice. Typically, my students know little about urban poverty or cultures outside of their home states and Kozol’s work is able to inspire them to learn more.

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  3. Reblogged this on nicciattfield and commented:
    A lovely article which shows the myth of culture as easily defined. It shows how we cannot see people as easily belonging to single groups or identities. Instead, people are complex and heritage has multiple aspects.

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  4. I would have paid good money to have been there when your daughter made her Kindergarten stand. I like to think that I would have left with her. That being said, I’m sure the burden of carrying other’s people baggage when it comes to ethnicity and culture has been a heavy one for her. Jnana would, I hope, like this essay I once wrote on behalf of Kindergarteners everywhere: http://wp.me/pIb5V-9q

    My wife is Latvian-Canadian and my own kids are mixed race. I am continually impressed and amazed at the road you’ve traveled and grateful that it has intersected with my own. Peace to you and your rainbow family, Carol.

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    1. I love the essay you wrote, Jeff, and I promise to share it with Jnana. (I don’t believe I ever told you she has a BA in teaching and one in sociology.)

      I’m not surprised to hear that you have a rainbow family as well, yet another similarity in our intersecting journies. I send you by best wishes, dear friend.

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  5. Carol, thank you so much for sharing your family. Now I know even more why I feel so close to you. Your daughter and grandchildren are beautiful and you are so fortunate to have created such a universal tribe. In my days of toying with writing fiction, all of my characters came from multi-ethnic backgrounds – as is happening more and more. And these rainbow youth are as strong and wise as your daughter. They know that everyone’s blood is red and the tie that binds is love and care. My husband is white, but I always joke with him being more black than me. He’s spent many hours on facebook calling out people about racism. One last note, isn’t Sandy Hook the town where the school was shot up? Any way, your love has made a great contribution by giving the world more strong universal children to fill life with courage and compassion.

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    1. Thank you, Skywalker. I sense we share a great deal in common. I appreciate your insights about the strengths of rainbow families, and I love the story about your fiction-writing days and your husband’s advocacy. (and yes, it is the very same Sandy Hook, CT.) I send my best wishes, dear sister.

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  6. Carol, Thank you for such a moving, thoughtful piece. If we humans manage to survive and make peace with ourselves and all our neighbors, people such as you and your remarkable family will be largely responsible for it. I’m not surprised that your daughter is also a strong, brilliant woman. We somehow wish for an easy, trouble-free life for those we love. And yet, we only gain strength and wisdom from adversity and hardship, or so it seems to me now. Even so, it might be good if we can get ourselves to a point where we don’t inflict so much hatred and ugliness on our children quite so early on. Thanks again for sharing insights on facing the world with courage and grace. – Linda

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    1. Linda, thank you for your very kind words. I appreciate your important observations about the need for us to make peace with ourselves and each other, and to be kinder to children. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to find hope that it will happen but I know that all of us are doing the best that we can. Your thoughtful posts and encouragement help and mean a great deal to me.

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  7. truly a beautiful post + you have a beautiful family:-) love your last quote from paul Simon all mixed up, but I would add ” beauitfully mixed up”…I sure hope this world has changed since the late 60’s!!!

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    1. Thank you, Robbie! I am grateful for your kindness and ever-thoughtful comments.

      I think in some ways things have changed for the better since the 60s — we are more accepting of some kinds of differences, but in other ways I fear things are far less hopeful. It’s hard for me to imagine the country rising up to end war, poverty, and discrimination. But these are very different times, and I think your work in urban gardening offers a different alternative to mass protests that fits better with the our current challenges. It is a way to build sustainable neighborhoods and communities where we have established relationships and roots.

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        1. A crucial insight, Robbie! By doing what we each can, and cheering for and supporting others who are doing likewise, seems to make the most sense in these times.

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    1. Yes, Gator Woman, it helped to weave the treads of memories together into something that helped me see the patterns from the distance of time. Thank you for your thoughtful, cogent comment.

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  8. Beautifully said, Carol! And, a beautiful rainbow of a family you have there.

    Like Jeff, I’d have paid to see Jnana’s kindergarten stand too, would have borrowed money if need be.

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    1. Thank you, Peter. I appreciate your kind words.

      (I also wish I had been there to witness Jnana’s protest — I only heard of it from an angry teacher in a different version, and from a supportive teacher’s aide who shared the “real” story with me.)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. With my Harlem husband, I love this post so very much and love all you write Carol. You are indeed a gift to your readers! Megwetch!

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    1. Thank you for your kindness, Susan. Your writing is important as well — your words and photos convey the beauty and wonder of the places you write about, making me wish I could see them in person.

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