I spend a fair amount of my psychological time calibrating the meaning of this thing, this important thing, we call racial identity. Full of industriousness and enthusiasm as I honor the African American in me, trying to fit these psychological pieces of my life together, it reminds me of the process the beaver employs using twigs trying to build her house, I meant, dam. Damn. This building and rebuilding process of my identity is worthwhile but annoying. Being born at the sunset of Jim Crow laws between the lines of history and having to change identity names across my life (i.e., negro, Black, afro-american and African American) has not been a slam dunk, as they say.
I should really try to illustrate my family genogram — but it only will lead back to the enslavement of my people so what is the point. Ok, I should not be so pessimistic so I imagine what it would be like to go back as far as I can remember. I become the lazy historian filling in the boxes with what I was told or have seen, instead of employing my research skills to paint the historical picture of the anachronistic lives that many people of color are relegated to living in a society. A society that cares about race and then POOF it doesn’t!
I know very little about Big Mama, my mother’s mother, but all of my relatives talk so fondly of her as if she was a God. Not the God but a god like in greek mythology. What little I remember over the two times in my life that I sat in her presence leads me to funky narrative making. Making up lots of story, fantasies really, about who she was, how much she loved me, and how smart she was.
When black people, like me, need to fill in the ancestral blanks with fantastical representations of grandmothers and the other spirits that soar across African diasporas, how many of these representations are born from a form of psychological desperation. Desperate imaginings can not support wobbly identities. How can one really be if everything that one is, if its conceptulization or identity foundational core rests on the borders of reality and surrealism. Conjured images. Big Mama becomes Mother Theresa and my father becomes the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King who left his family for a cause. Yes, that is why he left us to practice non-violence. In reality, my mother got tired of his violence and so she saved me from having to witness the beatings, arguments, and constant jumping from the sound of crashing lamps. The point is that these illusive, imaginary family figures become fictive saints. There are clear wants and needs in this black mind of mine. My deceased ancestors become my personal rescue crew. A crew whose charge is to rescue me from the pain of living in a racist society. The fantasies I have created become like salve or a magic elixir for my embattled heart.
My birthyear, 1959, placed me at one of the largest identity shifts for any American racial and ethnic group that stretched across 4 different identities in one lifespan. In my 50 plus years I was born a negro, then turned Black, then assumed the identity of afro-american and now have resigned myself, being so tired of explaining who I am and what I am, and on some level, why I am, I say African American. Essentially I was born from an anachronistic situation. Although it, the machinations underlying my conception, is probably best described as the psychokinetic and genetic merging of a northern and southern negro. Yep, negroes. This merging from a northern and southern negro happened all of the time due to the large migratory patterns of African Americans in the mid 1930s to early 1950s.
My father was born in the south but his family migrated to the north. He having the ability to care but refusing to (I suppose that was his a twisted form of expressing his democratic freedom). My mother who has a strong and good heart, although she is a confirmed eccentric, diagnosed with a severe mental illness but maintains her own.
When the beaver first appeared I had thought it was a sign of my impending nervous breakdown. You know the one that starts in your mid-teens and hovers in the crevices of your mind for the rest of your life until the walls give way. The beaver I swore I saw jumped up from the dirty carpeted floor of my hotel room onto the desk. It turned around looked at me and then faded away like a ghost waddling out the large shiny blue gray window. I first saw it on the right side of my face, as I lay awake with my friend, Insomnia, trying not to think about the start of my scratchy throat.
The only thing I can think of why Beavers have entered my mind is related to the marathon search for our house in either of the twin states, New Hampshire or Vermont. The first house or second house we were going to buy had a large pond behind it that was really not a pond but rather the bottom tip of a large marsh. Our realtor, a savvy, gritty, no-nonsense homegrown successful woman mentioned something about the possibility of water problems in the basement if there was a large beaver dam up in the marsh. Of course, these sprinklets of realtor information led me to a mini sojourn through various websites learning about how to exterminate beavers. You can’t kill them in New Hampshire they are protected. Coming from Chicago, the only beaver I ever saw was the fur of a beaver shaped into a coat. I had to jog my mind going back to my childhood visits to zoos, what did beavers even look like?
Now a damn beaver was in my room in my hotel in Miami. Are there beavers in Miami? Do beavers live in really hot climates or only cold ones like the one I have moved to in New Hampshire? There must be a connection between being a beaver in Miami and living as a an African American man in an all white state. And damn it, as tangential of a connection that these two may be, I am going to find the connecting thread. Maybe beavers can have peaceful protected lives because of its uniqueness and because it is anachronistic. Maybe as a African American man living here I can too live a protected peaceful life because of my uniqueness and anachronistic beginning. That I will be embraced by the good people of New Hampshire, as a unique and rare treasured entity, so far so good.
I am free most of the time; Barack Obama is President of the United States and if this fact doesn’t stop the drip drip drip of my existential pain, little will. I am mostly free until things like the damn beavers that keep popping up into my head without invitation or fair warning. Unless people try to infringe on my intellectual property rights I am as free as one can be.
Perhaps I should just stop trying to be Black and make a radical decision to become like a Beaver. Then I could take my furry butt back down to Miami, get a condo, and drink mojitos made with tequila. I can’t drink rum because it makes my tummy swirl and ache. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t sip the mojitos slowly as I watch the passerbys.