Wednesday, June 25, 2008


In the autumn of 2003, I wrote an essay which was published in Voices For Racial Justice, a book produced by Evelyn Street Press in conjunction with the Racial Justice Program of the YWCA of Greater Austin. Edited by Sharon Bridgforth and Jennifer Margulies, this essay's demands on me as a writer became a work of solidifying my foundation that year. I share it with you after the fold.


In October 1997, the U.S. government made a decision to change how it collected racial and ethnic data, allowing people for the first time to identify with more than one race. There are now seven major categories of race, which can be arranged in 63 different combinations. But, when I am asked to check a box, I check only "White.” And when I joined the Racial Justice Writer's group, being trained by Sharon Bridgforth in her "Finding Voice" method, I began answering her rigorous questions of self-identity by saying I am white, primarily of Scot descent, with a known mixture of German, Welsh, English, Cherokee and Kiowa.

I lived through the late seventies when a sizable minority of my white progressive cohorts, overwhelmed by the reality of racism and racial division, reacted either by bringing to the forefront of their identity a single ancestor of color or by simply attempting to "cross over", to no longer claim the race they were born and raised. They birthed or adopted children of color in order to have intimate relationships with non-whites. They flocked to powwows and crashed other gatherings intended for people of color to have a breather from dominant white culture. They said they didn't "feel white,” had never felt white "inside.” I was not one of these people, but I understood the hunger to deal with the lie of race as a construct by transforming my own identity. I wish it were that simple.

It's not the boxes that are the problem. Adding on new boxes or switching boxes is still, as Audre Lorde says, trying to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. It's the definition of the boxes, the value attached to them, that poisons the world into which we are born.

Since 1609 my people have lived in the South. My parents are the first generation to not earn a living by farming. My parents were raised rural poor; my mother was orphaned just as the Depression was starting and raised by her aunt and uncle. They married just as World War II ended but did not experience the post-war economic boom that is the myth of the 1950s. My father chose a line of work in the oil business that kept us constantly on the move, outside and underpaid, a job generally filled by young unmarried men. He refused to give it up until I was sixteen, when my mother had had three heart attacks from the strain of raising us mostly on her own with not enough money sometimes to even feed us.

Twice my father accepted jobs overseas (Calcutta, India and Aracaju, Brazil) because the pay was high and gave us enough to live well while we were in another country, maybe get a new car or housetrailer when we got back. When you are at the bottom of the white scale, the only way to rise in class is on the backs of people of color.

(Maggie and Nilmoni in Calcutta, India, 1958)

We moved 24 times before I was 18 years old. After my mother's illnesses forced him to stop traveling, my father worked at sales jobs, earning even less than before. I went to college on a full scholarship. We always qualified for any form of government assistance but my mother was ferocious in refusing it. As a result of inadequate medical care and stress from poverty, I've lost my mother (died at 56), youngest brother Sammy (died at birth) and beloved little brother Bill (died at 42), and my father, older brother and I are disabled and/or chronically ill. Now, at age 48, I still identify as white trash. I also claim redneck and cracker, and don't appreciate these class-origin terms being used as insults. We deserve a complicated truth. I am currently working class with absolutely no economic resources or safety net beyond what I earn each month. I am terrified about how I will survive financially when I am older.

Like a high percentage of those raised poor, my body has borne the brunt. I have three disabilities, all of them congenital: Bony deformities of both tibia (which my brother Bill also had) that went undiagnosed and untreated until I was in my 40s, which have destroyed my knees and make all weightbearing painful and difficult; moderate to severe lifelong asthma (runs in my family); and polycystic ovary disease, creating a severe hormonal imbalance (excess of estrogen) that results in profuse facial hair, steady weight gain, emotional lability, infertility, periodic severely painful cyst rupture, and high risk for uterine cancer. All of my disabilities would be far less disabling or possibly not a current problem if I had received early medical attention. The reason why I did not was because of my family's lack of money, and the fact that I was a girl child.

I have absolutely adored being a girl and now a woman - not the oppression of the constructed role, but the self-expanded reality of it. I have never wanted to be anything else. I first heard the word and definition of lesbian in 1965, at age nine, and realized with a jolt that that was what I was. I began writing poetry the same month I came out to myself, and have used poetry ever sense as a means of maintaining/expressing my true identity. I didn't find out I could live as something other than a heterosexual or that there were others like me until Stonewall happened, when I was 13. I came out to others at age 15, when I had my first lover. The lesbian-feminist movement saved my life and gave me my core values. When I was 17 I found out that the great love of my mother's life had been a woman named Mary Nell, and that when Mary Nell broke her heart, my mother returned to men as a means of never being hurt that way again. When I was 40 I found out that my mother's mother had also first loved women, and had chosen to marry my grandfather only because she could not be with the woman she loved. I don't believe that homosexuality is genetic, I think it is chosen, but do see a strong thread in my maternal emotional heritage predisposing me to be woman-identified.

I became a comother to a 2-year-old daughter when I was 17. She has been married to both a woman and a man. She has now given me two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both of them mixed race and being raised working class in Dallas, Texas. Their experience of race in the United States will be different than mine.

I left the U.S. when I was six months old to live in India, and returned in 1958 when I was four. I remember, soon after returning, going to a five and dime with my mother in Lafayette, Louisiana. Down one aisle I spotted a black woman. I slipped away from my mother and followed the woman. I just wanted to see where she went. I can remember feeling almost desperate to find out where she went. Even then, I thought maybe there was a secret doorway into the other world. I think this belief is common to a lot of white children.

At the back of the five and dime were two water fountains. One was big, and clean, of shiny metal. The other one was much smaller, of cracked porcelain with lots of stains on it. The woman I was following went to the small water fountain and took a drink. When she was done, I stepped up to it and tried to drink from it, also. Despite it being lower to the ground, I couldn't quite reach. The woman was staring at me. I turned to her and asked her if she would lift me up. She just walked away, very fast. I could smell her fear.

A second later, my mother swept frantically around the corner and grabbed me, followed by a store clerk and a big white man. She hissed at me, "What are you DOING?" I told her I was trying to get a drink. She carried me over to the other water fountain and pushed the button. I said, no, I wanted to drink from the little fountain. Mama shushed me and hustled me out of the store. When we were in the car, she explained to me that I could not drink from the "colored" fountain, it upset people. When she called it that, at first I was even more determined to drink from it -- was the water colored? Color was good, as far as I was concerned. But when my older brother began laughing at me, taunting me, and my mother told him to shut up, I was suddenly ashamed. And scared.

Mostly my mother explained things to me without using pejoratives. (Thank you for telling me the truth about the water fountain, that it would upset white people if I crossed the line, not that it was wrong to cross the line.) Mostly she insisted that all human beings were the same, a rhetoric not borne out in consistent practice but still a rhetoric giving me a sliver of ground to stand on. She had a fairly enlightened grasp on racism for her time and location. But she had to fight my father and older brother constantly to keep certain language out of the house, and while I sided with her, I went on being scared of white people. I think everybody is scared of white people. I don't know if that's true, but it looks that way to me. And when I start from that theoretical assumption, I have the most success as a writer and an activist.

But, the greater truth is, I don't know how to talk about racism in my life without starting way before I was born. I know my family tree, more than most people do. I decided it was my business to know, and was aided in this by the ethos of my mother's family which runs contrary to the white Southern working class belief that what you don't know won't hurt you. This side of the family also has a saying: "Don't ask folks where they are from, 'cause if they are from Texas they'll tell you right away, and if they aren't, there's no need to embarrass them."

My ancestors on my mother's side came to Texas when it was Tejas, agreeing to become citizens of Mexico, then immediately participating in the land grab of the revolution. My ancestors on my father's side rode in the land runs in Indian Territory, displacing already displaced Choctaws. Before that, on both sides, they were Scots or Germans or Welsh who relentlessly pressed westward from Jamestown, Charleston, the Shenandoah Valley, indentured servants who bought their freedom, sharecroppers who became small landowners, white men who married North Carolina Cherokees or Kiowa women. Any black Baysinger/Basinger from Tennessee is my cousin, from my great-great-grandfather Nep Basinger and his grown brothers who owned -- and raped -- African women. But I am clear that the line coming down to me is the line that shook out on the white end of things, that chose race privilege, theft, rape, exhausting the land and moving on, as means of trying to climb the ladder. They are quintessentially European.

Here's a fact: Every single male in my family --direct line, siblings, cousins, any relation at all -- between the ages of 12 and 70 (this is no exaggeration) who was alive at the time of the Civil War enlisted in the Confederate States Army. We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of men and boys whose blood runs in my veins. I know their names, I know where they lived and what units they served in. For my direct line ancestors, I know where they were killed (though not always where they were returned to earth), or what kind of crippling they carried away from this war. Until I was ten, I didn't understand the war had ended ninety years before I was born -- the way my people talked about it, I thought it had happened shortly before my birth. It has gone that unresolved for us.

Of those Confederates, maybe 10% owned slaves ever in their lifetimes. That's about average for Southern whites. We fought for an economic system that was never going to reward us directly, and yet was the only way of life we could imagine. My people were hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth farmers. While I can't say any of them understood racism in a modern sense, some of them knew what was wrong with the culture they claimed as their own. I believe every white alive then knew, deep down, that they lived cheek by jowls with an evil. I believe the dissonance and unpredictable violence of white poor Southern culture stems equally from our own position near the bottom of the shit heap and our secret recognition that we are, even so, living in a way that shovels shit over onto those one layer down from us. I love my people. I have chosen to betray them out of heartbreaking love. I think I am the hope of my line because of that betrayal.

From one perspective, I am a sport, a rogue, an almost incomprehensible divergence from my heritage. I have looked long and hard at the reasons for my apartness -- coming out, living in India and Brazil, my mother's brilliance, books, Tikkun Olam, disability, those North Carolina Cherokee who infused us with a nonexploitative connection to nature and a fierce appetite for learning the truth, being a baby boomer, the salvation of lesbian-feminism. But, I have to say, it is likewise true that there is a strong current in me of being exactly the product of my heritage. I am the result of generations of people taking maybe just one risk, one step out of bounds, and surviving the punishment long enough to produce the next generation.

I see my primary job as a human being committed to ending ALL oppression and misinformation as that of bearing witness. I believe others will tell me what they want and need if I just listen hard enough. I think this requires of me a profound spiritual practice, a dedication to learning everything I can, living a good life, pushing myself to experience discomfort, speaking the truth even when (especially when) I am terrified, and following the Quaker dictum of "Proceed as the way opens."

(Maggie, summer of 1982, Bean Hollow Beach, south of San Francisco)

I left Texas when I was 21 because I could not see how to learn and live here in a way that fed my soul. In March of 1985 I attended an Eliminating Racism workshop led by Ricky Sherover-Marcuse in the San Francisco Bay Area. A large number of the people who attended were exiled Southerners. Golden California draws this country's refugees. At one point, Ricky got me up in front of the group to work on my family, my heritage, as a means of illustrating the need for whites to know themselves (not just assume we are the "default"). It was a watershed moment for me. Afterward, an African-American woman I didn't know came up to me and said, "I was relieved to see you loving your people. You all need to love each other, and stop expecting us to do that job for you. And I'm asking you to consider moving back to where you came from -- when you flee to the cities and the coasts, you leave all the rest of the country to the white people you have a hard time loving. But MY people have to live in those places, too. I'm asking you to not huddle here in safety -- go back and love your folks where they are stuck."

It took me four years to get the resource together, but I did what she asked. She was right. After that, it took me another seven years to adjust to the change I'd made. Too many of the Southern white writers who think and write about racism are doing it from places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago -- they don't come back home. And thus their perceptions are out of date, inauthentic, tinted with nostalgia and stereotype, unredeemed by distance. I moved back to ground zero for my people, to love them and heal them up close, to write about us with hope and humor.

This is my purpose, as a poet: To imagine a world that has not, before now, existed and share it in such a way that the reader can use it to imagine HER version of a world that has not, before now, existed. With regard to writing about racism, I must tell the absolute truth about my people, the kind of truth we/you have been starved for. I have shaped my day to day life so that I can recognize and report pieces of this truth.

So, I listen. I bear witness. I believe that if every single of us is contributing to the discourse, we'll create a good way of life. I show up. I practice the words of Fran Winant: "Eat rice/Have faith in wimmin/If I learn first/I will teach you/If you learn first/I must believe you will come back to teach me." And I proceed as the way opens.

(Carole, Dawn and Maggie at Texas Lesbian Conference, Houston, Texas, 2000)

[Note: Since writing this essay, my father and older brother have also died from health issues related to poverty. I have also discovered distant Choctaw ancestry, on my father's side.)
© 2008 Maggie Jochild.


letsdance said...

Bless you, Maggie. You continually rise above the pain and throw a light on the promise.....

kat said...

oh, the boxes....

In 5th grade I was filling in all the name and gender and race bubbles on a standardized test. I think the choices were black, white, asian, other, or something. I filled in other.
My teacher (who was patently evil, but that's not the point of the story) came up behind me and looked down, sneering "How could you possibly be "other"??"

Up until recently, those boxes have been so restrictive that I generally leave them blank. In 5th grade, I was already tall, gawky, geeky, uncool, unpopular, tormented and misterable. Getting categorized as "other" didn't help at all.

What makes it all the more difficult is that I'm not 1/2 and 1/2. My mom is white (Scots, Manx and British), and my dad is 1/2 Scots half black. His father grew up in rural England, but the family is from either Ivory Coast or Madegascar (my grandpa's no longer very lucid, so we can't figure out why there's this confusion).

So really, I'm mostly white, mostly British. People (including my mom) don't understand why I have this feeling of otherness. It's only one little quarter of ancestry, why are you all confused about it? Well, partly because most people define me for me, instead of letting me do it for myself.

I think about this a lot when I think about Barak Obama, actually. I was watching a news report, or something, talking to the tv screen as usual, when I said something about "but, he's mixed!!" Boyfriend chimed in that we shouldn't define others.

The trouble is, when it comes to race, that's exactly what happens. Others define you and then you're stuck. It's really interesting to me that Obama, raised in Hawaii by his white mother, has basically planted himself into the black community in the mainland US. It seems like his solution to being "other" was to entrench himself in a group that looks like he does, even if the experience is totally different.
The experience of recent immigrants from Africa seems to be totally different from that of african americans...

Please know that I'm not criticizing at all. Just observing. I hope I won't be attacked for these thoughts.

His family's experiences are so different than the "black experience" in the US, that I just wonder.....I wonder whether going to a liberation theology church is partly about trying to fit in somewhere.

Interestingly enough, the very first time I felt totally comfortable and content in my mixed-up-ness was when I was 17. My mom won a trip to Hawaii in the church raffle. It was there, where almost everyone is mixed, that I finally felt at peace with my many sides. In a place where there really isn't one dominant race, but rather a whole bunch of jumbled up ones, I could be myself.

In college, I met a friend with exactly the same experience. He's white and Japanese, but looks almost as if he's black and japanese. People have always tried to stick him into categories, inevitably denying part of his heritage. When he went to Hawaii for the first time, he felt at home.

This is long and ramble-y and I don't know if it makes sense....

april said...

Thankyou for posting this Maggie. I appreciate your comments too kat.

My consideration of my race/heritage has consistently been difficult, so it is very heartening to see others' response to that struggle. To be fair I should reciprocate.

I was raised white but subsequently discovered my grandfather was "passing". This is problematic in our family structure, with some embracing, some denying and some "being indifferent to" our Aboriginal heritage.

I want to oppose the eugenic purpose of encouraging Blacks to "breed white" and cut off contact with their people in exchange for human rights. BUT I don't want to claim a share in a trendy oppressed category that I have no right to. I want to reclaim my lost cultural heritage. I don't know how to achieve this, or even if it is in any way right to try. It doesn't help that I am too shy/racist to attend community events where I can connect with people from the Aboriginal community. This is something I am working on!

The boxes leave me cold.

kat said...

Thank you April.
I half-expected people to react the way "real world" people always seem to, and jump down my throat for making a fuss....

I watched a documentary a few months ago about a woman who discovers that her father passed. It was pretty wrenching, but really good. I'll see if I can find you the title.

I feel like our experiences will be similar in that we both (probably, I'm assuming) look "white" That really colors (no pun intended) people's reactions to us.

Thank you for sharing.