Black Indian

This excerpt from Black Indian — A Memoir by Shonda Buchanan is reprinted with the permission of Wayne State University Press. Copyright © Shonda Buchanan

I stare up into the darkness, faintly able to make out the shapes above me. Hot, I reach up, give the ceiling fan chain a quick tug and instead mistakenly flick on the light. I yank twice, the fan whirs, and the room is Plato’s cave again. The stars and half-moons hum glow-worm yellow, reminding me that I am still a child in my mother’s house. Even though I have my own daughter, and at that moment her thick breath does a snag-mock whistle in my ear, I am still the baby girl, sixth child of seven, the fourth girl child, and therefore not special at all…

Kalamazoo was not big enough for me, my Mama, and my Mama’s ghosts.

After that everything I did was California’s fault. Getting pregnant at twenty when I was the “smart” one. That damn California. Not marrying the father. That’s what them Californians do. Going back to college. Oh, you think you smart cause you in California? When I locked my “good” Indian hair and now resembled a Rasta: Look what that damn California did to Shonda. To them, in my crazy California Sanskrit shirt, with my soft writer hands, I would always be the baby girl.

No living uncles, no grandparents, and now only two aunts; an intra-racist great-aunt; and a tight-lipped mother, who used to allow us kids to play hide-and-go-seek and truth or dare during the hot summer nights, our screams pulling down the crushed red summer sun, the light snuffed out by our urgent night-coming-down-soon whispers. Fireflies gave up their wings for our pleasure on that ground, for our pounding feet ruining their moist flower beds. The waist-high grass that Mama let grow wild on the Southworth Terrace clearly defined our country sensibilities.

There were times when childhood was magical to me, running through the grass like it was a jungle; firecracker smoke and sulfur on the Fourth of July; fish fries and cleaning greens on the front porch while the neighbors looked down their apple pie noses at us. Our white house, shutters trimmed in black, sat in the middle of our property, which felt like the biggest house on the block when I was shorter. The edges of the yard were bordered with what the Michigan Chippewa called sugarbushes, towering maple oaks that dripped sticky sap, as well as massive pine, birch, and crabapple trees. One summer, Mama let the grass grow at least three feet high and someone reported us to the city. Not long from the swamp, I’m sure the younger and hipper of our neighbors, or the old Polish immigrants, snickered. We didn’t care. Kalamazoo, Decatur, Ypsilanti, Mattawan country.

“You know you got some Indian in you?” my mother proudly crooned every six months or so when we were growing up. How did she know? Her Aunt Katheryn, our family historian, told her; her cousins and uncles told my mom and aunt stories about being from a tribe in Mattawan, but later her dad said Oklahoma, yet none of them did any research. My research uncovered our route: we were migration trail transplants from the Eastern Shores that lined the edges of the first counties that formed the Union.

…Little did my mom or her sisters know that when their grandmother’s (Callie D’s) grandfather, Willis Roberts, Jr., left Indiana for Michigan in the early 1850s, he was one of the first to stake his claim to “unspoiled” farmland in Mattawan. There were only a few “of color” Mixed race farmers in those parts then. And who wanted that swampland anyway? Farmers did. Willis came just on the cusp of the 1854 Census, which lists fifty-four “free black” families moving to the state as FOP or Free People of Color (a term that originated in the 1800s to encompass Black, Indian, and white interracial families who were never enslaved), Willis and his wife had their hands full trying to build a farm. Free People of Color also encompassed full-blood American Indians who had either decided to leave or were forced off their tribal homelands before they were renamed reservations.

…My Robertses and Staffords are listed on the Guion Miller African Eastern Cherokee Rolls, a collection of transcribed interviews and recorded letters from 1908-1910 from people who, wanting to receive reparations and land allotments promised (in exchange for already stolen lands), asserted their Eastern Cherokee Indian Blood. Ironically, having already left the reservations, they couldn’t prove it by U.S. government standards. Many tribes would not open their records to help prove Indian status of those who’d abandoned the reservations. If your family wasn’t listed on one of the federal rolls, like the Dawes Rolls, you were ass-out in the wind.

No reparations for you.

Because many were illiterate then, most of our history was orally passed down from generation to generation, however, one of the patriarchs, Elijah Roberts, was educated and mindful enough to keep records. In fact, since 1765, most of the Roberts children were educated and had several years of schooling. When I finally saw pictures of the Robertses, eerily, many of them looked so light they could easily pass for white. Same for the Manuels, and one of those great-great- uncles did decide to pass and never spoke to his Mixed race brothers and sisters again. When I was teaching in Bath, England, in 2008, I found out that we, the multicolored darker-skinned spawn, were never invited to those Roberts family reunions in Indiana. They had their own church and everything. But they didn’t care about my mother’s convergence of Indian blood flowing through her veins. She was the right color, translucent as a blinking star in the swamp-black sky, but her kids, especially me, weren’t light enough: we were all the shades of the coming night.

We didn’t care: no one could take the country, the indigenous, or the Black out of us. Mattawan or North Carolina, wetlands was in our blood. ≈

Shonda Buchanan is the author of two books of poetry, including the award-nominated Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? She has taught creative writing at Loyola Marymount University and William and Mary College, and is currently writing the screenplay of her first memoir, Black Indian, as well as working on a second memoir.

*Illustrations by G. Odmark

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