Years ago, easily 15 years ago, I was on a rotation at the Charleston VA medical center. I was doing cardiology and we spent a great part of the day reading EKGs, those human volt meter tracings of the human heart. Imagine, the human body has its own electrical impulse, a current of energy measurable by placing a few sticky pads on the chest wall. And like all buildings built to code, most hearts are wired the same. Most EKGs look similar, unless there is a defect: poor construction to start with (congenital) or damage. Cut off the blood supply to an area of the heart and you alter the EKG. If the wires are too small or split or not insulated, they do not transmit the current fast enough and current is lost to the ether. So, while I sat in the reading room with the palest Caucasian woman I have ever met, toe headed, white eyelashed, dilute icicle blue eyes and some poorly remembered guy, we spent a fair amount of time also talking about race and what defines “who we are”. The EKG technician in the department, who was the right hand of the head cardiologist in charge of the unit, was one Beverly Sanders. And Miss Beverly was as dark skinned as you could find in Charleston, which is a city of shades. We started talking about whether we might be related. In a city like Charleston, where old, prominent, historical surnames are shared by people of both races in a city that was the sparking point for this country’s civil war, race is something everyone KNOWS and everyone politely avoids. Coming from a totally different city of shades, a blended topical city like Miami, race was not taboo.
So I asked Miss Beverly about her family. Wonderful providence had it that I was reading Shirlee Taylor Haizlips’ family biography called The Sweeter the Juice. From that book, which I lent to my possible, distant relative, was the spark for our conversation. What defines you? Who are you? At the time, I was struggling with my own identity, which to many may sound odd as I apparently projected a far different persona. Few could see my profound uncertainty about my position: doctor. I was just some scrawny, little sister from some unincorporated part of Dade county. A poseur, defrauding the system and “passing” for a doctor. I felt certain, as some point, the fraud police were going to show up and take me back. Back where? My conversation with Beverly helped to think about how I defined MYSELF. How I make my story MINE. While some take this a bit far becoming narcissistic, delusional despots, I was just trying to be all of myself. It is a complicated thing for a child who has always felt weird. She “looks” normal except she was born with a deformed foot, a perfectly corrected deformed foot. And while I walk normal, I have always felt the spaz, the ambassador to the nation of silly walkers. No one sees it, I can’t see it. I cannot point to this feeling like a port wine stain. It is in the wiring of my limbs.
I am not sure footed. Every step I take must be tested and may result in a stumble or a fall. This need to check and recheck my footing is both literal and metaphorical. When you feel like you are “passing”, flying under the radar undetected, you worry about setting off the sensors. And so, you are careful. For the author, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, the discovering was of secret, unknown siblings of her mother who had crossed over and were passing as white people. I was really stunned at this notion: imagine the constant fear. Or they managed to buy their own fabrication and shed their history. They rewrote their past and plotted a different trajectory for themselves and their children.
We define ourselves. We are but seeds planted in a cultural context. We are given a race, a religion, a tradition, a value set, a social status, an education and a family code. Those parameters can be rigid: white, black, blind, Southern, immigrant, wealthy, religious or educated. But what of the offspring of the 1st generation to redefine themselves. Children of parents who step away from their ancestral parameters. This is easy for children of immigrants. Sociology studies abound of the second and third generations of Jewish immigrants, Irish immigrants, even Cuban immigrants. But what of the domestic immigrants? The man who is the 1st generation to break away from his white sharecropper heritage and seek a college education? Or the woman, born white and poor and made fatherless by an aneurysm? What happens to their offspring as they leave behind their cultural millieu and make something new? The neighborhood in which I was raised was a neighborhood of people making a new set of parameters. I think most of us were children of parents who were rewriting themselves. They stumbled and were unsure, lacked confidence or were so brash and full of bravado. And from that you have and raise kids, kinda making the rules as you go along.We are the generation of parents who were simply “winging it”.
The beauty and the precious gift is the freedom such acts pass to the NEXT generation. We get to write ourselves, too. We don’t really have anything firm on which to anchor, our roots are not so deep. It can feel disconcerting. It can also be the absolute greatest inheritance.