Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Mixed Race Family of Humans

Remember "Society's Child," the 1965 song written by Janis Ian when she was 13 years old, on the topic of interracial romance? The song describes the turmoil of a young girl who tells her black boyfriend she can't see him anymore: her mother says "But honey, he's not our kind," and her teachers "all laugh, their smirking stares/cutting deep down in our affairs."

The song was a sensation at the time, partly because of the then-taboo topic, and also because it was written and performed by someone so young. (I remember being intrigued by that image of Janis Ian, slouching in her newsboy's cap: there were more kinds of difference going on than just race.) I recall intense conversations with friends who insisted that the children of any mixed race couple would be accepted by no one; neither blacks nor whites: they'd "belong" no where.

I thought of this when reading a about the families of Barack and Michelle Obama in an article in The New York Times called "In First Family, A Nations' Many Faces":

The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor.

My own family includes Sarah Lepani, the mother of my sister's husband, who lives in a village in the Trobriand Islands. My sister married Charles, from Papua New Guinea, where white people are called "dim-dims": their children joke about being only "dim."

My brother married an African-American who spent some years in her 20s in Paris. Their two daughters are the same ages as Malia and Sasha Obama, so they are able to identify with those young girls – who now somehow belong to "everyone."

I married someone from Germany. One of Andreas's aunts married an Iranian, so he has cousins who grew up in Tehran. His sister, Susanne, was married to Adama, from Africa, before his tragic, untimely death from meningitis. Some of Adama's brothers and sisters are Christian, others are Muslim – as determined by their father, who saw advantages in each religious view.

In my extended family, then, there are those who speak Kirawina, "place tok" from the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, as well as English, German, French, Spanish, and Persian. We represent cultures from North America, Europe, the Persian Gulf, Africa, Australia, and Melanesia. I can appreciate the beauty of Obama's family, the richness of the differences they represent.

And it's not that long ago that my mother's mother, who was a Scotch-Irish American, made the big cross-cultural step of marrying the son of Norwegian immigrants.


Ricardo said...

It is extraordinary and would have been a preposterous idea 50 years ago, like Obama's election.

hoping for better things said...

Ellen, I too loved the NYT article on all the different groups represented in the Obama's family, and happy to be reminded about the mixtures in your family too!