American Boy

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Father’s Day strikes me as a silly holiday. Being a father is a duty and a privilege. Celebrating me for having the pleasure of spending time with someone who I love unconditionally seems a little odd. My son makes me laugh, and helps me to experience the wonder of the world through someone who is experiencing it all for the first time. Society shouldn’t be celebrating me on Sunday, it should be celebrating him.

How did I end up with this bundle of personality, mischievousness and love? Someone who looks like me, but looks like himself too? I don’t know how biology works in turning a zygote into someone with opinions. I don’t know if we have souls or not. I do know a thing or two about history, and when it comes to understanding where a person comes from, that’s as good of a place to start as any.

I’m African American. Not in the sense that I or my parents were born in Africa; I’m most likely the descendent of slaves brought primarily from Western Africa to the United States. Of course, like most descendents of slaves, my heritage is not exclusively from West Africa. The rape of slave women by their white masters was rampant and endemic to the institution, so although I couldn’t verify any Caucasian ancestry, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s in there somewhere. My family’s name comes from a plantation in Virginia. Two white boys were kidnapped from the island of Wales and sold into indentured servitude in Virginia. One of these boys was named Ragland. After he finished his time as an indentured servant, he married the plantation owner’s daughter and inherited the plantation. This man owned the slaves who would eventually give birth to my paternal grandfather, so let’s just say there’s a little Welch in there.  My paternal grandmother’s family is from Georgia, another slave-holding state. Her great grandmother was Cherokee. She took my grandmother’s father from Georgia to New York, and then to Hartford, where he settled. His eventual wife was also a migrant from Georgia. They had five children, including my grandmother, who had three children, including my father, who had five children, including me.

His mother is Puerto Rican and Palestinian. She was born in Puerto Rico; her mother was born there as well. Like most African Americans, Puerto Ricans are a mix of Caucasian, indigenous and African ancestry: West African slaves, the Spanish conquistadors which savaged much of the Caribbean and South America, and Tainos, the indigenous people the Spanish found there. My son’s maternal grandfather was an Arab living in Palestine when the nation of Israel was founded, and fled the country during the subsequent war. He chose to move to Puerto Rico in a particularly savvy move: it was difficult for him to enter the mainland United States directly from Palestine, but much easier to get into Puerto Rico. My son’s mother was their only child.

Throw all of those ingredients into the genetic lottery, and you get the boy you see above. But what does that make my son? After all, we live in a world of categories and censuses and boxes you check off for scholarship applications. I’ve always considered my son to be black. Other people have told me that he’s mixed, or biracial, or some other category. But I don’t know anything about those. Phenotypically, I am unmistakably black. Culturally and socially, I have lived a black experience.* I’ve had my name mispronounced, experienced racism in obvious and subtle ways, and can look forward to all the pleasures and pains of being black in America. I can say “nigga” all I want! So I don’t know what being biracial means. I know what it means to be black, and that’s the experience I communicate to my son. When I look at him, I see myself- a black child dealing with the same things I dealt with, that all black children deal with. I see the child who came home crying in the second grade because one of his white classmates told him he didn’t want to play with a black guy.

My ex-girlfriend did make a good point to me though. She said that although I may see Gabriel as black, he does have history and heritage that goes beyond that. She said it’s important for him to learn about Puerto Rico and Palestine and Arabs and Islam, the religion of his grandfather. And she’s absolutely right, because it is his heritage. Learning about all that is inside of him doesn’t deny his blackness. On the contrary, it strengthens it. He has the power and history of the Arab world behind him, and the Cherokee nation behind him, as much as the power and history of Africa.

My son is the amalgamation of a great swath of the world in his little almost-nine year old body. His existence could only happen in a place like the United States, where so many people have come together, both voluntarily and against their will. He holds within himself the hope of a Palestinian coming to find refuge, the injustice of Africans held in bondage, the cruelties of European conquerors and the remnants of an indigenous culture destroyed by genocide. He is an amazing child created by amazing forces, and he will be with me on Father’s Day.

*This is a super loaded term, but unpacking it would completely derail this essay. Perhaps another time.