American Spirit

by Jamila Rose

“We didn’t have those in the orphanage.” 

That’s my father’s favorite joke, alluding to the five months he spent in Saint Joseph’s home for families in Dunmore, Pennsylvania. He was left there after his white mother decided that rather than admit her interracial relations, she would simply pretend she didn’t give birth to a little boy, tanned with chestnut eyes and curly hair. 

That joke was my father’s gentle reminder that the life I had growing up was at one time, impossible for him to imagine. Despite the damaging circumstances of his childhood, he raised himself to be the smartest man I know and who I can thank for everything I have today. It doesn’t always seem like much, but it’s far from the nothing that he started with. 

About two years ago, my father began a search using online ancestry sites to find his biological father. It took a short few months, and before I could really consider the situation, we were in his truck, traveling south for our first Davis family reunion. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t what we found. Pulling up to Cheraw, South Carolina, we could plainly see the effects of slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Cheraw is a small town of about 5,000 people and a median income of $29,000. Two hundred years ago in the early to mid-1850s, Cheraw had a booming economy based on one major export: cotton. Nowadays, the tiny town is 65% African-American, and 35% impoverished. On a tour around the community, after passing blocks of public houses and abandoned lots, we stumbled into a “nicer” side of town, complete with brick manors and a peculiar white steepled building with a green roof. “Market Hall” is listed as belonging to the Cheraw Historic District, and a plaque on the side of the building presents “The Cotton Tale of Cheraw” as if it is a Disney tale of magical prosperity. Cheraw’s official website explains the eventual economic decline of the town: “Unfortunately, cotton production tended to deplete even rich soils rather rapidly. It was also very labor intensive. The work was done with slave labor, and eventually slaves came to comprise a third of the population in Chesterfield County.” Notice the placement of the word “unfortunately.” The website goes on to explain, with a questionably-placed regret: “By the 1850’s cotton profits had made Cheraw a prosperous, secure town… The Civil War ended that prosperity.” 

The trip was complete with a drive to look for my grandfather’s grave. Unfortunately, it was impossible amongst cemeteries where black families couldn’t afford headstones and made their own out of steel. Over time, the elements degraded the etchings and the identity of the dead remained only in memory. We never found his grave.

During our weekend in Cheraw, the family we met were welcoming and friendly, but they looked at my father with a shyness or even suspicion, many hesitant to introduce themselves. Some overshared, tripping over their polite attempts to relate to my father, a light-skinned man in a polo shirt and khakis. They shared stories of his late father, offering a portrait of the man my own father spent his life wondering about. Cheraw is a tight community, and the Davis family seemed very close, grilling and cooking big trays of food together. It was something to admire, but far from my father’s estranged relationship with his family. During the trip he was amicable, and quiet, in his usual state of learning and observation. On the drive home, he didn’t say much. “Well, at least you know,” my brother offered from the back seat. 

The message is clear: no matter where you came from, with hard work and a little luck you can accomplish your dreams. Out of the ashes rises a Phoenix and all that. But at what cost?

Although I slept in a warm bed, went to a good school, and ate three times a day, I was always missing one thing: acknowledgment of who I was. My mother’s European ancestry makes me 75% white. Do I round up? The crux of living a mixed life is that any validation of our identity doesn’t exist. And most will label you presumptuous for even looking. 

It’s hard for parents to give their children what they never had. Although my dad seemingly spun gold in other ways, he wasn’t always able to grapple with the trauma that raised him, and at times it flared in his short temper and resistance to change. As I recognize those traits within myself, I work to find an inner peace. I realize I’m reaching for the calm that comes only with a sense of belonging and recognition, in a world which so often, and so subtly, drowns us out. 

One moment is etched in my mind of a particular day I accompanied my father, a professor and author, to a reading of his at Penn State University. It was a cold, rainy day: the type of downpour that umbrellas can’t stand up to. As we walked what seemed like a mile to the building that was our destination, the wet wind whipped my face. Once there, we were greeted by the host and climbed three floors, to the back corner of a big, bright room where a few rows of chairs were lined up. The host was sweet, asking questions about my post-college plans, while my father looked over his notes. The turnout was mediocre, which was expected given the weather and the Magellan-esque expedition any possibly interested student would have to embark on in order to find the room. After his reading, the host falteringly asked if we would like to accompany her to lunch. When we agreed, it became clear she hadn’t given a thought to where she might take us, and we began another, windy, wet, whipping trek to a Penn State-franchised Panera Bread. As we crossed campus, a man with the confederate flag emblazoned across his back strolled along, taking a sharp turn in front of us on his way to class. I stepped ahead of my father while the host hastily expressed her shock and surprise. 

When I was ten, my father introduced to me a young woman who was very much unlike my mother, but would in some ways play that role four days a week. J was an opinionated woman, constantly expressing her broad range of dislikes which never ceased to grow. She was white and rural, painted over by a bottle of spray tan and a college degree.

Her favorite place in the world was the Outer Banks in North Carolina. We would all pile into my father’s van, and once we started to hit Virginia, her gleeful expression would grow stronger by the minute. She rarely left the house without a face of drug store makeup, and she would stick her head out the window, letting the rays beat down on her buy one get one 50% off, orange-hued CVS Maybelline. 

When we hit North Carolina, she would force my dad to stop at some plastic surf store, the type of chain designed for middle Americans on their once-yearly trip to the beach. My step brothers would race around, hitting each other and stuffing Lifeguard keychains into their pockets. Apart from the commercial cheapness of a beach like the Outer Banks, what stood out to me as a child was the overwhelming amount of confederate flags. The community I grew up in had its share, especially for a northern town, but the real south had a real problem. I would glance around at the earrings, the dresses, the coasters, the mugs, the surf boards. A pro-slavery dish set, why not. My stepmother would smile around the shop, a beach-themed Walmart, and beam, declaring how North Carolina was her true home. “What if we lived here?” Her kids would ask with delight as I looked back at my father, feeling lost. I knew that he knew he was black. I wondered if she knew. But more than that, he was brilliant, cultured, and deserving of a community, and a wife, so unimaginably different than the one he had settled for. That was the part I didn’t know if he knew. 

Those days are a decade in the past now. I’ve since found my home in New York. First Harlem, then Brooklyn, where I’m not exactly understood. The calls of “mami” and “hermosa baby” grow old, but at least I’m far from home. Far enough to forget the days of middle school girls scratching at my darker knees and elbows, asking why I don’t just scrub the dirt off, and my stepmother’s hairstylist, furiously thinning my hair out with a razor. I feel a sense of comfort here, even if it’s just the size and diversity. I’m nameless but seen.

Over the last few months, that comfort has given to anxiety as I’ve watched the only place I’ve ever felt home unravel. From a general sense of uneasiness which started to spread in the early days of March, to a complete standstill of all that made New York seem great. Coronavirus swiftly stripped us of spring and summer, taking with it dining, night life, classes, museums and concerts. At first we thought we were feeling the effects of Covid-19, but in time the deeper issues, the inevitable weakness of a city built on materialism, exploitation and a deep division of class, was revealed. 

The anger, frustration and helplessness of being trapped in our houses, jobless, with a $1200 stimulus to last four months has been building. 36 million Americans find themselves unemployed and the government clears hundreds of billions of dollars to save the businesses which have exploited us all along. Schools are closed, entertainment has ceased to exist, and welfare is running out as we near the end of the four-month unemployment period. All of these issues are exacerbated by the treatment of minorities in this city and across the country, exposing them to the effects of Covid-19 at drastically worse rates than white communities. 

All of this anger came to a tipping point on May 25th with the murder of George Floyd. Protests turned to riots turned to looting, and for the past six days New York has come back to life, fighting for breath under the weight of a lockdown which has left the working class hopeless. 

Last night was the second night of curfew. Minutes before 8pm, an alarm sounded on all devices across New York City. “Emergency Alert.” Looking outside my second floor window, Malcolm X Boulevard was calm, for once. No fighting, no traffic, no small crowds waiting at the bus stop. But two things were deafening: the rotation of a police copter’s motor as it purred from above, shaking the trees. And the message: shut up, or I’ll make you. 

For months, I have watched my life fall apart from every angle, all due to a foreign virus whom I have gratefully never even met. First it was my job, then my close friends leaving the city for safer ground. Now it is down to me and my roommate: slowly surrendering to the demands of an NYC landlord who eats money like Pacman, even in the midst of a worldwide pause. Our neighborhood looks different and it’s eerie. But some people’s families look different, as nearly 25,000 New Yorkers have been laid to rest. As I lose everything I defined myself by: my home, my job, my friends, I still count myself lucky. 

The human spirit is resilient. But it was made to be cherished, not tested. From the day of my father’s birth, his mother cursed him with the understanding that he did not belong. That curse has flowed through him, gaining power with every comment, every confederate flag, every joke that isn’t really a joke. And it’s been passed on to me in little ways, in little giggles from my friends over my “white genes,” my “black side.” 

But for people like George Floyd, this curse is fatal. When entire systems and industries are built with no regard for minorities, the stakes of belonging are raised. And when police and politicians are empowered to enact violence on those with a darker shade of skin, the stakes are accelerated in a deadly way. 

We all crave belonging: it is the essence of our being. For 400 years, white America has built a foundation of othering minorities, especially black people. It is because of this history that we must now consciously work to involve and to include. We need policy changes and police reform, but it starts at the core in our daily interactions. 

Every day presents new opportunities for inclusion. Each moment in the office, each post on social media, each purchase, each endorsement. Each decision to ban a symbol of white supremacy; each acknowledgement of prejudice phrases or terminology. When you start your day, start it with intention, and in a world which so quickly villainizes our differences, make the choice to let someone know that they belong.

About the Author

Jamila Rose is a recent graduate of Bloomsburg University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and writes about wellness, self-empowerment, and culture.