Black History Month

Black History Month Tracing My Black and Native American Roots

Tracing My Black and Native American Roots

By Jewelle Gomez
Posted Feb 26th 2011 6:18PM
Gracias Archelina Sportsman Morandus, my great-grandmother, was the reason I wrote a vampire novel. Born in 1883 to an Ioway Indian horse trainer and an African-American New Englander, Gracias, moved with her mother back east after her father died.

There Gracias was married off to a Wampanoag. Living with her in an African American neighborhood of Boston until I was 22 years old I came to understand what it meant to live on the complexity of the margins.

Her relationship to the Black Boston neighborhood where we lived was always just slightly off kilter. We watched TV coverage of the Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins with both pride and cultural curiosity.In 1969 we eagerly read about the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated school districts. But she scanned the back pages of the local papers for news about the Native American takeover of Alcatraz and at college (in those pre-Google days) I searched the campus' free rags for news of Stonewall.

But neither of us would talk of these things with our neighbors. In what felt like a split second the slogan had switched from 'If you're Black stay Back' to 'Black is beautiful.' However, Black was still very specific.

No one wanted to be accused of using 'Indian blood' to avoid being just plain Black in the 1960s. Yet Gracias repeatedly told me stories of her childhood to assure her past was not forgotten: the buckskin dress she'd loved which was stolen, the silent Wampanoag husband she didn't understand as a 14-year-old bride.

I admired how she stood in two worlds when the 'one-drop' rule about Negro ancestry still held sway and way before the term 'bi-racial' was coined. The blood quantum wasn't significant to her; it was living a life in which the divergent paths of who she was met internally even though the external culture had no real place for that complexity.

When I started writing my novel, 'The Gilda Stories,' Gracias' ability to hold those vastly different ways of being was my inspiration. She led me to the creation of a Black feminist vampire who is human but not mortal and who lives out a myriad of philosophical/political dilemmas.

How can you hold power over life and death and not abuse it? Who should be invited into one's family, who not? What is the value and meaning of family?

Twenty years after the publication of the novel and 40 years after Gracias' death I'm still talking with students and others who are reading 'The Gilda Stories' for the first time. Those moral dilemmas that emerge when different cultures come together and conflicting philosophical and political realities clash remain the same.

Whether within the context of vampire lore or not--how we embrace the ideas of power, family and social responsibility are always crucial debates and inform how we transmit history.

Our new president has helped us understand that the concept of blackness is a lot more complex than any slogan can convey. I'll always be grateful that I learned that at my great- grandmother's knee. Gracias.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, the only Black, lesbian, feminist vampire novel that marries lyrical language to epic action over a span of 200 years. Additional works include two poetry collections, a book of personal essays, and a collection of short stories. Read Jewelle's blog on Red Room.

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