What's My Background? You Name It

March 05, 1995|By TENNESSEE REED

I am quite privileged for someone my age. I travel by airplanes a lot. I've been to Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Japan, Mexico, and around most of the continental United States. I get ** to go to private schools. My parents always make sure I have a lot of clothes, books, art supplies, and other stuff that will help me feel good about myself and learn to think and create. I'm a very healthy and active person. I hardly ever get sick. But I have one problem: my race.

People on the street, at school or places like camps ask me, "What's your nationality?" A question I truly hate with a passion. I hesitate and say, "I have too many to list." I am one-half Russian/Jewish/Tartar. My other half is one-eighth Cherokee, one-eighth white (Danish, French and Irish), and one-fourth Nigerian.

My name, Tennessee, is Cherokee for "Bend in the River." My last name, Reed, is Scotch-Irish. It was the surname of my father's stepfather. Ironically, it was one of the four famous last names of the Pulaski, Tenn., Ku Klux Klan. Pulaski is where the Klan originated.

Since I was in kindergarten, people have made racist comments about my heritage. Some white people hate me because I'm black and Jewish and some black people hate me because I'm light-skinned.

I feel like I don't fit anywhere. I don't think I would have survived the civil rights movement and segregation in the schools. Which bathroom or water fountain, "white" or "colored," would I have been required to use? Sometimes, I think that some white people in America are more racist than the white people in Germany, or in Europe for that matter, even though in October, I was scared to go on the subway in Berlin because of my Jewish heritage and my black heritage. The week before I traveled to Berlin from Bonn, some skinheads had beaten up 36 people on the train. Not only foreigners, but Germans too.

On Thursday, Jan. 5, I read a story called "Of the Meaning of Progress," by W. E. B. DuBois. It was about racism and how black children were not allowed to learn to read and write before the Civil War and how after the war the schools began the practice of segregation.

I loved this story, but I feel cheated. I was in such a rage about not reading that many black authors and American Indian authors in school that when I came home I burst into tears and poured out my troubles about being mixed in America. Whereupon my dad told me to read three essays in a book he's

TC editing called, "We're All In This Together?" It ponders the question of whether people of different colors can get along in the United States.

Two essays were by Allison Francis, a graduate of Washington University, in St. Louis, who has two black parents, and Karla Brundage, a poet and graduate of Vassar College who has a black mother and a white father. Both young women have had the same problem as I, being light-skinned. The third essay was by a dark-skinned woman, a writer and filmmaker who graduated from Harvard University, named Ngozi Ola, whose father is Yoruba and whose mother is African-American. She writes about her experiences in Berlin. Some of them pleasant and some not (( so pleasant. She said that despite German racism, no whites fled a neighborhood when she moved in.

After reading these essays I didn't feel so alone. I calmed down and wrote this. I read somewhere that mixed kids are the fastest-growing group of children in the United States. Many people think it will be we who mediate the problems between blacks and whites, but I don't think we can. The problems of race in this country are too big for us mixed-race people to solve alone. It's going to take everybody in the country to change the way we are.

I have a lot of friends of many racial backgrounds. I have friends in other countries. That's why I can't understand why people can't accept people for whom they are. When I was 13, I had trouble finding out who I was, and I still do at 17. I think I will for the rest of my life.

The next time someone asks, "What's your nationality?" though, I'll say, "Who cares?" Because it's more important who I am inside than outside. Besides, many scientists say there is no such thing as separate races. Everybody's mixed up.

Tennessee Reed, the author of "Electric Chocolate," a book of poetry, lives in Oakland, Calif. Her father, Ishmael Reed, has written more than 20 books.

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