Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) does a little searching for a mystery: Why is Othello named as such. The answer causes me to think about my own, newly discovered mixed ethnicity and what it means for me. It also shows how complex and interesting the United States and its people can be. If you wish to know where Othello is located as you "with greedy ear devour up my discourse," (Othello, Act I, Scene III) then "you best know the place." (Othello, Act I, Scene II)
"'In Cumberland County we have a settlement of people called 'tri-bloods,' people that trace their history - or legend - back to a Moorish - Algerian, specifically - princess who came ashore after a shipwreck in the first years of the nation. The Indians took her in, and from the subsequent mixing of blood - later with a small infusion from the Negro - there developed a group composed of three races. The 'Delaware Moors,' they're called...'
"'In the thirties and forties, governmental bureaucrats - especially in Delaware - they had a time trying to classify tri-bloods because the people considered themselves neither white, red, nor black. Usually they ended up in their own category, one so small as to be forgotten. To this hour, the people remain what you might describe as aloof, and they maintain themselves as independently as they can. Clannish, even secretive. But they always have been landowners and farmers. Never slaves. Still, they are - to use the phrase - 'men of color' and consequently suspect, especially in border states, despite their features usually being more Indian than Negroid. Aquiline nose, straight hair, high cheekbones.'"
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 10
The story above, from a man who is giving LHM a history of a portion of the town of Greenwich, New Jersey, also known as Head of Greenwich, is interesting in that it answers LHM's query about why that particular section of town is also named Othello. Othello, as you may know, is the title of a Shakespeare play, and therefore the mixed-ethnicity between Arabic and African peoples in the town is part of the reason for the town name. It is also an elaborate joke because, as the man goes on to relate, the play is about a black man having a romantic relationship with a white woman and therefore a commentary on the intermixing of ethnicities within the town. The story, however, resonates with me because of what I've learned recently about my own heritage.
Up until about three years ago, I thought my ancestry was Irish, English, German and French Canadian. That's always what I've been told. The wrinkle in that story was that I'm adopted, and nobody knew anything about my real roots.
It turns out that the French Canadian was correct, and I've learned something of the rich history from my newfound relatives on my biological father's side. But there was so much more to me than I could have imagined.
Through an interesting series of events about five years ago, I met a woman online who helped me discover my birth history and changed forever the way I view myself. Not only did my heritage become richer, but I suddenly felt more interesting than just being another white guy of European descent in America.
I discovered the history of my biological mother's side of the family, which was more complex than I'd ever thought possible. My bio-mother's last name was Mayle, and she was from West Virginia in a coal mining, mountainous area. It was hard work, and the Mayle's were one of the coal mining families. There were around six other families spread out over this area and the Mayles and these other families were collectively and derogatively known as "Guineas." In other parts of the US, the term guinea was often used to refer to people of Italian descent, but in this part of West Virginia it was used to informally classify families that had mixed race descent. Because of their long history in that area of West Virginia, there had been some intermixing with blacks and the Delaware Indian (Lenape) peoples who lived there. The intermixing was apparent in the variation of skin color and features, even within families. I was given a picture of a great great great uncle who, even in the black and white photo, appeared African-American but obviously had blue eyes, like mine. When my wife saw it, she also noted similarities in his facial features to mine.
Guineas were the target of discrimination. Like the story in the quote above of the Delaware Moors, census workers would come and count people in families, and mark them down as being black or white depending on their color and features. Thus, people in the same family unit might be marked as different races, condemning one brother or sister, for example, to further discrimination while enhancing the other's prospects if only barely. Guineas had their own schools because they wouldn't attend the schools created for blacks, and couldn't go to the schools that only served white children. They were in some kind of in-between limbo between black and white. I heard stories that some private motels in the area would refuse service to people whose last name was Mayle or that of one of the other families known as Guineas, even as late as the 1970s. Even so, these families provided the workers who mined a lot of coal in the area.
When I began talking with my biological family, I learned that this was a touchy subject. The older generation was not willing to talk about their mixed race. They saw themselves as whites with some Indian blood, but weren't willing to acknowledge their African-American ancestry at all. They were offended and even angry if it got mentioned. The people in my generation were curious, exploring a little about their mixed heritage and at least accepting it.
But at a family reunion in Ohio, I saw evidence of how the world changes. In the youngest generation, I saw a couple of the family members bring their black wives and girlfriends. While this was uncomfortable to the older generation, it was the reality and I was happy to see it.
These revelations changed me. I became much more interesting to myself, if that makes any sense. Suddenly, even though I would never be part of the African-American or Delaware Indian communities and would not try to use my heritage to claim that I could be, I now feel a wider and deeper connection with the world. My sister in my adopted family has had a great time calling me "my brother from another mother" with emphasis on the "brother." She pronounces it "brutha" when she really gets into it.
But what my newfound heritage really confirms is what I always knew I am. I'm an open, interested, curious, and accepting person. I love the fact that my heritage just isn't white, but something much more inclusive and with a richer history behind it than I ever dreamed. I now have a whole new ancestral history that I feel is completely mine. I want to visit West Virginia to see where my biological mother's roots are located, and I want to visit the places in Canada where my biological father's roots grew.
Above, all, I know that if people look at me, they may see just another white guy, but I'm so much more than that.
There are other stories and communities of multi-ethnic and somewhat isolated communities in America. Add these groups to the Delaware Moors in New Jersey and Delaware and the Guineas in West Virginia: the Melungeons of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky; the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina; the Carmel Indians of Ohio; and the Redbones of South Carolina and Louisiana. I feel a part of a more complex history and genealogical makeup than is generally known. And I am really damn proud of it.
By searching for songs on being of mixed race, I found this song. Every Day, by Tricky, is on his album Mixed Race (he is of Jamaican, Ghanaian and English heritage). The song's lyrics sort of describe my new feeling about myself, and Tricky's music embraces all sorts of different styles, genres and countries, just like I think I do. I might seem "every day" to most people, but I'm really not. Just scratch under the surface. I encourage you to do so!
If you want to know more about Othello
There is very little about the town of Othello, also known as Head of Greenwich, on the internet. However, there's a bit of information on the Delaware Moors.
Cumberland County Towns
Great Grandmother's Blog (blog entry about a person's Delaware Moor great-grandmother)
Mitsawokett: The "Moors" of Delaware
Moors in America: Othello's Children in a New World
Next up: Greenwich, New Jersey