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Friday, November 9, 2012


“What are you?” is a pretty common question in the US, but maybe not very common other places.  I’m pretty sure Germany is full of Germans and China is full of Chinese people.  Maybe Germany has some Turks or China has some Koreans, but I’m guessing those people haven’t been there long enough to become an unrecognizable blend to prompt the question, “What are you?”

A black friend of mine once asked me why nobody asked what she is.  I hadn’t thought about it up till then, but I’m guessing they don’t ask because they figure A. she’s black, and that’s pretty obvious, or B. maybe black people don’t know what they are since America had that whole slavery problem.  She and I are actually very alike in our ancestry, so we had some fun.  We’d introduce each other to new people with, “This is my sister” and watch people suffer internal cerebral crumbling.  We’d relent a little and say, “We had different mothers.”  Then laughed while whoever it was tried to accept that into their world view.  We didn’t feel a need to fill those people in that we also had different fathers.  There’s more than one way to tackle racism.

In a recent conversation with someone who immigrated to the US from the other side of the planet, he mentioned that he couldn’t trace his family any further back than his great grandfather.  I found it curious he never asked his parents or grandparents about their younger lives and older relatives, but maybe it’s as simple as their lives were the same as the lives of everybody else who had occupied that corner of the world as long as people have lived there?

My family tree is a textbook study in American migration patterns.  Pick a branch and you’ll find out how white people filled up everything east of the Mississippi.  For those of you outside the US, that means the right half of the country, not counting Alaska and Hawaii.  It’s conceivable I’m related to everybody in America in some way or another, including my black girlfriend.  That feels nice, but it also makes me want to know who I’m more directly related to too.

All that moving around in the frontier meant that people picked up and left relatives behind.  They couldn’t talk to someone on the phone back then, and often those branches of the family tree were pruned away and forgotten.  The question of “what” I am becomes a certain longing to know where my people came from, and this is echoed throughout America no matter what color you are in the Crayon box.  We have tv shows and websites and clubs and libraries to help in the search.  It’s fun to find relatives you didn’t know you had.  It’s fun when we find out we had famous relatives too.  Everybody should have some royalty in them somewhere, but it’s also good to know we’re related to regular people too.  It’s rather amazing how much stuff has been written down about them.

As for current news from Ohio, Election Day is over!  No matter how anyone voted, I’m pretty sure all Ohioans are relieved we can answer the phone again without robocalls and can safely go to the mailbox without seeing half a forest of political ads.  I feel like I’ve been under assault for months by politicians’ verbal abuse.  It’s hard to express my pleasure in getting a grocery store ad again.  Especially a Thanksgiving ad, which has got to be America’s best holiday, our national contemplation of gratitude… like being grateful pollsters will ignore Ohio for a while again!

BTW, I used to do work for Heinen’s.  This isn’t my ad, but you can imagine some of the glory of working at that job.  (That’s sarcasm in case you missed it.)  Still, it’s a good store if you’ve got one.  I hear they have turkeys.


  1. I was born a poor black child. No wait. That was Steve Martin. I was blessed with a great grandfather who took the time to write a book about my "clan" and share what he knew about my ancestors, and a cousin who took the time to post it on a website. But it began for the most part after the MacIvors emigrated from Scotland. Love the tree illustration, Linda.

  2. Thank you for your (as always) thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I never realized that about blacks, but then I've never asked non-blacks either, unless they have some kind of heavy accent perhaps. Several of my family trees are traced back many generations, but I haven't had much curiosity until recently.

    And your tree is absolutely marvelous--so luminous!

  3. I love the perspective you gave to your tree. And the gorgeous colors!

  4. this illustration is awesome! one of your best!

  5. Cool Tree--was this one of the one's you shot today. Nice day at the river BTW. Good write up too :)

  6. Beautiful illustration! Those leaves are marvelous!

    I'm from a mixed family, but I was born and raised in NYC, so I didn't get asked much about my ethnicity, although most people assumed I was Latino. :) I'm a mixture of Portuguese, Carib Indian and Afro-Caribbean. Most Americans, assume I'm African-American, they are always surprised or shocked by my life experiences and travel; which I find amusing now, but annoyed the heck out of me, when I was younger. :)

    I love that your friend and you pulled that little stunt. I'm sure there were many conversations that evening from the folks you encountered, when they got back home! LOL!

    Thank you for a delightful read and beautiful illustration, once again! :)

  7. Wow I love your tree tales today Linda, both the illustration and the stories. Happy weekend,
    Jane x

  8. This is another fun, thought provoking post to accompany your striking illustration! What are you? HA!
    People have noted my "ethnic" look. I'm sometimes Mexican / Hawaiian / Thai / Native American.... Filipino mom and English dad. Thank you, WWII.
    And yes, happy post election from another battleground stater!

  9. Fun post. I think it fun to learn of those relations that came before. It seems they led much more interesting and colorful lives than I have. I love the stories that go with the names including a french king that is a direct descendent. Our family were also early settlers with close connections and marriages with Native Americans. There are lots of individual stories that have been written down, so it's really fun to have all that at my fingertips.
    I like your silhouette tree against the leaf texture!

  10. Love your line..."no matter what color you are in the Crayon box," Linda. Very Georgia O'keefe-ish, gorgeous tree image, and I never noticed before what a graceful signature you have! You're right too, 'tis the season to be grateful...I need to remember that and practice, practice, practice...

  11. This is an interesting post about cultural identification. Being a foreigner I find it somewhat amusing - but also understandable - that US Americans are so preoccupied with where they come from. It seems to me that most of them feel very American but at the same time have a strong pride for the country their ancestors arrived from. Very often I meet people that proudly state they are Norwegians, for instance, but when they talk more about their heritage, it turns out it was their great grandparents that actually were Norwegians and moved to the States. I moved from Denmark in my teens, but I do not feel the slightest Danish any more. Otherwise I love they way your black friend and you tackled racism.

  12. I have to admit that I made this art fast this week and called myself lazy. I may have to reevaluate my concept of "lazy". I made the leaf pattern a while ago and could never find a home for it until now. I had no idea other people would like it so much. (Scratching my head and confused about why I work so hard at other things sometimes...)

    I really enjoy the diversity of America. It's fun to go to someone's house and eat foods from different parts of the world and try out different cultures' customs. Thanks for sharing your stories! Maybe the fact that so many people have stories is why we keep asking "what are you"?!

  13. Hi, Linda. I've enjoyed your story and family tree illustration with its 'looking up' perspective.
    I'm in Europe and the ethic question is there constantly. But when you look European and you are in an European country is disappears. It is the accent that gives away your identity.
    To be mistaken for a German, French or British person means your command of the German, French or British language is outstanding and that is a huge compliment :-)
    Enjoy the autumn, Linda.

  14. The family tree. Mine is textbook as well. But good tie in for IF. You always find something interesting to write about. I bet you have some real characters in all those old leaves and branches. I know I do.

  15. Maybe I'll post something on some of the dead relatives sometime. There are some interesting stories in that tree.

    I think I'd be hopelessly identified as American in Europe Paula. People have even nailed my accent to NE Ohio, down to the actual suburb. I wouldn't fool anybody :)

  16. Great thought provoking blog. I I agree with the others the tree is perfect with it.

  17. My light skinned, fine haired, thinned lipped (is lipped a word? lol) mother has gotten that question her entire life. I can tell you some stories of how she was treated nicely and then stunned whoever with the fact that she is black... not totally black, but that's the box we check. Years ago, a doctor actually said to her, "You're not black!" Or maybe he said, "Negro." It's kind of funny now, but back then, she didn't find it funny.
    Some day, I may do the search and see how far I get. Like your black sister, I don't get the question from whites, but blacks used to ask, "Do you have some Indian in you." lol Those of us who grow long hair used to get that question a lot.
    Anyway, I find the whole tree thing fascinating, too. You've sparked an interesting conversation.
    Your tree is powerful and happy!

  18. Maybe I get asked what I am because I don't fit into a neat little box either. When I don't feel like playing, I just say I'm a mutt, but then, mutts are the best dogs :) Thanks for the comments!

  19. Marvelous tree! The perspective and the roof of colored leaves. I 've looked up so many times and thougt: I wish I could 'paint' that. You did it!