Indigenous Identity, or Why I Can’t Drink from My Own Well

I decided to join the Pagan Blog Project band-wagon! This post is greatly inspired by the recent PBP post “Indigenous Way” by Lucius Svartwulf, about embracing one’s own indigenous culture.

Many Pagans struggle with identity, with trying to squish the vastness of their personal practices and faiths into a single label. I still remember how popular attaching the phrase “Eclectic” to everything used to be within the community, which has become something that people tend to shy away from these days. I am a person who has never truly bothered to apply labels to myself, in any aspect of my life; simply using phrases such as “Traditional Witchcraft” and “polytheism” is one such way; sexuality is another: I identify as “queer,” which is both an umbrella term as well as one that refers to people more “radical” than the mainstream LGBT community, both in their typically anarchist politics and in loving people who aren’t just female or male or both, but who may instead be transgender, gender-fuck, gender-queer, gender-unidentified, etc. So my problem with identity isn’t that I feel the need to label myself, to fit myself into a box. It’s that because the groups in which I fit are so small (queer, mixed-race, light-skinned mixed-race), I am rejected even from the ones with which I identify (such as “black”–which I am legally in this country, it says it on my freaking birth certificate). My ethnic heritage is so absurdly diverse and unidentifiable through appearance, and my family so disconnected from its heritage through adoption, that I cannot fully identify with any one ethnic group, and few want to identify with me.

Pass me on the street, have a chat with me on the bus, and you won’t see it. This is a large part of the problem. Most people assume I’m “white,” and a little something extra; Jewish, Italian, Hispanic, or Middle-Eastern (so absurdly vague that I’m offended), usually. In fact, I am none of these things as far as I know, though I suppose it’s a good guess, with my olive skin, wild brown ringlet locks, and auburn eyes. The curls and skin that tans to olive-brown but never burns is black Caribbean. My mother’s father emigrated here from somewhere in the West Indies, slept with a white woman from an extremely conservative Christian family, got her pregnant, and disappeared. His skin was the color of coconut fur, but somehow my mother’s skin turned out far lighter, and, when mixed with my dad’s Germanic background, my own lighter still. My mother’s grandparents were so disgusted and humiliated by the idea of their daughter, who could trace her lineage back to the Mayflower, having a black baby and having a baby out of wedlock at all that they pressured her into putting my mother up for adoption. This makes for another set of problems: my grandfather’s heritage is unknown save for that he came from one of the 7000 islands that form the Caribbean, and my mother was adopted, so already she and I are disconnected from our heritage in a tremendous way, having no cultural traditions besides the ones in which she was raised by the African American family that adopted her.

So I’m Pagan, I’m mixed-race, I’m black-Caribbean-but-look-unidentifiable, and I’m queer. I’m pretty freaking marginalized already, and that’s without even throwing my politics into the mix. Being pushed to the fringe by those who aren’t even in any of my “circles” influences those who are or might be. Perhaps it wouldn’t if I could identify with any of them through tradition; but without even knowing my grandfather’s first name, or the name of the island from which he originated, how am I supposed to have even the slightest familial, cultural memory?

I don’t struggle in many of the ways that others do in regards to identity, but I do in terms of finding a cohesive ethnic and ethnic-religious identity. Surely folk magic is strongest when working within the system of one’s ancestors? Surely the strongest allies you can make with those in the realm of the Dead is with one’s own deceased blood-relations, who many ancient cultures the world over felt and most modern cultures still feel must be properly honored and appeased? Of course it isn’t true that one must be from a certain ethnic heritage to practice any form of religion, and the idea that cultures would want to guard their traditions is certainly understandable; but what of those of us whose heritage is that guarded indigenous culture or folk magic tradition? Unless by some wild stroke of luck, I will most likely never learn anything more of Obeah, Vodou, Vudu, Santería, Yorùbá, or Hoodoo, the Afro-Caribbean religious, spiritual, and folk magic traditions that my Caribbean ancestors may have practiced in one form or another, than what I can learn on the Internet or in objective literature. How, despite my heritage, would I ever be welcomed into a community with its own generational traditions, having absolutely none of my own?

And what of the other side of my mother’s mysterious birth-family? The ultra-conservative, fundamentalist side that can be traced back to the Mayflower? I am a pan-Western-European mutt. My grandmother’s family was English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, Welsh (royalty, no less!), and French. Of all these, including my father’s German contribution and my mother’s Caribbean blood, the one cultural heritage that I feel the most connection with is the Irish. Since I was first introduced to Irish culture at a young age I have felt an affinity for it, long before I ever learned that I carry some small little hint of Irish blood (though I always had a feeling). I am fascinated with everything from Irish traditional music to the many traditions of cultural dance to the ancient and more modern history to the modern politics to the musical instruments to the Irish-Gaelic language to the traditions to the small towns to the big cities. I feel the pain of tragedies in a way I can only relate to understanding the plight of the Africans brought to America carried through my adopted family (and, I wonder, carried through my grandfather’s lineage?; my ancestors on that tree were most likely brought to the Caribbean from Africa as slaves as well). Although I feel a connection with the Gods and Spirits of other cultures, too, the Irish pantheon has resonated with me deeply since I was first introduced to it, and I have not had a faster experience developing deep relationships with Deities than in my experiences with the Tuatha Dé Danann (just ask Aenghus Mac Óg!); it is as if the relationship was already there to begin with, as if I am simply rekindling it.

Despite my desperation to delve into my Afro-Caribbean roots, I am always hit with road-blocks. I have never introduced myself to the Gods of my Afro-Caribbean ancestors or even my Afro-Caribbean ancestors themselves because I have so very little knowledge of Them, and of what would be appropriate. What offerings and sacrifices should I provide? How should I be “cleansed” before approaching Them? In what ways is it proper to approach Them? There is so little subjective information available, without a teacher or mentor, and without any generational traditions, without even looking like anything more than a very tan Jewish girl (how many times must I tell people that no, I am not Jewish, and why on earth must you try and force me into a box?), I fear being turned away by people with whom I share a close common ancestry.

But I suppose the only way to no longer need labels is to take the plunge, to study and come to accept every facet of my heritage, to reach out to those who might help me to better understand it, who might finally accept me and the crazy concoction that runs through my veins, and who might finally help me to drink from my own well.

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2 comments

  1. In such cases, it is always good to explore everything, but if I may, I think you answered the very question you posed.

    Where do you go? what heritage do you follow. I say the one that resonates best. And it seems, for you, that is the Irish. That is where your soul comes from and resonates with. I would say to seek your roots there. The rest of it? it’s only as important as you make it, and it only holds you back as much as you let it.

    1. Thank you for the guidance! That’s really quite true. I suppose the only thing that drives me to explore my Afro-Caribbean roots is the frustrating desire to have them recognized as a part of my identity to others, and to fully accept them myself; it’s a work in progress that perhaps should really begin with embracing the roots that I do identify with, like the Irish, and not feeling held back by how others might label me in regards to ethnicity, or how I struggle to do the same with the broad range I was given. I had never thought of Ireland as being where my soul comes from, but that is a lovely way of putting it, and feels quite true.

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