Family stories are the best. And Southern family stories are practically an art form. Of course, some of the more lurid ones don’t get talked about much, and certainly not in detail, but more benign stories are told and retold until they become family lore.
My aunt Faye loved to talk about our Native American ancestry. Now, not to put too fine a point on it, she attributed this to her grandmother, about whom very little is known except that she was named Emma. But the way she told the story—and she was quite the raconteur—Emma practically eschewed living in the family home, which we being Southern was referred to as the Big House. Instead, she seemed to prefer to live outside in a teepee.
On my father’s side, there are some intrepid amateur genealogists, so that side of my family tree is very well documented. So a few years ago, I decided to see what I could pull together about my mother’s side of the family. And while I couldn’t find anything that verified Aunt Faye’s story, I did find two generations prior to that a third great grandmother who was part Cherokee. I had to wonder if this forebear was the real source of the native ancestry story, which got moved up nearly 100 years. Who knows?
But what I do know is that finding this ancestor did not cause me to jump out of my chair and start doing “I’m an Indian, Too” from Annie Get Your Gun.
So, I’ve been puzzled all along that an intelligent, well educated, Harvard law professor could ever have identified her racial identity as “American Indian.” And to what end? Whether you like her politics or not, Elizabeth Warren has a resume of accomplishment for which the word “stellar” was designed. But her continued bungling responses on this issue increases the possibility that she will be defined by it.
Personally, I want her to stay in the presidential race just in case Bernie Sanders gets in, too. I think it would be so delicious to watch them fight for the left lane.
Now Governor Northam of Virginia’s predicament is not without its similarities to Senator Warren’s. Rather than “I’m an Indian, Too,” his is more like “I’m a Racist, Too, but Maybe Not Because It May Not Be Me in That Photo and I Didn’t Pick It for Inclusion on My Yearbook Page and I Didn’t Buy the Yearbook Anyway.” Personally, I’ll leave it to the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia to decide his fate, just as I would hope they would leave it to us Texans to decide what to do if Greg Abbott did such a thing.
And, before anybody starts day dreaming about that possibility in Texas, I’m fairly confident that both Democratic and Republican operatives doing opposition research would have uncovered anything damaging in Abbott’s yearbooks before he ever got the Republican nomination to be governor, much less won the office in a general election. What up, Virginia operatives?
I suppose the good news is we do cringe at blackface and whatever it was that Senator Warren was trying to do. As I pointed out in a column last month, Hollywood stars from Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney to Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford performed in blackface in the ‘40s and ‘50s. And Betty Hutton’s version of “I’m an Indian, Too” is probably the most cringe-worthy of her musical performances, which is saying a lot.
From Hollywood to Northam to Warren, we should be able to put all of it in context, learn what we need to learn, and they can act as we need to act. Now what to do about Cher and “Half Breed” is, well, I’m just going to leave that right there.