November 14, 2016

This has been a month of reflection on identity.
• How do we define ourselves?
• Why do we define ourselves thusly?
• How do other people and group define us?
• What drives them to label us that way?

Many of you know that I have been working with an online group of Jacobs researchers since the 1990s. They all identify as White today and we work together to document our common ancestors – the Jacobs who were listed as ‘mulattto’ or ‘free person of color’ in the southeastern NC counties. We have been rather dormant for a few years – we had exhausted our leads and our paper trails. Then Cecil Jacobs decided to use DNA testing to see if it would give us new insight.

He ain’t no ‘Jacobs’!

Well, that’s the sensationalistic version of the story – and how he felt, at first. Male DNA testing follows the Y chromosome that men inherit intact from their fathers, and father’s fathers, and father’s fathers’ fathers, etc. So, Perfect World, all male Stewarts should carry the genes of ‘Big Daddy First Male Stewart’ in their Y chromosome.

This ain’t no Perfect World.

Cecil Jacobs genetically mapped back to the Hathcoat/Heathcoat family group. Having traced his Jacobs ancestry back to 1700s southeastern NC, having only ‘Jacobs’ relatives, he was flabbergasted to be associated genetically with another surname. (Yes, his close-cousins tested and they all go back to Hathcoat group. No hanky-panky in Cecil’s line) I felt his angst; I’ve known him for over a decade. He and I both believe we descend from Primus Jacobs and he has begged me non-stop to get my Jacobs line tested to see if we go back to Hathcoats, also. (We want to know where the ‘Jacobs’ name was added to the Hathcoat people that became us) But I wasn’t quite as upset to believe that in the 1600s a Hathcoat man sired a child that did not carry his surname, but the surname ‘Jacobs’; and that Jacobs child begat us.

I had to think about why I was unperturbed. Maybe it’s because Cecil is culturally White and I am culturally Black. My cultural upbringing says ‘This is not your original name. That’s a fact. Probably an insurmountable fact. But love yourself, and the name, and the people associated with it – anyway.’ So my perspective was different.

I have spent thirty years and untold hours researching Jacobs. My regard for my name and for all of my folks is uncontested. But that love is for the people who are grouped under that name. The name itself is just a handle -- on a basket. It does not portend the value of the content of the basket. People of color anticipate, expect and accept this. There were not a lot of Natives named ‘Johnson’ here when British colonists arrived. Slave captains did not choose Africans named ‘Williams’ to bring to America. Our current names? Eh! Handles on a beautiful basket. To be appreciated. But not as much as the contents of the basket.

So I felt for my cousin and friend, Cecil. But did not feel like my cousin and friend. Why? Perhaps different cultural backgrounds is the answer. Wrong or right answer? No. We just are.

So now Cecil and I have a rack of new cousins – the Hathcoats. (Assuming our DNA maps like Cecil’s) Get-acquainted emails galore for two months now. As I said, Cecil and the rest of my research group have been listed as White since mid-late 1800s. So they are 100% culturally White, and have developed a sense of comfort with their free colored ancestors. And now we get mapped to the White Hathcoat group.

They ain’t White.

OK, sensationalism again. (I love that stuff!!) They are definitely Whiter than me and did not have colored ancestors as recently as Cecil, but their (our) line maps back to E1B1A haplotype – which is the main haplogroup in sub-Saharan Africa. The American Hathcoats do not match any of the English Hathcoats. I’m new to the Hathcoats and don’t have a good grasp on their data and persons, but the reasonable explanation they appear to be grappling with is that the White American Hathcoats descend from an African slave.

So, you culturally Black Jacobs, who started out as mulatto/free colored Jacobs, probably descend not from Jacobs slaveholders but from White Hathcoats – who, themselves, descend from African slaves in America. Go figure!

My aunt, S*** Jacobs, called last week to tell me she had been diagnosed with a mild disease named Duypuytren’s. Asking around, she found that several siblings and her aunt had it also. When the doctor confirmed the diagnosis, she was asked ’How do you culturally identify?’ She said ‘Black’. “WHANNNNNKKK!!! Wrong answer!!!”

“You ain’t Black.”

Duypuytren’s is also called “Viking’s disease”, she was informed. It’s inherited. It is found in people from Northern Europe. Thus began search for people in our family who exhibit the symptoms of Duypuytren’s.'s_contracture So far, it looks like one of the Hathcoats might have it, also.

The National Museum of the American Indian, in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened a new exhibit at NMAI this week: IndiVisible - African-Native American Lives in the Americas. 

I attended Friday and Saturday. It was affirming and confirming. It was grounding and lifting. There were people who reflect the many ways that America has blended. Western tribes & Black Buffalo Soldiers. Eastern people who personally held to their original names and culture long after the history books said they were ‘extinct’. Descendants of Indian slaves who married back into their owners’ tribes. Eastern people who blended so early and thoroughly that their original name and culture cannot be found. (That’s us)

There were people who looked Black; people who looked White; people who looked like yellow-us; and people who looked like-we-think-Indians-are-supposed-to-look. All celebrating and sharing and learning their blended beginnings. It felt like a family reunion at times. I am very comfortable in NMAI; I am a charter member and visit often. But I felt a different sense of ‘home’ this weekend, as I sat in a full auditorium of folks as varied as our reunion and chatted with the people around me. “I’m from Chesapeake, Va.” “Oh? I’m part Nottoway. Do you go to that pow wow in Chesapeake?”
“No, my brother does. To see his Lumbee cousins who come up from NC.”

I hope that you can experience this opportunity to just be. And I hope that our reunion provides the same – on a smaller scale. I didn’t have to worry about defending my Blackness. I didn’t have to start who I am with a long dissertation on America (because everyone there already knew). I didn’t have to worry about whether my hair was frizzing and how that would make different people categorize me different ways. I could just look out on a roomful of mes and just be.

There was energy and camaraderie and the almost-compulsive need to share who we are. Whenever the mic was open – look out!! As the head curator said so well “This has been 500 years in the making.” And we were all fully vested in it.

Saturday’s presentations were way past magnificent. The presenters were learned professionals (most, PhD.s) and of the people themselves. These folks have done the research and written the published papers and authored the books. They know that we are not dead. They know the various identity struggles across time and geography and class and complexion. They know us. To hear folks in the crowd shout-out if the Sapony, or Wampanoag, or Rappahannock were mentioned – that was a wonderful thing. To hear the Black-Choctaw professor greet us in his ancestral language, and then explain how the White Choctaw and Black Choctaw in the same town were starting to come together after years of separation sounded like my Lumbee/Coharie/Waccamaw/Pender County Jacobs cousins.

IndiVisible added critical energy to positive change that was already happening in Native thought and African American thought and White American thought. I believe it is going to be a cultural marker. Years from now, people will still reference it. I was blessed to have been a part of it.

But, you ain’t Indian!

Me, neither. The sum of the whole weekend: Find your story. The real one. Not the one you want to be true. Or the one you have been trying to avoid. But put in the work to uncover your ancestors, and come to know them. And honor them. No matter who they are.

Do not put words in the ancestors’ mouths. That is dishonor. If you don’t know that they identified as White, or Cherokee, or Black, or whatever – don’t assign your thoughts, your words, your labels to them. Let them be. And love them like you found them.

Do not decide if they were in love, or not. Raped, or not. Were inordinately proud of their offspring, or not. You don’t know. You were not there.

The secret is: If you put in the work to find the data about the ancestors – the paper trail; if you talk to the elders often and repeatedly; the ancestors will tell you who they are. You can feel them. They will become real to you.

We are culturally Black. Have been since after Reconstruction. Prior to that, we were I-don’t-know-what-they-called-themselves. Like our Coharie, Lumbee, and Waccamaw cousins. When our cousins got on the ‘Indian Train’ we didn’t. And our paths diverged – although we stayed in the same counties with the same names. Our cousins put in the work to claim the portion of their heritage that is Native. Because they refused to be Jim Crowed. We can’t claim their work.

IMAGINE: Several of Sally Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s children identified as White and severed ties with people of color. Their ancestors, having been White for over a hundred-fifty years, now understand their descent from the ¼-Black Hemings and are rushing to claim their Black heritage. They have enrolled in affirmative action programs across the U.S. They are attending college in slots set aside for minority students. Although retaining the culture of White America, the Hemingses do not hesitate to speak of their mixed ancestry – when it suits them.

The preceding is fiction – intended to spark a reaction in you. “How dare they!” “Where were they when Black people were getting beat up marching for Civil Rights?” “Did they go to Black schools when they were inferior? Then why go to school as ‘Black’ now?” etc.

I hope you see it is the same paradigm when you want to say “I’m Indian!’ -- with no apologies for the Buffalo Soldiers who fought the western tribes to take their land; with no concept of how Native people paid for their own schools because they could not attend the White schools and attending school with freed slaves would have led to Jim Crow; with no guilt for refusing to recycle because you don’t have time to participate in saving the Earth.

We can say that we come from the same blended people as the Coharie, Lumbee, and Waccamaw. We can say that our blended ancestors were probably Pee Dee, Burgaw, Cape Fear River tribe, Yamasee, maybe Tuscarora, and perhaps Gingaskin from Eastern Shore Virginia but we don’t know for sure.

We can celebrate with our cousins who have tribal affiliations, and can share our love for the land and the stories and the fact that we all survived. We can attend and support NMAI.

We can’t steal their story and their culture and call ourselves ‘Indian’. IndiVisible quotes a song that says America is a history of ‘stolen people on stolen land’.


John Angus Jacobs
Tuesday, October 12, 2021 2:51 PM
As one born in 1959 and raised in Pembroke NC, I can totally relate to premise of the cultural observation of
race/color/tribe. I am Croatan (Lumbee)/black from the Primus Jacobs - born 1750 (great great grandfather) in Hanover/Burgaw/Pender County NC...

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.