"You're not fully
black. What else are you mixed with?"
"You've got that good
Enter just a few of the
statements that award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist Shonda Buchanan, a biracial woman with African-American and
American Indian heritage, has heard from people curious about her ethnic
Buchanan hopes her book will help other Black Indians, as well as bi-racial and tri-racial peoples, research, reclaim and celebrate their multifaceted heritage.
Buchanan connected with
Brick Street Poetry through her colleague, Brick Street program chair and
Indiana's first poet laureate, Joyce Brinkman. Brinkman had invited Buchanan to
submit her work to an anthology; the result was Urban Voices: 51 Poems from 51
American Poets (edited by Brinkman and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda).
Following the book's
publication and a reading during the 2014 Spirit and Place Festival,
Buchanan shared her family history and said she would be returning to the
Midwest to research her family history. Brick Street launched a fundraiser to
bring Buchanan to the Hoosier State. Wednesday's reading will detail, in
part, the author's rediscovery of her heritage:
click to enlarge
Courtesy Shonda Buchanan
Buchanan teaches English and Creative Writing at Hampton University.
a sense of longing for the things you don't know. We're African but we don't
know which African nation or tribe we come from. We have to relearn things,"
she says, referencing African dancing and music.
the same with American Indian ceremonies," she continues. "If I'm Indian, what
do I do?" she says with a laugh. Her answer is to dance at powwows, to sing and
to drum. "I'm reclaiming the things that helped my people even before I knew
who they were."
Buchanan, an assistant
professor of English and Creative Writing at Virginia's Hampton University
since 2004, considers reclamation her goal. Born and raised in Kalamazoo,
Michigan, Buchanan always thought her family was from a tribe in that area or
possibly Mattawan, Michigan.
However, it turns out
both sides of her family, the Roberts
and the Staffords, hailed from North Carolina in the
early 1800s. Migration -- both by choice and by force -- took Buchanan's
relatives through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana before they moved on to
Michigan. The forced migration, a result of strict laws that deeply affected
Buchanan's American Indian ancestors, resulted in the loss of custom and
"[My] mom would say 'I
think we're Blackfoot,'
but she never really knew. The family was too busy surviving as farmers.
Heritage and history took a backseat. Putting my family into a narrative is
important to [me]."
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Muscogee (Creek) delegates photographed in Oklahoma in 1877 demonstrate the racial diversity of many tribes.
In pursuit of this
goal, Buchanan is working on a memoir titled Touched: Growing Up Black and Indian in Michigan: A Daughter Uncovers a
Family's History, and a more research-oriented text, Children of the Mixed Blood Trail: The
Formation and Migration of Mixed Race Communities, Free People of Color and
Black Indian Families, Settlements and Villages from the Southeast to the
Buchanan's work honors
her family and also potentially moves her closer to answers about having a mixed
background. "African-Americans aren't allowed to have a dual ethnicity. When a
[black] person says, 'I'm African-American and American Indian,' there's
resentment, question marks above everyone's heads, and [the implied question] Why can't you just stayon one side?" she says.
Likewise she adds, "If
an African-American person says they have American Indian in their family tree,
why isn't that considered valuable or viable?" For
reference, Buchanan lists off several well-known public figures with that
heritage, including Nina Simone, Crispus Attucks,
Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, James Earl Jones and Jesse Jackson.
"There's an oral
history of connections," Buchanan explains. "I knew it as a kid, but it's not
taught in schools. There's no chapter on black Indians in my history books."
At first, Buchanan
refers to this issue as "pervasive ignorance," but then she says, "What actually
happened was erasure. An erasure of bi-raciality of
African-American/American Indian people [even though] they helped each other
during the founding of the country. [There are] so many instances where
intersection is crucial to survival."
Wanting to uncover and
better understand her family's history inspired Buchanan to write, and write
she has. In addition to her aforementioned finished and in-progress books,
Buchanan is working on a second collection of poetry entitled Searching for Nina Simone, a years-long
pursuit she once detailed in an
article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times. "I was
propelled towards writing because of my search for my heritage ... for the
recovery and rediscovery of the stories," she explains.
The world can only
benefit from Buchanan's research into her family's origins. Ideally, the
answers she will reveal will include an explanation for the pressure multiethnic
persons face to "choose one race."
To see video of
Buchanan performing her poems, including Scar
Stories and Evil Eye Over Michigan, visit her website.
For more information about Buchanan's reading and book signing, contact the Eiteljorg Museum at (317) 636-9378.
Chi Sherman enjoys writing essays and poetry, being a documentary nerd, and hanging out with her family and friends. Her work has appeared in NUVO, The Huffington Post, and, sporadically, on her blog.
This Saturday Clowes Memorial Hall will bring It Gets Better to the stage for a powerful and entertaining message of hope and support to the LGBTQ community -- and especially to its youth and their loved ones.