In my mother’s cedar chest, which stood for years beneath the bay window over-looking the boughs of Norway Maple trees lining our street, carefully tucked away and preserved were my great-grandmother Mary A. Carney Whittingham’s Irish Chain quilt, yards and yards of hand-crocheted eight-pointed–star lace, tatted collars, and an old and tarnished curved African dagger in its rough-hewn leather sheath.
These things stayed packed away in the cedar chest until after I took an autosomal dna test from DNA Tribes. I thought I knew my ancestry well enough – English and Irish on my mother’s side, and Danish on my father’s side – so that a dna test was not really necessary. However, I found myself asking questions about my mother’s father’s side of the family. Who were they? Why did no one in our family ever speak of them?
Irish relatives on my mother’s mother’sside, catalogued according to degrees of consanguinity, as far as I could tell, were related to loads of family friends from the mountains of southeastern Pennsylvania. We heard word of births and deaths, attended weddings and funerals, kept up with gossip, but of my mother’s father’s people, never a word.
My mother was extremely fond of her father, and both she and her mother’s remembrances of him seemed to bring them great joy, yet they rarely spoke of him to me, the blonde-haired blue-eyed daughter of a Danish sea-captain. My father, leaving home at fourteen, had started out as a cabin boy on a square-rigged ship, and lived for a time in Brazil. My grandmother called my Dad a ‘foreigner’ and ‘the devil from Denmark’ – and characterized me as ‘the spawn of the devil’ ! – giving me the notion that the antipathy and exclusion I experienced – especially in relation to my mother’s mother and her husband’s family – might be ethnic or racial in origin. But it must have been ethnic because we were all ‘white’, right? It’s was the 1950’s, and ‘white was right.’ My father, by the way, was a lovely man, gentle, innately refined despite his rough, seamanly lifestyle, and also ‘profoundly hard of hearing,’ a term that would nowadays probably be the equivalent of ‘legally deaf.’ In short, he was not at all ‘devilish.’
Anyway, I began to look through old family photos and papers, and decided to take the autosomal dna test on the chance that it might give me some hint for directing my quest. Where should I be looking besides Ireland? At France? Didn’t Mom mention that once? Could we be Native American – and if so, would that even show up on a dna test? Especially if it went back several generations? To my great surprise, the test didn’t affirm any of my guesses, but brought back something totally unexpected – an off-the-chart match with the Madeira Archipelago. In addition, the report featured ethnicities such as Spanish, Portugese and Turkish at the top of the list! Also, instead of Danish matches there were several Polish, and only one Norwegian, and also one Irish match in ‘the top twenty.’ I was surprised enough to write the company and tell them I thought they must have made a mistake. They wrote back and said it was definitely my report, and that I might find a closer look at my African panel to be of interest. I discovered that my North African and East African results were higher than usual in Caucasian individuals. This was not the result I was expecting.
Going on to the paper-search, I discovered my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Carney, found her picture, and vividly recalled her carved Spanish combs and broken ivory fans. When I was 8 or 9 years old, my mother used to take down a special tall black hatbox from her upper closet shelf in which the combs and fans were kept, along with a small pewter key and door ornament which I often handled, pressing my fingertips against its shapes over and over, as if they might be able to communicate something to me, mutely. I also handled an old coin necklace with small motifs scratched into their polished faces, and in addition there was a strange coral ornament that spun like a roller. I wouldn’t know for five decades that these were examples of Berber Tuareg jewelry from the region of the Sahara desert. Yet the most remarkable contents of the hatbox were the amazing feelings that seemed to be released into my mother’s bedroom when she would retrieve these mementos of her grandmother. A tremendous sense of spaciousness, solemnity and sacredness would fill the atmosphere along with the faint odor of cedar. These moments were truly unique for me, and I could sit and handle my great-grandmother’s things for what seemed like hours at a time. If there is such a thing as a ‘soul-connection,’ I felt one with my great-grandmother. In retrospect, I can see that her influence permeated our home, along with her various belongings scattered here and there throughout the house.
On the other hand, my mother was always reluctant to take the hat box down and open it. She was always eager to put it away again. She seemed almost like a different person when she was in that mood, tense, solemn, perhaps angry. At those times I was seeing a side of her that didn’t often show. She would nearly always mention that someday we would have to dispose of these things, which made me feel as if something very precious were about to be ripped out of me like an organ. What I’m saying might seem like an exaggeration, but the truth is that in the chaotic city-life that surrounded me as a child, these objects seemed to communicate a peace and stability that was missing elsewhere in my life.
My mother, Dorothea Estelle Whittingham (Nielsen), must have sensed that I had some sort of connection with these things. She always waited very patiently for me to be willing to surrender them to her again, and each time she would gently ask me if I felt ready yet to let them go for good. I always said ‘not yet,’ but finally one day I knew it was over, and I reluctantly gave them back forever. I remember she murmured, almost reproachfully to someone unseen, “There, I’ve kept my promise and she’s handled them.”
My mother was given to making death-bed promises and she did, in fact, try to fulfill such oaths, so I believe she had made such a commitment to her grandmather. So, she shared great-grandmother’s belongings with me for a time because she felt obligated to, but I would never be given these things, no matter how attached to them I seemed to be. I can only think they must have represented something to my mother that she wanted to forget or put behind her.
My mother used to tell me that I would not have liked my great-grandmother much for lots of reasons: because she was very strict, especially about the dress and behavior of girls, and also because she was totally illiterate and had to learn to write her name late in life so that she could sign certain important papers for the government – and finally, because she was very ‘strange.’ “How can I tell you about her?” my mother asked me once, with frustration and anxiety in her whole demeanor. “She was very different, almost as if she were foreign.” In my childish innocence, I parroted back what my mother had told me herself. “But she was foreign,” I reminded her. “She was from Ireland.” My mother looked absolutely shocked and quite upset, and left the room without another word on that occasion.
I remember various snippets of information that my mother released, almost like seeds, and often in an unconscious manner as if not really expecting these seeds to ever sprout and bear fruit. Like squirrels and birds pass along seeds without really thinking too much about it. For example, I remember her saying that her grandmother had made the Irish Chain quilt because she owed a debt to Ireland. Years later, when I read the depositions that were taken by the U.S. Government when great-grandmother applied for a renewal of her deceased husband’s Civil War pension – the important papers she had had to learn to sign at age seventy (purportedly age sixty, as she had lied about her age as about her origins on the U.S. Census) – I read a tale that was pure fabrication. To the highly sceptical examiner she claimed to be a poor immigrant Irish girl, abandoned by her dying widowed mother and a cruel step-father who moved away with his other children, leaving her behind to work at a ‘boarding house’ in the mountain town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. This tale probably contained elements very common and believable at the time, and Mary may have used them to win sympathy, acceptance and help in getting the pension back again. I might have believed her myself, but in the course of the hundred-plus pages of depositions, she later admitted to so many lies told in earlier pages – and many of these small ‘factoids’ had surfaced in conversations with my mother when I was a child – so I knew which was truth and which was not-truth. It was easy to sense that my mother was not happy about her grandmother’s mendacities. Yet it seemed to me that all of her lies were aimed toward winning acceptace, credence and respectability in the eyes of the examiner. But why was she so desperate for that acceptance?
For example, in the deposition, she also hearked back to her husband’s distant Quaker ancestry, hoping, I believe, to gain respectability and greater propriety for her claim. But in fact my grandfather belonged to the Methodist Episcopal church and his father and grandfather had belonged to the Presbyterian. However, the Quakers were, at one time, the founding fathers of Pennsylvania, the landed proprietors of early Philadelphia, and she counted on the fact that her husband had had one slender connection – through a great grandparent of his own – to impress the examiner that, despite appearances, she was part of the First Proprietor set, and therefore worthy of his trust.
Her examiner, R.A. Hales, was suspicious of Mary and states in the deposition that he is convinced she is lying. He feels sure she is lying about something, but he thinks the lie has to do with a possible undissolved early marriage – which would have made Mary a bigamist at worst, and at the very least, not legally married to Alfred and therefore not entitled to the pension. Hales takes hundreds of pages of depositions from Mary, family-members, neighbors and acquaintances to prove his point, and is finally removed from her case by the government, who send him a note stating that if a couple have lived together as long as Mary and Alfred, they are considered to be man and wife in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He continued with his witch-hunt for some time after receiving that note, but he was eventually replaced.
Under the administration of a new examiner, Mary eventually got her husband’s pension reinstated. But during the R.A. Hales years, she admitted to all sorts of lies and subterfuges during her early life. I believe she did so because she thought it would get her the pension – Hales often stated that telling the truth would get her the pension – yet at the same time she did everything possible not to reveal her real secret which had to do with her origins. Only once did she mention her true maiden-name, Mary Carney, and never did she breathe a word that she was born a mulatto in Delaware – a mulatto unentitled to any rights under the law in her day – or that she came from the people known at that local place and time as ‘the Delaware Moors.’
The Moors were considered a ‘mysterious people’ whose origins were not known or were shrouded in legend: perhaps they derived from an early pirate enclave in the New World, or from a settlement of retired English and Irish regiments stationed in Tangier in the 1600’s, like Kirke’s Lambs, who were rumored to have brought Moroccan brides with them to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Equally romantic, yet quite possible, are tales of escaped Spanish galley slaves (Turks, Arabs, Jews and Moors) who stayed in the New World and married in to the native populations even earlier, in the fifteen hundreds. In any case, the group was identified as part European (white), part African (pirate Moors or other early Africans), and part Native American from First-Contact tribes like the Powhatan, Unalachtigo Lenape, ooke and others. In the early Delaware Census, mulatto could mean black-white mixed or Native American-white mixed, or any combination of all three. According to Brewton Berry’s 1963 social-studies book, Almost White, the ‘Moors’ were not self-identified as white, black or red, but simply as ‘Moors.’
In the early twentieth century, Moors were not welcome at the white schools and wouldn’t attend the black schools. (By the way, while the blacks were often kinder than many towards the Moors they also considered them ‘outsiders’ and ‘low.’) Often, if they attended school at all, it was one built by themselves . But all that came later. My great-grandmother, who was born in the mid-eighteen-thirties, surely had no schooling at all as she could not even sign her own name at age seventy.
The Moor women were known as excellent seamstresses, often appearing in early photos as white, Indian or mixed-blood, and usually attired in beautifully made clothes, often with their own hand-made lace. The black ruffled style of my great-grandmother’s portrait dress (above) is often seen in old photos of Moor women and the Moroccan owner of the Sahara import shop in Berkeley, Mostafa Raiss-El-Fenni, tells me that this style of dress is known in Morocco as ‘Moros’ style, meaning a style typical of the Spanish Moors who sought refuge from the Inquisition in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa. These sixteenth-century refugees often went to sea as pirates.
Today’s descendents of the Delaware Moors feel that their forbears were primarily Native American in origin, ‘Moor Indians,’ who protected their farms, lands and right to live in their ancestral homeland by allowing census-takers to classify them as African-American. (Read “Strong Medicine Speaks” by Amy Hill Hearth for an account of the neighboring Lenni-Lenape who did the same in New Jersey.) In fact, the Moorish identity may have been a kind of façade to cover Native american identity. Just as many of the Unami-speaking Lenape both hid and preserved their heritage while intermarrying with the native-tolerant German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the Moors disguised their Native American heritage under cover of a ‘Moorish’ identity. This is one possible theory.
My own favorite theory is that the Moorish-centered pirate identity predominated and the native-american identity became subsumed in the pro-Moorish anti-Anglo identification that over and over again through time resulted in the distancing and isolating of this social group from ‘whites,’ ‘blacks’ and ‘reds.’
Historical records show that there was indeed a strong Spanish presence as far north as the Chesapeake Bay in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a presence strong enough that Governor de la Warre and officials of the Virginia Colony wished to marginalize it – “’James Towne’ was located forty or so miles above the open bay, where they might avoid discovery by Spanish ships.’ Clearly the Spanish had had colonies in Virginia in the late 1500’s, and so clearly they visited the area.” (Paula Gunn Allen, Pocohantas, page 55) The Hudson River was ‘discovered twice by Spanish explorers, Verrazano in 1513 and Gomez in 1524, a hundred years before Hudson. What may have been going on in terms of contact during those hundred years?
Wherever the Spanish sojourned in the southeast, there are groups known as Moor Indians or Mecca Indians. Other Native American tribes have claimed a Moorish identity, as did other ethnic groups such as the Melungeons. Early PIrates, while usually African in allegiance, included Europeans with English, Irish, French and Dutch surnames. In her own day, Mary Carney, like many other Moors, had found a degree of acceptance among the newly immigrant Irish – for example, the owner of the saloon where she lived and worked, was an Irishman named Kennedy – so she adopted an Irish identity, calling herself Mary Madden as she sought domestic work in the Pennyslvania mountains, where substandard English would not be unusual or suspect.
In fact, the crux of the issue for the pension examiner, R.A. Hales, was that my great-grandmother called herself Mrs. Mary Madden. From a woman’s perspective, I would guess that name might be quite convenient, considering that she had two small children in tow as she went around looking for work. The bar-owner, Kennedy, personally brought the pregnant Mary for the first time to the more remote rural region where Alfred lived, looking for a place for her to stay until she had her baby. Once a suitable room was found, he left never to be seen again. She removed herself at some point to a settlement where a lumber mill was being built and stayed with ‘friends’ there, only reappearing in ‘decent society’ when her baby was about a year old. It looks to me, after hearing her story, that Mary was looking for a husband in all the wrong places, but eventually she found the way to create the kind of life she wanted: safe, established, with an identity that counted in the society in which she lived, a ‘white’ identity, even though she and her husband and almost everyone else knew differently.
So, anyway, after several false starts, Mary succeeded in finding a permanent home and family of her own with my great-grandfather, Alfred Whittingham. Alfred’s paternal ancestors are lost in the mists of time: England, Scotland, Barbados, any or all are possible points of origin for our Whittingham line. We can trace our line back to 1759 in Pennsylvania and possibly further. The American surname, when dated before the mid-1800’s – is now largely found among African-Americans in the United States. Also, Whittingham appears as a given name in Sussex County Delaware in the 1790’s, so perhaps my great-grandfather had a deeper connection with the ‘Delaware Moors’ than anyone knew or acknowledged.
Alfred Whittingham brought into our family an element of literacy and social standing. His great-grandfather, William Whittingham, was listed on the 1790 census as a white landowner in Bucks County, although apparently not among the richer citizens, and they owned no slaves. It seems to me the family’s fortunes had fallen further since then, and Alfred had been a store-clerk in a mining-town prior to his Civil War service, where he lost his left leg in the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. In his painfully disabled condition, he found himself fortunately elected to the position of County Clerk for three years, however, after it became clear that his union with Mary Carney was to be a permanent one, he no longer won the appointment. As far as I can tell, he was unemployed and living off his pension and whatever needlework employment Mary could find. They owned their own home and may also have owned and rented out another small house; their finances are not really known to me, except through the pages of the deposition, and a few recollections of my mother’s.
From my mother’s perspective, her grandfather, Alfred Whittingham, was English, even though those forbears had come to this land over three hundred years before and there had been many marriages since! But as a young aspiring woman of perceived mixed-race at the beginning of the twentieth century, English was something good to be, and my mother claimed that. With her coal-black hair, white skin, interesting bone-structure and hazel-green eyes, she was an exotic beauty by white standards, even though all of that would have been seen quite differently if she had acknowledged her father’s origins. By the same token, my great-grandmother’s ability to pass herself off as an Irish girl – that is, the acceptance she found among the Irish which helped her move forward on her path – is, I believe, the debt she felt she owed to Ireland.
Mary Carney was a very tiny person, much smaller than she appears in her photo, as was her crippled husband Alfred Whittingham, who had lost his left leg at Antietam/Sharpsburg. (Their sons seem to have been somewhat taller.) Like other Moor women, she was an excellent needlewoman, and I have lovely reminders of her handiwork throughout my home. Again the soul-connection: I feel my illiterate great-grandmother communicates in a language of geometric forms that may have inspired and helped her as she climbed the mountainous obstacles of her life. All of her needle art was non-representational, and followed the patterns of Moorish as well as Native American motifs, such as the eight-pointed star, and the zilliji-like pattern of the irish-chain.
There were many talismans of Moorish culture around our home when I was growing up. For example, a custom-built chest of my great-grandmother’s features a double snail shell motif and central ceremonial fan. Inside the chest I found an old oil-stained Tuareg cosmetic case when I was a child. I used to take it out and open and close it from time to time, wondering what its use could possibly be. My mother seemed repulsed by the object and never wanted to speculate with me on what it was, or how it came to be among our possessions. Just in the last two years, after I described the long-ago discarded memento to the owner of the Sahara shop in Berkeley, Mustafa brought out for me a nearly identical kohl case. By this little piece of serendipity, I have finally learned the secret of my great-grandmother’s funny little mirror-behind-a-wooden-door-with-an-‘x’-across-it flat wooden box with inexplicable crenellations on its top, like a fortress. (The picture is of Mustafa’s kohl case, nearly identical to great-grandmother’s – only the mirror is a different shape – which I purchased. The one belonging to my family has been discarded.)
Also, the key-and-door ornament, which so fascinated me as a child most likely turns out to be an Islamic talisman indicating the Shahada, the main principle of Islam, the key that unlocks the door to Paradise and also the key to the House of Islam, “There is no God but God.”
Today there is no way to know the true history of the Delaware Moors. Many believe that knowledge of their origins has vanished over time. Many of their descendants have scattered through the white, black and Native American populations of Delmarva, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even Canada and points west. C.A. Weslager, the author of “Delaware’s Forgotten Folk”, writes that the Moors were very quiet about their Native ancestry, in fact so much so that they had lost a great deal of awareness of their roots as compared to other tribal remnants in Delaware.
Nevertheless, Weslager posits that the Moors were most likely a remnant of the Lenape. In his book he exhibits photographs of indigenous Lenape artifacts still in use among the Moors in the early twentieth century, including a large basket with a peculiar style of workmanship, which I recognize as the same as one belonging to my grandmother. It hung for years on our back fence in summer, or sat in our tiny ‘laundry room’ in winter. The Unalachtigo, who were the southern-most language group among the Lenape, are widely believed to have disappeared by mixing in with ‘other people.’ But present-day Carneys of Delaware are Nanticoke-identified. The Nanticoke are also an Algonquian-speaking group related to the Lenape.
If the Delaware Moors were indeed a remnant, possibly one among many, of the Nanticoke-Lenape bands, then other kinds of evidence besides mere paper-trail genealogy will have to be allowed for purposes of personal identification. For example, I now believe that the African dagger, the Tuareg necklace and even the wooden kohl case, Moroccan-style leather lampshade and snail-shell bureau were decorations – accoutrements – adopted by my family to cultivate a Moorish identity among my mother’s father’s people, in order to help them set themselves apart from the Anglo culture that came to surround them, and soon to crowd them out. Like many small Native American tribes along the eastern seaboard, they had owned their own farms and land up until the era of Jim Crow (see article by Patricia Lerch, listed below in Suggested Further Reading).
By the time my mother was a girl, the Moors were definitely associated in people’s minds with Africa rather than with Native America, although today’s descendants see the Moors as ‘indian.’ Visit the Mitsawokett website for more information on the contemporary descendents of the Moors. Also, read ‘Strong Medicine Speaks’ for an account of the survival and present-day lifestyle of a band of neighboring native people, the Lenni-Lenape, for a similar understanding of racial identification, the process of quasi-assimilation and acculturation that seemed to me to be prevalent among the descendents of the Moors a couple of generations ago. Scholars delineate a staged process of culture-loss, and one of those stages is identifying with secondary-characteristics that have been used to cover up the real identity. This may have been the case with the Moors who were covering their Native American heritage by emphasizing their Moor identity. This so-called ‘Moor’ heritage did not necessarily have anything to do with the African slave-trade, but would have predated that period, involving African sailors, especially North-African and Spanish Moors. But be that as it may – because that theory can never be proved – the constructed-identity of ‘Moors’ was probably adopted as an attempt to acknowledge a non-Anglo identity without advertising the native, spanish or african elements directly.
There have certainly been accounts of pirate settlements in the New World, even along the coasts of New Jersey and Delaware. Many European pirates were ‘renegados,’ converts to Islam, and were based in North Africa where they joined with exiled Inquisition survivors (Spanish/Portugese Moors, Jews and conversos) and other North and East Africans in a raiding trade against Christian European shipping. If the so-called Moors of Delaware are descendents of these pirates and native women, it might account for their clinging to a ‘Moorish’ identity. It is not otherwise known how the Delaware Moors came to so accurately preserve Moorish design elements in their homes.
If you are interested in reading more about Islamic elements in early American populations, read “The Tribe of ben Ishmael” in Gone to Croatan, a collection of essays about America’s early alternative communities. My grandfather, Mary Carney Whittingham’s only surviving child of seven known, was named Joseph. As an adult, he converted to Catholicism in order to gain the Church’s permission to marry my grandmother Catherine Louise Hanney. She was very proud of the fact that he had converted in order to marry her, and that he had taken the baptismal name of Xavier, for the missionary and patron saint to the heathen. However, despite his ‘conversion’ of convenience, my grandfather was also a follower of Prophet Noble Drew Ali and regularly attended the Moorish Science Temple of America in Philadelphia, where he could stand up and be counted proudly as a Moor.
The dagger and other Tuareg objects still in our possession in the 1950’s may have been part of his ceremonial regalia at the Temple. (I still have the dagger.) Interestingly, as I child I often passed the Moorish Science Temple which was close to our bus line’s terminus near the intersection of Broad Street and Erie Avenue in Philadelphia. I often felt strongly and magnetically attracted to the Temple, and would imagine myself getting off at the bus-stop there and going up the steps and in through the door! It was a mysterious fantasy, one that interested me because of its persistence and urgency. It was really a bonafide ‘strange’ experience of my youth. I kept these feelings to myself, of course, but confided my desire once to an older child on the bus, and he told me I couldn’t go there because it was only for “colored” people. I felt crushed. I had a longing that would go forever unfulfilled simply because I wasn’t ‘colored.’ Sometimes I saw very (to me) interesting-looking people standing near the door to the temple. As a child, I had no idea of my family’s connection to it. I believe my mother attended as well, and she probably wore the Tuareg necklace as part of her temple costume.
Yet it is doubly odd that I had this resonance with the Temple while knowing nothing about it, because many of the teachings of Noble Drew Ali were actually passed down to me informally through my mother’s casual conversation. My mother raised me as a Roman Catholic. Many of our part-native friends ‘from the mountains’ were Catholic as well, and we all know there was a strong Catholic missionizing influence in the New World. Additionally, my mother’s mother was mostly Irish, as far as I am aware, although she too had a strong identification with the mountains, and an unusual way of speaking. Years ago, one of my distant relatives on her side told me there is also Native american ancestry on her branch of the family, but I have been unable to trace it directly, although some of her cousins do. My point is, Irish or whatever, there was a strong native-american presence in the mountains of pennsylvania, and my grandmother seems to have felt identified with it. I should really write more about her. I used to think that as a white Irish girl it had been something of a big deal to marry this ‘Moorish’ guy – actually, half Moor, half ‘rich’ Quaker descendent (not really wealthy, but relatively speaking the Whittinghams were ‘better off’ as they used to say). But now, looking back, I think she found him ‘exotic’ because of his beliefs about Asian and African origins, and his good-looks and kindly native temperament. We had many Asian articles around our home, in addition to our ‘Moorish’ articles. My assumption had always been that my father brought these things home with him from his travels as a seaman, but now I realize that a great many of them belonged to my grandfather, Joseph, because my father told me they came from my mother’s side, and were not his (my father’s).
My grandmother did not speak much, and I’m not surprised. May I just digress for a moment? I really believe that because my father was from Denmark and because my coloring was so light, that I triggered some kind of projection of the ‘other’ for my grandmother. This was my personal problem to deal with as a child, but it was a problem for her too. I don’t want to get too personal here, but there is a whole further story about how this impacted our lives, and maybe I’ll post more about all of that another time. But when grandmom would say, for example, “Kittatinny,” my mother would remind her, “Mother, remember what I said? From now on you have to say ‘Blue Mountains.’ ” My grandmother would look stricken for a moment, and then she would glance at me with resentment narrowing her eyes. There is no mistaking her expression. She was angry and the fault was somehow mine. Yes, my mother had decided to conceal our family’s true heritage from me, and many alterations in their lives had to be made. Objects, words, and even friends and relations had to be let go.
For example, I overheard my mother telling people she “did not want me to know.” Know what? For example, she said this when her friend Elizabeth came over once wearing a silver bangled head-dress. Elizabeth’s daughter once said to me slyly, “You don’t know, do you!” I felt completely at a loss. My mother often cautioned my father when he would try to give me hints. I’ll write more of all that later. Back to the subject at hand. Religion.
My mother chose to raise me as a Roman Catholic, yet her own spirituality was not particularly Catholic but something personal, deep, pure and abiding. She believed in Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, Justice, and in ongoing revelation and new prophecy – all tenets of the M.S.T.A. On a more profane level, she believed that all people are Afro-Asiatic in origin, including white people, and that civilization began in Egypt, and on an even more basic level, that all water used for consumption should be boiled. These principles were also taught by Prophet Noble Drew Ali.
She intimated to me that she had attended a ‘metaphysical church’ for some years in her youth, and I often wonder if the Tuareg necklace was not part of her church costume. If someone were to ask me how this heritage has affected my life I would find it difficult to put into words. It created a certain atmosphere in our home that I recall with great respect and pleasure: an atmosphere that was pure, silent, deeply sacred and ordered, mysterious and veiled, and that contrasted sharply with much of the environment around us. It also allowed me to have some experience of a period of time when black and white – and Native American – people were not so separated from one another, conceptually, socially or culturally. We lived on the edge of a large black community, and so mixing with African Americans, while somewhat tense at times, was a part of my early life, and I appreciate having had that experience.
The time of relaxed natural ‘mixing’ happened a very very long time, but some consciousness of it remained with the Moors I knew as a child, and that was my early milieu, even if people were keeping their mouths shut about it in any outright, fully articulated way. Nevertheless, I picked it all up by osmosis, in the way that children do.
My parents and our relatives never uttered any racial slur, nothing even remotely racist ever passed their lips or crossed their facial expressions. Many of us lived in African-American neighborhoods, and as my ‘Aunt’ Elizabeth once said to me, “Oh, that doesn’t bother us!” I picked up from society the message that race mattered and one was better than another, but from my family, I learned that we were not part of that point of view. Once, when my grandmother was old and terminally grumpy, my mother asked her why she didn’t like going somewhere – can’t remember where – and my grandmother said, ‘the colored.’ My mother took a long beat and then said to my grandmother, in the most serious tone, “Oh, mother, how could you?” That’s all that was said, and that is the only instance I can recall of anything like that in my family. In our day and milieu, a very straight working-class, largely Catholic neighborhood, I was not aware of any interracial black-white dating or marriage other than the much acclaimed union between Sammy Davis Jr and Mai Britt. Yet when I was dating a young man who was not good for me, my mother suggested I switch my attentions to a young African-American friend. He had much better manners and also had won a scholarship to a Catholic college, so my mother favored him. To tell you the truth, I was quite surprised. I didn’t realize just how radically different my mother’s attitude was, for that time and place.
The fact is, I didn’t really understand racism in the same way as my peers in school. I always felt solidarity with my African-American friends and their causes. I didn’t feel any sense of separation – even though I could see and readily acknowledged that we had different conditions in life, unfairly – I don’t quite know how to phrase it. I often heard my relatives talking about civil rights, and hoping that there would be a change soon. They celebrated every victory for the African-Americans. My mother once said to me when I was quite young, to always treat African-American people with a lot of respect because they ‘have a hard time in life, someday you’ll understand.’
As a daughter, it has been significant for me to see how fully my mother was able to embrace all that she was. She walked in more than two worlds, made sense of it all and found her own comfort zone. She tried to create a reality for me that she thought would fit me better, and I appreciate what she tried to do, even while I can see some of its limitations. Reading Harriet Lerner’s book “The Dance of Deception” has helped me to better understand the ‘deceptive’ part of our situation without judgement and with less reproach and more gratitude.
In my ancestral quest, I’ve discovered my mother and found out so much more about myself. I’ve been able to put words and images to things I felt, intimated, guessed, or wondered at. As a person who is usually (but not always) ‘white-identified’ by other people, I wonder if I am the best spokesperson for my family’s unusual heritage, but nevertheless, I want to share it. At times I wonder if it is worth making the effort to share, since our unusual identity as ‘Moors’ is less visible and probably less significant to others today, at a time when our whole society is moving more towards diversity and engaging in ever new forms of diversity. But nevertheless, I want to memorialize, in some way, the time and the people who identified with three races (white European-American, black African-American, and First Contact Native American), and who were identified with their own ‘remnant’ version of Islam. Theirs was not a version recognized by any other Islamic sect, but I believe they preserved by these means something they felt was uniquely theirs in the Christian, Anglo-dominated society in which they found themselves. Maybe, in the end, they were only one among the many inheritors of America’s ubiquitous pirate populations. Maybe the African element is pure fantasy, and they were simply Native Americans with some European admixture. Perhaps the most that can be said is that they were just another wrinkle in the colorful fabric of America.
Now, in my later years, I’ve found that learning – through this personal quest – more about the history of African Americans, Native Americans and all First Contact people has been helpful not only in researching this branch of my family but also in connecting the mysterious dots of my personal experiences. My early experience of the Moor culture in my own home and life was overwhelmingly positive, and its memory is something I cherish and would like to continue to foster. It’s been a gift to be raised with what I think of as African-American and Native American values, in addition to the mountain-grown values. Of course, it is probably not in the stars for me to fully participate in any of these contemporary communities, yet it has been my fate to not really fit in with the dominant culture either, even though I look like I ought to. I am used to my peculiar vantage point, and despite the loneliness of the position, I am grateful for what my ancestors have passed along to me. And in America, almost everyone has issues around ‘fitting in’ anyway.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what skin color or DNA ethnicity a person has. (As it turns out, we’re all related after all.) I believe that what really counts is the depth and breadth of the values cultivated by the individual, the family and the culture.
* * *
Note: Prejudice against tri-racial people was institutionalized in the past in many states, for example, through with-holding of the right to vote. But even where legal and other institutional systems did not overtly exert pressure against ‘tri-racial’ or ‘creole’ folk, ordinary social institutions and mores did. I watched my mother, born in 1906, suffer fear and anxiety because of the old social system. Witnessing her pain is probably what most motivated my search into her story. I only learned how to interpret her behavior recently by reading Brewton Berry’s 1963 classic “Almost White.” So, even though this particular social problem is now in the past, it’s not as far back in the past as we might think. I certainly don’t want to stir up any embers of this particular twist on ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ but I share our family’s story in the hope that we can learn from it to treat people of all origins with greater respect.
Illustrations of examples of Tuareg jewelry are from Tuareg Jewelry, by Helene E. Hagan, Lucille C. Myers, Xlibris Publications, 2006, p. 78. Sad to say, our own woman’s necklace and man’s brooch have been disarded some years ago. I was lucky to find examples that so closely matched our own. Also, the Tuareg kohl case pictured above is not the one that was at one time in the possession of our family. This example was recently purchased by me at the Sahara store in Berkeley, California.
For further reading:
Brewton Berry, Almost White, MacMillan, New York, 1963. Available through Interlibrary loan.
Gunn Allen, Paula, Pocohantas, HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 2004
Hearth Hill, Amy, Strong Medicine Speaks, A Native American Elder Has Her Say, An Oral History, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008
Jennings, Francis, The Founders of America, From the Earliest Migrations to the Present, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1993
Lerch, Patrician, “A Good Ol’ Woman, Relations of Race and Gender in an Indian Community,” in Neither Separate Nor Equal by Barbara Allen Smith, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1999
Lerner, Harriet, The Dance of Deception, Harper Paperbacks, 1994
Menocal, Maria Rosa, Ornament of the World, How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 2002
Pencak, William A., and Richter, Daniel K., Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods, Indians, Colonists and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 2004
Pimienta Bey, Jose, Othello’s Children in the New World, self-published, 1st Books Library, 2002. Professor Pimienta Bey presently teaches at Berea College in Kentucky.
Reston, James, Jr., Dogs of God, Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors, Anchor Books/Random House, New York, 2006
Richter, Daniel K., Facing East from Indian Country, A Native History of Early America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001
Sakolsky, Ron and Koehnline, James, Gone to Croatan, Origins of North American Dropout Culture, Autonomedia, New York, 1993
Weslager, C.A., The Delaware Indians,
Weslager, C.A., Delaware’s Forgotten Folk, the Story of the Moors and Nanticokes, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1943
Wilson, Peter Lamborn, Pirate Utopia, Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes, Autonomedia, New York, 2003
Websites of Interest:
www.mitsawokett.com – for more data, photos, genealogies, etcetera of the Delaware Moors and their descendants