Henry and I were tasked with writing a racial autoethnography for our most recent project in our sociology class. What is an autoethnography, India? Don’t worry, I had no idea either. Here was part of the rubric we were given by T. Mauricio. I found it extremely helpful:
“Ethnography is one of the central methods of sociological inquiry. Its central epistemological assumption is that the sociologist can enter a field—be it a working-class town in the Midwestern US, a village of Zapatista resistance fighters in Mexico, or a fraternity chapter house—and generate knowledge through careful attention to how people make sense of their own world, how they’re positioned relative to others in their social environments, and how their institutions are organized. In this paper I want you turn your ethnographic eye towards your own experiences, treating yourself as the field of research. In this paper I want you to consider two open-ended questions: How has race impacted your life? How has race affected your trajectory into-and time at-Westtown School?” (Torres).
Here are the first two pages of my final draft:
Racial Awakening: An Autoethnography
By India Henderson
Despite the stories my mother tells me about my first racial realizations, the first time that I truly remember recognizing my own race–or rather, my difference–was in the 4th grade. We had just started our slavery unit, the lights were out, and a film about the history of slavery in America was playing. I do not remember anything specific about the film, but I do remember feeling particularly embarrassed watching it–the sad, helpless-looking Africans were being stolen from their homes, and it felt awkward that those powerless people looked a lot like me and my family and nothing like many of my peers. My eyes floated around the classroom where all I saw mostly white skin. I was ashamed to realize that if we were living in the time in which this film took place, I would have been the slave and they would have been the slaveowners.
It was not until later that year when we began studying immigration to the U.S. and Ellis Island that I would truly understand how my ancestors arrived on this continent. Our 4th grade class was tasked with researching the origins of our last names. When I went home and asked my parents about what they knew of our last name, I was surprised to learn that Henderson and Redd–my last name and my grandmother’s maiden name–were Irish and Scottish. That was when I was greeted with the same reality that many African-American children must eventually come to terms with during their adolescence. “This country was born in blood and violence against non-European “others”… These colonists and their descendants enriched themselves by what was often a process of genocide directed against indigenous peoples. Soon, too, they or their descendants enslaved Africans to work these appropriated lands” (Feagin, 35). My ancestors did not come here because they wanted a better life like those who came through Ellis Island, but rather, they were brought here by greedy people who ripped them out of their homeland. Although there were Hendersons and Redds who came through Ellis Island, none of them were family members of mine. These names were given to my family because they were the names of our slaveowners.
Learning this information was shocking for me. For much of my elementary school experience, I knew that I was black–a different color than that of most peers, the same color as my best friend, lighter than my dad, darker than my mom–but before this moment it was not that important. It was just a fact of life. You breathe, I breathe, you are white, I am black.
In looking back on my childhood, I am surprised that it took me so long to start thinking about my “blackness” and its historical significance, but I also recognize that my parents and grandparents most likely had everything to do with this by their intentional actions throughout my young life.
“Acts of oppression are not just immediately harmful, but carry long-term effects. In the social science literature, much has been made of the impact of historical racism on black families, subculture, or values…” (Feagin, 22). My black family members have lived through many different decades and experiences and that affect the way they view the world and, thus, the way they desire for me to view the world. My parents were both born in 1966, the year before the historic Selma to Montgomery marches and Bloody Sunday and two years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. My grandparents were born in the 1940s, a decade where Jim Crow segregation was alive and well–from “separate but equal” education and housing, to lynching and other horrific and commonplace hate crimes.
I do not necessarily see this as a “disadvantage” but rather an extra burden or “cost” to the lives of my black family and black people in general in America (Feagin, 22). Whether it was my mom making sure that I had lots of black dolls and books, or my grandmother making sure that I was being exposed to black art, music, and culture, I was raised by a group of people who wanted me to feel confident and proud in my skin because they feared that for some reason, if they did not do these things, I would not.
Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. 3rd ed., New York [u.a.], Routledge, 2014.