LMU’s Shonda Buchanan tells truer tales of American history

By Carolyn Neuhausen

Shonda Buchanan sees historical tragedies like the Trail of Tears and racial subjugation encoded in her family’s DNA
Photos by Ted Soqui

Loyola Marymount University writing instructor and rhetorical arts fellow Shonda Buchanan understands how abuse and self-hatred — the kind that ripples through families for generations — can set the tone for interpersonal relationships for decades, if not centuries.

In her new memoir “Black Indian,” Buchanan tells the story of her family’s African-American, American Indian and European heritage, tracing their migration from the Carolinas to Michigan, where they often faces the question “What are you?” in a world that could only separate Americans into white or black.

There’s her grandfather Clifford, who drank away most of his family’s weeping willow-framed 100-acre farm and violently doled out his misery upon his children. In her writing, Buchanan seeks to better understand her mother, Clifford’s daughter Velma Jean, whose motherhood she experienced as a mixture of abuse and love wrapped in hard edges.

Buchanan finds a consistent pattern of violence, addiction and poverty running through the generations of her family, which she comes to understand as an inheritance of historical tragedy, subjugation and disenfranchisement of people of color throughout American history. “Black Indian” takes us back to times long ago — and not so long ago — when social norms of racial segregation and toxic male privilege compounded into a catalyst for physical and psychological abuse wrapped in a culture of silence.

“I did it myself, too, when I was molested,” Buchanan observes. “We’ve developed a culture of protecting the molester and protecting the abuser, and that has perpetuated itself in our society in a multitude of ways. So much so that my mom and her sisters were basically the property of their dad, and then when they married they were the property of their husbands, and then had kids and were the property of their kids. … They had no agency, in and of themselves. They had to wrestle it. I think that’s why my mom was so hard.”

(The following interview is excepted from an extended conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.)

What were some of the most surprising histories you uncovered while researching the book?

I was telling my aunt I discovered the Roberts [branch of extended family] have a settlement in Indiana, and she was like “they have a family reunion every year.” Those are my great, great grandmother’s people. I surmised we never went for a couple of reasons, but also because we were the darker-skinned people in the family and my mother kept marrying these darker-skinned men. It was a startling fact that a while branch of my family is having a celebration of heritage and family and culture, and we’d never been invited.

The other fascinating thing I discovered is that my people are listed on the African Cherokee rolls. How is it possible that I didn’t know this? The African Cherokee rolls are a population of 48,000 people, give or take a few, who [spoke up] when the federal government said OK, we’re apologizing to the Cherokee nation and we’re going to give you money and land. Who of you, either on or off the Trail of Tears, say you are Indian?’  … In the early 1800s and 1900s, when the federal government began blood quantum erasure tactics that manifested in the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which helped secure the One-Drop Rule [defining any amount of sub-Saharan ancestry as black], some full-blood American Indians were forced to deny their African-American relatives. Full-blood American Indians who were receiving government allotments for Indian schools, or reparations for stolen land, were forced to choose. This attitude has permeated some tribes in contemporary times, and not all welcome us at certain gatherings because they feel like we are diluting the bloodline, when in fact, some of those bloodlines have already been diluted through white marriages and mixed white and American Indian offspring. For some reason, when it comes to the Black Indian, we are denied those same bloodline affiliations.

How has writing this memoir impacted or altered your self-identity?

Pulling together the histories of our relatives, our ancestors, has given me a sense of legitimacy and our family a sense of legitimacy. But no one chased it down until I traced it. … The white piece — I don’t recall any relative at a family reunion considered “white.” …We’re black in America, but we’ve also got this indigenous blood and those are the two communities that have allowed us to participate. ’m thinking of my uncle Jack — he looked white, but society forced us to codify him as black. So how could I celebrate a thing if it was a secret? If it was a threat to claim your white blood, how could we celebrate that?

How has writing about your family impacted you as a writer and as a teacher of creative writing, composition and critical theory?

I’m highlighting for my students that there’s a multiplicity in history that you haven’t been taught in high school. You have not been taught in high school, for example, that Crispus Attucks was a Black Indian — the first man to die in the American Revolution! Mildred Loving [whose case before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning inter-racial marriage] claimed she was Rappahannock [American Indian], and her grandson came out last year on Facebook, “My grandmother never said she was black, her parents were full-blood Indian,” but because of the colored construct in the South, she had to be colored, which was black for them. I help students think about personal narratives and cultural narratives in a different way that changes the capacity of knowledge about our society and culture. … History is hiding in plain sight.

I hope this book establishes my voice as a writer. I want to say the word I feel is “fearlessness.” I think I’ve only developed this feeling of fearlessness in the last few years, since this new president came into office. I call him new because hopefully one day soon he’ll be “old.” But I think the kinds of things he has allowed to happen and the people who are his minions is a direct harkening back to 1780, 1790 and the 1800s where you are stripping people of color, women and children of their sovereignty and rights.

It’s important to teach our students to fight with language, and narrative too. I’m so proud when I see my students out there working as teachers, working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, working at ABC and NBC. It’s like, “You guys wrote stories in my classroom, and hopefully you can turn these stories into something that you can use in your professional life one day.”

How are stories that re-examine heritage reshaping American literature?

We grow up on stories. Narratives define who we are at different points of our lives. That’s the power of language: the power to shape a person. Narratives across time have reshaped identities of people in many societies across the world. Some narratives empower people so they can pull themselves out of slavery or bondage or not being able to vote.

Likewise, historical tragedies like the Trail of Tears appear to become personal inheritance in the conflict scene with your nephew.

With historical tragedies in our country that people of color did not cause, that were laid upon us, you immediately had to acquiesce or suffer physical harm, suffer your children being taken away. You could suffer rape. You could suffer being given smallpox blankets and your whole village dying. All of these atrocities you could suffer just by being who you were on the historical road of Manifest Destiny. And Manifest Destiny just rolled over American Indians and rolled over people of color. And colonization, the cousin of enslavement, really the child of it. Historical atrocities remain in our DNA because trauma is an inherited thing. The blood does not lie. … You cannot talk about the identity of a person of color in this country separately from the policies and the structure that you had to function within for safety, for survival, for livelihood — it’s inextricable. You can’t really extract those histories, I think, so writing this book has been a way of writing the true tale of what I call American history.

That moment with my nephew … he never had the ability to see his manic depressiveness, his poverty, the poverty of the family, his mother’s addiction (my sister’s addiction). But I saw it. I saw an inheritance of poverty. I saw an inheritance of drugs being poured into communities of color. … If you inherit how to make your grandmother’s cornbread and that becomes a thing of pride, how can you separate that from inheriting your grandmother’s abuse?

What do you hope readers take away from your memoir? 

I hope readers take away the idea that you can survive a thing that you feel is trying to kill you every day. I want them to take away that you can make your life better when you decide you deserve better — and then act accordingly. And I want them to take away that they should ask for help if someone is abusing them. To the best of their ability, they can ask for help. They don’t have to name their abusers … but know that if you do not name the abuser, they are likely to do that to somebody else, just because they can.

I do think that this story is the old, old, old timey version of —that’s the wrong terminology, but the 1930s, 40s and 50s version of the #MeToo movement, except they’re [her mother and aunts] not celebrities. The only reason we’re paying attention with Harvey Weinstein is because celebrities came forward. But then what about all the rest of the women who haven’t told — people without money, without a voice. When women read my book I hope they’ll find themselves in it, even if they haven’t been abused. Maybe they had a fantastic childhood, but there’s a friend or a cousin who didn’t. I’m hoping they can stand up for others and stand up for themselves.

Shonda Buchanan discusses “Black Indian” with Rex Weiner from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 23) at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $6 to $10 at beyondbaroque.org.