A case of mistaken identity?
Mary Jo MeloneWe spend our lives trying to figure out who we are, and by the end, wonder whom we might have been. Should I be a mason or a poet? Why do I worry what others think of me? Am I honorable? What if sometimes I'm not? And as the writer Lillian Hellman once suggested, why did I leave so much of me unfinished? We have so much doubt that we cling to what we have been told about who we are, by the people who matter most to us — surely they know more than we.
Published: September 27, 2012
Published: September 27, 2012
That is what, in part, Elizabeth Warren appears to have done. Her parents and grandparents said she had descended from Native Americans in her home state of Oklahoma, members of the Cherokee and Delaware nations, and she believed them.
Identity is a mirror.
Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, said that she knew of her heritage because she had heard the family story: her father's family so despised Native Americans that he had to elope with her mother, through whom Warren says the Native American identity descends. She has declared she is proud of this part of her identity.
Some Native Americans, however, are infuriated with her. They have spent decades reclaiming the identity for which they suffered, an identity that whites despised. They believe Warren has taken advantage of the identity that cost their ancestors their lives.
Maybe they're right. Maybe Warren did use her minority status to get ahead professionally.
And maybe she's right as well. Her parents' elopement is another example of the historic hatred of Native Americans by whites — a hatred so profound that they drove thousands of Indians along the Trail of Tears to states like Oklahoma.
Sen. Scott Brown, Warren's Republican opponent, has even said that Warren cannot be Native American because she doesn't look it. To whom? What is she supposed to look like? And who decides? Does First Lady Michelle Obama look like she is the descendant of a slave and her owner's son?
If it is true that Warren has taken advantage of her history, Brown is using it, too, to stir up that subtle resentment of some (Who are they? Do we call them whites?) that those other people, whoever they are, are getting what the resentful really deserve.
Ralph Ellison, a black man and, like Hellman, a mid-20th-century writer, called himself invisible — to whites. This is part of the opening of his exceptional novel: "It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me."
In this story of hidden heritage, the participants see what they want to see, what perhaps they cannot help but see: a piece of history callously manipulated, a scheme to get ahead, and to one woman who claims what may or may not be true, a piece of what she considers her personal history. Identity is a mirror — a cracked one.