I have carried you since you were born; I have taken care of you since birth. Even when you are old, I will be the same. Even when your hair has turned gray, I will take care of you. I made you, and I will take care of you.
Isaiah 46: 3-4 (New Century Version)
Statement Concerning Ethnic Identity
For several years, I have been teaching a writing course with the theme of “History, Memory, and Identity,” which, among other things, examines the autobiographies of men and women of mixed ethnicity. One writer, James McBride, has a Polish-Jewish mother and an African-American father. Another, Louis Owens, has a Cherokee-Choctaw and Irish ancestry, and still another, Vickie Smith-Foston, has an Armenian heritage though she was told all her life that she was of French and Italian descent. These writers’ lives prove what I have come to believe, namely, that ethnic identity is genetically inherited, socially constructed, and personally determined. Over the years, I have come to see my own ethnic identity in these terms.
From my parents, I have genetically inherited the blood of the English, the Irish, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Cherokee, and the West African peoples. My father’s surname, Beal, is an English name derived from the Old French word meaning beautiful or handsome (a word which occurs, for example, in the writings of the twelfth-century poet, Marie de France). My father’s mother’s maiden name, Baldwin, is Old English for bold friend. My mother’s maiden name, Bryan, is Irish and means strength, virtue, and honor. Her mother’s maiden name, Taylor, is a Middle English variant spelling of a word comparable in meaning to the modern English word “tailor.” Perhaps it is no surprise that my grandmother, Frances Taylor Bryan, was an expert seamstress who could sew a straight seam by hand at age three.
Our family genealogists, my father’s sister, Cheryl Beal, M.A., and Clark L. Bryan, my maternal grandfather’s second cousin, have made interesting discoveries about our genetic inheritance. My father’s family, the Beals and the Baldwins, immigrated to America from England in the nineteenth century. My great grandmother, Della Rimmer Beal, was a Cherokee woman from North Carolina, and my great-great-grandfather, William Frederick Baldwin, was a stableman for Queen Victoria who later eloped with one of her African servants, Christine Anne Marie Bigg.
My mother’s family, the Bryans and the Taylors, immigrated to America before the American Revolution. William Smith Bryan, a rebellious Irish prince, attempted to seize the Irish Crown during the Interregnum when the Puritans ruled England, but Oliver Cromwell defeated him and exiled him to Virginia in 1650. We are also related to William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a politician and a lawyer who served as Secretary of State in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration and famously argued for Prohibition and against the teaching of Darwinism in public schools in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Of the Taylors in our family ancestry, Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor is the most notable. He was a commander of the army of the Rio Grande, a major general during the Mexican-American War, and the twelfth President of the United States (1849-50).
Although my genetic inheritance is primarily English and Irish, the ethnic identity of my immediate family is more complex. My family members have made choices that demonstrate how ethnic identity is not only genetically inherited but also personally determined. When I was a child, my parents divorced, and both remarried. My father’s wife, Terrée Lynn Larsen Cordova, is the daughter of a Swiss-Danish woman and a Spanish-American man. She grew up listening to her grandparents speaking German and Spanish. My mother’s husband, Rudolf Joseph Holthuis, is a first-generation Dutch immigrant to the United States, and his family spoke Dutch and English in their home.
When these two parents came into my life, I became a part of the Cordova and Holthuis extended families, and my sense of ethnic identity was enlarged as a result. I learned to speak Spanish as well as English, and I identified closely with the Cordova side of my family. I remember sitting with my bisabuelita, Ikie Nora Nieto Cordova, in the convalescent hospital when she was recovering from a stroke. I was young and troubled by the fact that I felt culturally latina but had no known Spanish blood in my veins. My abuelita told me, “Just forget English. You can be Spanish.” Her words and her love for me showed me that ethnic identity is “twin-skin” to linguistic identity, as Gloria Anzaldúa has written, and it is not only inherited but also socially constructed by our families.
Interestingly, by their personally-determined marriage choices, my brothers and sisters have chosen partners with ethnic identities that affirm and expand our family’s ethnic identity. My brother James is married to Bricia Villanueva, a Mexican woman, and they speak Spanish and English in their home. My brother Abraham is married to Heather Smith, the daughter of a white woman and a Black man, and their children, my neice Ada and nephew Daniel, have a genetically and culturally rich ethnic heritage therefore. My sister Anne is married to an African American, Jeremy Grant, and together they have two beautiful daughters, Karisse and Katrina. My brother Andrew is married to a Filipina American, Debbie.
Like my siblings, I have made choices which have affirmed and expanded our family’s ethnic identity. I have chosen friends who have chosen me in turn to be a godmother to their children. Four of my seven godchildren are of the Ga people of Ghana, West Africa, two are Yugoslavian and African-American, and one is Guatemalan. These relationships have changed my identity and my sense of self in the world. Sometimes they have changed the world’s perceptions of who I am as well.
Indeed, the combination my genetic inhertiance, social situation, and personal choices has resulted in various assessments of my ethnic identity over time. The variety can be accounted for not only on the basis of where I was and what language I was speaking at the time my ethnic identity was assessed, but also on the basis of the clothes I was wearing, the children I was caring for, and the verbal and written gestures I made expressing aspects of my ethnic identity. I have been taken for an American, an English, an Irish, a French, a German, a Swiss, a Swedish, a Spanish, an East Indian, and an African woman. Although I have been so identified by others, I identify ethnically with those cultures that have given me the gift of their languages.
My first second language, Spanish, opened up the world of my native California, the American Southwest, and the country of Mexico to me at a young age. When I learned French, I traveled to France and stayed with the Poucheret family, by whom I was accepted as a daughter and a sister. Because of a long personal acquaintance with Taiwanese families in California, I learned some Mandarin Chinese and visited Taiwan. There is a young woman named Wen-Ting in California, whom I have known since she was only eight when her mother died of lung cancer, who is like a daughter to me ~ the daughter of my heart. Though no one has ever mistaken me for a Chinese woman, I have been changed by my relationship with Wen-Ting, who is family to me. This is not the only relationship that has changed my sense of self in relationship to others.
For a time, I studied Swedish in California, and I am glad I did so because when I moved to the Chicago area to teach at Wheaton College, I had a number of students and colleagues of Scandinavian descent, and my study of Swedish helped me to understand them better. I have been studying biblical Hebrew for a few years now, and my desire to learn the language grew out of a deep love of the Hebrew Bible and of my friend Dafna Ezran, whose father, an orthodox rabbi, looked at the two of us laughing together on the evening of her wedding years ago and said, “The two of you must be sisters!” When I sing in Hebrew, it is as if something new, a new life, is being born in my spirit.
Understanding my ethnic identity has been a journey, the routes of which were not, I think, predetermined. There are more places from the past that I must visit in the future, I know, to understand myself and my family better. Even recently, I was standing in a bookstore pouring over a book on the Cherokee language and meditating on the life of my great-great grandmother, Della Rimmer Beal, who grew up Cherokee in North Carolina. Her son, my grandfather, Hobart Beal, used to explain his high cheek-bones, almond eyes, and olive skin by claiming to be Italian. I wouldn’t mind being Italian one bit, having studied Latin for years and visited Rome one summer, but as far as I know, I have no blood kinship with Dante or Petrarch (however connected I may feel to them through their poetry). Not being Italian but Cherokee, I’ve found myself wondering what Della Rimmer’s life was like and what the drops of her blood flowing through my veins might mean to me someday. I feel that if I could learn the language of the Cherokee nation, then I might begin to know.
But even as I write, I realize I’ve been around a Cherokee girl my whole life, Stacey, whose father was Cherokee and whose extended family lived on Indian reservations. I met Stacey when I was five and she was seven; she’s been my life-long friend, and we’re consistently mistaken for sisters whenever we’re together. Maybe there is something similar in our basic DNA. (There is certainly something similar in our blood since we exchanged it with each other when we were kids.) In this life, it is a kind of miracle to find friends who are family.
Experience has taught me that ethnic identity is genetically inherited, socially constructed, and personally determined. And I believe that God is the one who has given me the gift of my genetic inheritance, the gift of the social, cultural, national, and international experiences that have shaped my identity, and the gift of freedom to make the choices about my ethnic identity that have opened up world after world to me. But there is a greater spiritual reality that has made me who I am.
As a Christian, I believe that I am a child of God: He made me who I am; He brought me into being. His paternity cannot be discovered in my DNA, but the very existence of my DNA reveals Him as my designer. My true birthrights are from Him.