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Who's Afraid of Black Indians?

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"What are you?"

"You're not fully black. What else are you mixed with?"

"You've got that good Indian hair."

Enter just a few of the statements that award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist Shonda Buchanan, a biracial woman with African-American and American Indian heritage, has heard from people curious about her ethnic background.

Unfortunately, such questions are all too familiar to a myriad of multiethnic persons. Buchanan examines some of her experiences as a bi-ethnic person of color in the United States in her first collection of poems, Who's Afraid of Black Indians? She'll read from the book at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art on July 29 at 6 p.m. The event, a joint venture between the Eiteljorg and Brick Street Poetry, Inc., will be followed by a book signing and chance to speak with the artist.

Buchanan hopes her book will help other Black Indians, as well as bi-racial and tri-racial peoples, research, reclaim and celebrate their multifaceted heritage. - COURTESY SHONDA BUCHANAN
  • Courtesy Shonda Buchanan
  • Buchanan hopes her book will help other Black Indians, as well as bi-racial and tri-racial peoples, research, reclaim and celebrate their multifaceted heritage.

Buchanan connected with Brick Street Poetry through her colleague, Brick Street program chair and Indiana's first poet laureate, Joyce Brinkman. Brinkman had invited Buchanan to submit her work to an anthology; the result was Urban Voices: 51 Poems from 51 American Poets (edited by Brinkman and Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda).

Following the book's publication and a reading during the 2014 Spirit and Place Festival, Buchanan shared her family history and said she would be returning to the Midwest to research her family history. Brick Street launched a fundraiser to bring Buchanan to the Hoosier State. Wednesday's reading will detail, in part, the author's rediscovery of her heritage:

Buchanan teaches English and Creative Writing at Hampton University. - COURTESY SHONDA BUCHANAN
  • Courtesy Shonda Buchanan
  • Buchanan teaches English and Creative Writing at Hampton University.

"There's a sense of longing for the things you don't know. We're African but we don't know which African nation or tribe we come from. We have to relearn things," she says, referencing African dancing and music.

"It's the same with American Indian ceremonies," she continues. "If I'm Indian, what do I do?" she says with a laugh. Her answer is to dance at powwows, to sing and to drum. "I'm reclaiming the things that helped my people even before I knew who they were."

Buchanan, an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Virginia's Hampton University since 2004, considers reclamation her goal. Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Buchanan always thought her family was from a tribe in that area or possibly Mattawan, Michigan.

However, it turns out both sides of her family, the Roberts and the Staffords, hailed from North Carolina in the early 1800s. Migration -- both by choice and by force -- took Buchanan's relatives through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana before they moved on to Michigan. The forced migration, a result of strict laws that deeply affected Buchanan's American Indian ancestors, resulted in the loss of custom and language.

"[My] mom would say 'I think we're Blackfoot,' but she never really knew. The family was too busy surviving as farmers. Heritage and history took a backseat. Putting my family into a narrative is important to [me]."

Muscogee (Creek) delegates photographed in Oklahoma in 1877 demonstrate the racial diversity of many tribes.  - COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • Muscogee (Creek) delegates photographed in Oklahoma in 1877 demonstrate the racial diversity of many tribes.

In pursuit of this goal, Buchanan is working on a memoir titled Touched: Growing Up Black and Indian in Michigan: A Daughter Uncovers a Family's History, and a more research-oriented text, Children of the Mixed Blood Trail: The Formation and Migration of Mixed Race Communities, Free People of Color and Black Indian Families, Settlements and Villages from the Southeast to the Midwest.

Buchanan's work honors her family and also potentially moves her closer to answers about having a mixed background. "African-Americans aren't allowed to have a dual ethnicity. When a [black] person says, 'I'm African-American and American Indian,' there's resentment, question marks above everyone's heads, and [the implied question] Why can't you just stay on one side?" she says.

Likewise she adds, "If an African-American person says they have American Indian in their family tree, why isn't that considered valuable or viable?" For reference, Buchanan lists off several well-known public figures with that heritage, including Nina Simone, Crispus Attucks, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, James Earl Jones and Jesse Jackson.

"There's an oral history of connections," Buchanan explains. "I knew it as a kid, but it's not taught in schools. There's no chapter on black Indians in my history books."

At first, Buchanan refers to this issue as "pervasive ignorance," but then she says, "What actually happened was erasure. An erasure of bi-raciality of African-American/American Indian people [even though] they helped each other during the founding of the country. [There are] so many instances where intersection is crucial to survival."

Wanting to uncover and better understand her family's history inspired Buchanan to write, and write she has. In addition to her aforementioned finished and in-progress books, Buchanan is working on a second collection of poetry entitled Searching for Nina Simone, a years-long pursuit she once detailed in an article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times. "I was propelled towards writing because of my search for my heritage ... for the recovery and rediscovery of the stories," she explains.

The world can only benefit from Buchanan's research into her family's origins. Ideally, the answers she will reveal will include an explanation for the pressure multiethnic persons face to "choose one race."

To see video of Buchanan performing her poems, including Scar Stories and Evil Eye Over Michigan, visit her website. For more information about Buchanan's reading and book signing, contact the Eiteljorg Museum at (317) 636-9378.

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