How My Son Found Cultural Identity — Hidden in the Family Tree

The lesson? Nobody owns the answer to anyone else’s racial identity.

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The sign that guided our way. Photo: Scott Brant.

My rental van labored up the winding two-lane road into Glacier National Park, a silent 15-year-old in the passenger seat. As we crossed into the Blackfeet Reservation, scattered buildings began to appear: a little church with a busted-up truck in the yard, a boarded up convenience store, finally a few bungalows. In front of one, a woman was hanging laundry on a line with a baby playing on the dirt nearby. A guy pumping gas looked up as we passed. Suddenly, my son said, “These people look like me.” Had to go all the way to Browning, Montana to hear those words.

The year before, my son, Shaun, had begun to ask, “Who’s going to teach me to hunt and fish?” and insisted that he had another family somewhere else. Coming into puberty, he’d begun to mourn his father, who hadn’t died but faded into a new life and other children. At school in the suburbs of Long Island, Shaun had been asked numerous times, “What are you anyway?” Kids were curious about his skin color, his unique features. Although he was gorgeous (well, I am his mother), he was different in a different sort of way.

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As a youth, my brown-skinned, green-eyed ex-husband had been instructed to say, “I’m a little Greek boy.” My son didn’t know what combination of races he was. Frankly, neither did I, nor did I care then. It wasn’t something his Dad talked about except to say “Irish and whatever — Heinz 57.” There was a vague reference to Grandma Elnora as “some kind of Indian.”

When I was an 18-year-old dating Shaun’s dad, I’d been taken to his modest family home in Long Island. An aspiring ballerina back then, I proudly wore my long, dark, ballerina hair down. His mom’s first comment was, “I’m so glad you have straight hair. Gene’s last girlfriend was ‘all nappy.’” That confused me because, peeking out from the edges of her Diana Ross wig were a few locks of, yes, “nappy” hair. By the end of that visit, she told me that her cousin lived in Colorado Springs and was passing. I took that to mean she was dying and I expressed my condolences. She threw her head back and laughed, “Passing as white!”

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As fate would have it, the following year I became the only white in the otherwise all-Black Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and was immediately dubbed “Token White Girl” or, more often, “Miss Scarlett.” I was so deliriously happy to get in, I didn’t mind being on the other side of the looking glass at first. It made me unique. Then, once we went on tour, it made me lonely even though I had varying degrees of friendship with the others. I imitated their cool clothes, affected their jargon and rough humor but the punchlines rang false and the secret handshake remained secret.

In Kenya, a stagehand asked if I were albino. In Dakar, a reporter asked Alvin if he preferred to be called Negro or Black. He struggled and finally answered, “I want to be called Alvin Ailey, the choreographer.” Company members had similar questions thrown at them, but nobody ever asked me about my white-on-whiteness or how it felt to dance alongside people I desperately wanted to be. Feeling invisible, the edges of who I was began to fray; I became increasingly bitchy and sarcastic. So by the time my son began to sense that he was culturally stranded, by the time he began to act out his confusion and his rage at school, I realized there was no shrink on earth who could solve Shaun’s problem because the problem was that he had no idea who he was. Heinz 57 is not an identity.

The only shred of evidence I had to go on was something his Grandpa Pete told him before he died: “You’re part Blackfeet.” This was before 23andMe. It was all I had to go on.

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In our town, there was a merchant who collected clothing for the Rosebud Sioux every winter. I brought Shaun’s outgrown clothes to him every year, and every year I received a thank you from the tribe. With my son heading toward a meltdown, I called the phone number on the card. A man in the tribal office answered and his kindness seemed to flow through the telephone wire. As I presented my situation, I found myself unable to control my wavering voice. When he said “Our young men need to come home,” I broke down. Someone out there got it! He told me that I had to get to take my son to the Blackfeet in Browning and find Redman Little Plume. “He’ll know what to do,” the man said. “Here is a phone number, but I haven’t spoken to him in many years.”

In the days that followed, I called the number again and again, but nobody picked up. Maybe I could fly us to visit my mother’s distant relatives, owners of an expansive ranch in Wyoming? Yet the drive from there to Montana would be more than 10 hours — even if we made it to the reservation, how would I find this Redman Little Plume? And even if I did find him, what was it that he would be able to do? Regardless of the questions, I looked at the calendar and began to share my desperate scheme with friends. They talked me out of it. I talked me out of it. My freelance career as a theater director didn’t allow for the time or money to chase halfway across the country in search of my son’s identity. But then I saw this deeply unhappy child on the verge of disaster. In my conflicted heart, I knew the Sioux elder was right. Shaun deserved to own that puzzle piece of his origin, no matter how wacky the plan seemed. Then a brand-new, unsolicited credit card with a $5,000 limit arrived in the mail.

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Cultural Identity
Continuing to explore his cultural identity, Shaun Taylor-Corbett appears in “Astoria: Part One” at Portland Center Stage in 2017.

The miracle of plastic transported us to Jackson Hole for five luxurious days where we were hosted by relatives who were supportive, if slightly bewildered by our mission. Then it was time to head north and I was, once again, filled with anxiety. At a rest stop eight hours into the drive, I called the phone number one last time. Redman answered! Flustered, I stammered out something that sounded impossibly corny about bringing my son to learn about his heritage. But what I said seemed perfectly normal to Redman. He told me to find him at the community college where he worked. “What time? What exact location?” I had my book out to write it all down. He laughed. “Just whenever you get here.” OK, at least I knew the guy existed! What I didn’t know was that the phone was in an abandoned trailer no longer used as an office, sitting at the far end of the parking lot. He happened to be passing by at that exact moment because he’d forgotten something in his truck. In one seemingly random moment, my son’s future as a proud, mixed-race Native American began.

Nobody owns the answer to anyone else’s racial identity. Once, while I was casting an Off-Broadway show, an actress accused me of passing her over because she wasn’t “Black” enough. Incredulous, after all the evolutions in my own life, I stayed on the phone for an hour trying to convince her that her color had no bearing on my decision. She kept saying, “You just don’t get it!” OK, it’s true: nobody ever had to tell me “white is beautiful.” Maybe none of us ever really do get it. But we just have to keep trying.