Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ethnically Ambiguous Folks Of Yesteryear

I know that a lot of us mixed-race folks think we still have it tough even with biracial Obama in the White House. I mean, here we are in 2009 feeling the need to publish books, make films and hold conferences about why we should be validated as folks who identify with two (or more) races. Even the marvelous Mixed Chicks of L.A. are holding a Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival in June. I mean, none of this stuff existed when I was growing up--which, truthfully, was so long ago that your grandmother probably doesn't even remember. So, although I think the world has some distance to travel in learning about us mixies and what it means to be multiracial, I do believe that we have made some progress.

For instance, back in the 60's and 70's, there were few faces of color (let alone blendies) gracing magazine covers or looking out from TV or movie screens. Sure, there was the occasional "token". Sidney Poitier put a lot of fearful white minds at rest with his graceful manners and non-threatening "Magical Negro" movie roles. And, there was Victor Sen Yung playing the harmless Hop Sing--the Chinese houseboy/cook on the cowboy TV series Bonanza. And, I'm sure there were others that I just don't recall at the moment.

But the appearance of anyone looking ethnically ambiguous like myself was so rare that I would remember that person forever. If I saw that person on TV, I would get up close to the screen and just stare. I would try to find info (back in the day before the Internet) in my mother's Good Housekeeping magazines or my own teen publications. And, if I discovered a photo in one of them, I 'd obsess about that person to the point of ridiculousness.

Honestly, I can't remember how old I was when I first noticed the all-girl group The Ronettes. Like a lot of female singers of their time, The Ronettes sang sweetly about a lot of mushy stuff--tunes about romance, about teen angst, about breaking up, and about making up. Produced by Phil Spector, this group caught my eye because although they appeared to have black blood, they also had light skin and long hair (before weaves became common). They also hailed from New York so I just assumed they were Puerto Rican.

Somehow, growing up biracial, I really connected with Puerto Ricans. While we lived on military bases, many of our neighbors were Puerto Rican. My best friend in grade school, Sondra, was Puerto Rican. Later, when I was old enough to analyze just what Puerto Rican meant, I realized that the ones I knew were mestizo--a mix of Indian, Spanish and African--because of the history of their island. Perhaps it was that reality of them being a combo of races like myself that drew me to their culture.

Sadly, Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes passed away last week. I know little of their personal lives except they were ripped off and sued for royalties, and that the lead singer, Ronnie, married then divorced Spector. But I wondered how it was for them growing up in New York as mixed-race children. In Estelle's obituary, it reports that she and her sister, Ronnie, were black, American Indian and Irish, while the third member of their group, Nedra Talley, was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. In other words, throw in the kitchen sink! Yet these ladies' ethnicities was something that was never written about anywhere that I recall. It just wasn't an issue back in the day of One Drop Rule.

But here we are some 46 years after the Ronettes had their first hit, and things are changing. Next year, the U.S. Census will allow us, for only the second time in history, to choose more than one. Poor Estelle. Reading her obit, I wondered if any of her purported mental problems were caused by her inability to forge a racial identity. I'll never know.

Here's the link to the New York Times article:

And, here's a link to Janice Malone's Film Festival Radio show that I was interviewed on last week:

And, one more. Here's the link to the interview I did with Jaz Dorsey for AAPEX:

Okay, boys and girls. Keep the cards and letters coming. Watermelon Sushi is still casting, and we could be looking for you. So, go to Facebook and join the Hip Hapa Homeez group where you can read a copy of the casting call.

In honor of the Ronettes, that's a pix of me, above, looking my most Ronette-like self in the 1980's.

Your Hip Hapa,


scarlit said...

love the ronette's and love this post.

Yayoi Lena Winfrey said...

Aloha and mahalo nui loa for your comment, Scarlit! You're a very talented poet/writer, and I'm thrilled that you got something out of this blog posting. Thanks for taking the time to say so.

Your Hip Hapa,