Jane writes: 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.
Excerpted from Statement Concerning Ethnic Identity accessed 8/2/08.