“who’s your mob?’ is an Aboriginal English term for ‘who are your people?’
I have been watching a television series called Faces of America (2010). The show was written and hosted by Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr. Dr Gates traced the family history of twelve well-known Americans.
Dr Gates acknowledged his own anxiety, disappointment, and confusion about not being able to identify his great great grandfather, a white man that his African American great great grandmother never named. Similarly, there was grief and loss over the inability to trace his African heritage.
Dr Elizabeth Alexander was one of the guests on the series. Her white heritage was traced back to King John I of England and Charlemagne. Her African heritage is lost to her, and she expressed this as a sadness and an “eternal longing” for so many black people. Although tests on her DNA revealed that she has 66% white European heritage, her skin colour and appearance designate her as an African American.
Eva Longoria, who expressed pride in her Indigenous Mexican heritage, found that her ancestors were primarily Spanish. Mike Nicholls, from Jewish heritage, and Dr Mehmet Oz, from Muslim heritage, share the same ancient ancestors. Yo Yo Ma is 100% Asian and due to the Chinese people’s meticulous record keeping can trace his ancestors back a long way. Some of the guests spoke about knowing within themselves, in their bones so to speak, about unspoken aspects of their heritage. Meryl Streep said “I am the sum of all these people”, meaning her ancestors and their journey.
The show resonated with me. As a child, when people asked me why my white skin would turn so dark without burning or peeling, I would reply “I am Aboriginal” . I was always deeply interested in Aboriginal culture. My mother always told me that her grandmother was black. I will never know who my great great grandfather was, except to say he was a black man. On my great grandmother’s birth certificate are the names of a white man and a white woman, her mother married a white man and gave birth to a black child. The line ends there, with a great big STOP sign. My great grandmother’s four siblings, born after her, were white. There is not a single photograph of my great grandmother, despite my mother living with her for the first six years of her life.
I am interested too in the journey as Meryl Streep mentioned. There is something called the ‘dominant storyline’ in people’s lives and in the stories of their family. The dominant storyline is not always a good one. In the type of work I do, we can help people trace their disadvantage through a tool called a genogram. It’s not rocket science, it’s just like a family tree but we record medical history, mental health problems, separation, trauma, etc., experienced throughout the generations. Trauma and sadness can have a cumulative effect. Many of us have free will, but we are inclined to follow the patterns set by our ancestors, often without being conscious of it. I like to record the strengths on the genogram also, as that is the ‘alternate storyline’, the one that can provide hope and change.
In my own family, I can trace the transmission of trauma on my father’s side back to my great grandfather serving in World War I at Ypres in France. Photographs of that battlefield reveal it as no less than a hell hole. He lasted seventeen days, and returned as damaged goods, setting a pattern of dysfunction and poor mental health that had a ripple effect through subsequent generations. Lots of Jewish, Cambodian, Sudanese, Haitian, Rwandan, former Yugoslav, people have far worse and more recent stories.
An Aboriginal elder, told me years ago, that when he went into the juvenile detention centres to teach yidaki (didgeridoo) to the male Aboriginal youth, they picked it up very quickly. With its circular breathing, it is a very difficult instrument to learn. The Elder said that the boys heritage was so strong it was calling and guiding them to play yidaki.
Identity is a complex and intriguing phenomena, and so it seems is the history of our families. People who don’t know their heritage, suffer from loss, a sense that they don’t belong. The need to belong is very strong in people. People who do know their heritage, and who have the time to analyse it, can see how their ancestry plays out in their own lives. It is interesting to reflect upon. With Western society’s emphasis on individuation we can sometimes forget that our family history, the trials and tribulations, the journey of our ancestors influences us in a myriad of ways.