October 17, 2010


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I have an odd hobby.  I'm fascinated by the relationship between geography and phenotype. I'm amazed that you can reliably predict someone's national ancestry just by looking at them.

In pursuit of my hobby, I've aggregated thousands of hours of National Geographic,  6 o'clock news, PBS, and Discovery channel footage into a tidy mental database of phenotypes and their corresponding national origins. This database undergirds my odd hobby and it also compels me to ask people who look like they are from distant lands to explain what distant land they are from exactly.

Unfortunately, Detroit proper doesn't offer many opportunities to ply my passion. Most of us are from the distant land of Alabama.  But every now and again, I encounter someone with features that suggest a more exotic lineage.

Such an opportunity arose when I was out on a Saturday night last week engaging in some uncharacteristic nocturnal socializing. I was at the launch party for my man Mike Han's Street Culture Mash lifestyle brand when in walked a young woman whose rich, deep, dark skin and full features suggested a lineage that circumvented the miscegenation of the historic American south.

I told her about the project, pulled her aside and prepared to pull her into conversation about her heritage. Only question was how to do it tackfully...

The thing is, I sometimes find it difficult to gauge what is and isn't tactful in polite conversation. A sentence can sound perfectly charming in my head. But when I say it, I will often evoke this expression that is a combination of anger, confusion, and a spastic, truncated headshake that I can best describe as what a face would look like if you could press the reset button on someone's brain.

That said, I wasn't sure what kind of response I would get when I finally broached the topic of ethnicity with Chinelo:

"Where are you from? I ask because they haven't made any America Negros your complexion since 1883…"

Now anyone with a lesser understanding of culture and history may have been off put by my phrasing. Luckily, Chinelo was well-equipped to see the humor in my question. Turns out she studies anthropology at Wayne State University.

My own ancestry probably further put the question in its correct humorous context. I am a black American with the lips and nose of a Ghanian and the complexion of a Scotsman. I embody the mix of slave and slavemaster that defines most American Negros manufactured after 1883. The comment was as much an observation about my own heritage as it was about Chinelo's.

She simply laughed and explained that her parents were from Nigeria.

The light at Mike's event was less than ideal. Me and Chinelo (who I called "chill-mellow" for at least 15 minutes before realizing my mnemonic device was completely errant) decided to meet a couple of days later under hopefully better lighting conditions.

We did in fact meet and the late afternoon, cloudy sky provided some nice, soft, diffuse side lighting for the portrait you see above. A light grey building behind Chinelo help me realize the red-accented neutral palette that I visualized when I first met Chinelo.

While making a few frames, me and Chinelo talked about what it was like to grow up as an African among African-Americans in Detroit. We talked about the sense of limbo a lot of people feel in that circumstance where they aren't traditional enough for people from the homeland and not assimilated enough for people in the newly adopted culture. Which led me to wonder if most black people in Detroit could even tell she was from abroad just by looking at her.

"Nope. No one ever really notices just from looking at me"

"That's what happens when you watch more BET than you do PBS…" 

[View the ongoing project and meet more of: The People of Detroit ]


Sam I Am said...

"I embody the mix of slave and slavemaster that defines most American Negros manufactured after 1883." That line did it for me, that's where I lost it and laughed loudly at work and had folks looking at me. "Manufacture" Noah, It wasn't so much the opening line to her about her lineage. That made me laugh too.

You are indeed a nut and if I didn't know you, I'd be shaking my head. But all I could do was laugh during this whole story.

Scottknight said...

You claim that you're so educated, but education is usually reflected by a higher income (if you need references to prove this fact, just ask).  But, not in your case since it does not seem that you can afford a proofreader to correct the grammatical errors in your posts.  Or maybe your education was so substandard that you do not understand grammer or know that you do not use big words just to be using them. 

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hi Scott,

You're right. I do not understand "grammer"... mostly because "grammer" isn't a word [https://www.google.com/search?aq=f&sugexp=chrome,mod=10&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=grammer].

Thanks again for looking in on the project!

- Noah

a. said...

Contrary to the comments below, I really enjoyed this post. I have my biases- I am the daughter of two immigrants, and being first generation in this country really changes your perspective on things.

I can relate to this post, and I appreciate that you understand this place isn't much of a melting pot; that we all retain our respective cultures, and how they start to fade away- what we hold on to, and what gets blurred- is a part of how we chose to identify ourselves. There aren't many people who can grasp that. Kudos.

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hey A.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. I've long been fascinated by people who summon the courage to immigrate to a strange place and start life anew. I also think its interesting to examine what happens when people of disparate culture backgrounds occupy the space.

- Noah