So often I run across people who are either engaged in a process of forging their own identity. Less often with someone living with the fallout of a parent or grandparent having done it.
Brando Skyhorse’s mother told him his father was Paul Skyhorse Johnson, a Native American political activist. Really, his father was, like his mother, Mexican. “His mother, Maria, dreaming of a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live his life as a Mexican just because he started out as one.”
I think we’re just in the beginning phase of learning to respond to stories like this one. In an homogeneous, traditional culture the problem can hardly come up. Everyone has the same background, and if they don’t their tie to whatever it is will be stark and simple.
In our modern world, not only can identity be a problem but it can also be more complex. For example, Skyhorse being “really” Mexican means in all likelihood, that he still has a substantial quanta of indigenous ancestry. Not only from his father but also from his father. When his mother gave him a different father, she didn’t eliminate his indigenous ancestry. She gave him an indigenous ancestry north of the border rather than south of border.
Then too, the idea of identity malleability seems to be almost uniquely American. There is an underlying essentialist view. If I can find a genetic link to another culture then I can claim that identity, no matter how far back it was. If you point out that I haven’t changed anything about my own history as a middle class WASP, well then, you’re just a hater and have obviously missed the entire point of tolerance and diversity.
I don’t think we’ve found the answer, even though many of the people I know have strong feelings on the subject. I suspect the answer, when we find it, will center around personal history and participation rather than biology. My sense is that somehow this subject will turn out to be analogous to adoption. In every meaningful way, the adopted child is the child of their adoptive parents not their biological parents.
- NPR Staff, “‘Take This Man’: Uncovering A Mother’s Reinventions” (), NPR: All Things Considered.
- Brando Skyhorse, Take This Man: A Memoir (2014).