Black Indians: An American Story (2001)
An American Story
Black Americans (2001) deals with a race issue that does not involve large numbers. It has to do with people who are of mixed heritage containing both Black and Red. It is narrated by James Earl Jones and interspersed with personal recollections and professorial comments. It is not an online class or anything so white-knuckled academic as to cause alarm. Still, it pays to bear in mind certain facts and figures that come into view by way of narration, commentary, or interview. By 1750, for instance, Black Indians were already a known entity on the North American demographic map. An 18th century document refers to a mulatto of "indefinite pigmentation", probably a Black Indian. By then, Blacks and Reds could share and compare stories of persecution and servitude. In Florida, Blacks and Seminoles formed an alliance against a common, White, predatious enemy. As one professor points out, Indians and Blacks did not enjoy a "natural kinship". Yet they intermarried, and their offspring, then as now, were and are, difficult to ascertain.
It goes without saying that Black Indians are subject to a particularly vile form of racism that can be likened to a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways, up and down, side to side. The unique gene-pools of Black Indians make them doubly vulnerable. Both Blacks and Indians must confront a world at large that is often unfriendly without a rational explanation. At home, a Black Indian might be singled out for dodging his or her own racial composition by claiming to be an Indian. The situation is complex and ultimately shows how despite a so-called enlightened age, old and primitive prejudices doggedly hang on. But the source of the greatest trouble is that caste systems, mentioned in the film, are maintained in order to protect an elite. Needless to say, influential groups, associations, organizations, and close-knit-societies mostly consist of White men and women of privilege. This has changed considerably over the years, but the same principles by which White Supremacy once unapologetically ruled are still alive and well, if altered, camouflaged, and refashioned. That is to say, even in a more meritorious democracy, the Virginia pedigrees somehow always prevail.
Every scorned minority has many significant stories to tell. It may seem as if by now all that can be said on the subject, barring an infinite amount of variation, has been told. This is not the reality. Black Indians need to be heard and without the advent of low-budget dvd's, it is difficult to imagine how their sufferings as well as healings could otherwise have been brought to light. As the film suggests, deeper topics having to do with Black Indians include blood versus culture, ethnicity versus race, and pure versus polluted blood. The hysterical tug-of-war between one blood against another is neither sublime nor ridiculous. It is instead totally incomprehensible. It may seem as though only the ignorant are susceptible to wholesale, judgmental inferences based exclusively on racial composition, but alas, this, too, is not the case.
What is to be done? Nothing, actually, for now, except to allow the information on this dvd to pass into the realms of collective consciousness. The politics of victimhood are extremely unpleasant. Moreover, Black Indians is not all negative. Paul Cuffe is a prime example. He was a New England Black Indian who became a ship captain in the late 1700s. He was successful in whaling and went twice to Sierra Leone, West Africa, where he wanted to transport freed slaves. Admittedly, the identificatory, classificatory names involved are tongue twisters: Mashantuckett Pequot, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Naragansett, and Wampanoag, for instance. But some tribes are much more familiar. This breakdown into precise anthropological units makes one wonder just how hyphenated or minutely delineated any individual can possibly be. African roots can also be further refined according to region, dialect, tradition, and epoch. How far any people should be dissected for the sake of science or any other field of inquiry is an open question.
The backdrop against which Black and Red is contrasted is almost always, in mainstream America, White, if not 99 and 44/100ths percent. But it serves a purpose, however obscure, to point out that most Whites are also vulnerable to discrimination by hierarchically superior Whites. Few of whatever purity or mixture will ever visit firsthand the hallowed corridors and chambers of the back-room bandits who, it would seem, steal dreams away and electronically manipulate feelings and thoughts. As a result, it is much more practical, if unromantic, to bond with the disenfranchised than the empowered of this great nation. Either way, there are inequalities in the overall social fabric that are as persistent as they are annoying.
They make one wonder. Diversity, multiculturalism, and simple tolerance are the only viable paths to follow in today's world unless the choice is deliberately made to regress into the bitternesses that culminated in the horrors of the twentieth century. In sum, Black Indians steers viewers into what could be the best direction for the years ahead. Who are we? Getting to know and understand one's own national neighbors is no doubt a fascinating if utopian route leading, it is hoped, toward a stronger and fairer and much less hostile domestic environment. The Kingdom of Heaven, American style, cannot be built on prayers alone. And, it goes without saying, it will include Black Indians.
The research, photographic, and location credits herein are formidable: Cherokee National Cultural Research Center in Tahlequah OK, Dartmouth College in Hanover NH, the Sepia Photographic Collection in Dallas, and the National Archives of the Southwest Region in Ft. Worth, for example. Also, the American Antiquarian Society in Boston and the Collection of the African American Museum Library in Oakland. As one interviewee comments, "some of us are walking melting pots". So they is. More to the point, their biographies are invaluable. All in all, mysteriously, American democracy, however flawed, somehow works. Heterogeneity is not just acceptable; it is gaining in power and overtaking the homogeneous good-ole-boyism of every nook and cranny, nightmare alley and dead end. Documentaries, too, as a whole, are far more critical than their skimpy box office data would imply.