Black Indian is not an easy read.
Author Shonda Buchanan challenges the reader not just with the history of violence and abuse that surrounded her childhood, but the history of past generations—delving into her heritage and the country’s injustices against people of color to give more than a personal portrait of the Black experience in America while touching on themes of shared trauma and identity. What surprised me the most while reading Black Indian was how little I knew about the history of this country. I was reminded of that again when I met with Shonda for the interview. Her memoir opened my eyes further about Black experience—and the experience of living as a person of color in the United States—is much vaster and more complex than we believe.
A poet, lecturer, and professor, Buchanan penned two collections of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians?, and Equipoise: Poems from Goddess Country. Buchanan’s work has been featured in a number of anthologies. She is a Writing Arts Sundance Institute Fellow, a Jentel Artist Fellow, and PEN USA Emerging Voices Alum.
I met with Shonda in late July to talk about her memoir, her family’s stories and writing as an act of resistance.
The Rumpus: Is this your first memoir?
Shonda Buchanan: Yes. But I plan on writing at least two more, possibly three. This book, Black Indian, is a prayer for my family. This is my ten-year book, which is interesting because I wrote this alongside my novel. I wrote them simultaneously. When I finished it, I realized that I was telling a mother/daughter story, the niece/aunt story, and then with my daughter, I’m telling how I am trying to save her from the things that I experienced as a child. But then I realized I hadn’t told my story about my journey to spirituality and into African and Indian traditions. That story happens through relationships with men. The other memoir I’m working on is the story of my nephews and the men in my family.
Rumpus: So it would be like a companion piece for Black Indian.
Buchanan: Yes. It’s possibly a trilogy. [Laughs]
Rumpus: It sounded like there is more within the book that you want to explore. I know you’re also a poet, but since we are starting with the memoir, I thought we could talk a bit more about the family history. How much research did you have to do on your own?
Buchanan: I did so much research. The impetus for the story began with my mother saying when I was young, “You have some Indian in you, some French and German and a little bit of Black.” There was always [that] oral history in our family… and I used to think, But look at us… we’re called Black, we’re called African American, we’re not called American Indians. What does that mean? When I was sixteen or seventeen, I wrote in a journal that I wanted to find my American Indian ancestry. When I moved to Hampton, Virginia, it became the perfect opportunity.
Here in LA, it was more of my poetry-forming phase. When I got to Virginia, it felt like my heritage phase; I could actually start really researching the people. I started going to this free genealogy center at the Hampton Public Library. You could be on Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org as long as you wanted. Plus, they had all of these state and federal Census books from different centuries. That was the time of shaping and forming Black Indian as a book. I traced the Manuel side of the family to Sampson County, North Carolina and the Coharie tribe, and the Stafford side to Hertford County, North Carolina where there were Cherokee and Meherrin Indian villages. I traced us to the Eastern Band Cherokee too. My Staffords, Roberts, and Manuels are listed on the Guion Miller African Cherokee rolls.
Rumpus: How do you know when to stop when you have so much research?
Buchanan: I think depending on the length of the project is when you know how to stop. If you are writing a twenty-page paper, you can get maybe five pages of actual in-text citation from that piece of research. So what are the most salient aspects that you need?
I wrote an article on ethnicity for The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. I literally had twenty books in front of me and I was online looking at valid resources, but ultimately it became a chapter—thirty pages. And if I had twenty books, I couldn’t cite every book. I cited them in the bibliography and Works Cited section, but there were particular texts that I use that helped me form my argument. I can kind of see my trajectory, but if it’s a longer project, I have to tell the backstory, even if I’m not using facts and statistics. I look at the length of the project and then I think about the scope of how much backstory to put in there, how much of the narrative to buffer and make the statistics and the data come alive. It’s a lot.
Rumpus: Especially when you’re writing about your own story. It’s hard to know when to talk about the history and talk about the family, and I think you did a good job.
Buchanan: Thank you, I appreciate that. I took out a lot of history though. My editor said, “There’s some things that people will have to go to an academic book for.” And I thought, “Okay, I guess I can put that in an actual academic book.”
Rumpus: When I got to the second part of the book, I felt the meat of the story is the mother/daughter and the niece/aunt relationships. There’s a lot to unpack there. One thing I noticed was the anger. It got really intense. I had to put the book down for a moment.
Buchanan: What parts did you put it down?
Rumpus: The overall cycle of abuse, that was the strongest part. That must have been hard for you to write.
Buchanan: It was. It was hard to revisit even when I got my books yesterday and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to set aside a time to read this work and cry.” But there were moments where I’m writing about abuse and I’m reliving stories like the moment when my nephew and I have that fight. And the embarrassment and the anger all rolled up into one. Yes, there’s a lot of anger, but there’s also a lot of love. There’s also a lot of ostracizing people for their weaknesses, but then there’s a pickup, there’s, “You know what? You’re going to be all right.” [Laughs] So that’s kind of how I survived as a kid and how we survived. It was a storm underneath. There’s something that’s going to happen, but we can survive it, and I think I kind of grew up with that sensibility.
Rumpus: I really did like when you said about your aunt, Erma, that she “turned feral” and I felt empowered for a moment when I read that part. I knew at some point all of that anger has to come out dealing with that trauma. I’m assuming you had to talk to your mother and your aunts about this. Was it hard?
Buchanan: It was hard talking to my mother over the years. One winter, I had gone specifically to interview my family and she had told me, “I’m not gonna talk to you.” Then my Aunt Erma said, “Just hide the recorder. She wants to talk to you, just put the recorder someplace, she knows that you’re here to do this. Take her for a drive.” I put the recorder in my sweatshirt and then we were driving and… I was asking her questions. And then we saw that deer, and I juxtaposed the deer being hit with my mother’s molestation. She read the first draft, but I don’t think she read the draft with that in it. Or maybe she didn’t read it because she can decide whether or not she wants to read it.
My Aunt Erma was the most talkative. My Aunt Mildred was the one who hid a lot of stuff. It was so weird and so odd to watch her. You could tell that she really, as we say in my family, didn’t give two shits. Maybe there was a little mental illness there, I’m not sure. I think that we’re all suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome based off of how we grew up. So I interviewed those three, but my Aunt Phyllis died before I could interview her. I tell her part of the story through the funeral, through coming home for that, into that death scene.
I have to send three copies: one to my aunt, one to my mom, and one to my sister, and thank them for allowing me to tell a story, which is our story. It is the story of a lot of people in America in terms of addiction and abuse and the things that we don’t talk about. At the same time, it’s the Black American’s story. Black people who are mixed and who say they have the “Indian” in them or who’ve researched that Indian in them because of the experience of enslavement mixed with the Indian Holocaust. Yet I’m a strong Black woman, and I will say this again and again. I will never deny that I belong to Black culture. But at the same time, it’s not the whole story.
Rumpus: In your author’s note, you say, “My book is an attempt to expand, reclaim, and celebrate the narratives of the African American experiences as well as the American Indian experiences.” And when I was reading it, there were some moments I was going, “I didn’t have the same experience as you, but there are some parallels,” like that battle with who you are. You knew a bit about your family history, whereas me, I didn’t know much.
Buchanan: As kids we’ve got those imaginations that contribute to the formation of our identity. If you know where you come from, you have more information rather than less information. But the thing about our particular community is that a lot of people purposefully “forgot” things they didn’t want to talk about because it was too hard. It’s too hard to talk about being on the migration trail or bushwhackers taking your people back to slavery or the active enslavement itself—this is the inheritance of Black people in America, the inheritance of Mixed bloods in America. We have a lot of unanswered things that don’t get answered until we do our research. And it could be a lifelong pursuit.
Rumpus: So when you come up with an idea for a story, how would you know which genre to write it in?
Buchanan: I think about what it will look like as a book, or a poem, or a movie because we have the ability now to turn so many things into online content. Last year, when that white man stabbed Nia Wilson and her sister… I’m thinking, Okay, I have to do an anthology and have other Black women talk about what it means to experience this kind of random, blatant undercurrent of violence against us and against our bodies. I’ve been holding onto this idea for a year, and then finally I was like, “You know what, just write this as a poem. Just get it out first.”
I wrote the poem with the same title for the anthology that I want. I wanted this poem out. And then as I’m looking at it, I’m thinking, Well, you probably should do your own book of poetry about this as well. Because even though the women, the people who you ask, can do their essays and their poems, you still have more to say.
Buchanan: My girlfriends and I, we joke, “Why can’t we write happy, flowery, comedic stuff?” I save that for my screenplays. And I know I’ve got some humor in here, because there were moments when it was like, “This is too hard, we got to laugh! We got to survive!” Life in America for a woman of color, for a Black woman—we are so full of love and vivaciousness. Shit spins on us. Things won’t happen unless we’re doing it, unless we’re making stuff happen. But at the same time, our lives are hard. We have the heritage of our bodies as commodity, our bodies as economy. I try to write work that deals with the resilience. I try to look at the ugly, but I also look at the beautiful. I know this is the moment where you exist and it’s hard right here, but this is the moment, past that ugliness and past the pain and this is what it can look like. I try to incorporate some of the beauty in that. But I come back to like a reality. I’m also thinking, How can I teach my next generation? I’m fifty, so the forty-year-olds and then the thirty-year-olds and the twenty-year-olds, want to know, “How can we do it better? How can you skip that hurdle?” or, “How can you not experience this?”
Rumpus: You talk about biracial [identities]. There were moments of internalized self-hatred and colorism in the book. It’s very loaded topic. It should be talked about, but I don’t see people talking about it that often.
Buchanan: When I worked at Hampton University, my students would write a paper on colorism. Particularly the darker-skinned students would talk about how a boy would come up to them and say, “You’re cute for a dark-skinned girl.” And I’m like, “Wow, that happens? Like, still? Why do we do that to ourselves?”
There is that schism of whatever the stereotypes are about that other ethnicity that you belong to, you’ll start to internalize those and you start to hate Black people or hate Mexican people or hate white people. Not even just hate, but ostracize or not say anything. I think that self-hatred in the Black community has connections to slavery. In American Indian communities, the sense of the self-hatred and the self, the lack of knowing manifests in the high rates of suicide and alcoholism and abuse on reservations. I think that the history of American Indians in this country directly manifests itself in the murders of American Indian women.
American Indian women are the most murdered women in our country and people don’t know that. Black women in this country are more likely to die from an abusive partner than other women in this country. People don’t know that. I think that self-hatred manifests in all these really traumatic ways. I go back to the feeling of not knowing where you come from forces a schism, it forces a rupture in your psyche. The duality [of] having another ethnicity that you belonged to and that you don’t claim… it just exacerbates the schism since it’s difficult, particularly as a kid because kids are cruel.
There’s a section in my book [where] I call this biracial kid the N-word, and as I was writing that, I cried. I was like, You were horrible just because you had a crush on him. You knew how to hurt him. Why is it that we will go to that first? We will go to race because race is your identity in this country, and ethnicity is your identity in this country. We have been taught that is a way to hurt people. That is still a reason that people are being hurt, are being pulled over or being shot in the streets.
Rumpus: We talked about the cycle of abuse earlier and moving to LA. Do you feel that you broke that cycle in your family?
Buchanan: I removed myself from the violence. I didn’t escape. I gave myself a way out by being here and staying here. For the first few years that I lived here, I would always go back home, but then I would always be like, “I’m so glad I live in LA.” But particularly as a writer and a writer of nonfiction, I have realized that I didn’t actually escape anything until I had the courage to write about it. And I have the courage to confront the thing that I thought I was escaping. And then also to look at the writing as cathartic, as something that wouldn’t necessarily free me from it or allow me to escape from it, but it would allow me to exist alongside it.
I said in the beginning that the book is a prayer for my family. I’m hoping that this book helps, becomes a kind of a balm. A writer said, I think it was Alice Walker or Zora Neale Hurston, not sure, that a person will give you their story, their painful story, but they’ll also give you the balm. They’ll give you the thing that hurts them, but then they also give you the thing that can help you heal or help them heal.
Photograph of Shonda Buchanan by Nelson Abraham. Black Indian’s cover features author Shonda Buchanan dancing at Hampton Roads Virginia Pow Pow, photographed by Tracy Roberts.