Cultural Markers In Your Family Story

Cultural Markers are the things that you can see, smell, taste, hold in your hands, remember — that help tell your story.

Not too long ago, I learned that my DNA ‘Markers’ indicate I’m of Yoruba from Nigeria stock. I’m excited about this. Knowing where some, if not all, of my Ancestors came from is important in establishing my point of continuity in the world.

However, culture and DNA can take divergent paths. Disconnects can cause such divergence. In the case of my relatively recent Ancestors, who were victims of American slavery, that disconnect garnered a new sense for survival. Adjusting to new climates, terrain, new languages, new foods, new dress, new religions, and new social orders were necessary for that survival. That adjustment took place over a few centuries and it affected everyone. It affected everyone’s culture in the western hemisphere; Africans, Europeans, Native Americans, even Mexicans. It affected me.

My first five years were spent in the Black community of Binghamton, New York. I remember the Baptist church; hard bench pews and long sermons. I also remember Christ Episcopal church, which would eventually become our default place of worship. I remember seeing Black people, outside of my family, every day. I remember Reverend J.D. Blakey, the Black barber; he would get drunk on some milky concoction and jack up your haircut. I remember my first best friend, Bruce, who lived next door on Susquehanna Street. We would steal nickels and dimes out of our mothers’ purses to buy slice pizzas from the Italian store on the corner.

My father was a musician by night and custodian by day. I remember hanging out with my dad at Christopher Columbus Elementary school, his day job. My job was kindergarten which I attended in the morning. Often, instead of going home, I would stay and hang out with Dad. At the end of the day, he would take a shower at the school. I would too. We didn’t have shower capabilities at home, so I was one-up on my siblings who said I was spoiled. Mom was happy that we came home clean.

All of the neighbors would look out for one another. We were one of the ‘old Negro families’ of Binghamton, having established roots in the area before the turn of the 20th century.

The summer after kindergarten, 1956, we moved to the south side of Binghamton because an extension of the highway was going to be built right through the heart of the Black community and folks in its path had to relocate. We moved across the Susquehanna River and into another world full of European Americans that really didn’t include too many Black folks. All of my cultural markers were put on hold and I had to make adjustments in order to survive and grow.


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