Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The past is a funny thing. I spend a fair amount of time worrying about it, and yet I’m not sure it actually exists. Now exists. But the past? Whatever went before is simply gone. Why perseverate?

At least, that’s what I tell myself when my personal hamster wheel is running at full throttle.
Last week, I gave my “Highly Opinionated Public Tour” at the Seattle Art Museum. It was a lot of fun. I’m glad I participated, and I’m relieved that I was able to muster an opinion or two to share. Mostly, I’m pleased that I had a chance to talk about my favorite thing in the space – which is of course a knit hat.

Like others I’ve discussed here, the hat was created by someone in the Bamileke community of Cameroon. It is a stunning hat in blues and tans, with a feathered crown. This is a hat of substance.

Honestly, I’m not certain what draws me to these hats. It may be the way it obliterates any distinctions between authenticity and theatricality. It may also be that I’m simply a bit odd. But I think the most likely reason is that if appeals to my sense of history and the feeling that something may be missing from my HVAC-coddled, tofu eating, minivan driving, day-to-day life. It reminds me of something gritty, grimy and, just maybe, African.

Let me explain.

A few years back I set out on a genealogy kick. I knew quite a bit about the origins of my mother’s side of the family, but relatively little about my father’s side. But the Internet being what it is, it wasn’t long before I was able to dig up quite a few records. Among those records were census entries from the late 1800s. And in those entries were a few surprises. One, in particular, stood out. Shortly after the Civil War, my family was living in Putnam Hall, Florida.

To most of you, this fact will seem innocuous. But I’ve been to Putnam Hall. Several times in fact. And I’ve spoken with several elderly Floridians and amateur local historians. And my observations seem to jibe with their assessments. White people don’t seem to have ever lived in Putnam Hall.

Let me be clear. I am pale. My father is also. And my children, thanks to the influx of Mrs. TSMK’s genes, bear a striking resemblance to beings sculpted from a melange of Marshmallow Fluff and Liquid Paper. No one would ever mistake any of us for being black.

Yet there it is on the census form. And although it is possible, I’m prepared to dismiss as highly improbable the possibility that Putnam Hall in the late 1800s was a progressive community with members of all races, colors and creeds linking arms and working side-by-side in the fields.

So where does this leave me, a man with a deep love of African art and music? A man who enjoys playing the banjo – which is after all African in origin? A man whose choices in clothing seem often to cause disdain among Caucasian colleagues but almost always draw compliments from friends with a more ample supply of melanin? A man who harbors a not-so-secret desire to moonwalk with wild abandon at every opportunity? 

Was my great-great-great whatever, so many years ago, black?  Did he ultimately pass himself off as white?  And if so, what did he give up in order to make that transformation?  What part of himself did he leave behind?  What part of him is in me, today?  And what part of him am I trying to reclaim for my own?

I'll never know. But after doing the museum tour, I did know that I needed a new hat. Something Bamileke-inspired. So I made one. And I wear it. And when I do, my friends of Swedish and Norwegian descent look down at their shoes and struggle to avoid eye contact. But I don’t care. I’m from Putnam Hall.



  1. Putnam Hall is a long way, light years in fact, from Macon. Are you sure?

  2. I like your hat!!! Are those chubby dreads on it? Too cool! :) samm