We Aren’t Who We Think We Are

Collage of images of the Donnella family, dating back three generations.
LA Johnson
Collage of images of the Donnella family, dating back three generations.

LA Johnson

In my thoughts, it began out as a love story. My great-grandparents met in 1920s New Orleans, on the top of the Jazz Age. Lottie Young, was a black girl from Louisiana. Harrison Donnella was an Italian man — an immigrant from Sicily, because the story goes. My household by no means knew a lot about their courtship, so all through my life I made up particulars as vital: the 2 of them assembly up at dance halls, strolling alongside the Mississippi, sharing a beignet.

Map of New Orleans, La. LA Johnson disguise caption

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Of course, as with every epic love story, there was an issue. Interracial marriage was unlawful at the moment in Louisiana, so so long as they stayed in New Orleans, they could not be collectively. So, as I pictured it, one evening Lottie and Harrison stole off and made their option to Chicago. In Chicago, they began a brand new life. They acquired married, had two children (my great-uncle, John, and my grandfather, Joseph,) and will lastly stay collectively in peace. Happily ever after.

Harrison Donnella’s draft registration card. LA Johnson disguise caption

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The writer’s grandmother and father in Chicago, circa 1956. LA Johnson disguise caption

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But over time, one thing just a little unusual occurred. On some official paperwork, my white, Italian great-grandfather began to be known as “colored,” or Black. Then once more, that made a form of sense, too. Even although interracial marriage was technically authorized in Illinois at the moment, it was unusual and never significantly sanctioned. So it could have been no large shock for a person from Southern Italy to begin mixing into blackness. He had a black household, lived in a black neighborhood, and despatched his children to black colleges. And in addition to, black individuals are available all shades and appearances. In Chicago, on the flip of the 20th century, an Italian man may simply change into black. So Harrison did. That’s how the story goes.

Rather, that is how the story went. Until not too long ago.

***

Every household has a fable — in some circumstances, a complete mythology — about the place they got here from and who they’re. And there are lots of causes individuals inform these tales. Sometimes it is as a result of they genuinely do not know the reality, in order that they exaggerate, or make one thing up. Sometimes it is to make your loved ones seem to be they have been a part of an vital historic occasion. Sometimes it is to skirt round a shameful historical past. And different occasions, it is to cover one thing that’s too painful to speak about.

I wasn’t certain why this specific fable — the parable of my great-grandparents — had developed. But I knew it was a fable. My dad, Michael Donnella, found some holes within the story as a younger man, when he went to New Orleans on a piece journey, again within the ’70s. In his spare time, he determined to go to the general public library, to see if he may discover any details about his grandparents. One of the issues he discovered was a delivery certificates for Harrison. An American delivery certificates. When he stored wanting, he discovered data for Harrison’s dad and mom. They have been each American, too.

Turns out, Harrison wasn’t an immigrant from Italy. Wasn’t the kid of Italians. If he had any Italian heritage in any respect, it could have been a number of generations out.

Joseph Donnella, the writer’s grandfather. LA Johnson disguise caption

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Joseph Donnella, the writer’s grandfather.

LA Johnson

So a few 12 months in the past, my dad and I made a decision to dig into the parable just a little deeper. To discover out the reality, as soon as and for all: Was Harrison Donnella a light-skinned black man, passing as Italian? Was he a white man, assumed to be black? Was the confusion about his identification imposed by different individuals? Or was there one thing about his previous that he was making an attempt to cover?

This search was vital to me as a result of, as a Black girl, I do know that a lot about my ancestry can by no means be recognized. My dad’s facet of the household is descended from enslaved individuals. I’ve at all times recognized that in a imprecise form of manner, at the back of my thoughts. We come from Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana. But there are such a lot of issues I do not know.

Donnella, backside proper, along with her dad and mom, Amy and Michael, and siblings, Sarah, David and Anna. LA Johnson disguise caption

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Black Americans descended from slaves aren’t alleged to have a historical past. We’re not even alleged to exist, actually. I’ll possible by no means know which components of Africa my ancestors have been taken from. I will not communicate the languages they spoke. I will not know what these languages are. But some accident of historical past gave me a final title that is truly fairly unusual — one which I may use to trace down a small a part of my household’s historical past.

So, with these questions in thoughts, my dad and I headed for New Orleans. There, we strolled alongside the Mississippi, ate beignets, and tracked down the whole lot we may about Harrison, Lottie, and our ancestors.

The solutions we discovered stretch all the way in which again to the antebellum South And they utterly blew up the whole lot that I, and my dad, and my household, believed about who we’re.

To hear the remainder of Leah’s story, take heed to this week’s episode of the Code Switch podcast. It was produced with assist from NPR’s Story Lab.

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