Friday, October 5, 2007

Self-Image: The Past

Not long ago a question came up on my blog on how I see myself, or better yet how I identify myself. The short answer appears to the right on my blog introduction. Yet, the complex and more detailed answer falls into three categories: The Past, Present, and Future. I will write about each separately. Because I define myself first and foremost based on a cultural past. First, lets begin with my family's past and how it affects who I am today.

Maghrebi and Sephardic Jews (West Africa)

Part of my family was made of up Jews who came into various segments of West Africa in the Southern Sahara areas of Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania. In Arabic both North African and parts of West Africa were called the Maghreb/Maghrib meaning "West." West Africa, near the Niger river and to Senegal was often called Bilad es-Sudan i.e. Land of the Dark People.

This was before the modern borders were established so the areas where more fluid and were known as the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, and last the Songhay Empire. These Jews came from three different places and during various periods. The first group was made up Yemenite Jews who came around the 6th to 7th century CE.

North African Jewish Travel to the Ghana Empire

The next group was made up of North African Jews who came into Mali for trade during the 1200's, 1600's, and last 1800's. In all of these eras Jews initially married and converted women from the local West African populations.

Rabbi Mordechai aby Serour: Last Rabbi of Timbuktu, Mali

According to the Arabic record the Tarikh El-Fettash there was an army of Jews living in Tirdirma, Mali, near the Niger river, in 1402 CE. Manuscript C of the Tarikh (history) states that the Jews had an army of 1500, 7 rulers, and 333 wells. They were also the owners of various farming lands before the Sahara swept through.

Over time, due to persecution and changes in the trade environment many Jews left, some were killed during the Islamic persecutions of the late 1400's, while other mixed into the local populations. The parts of my family who left these areas during this upheaval was the Ever family and the Eliyahu ahl-Yahud de-Tazerwalet family. More history on this can be found here
and here.

Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria

There was another part of my family that was made up some unknown ethnic groups in and around Senegal. Much of the history on this part of the family has fallen to the sands of time, and as of yet I haven't been able to find more information on this. I simply know the areas they hailed from, mainly being areas where French is spoken now. This was due to searching out the family oral legends.

North & West African Regions my family settled in (6 CE to 1800's)

These locations were common to various members of both my father's and my mother's family. I concentrated more heavily on my father's side though. A few years ago in my search for the past I was adopted by an Igbo Nigerian family and I accepted some elements of their history as my own. Now, I have left that behind somewhat because of the new information I was able to find about my family. Yet, I do acknowledge that the Ilona family in Nigeria adopted me into their family, although I don't have any contact with them now.

Spanish Jews

My Great Great Grandfather Richard Lang

A part of my family was of mixed Spanish Jewish descent. This was the Lyons part of the family that married with the Lang part of the family. The Lang family was already mixed by the early 1800's and the Lyons family was mixed by the mid to late 1800's.

My Great Grandfather Shoham "Beryl" Lyons

By the time this part of the family made their way from the East Coast to the South (late 1800's) they were somewhat assimilated due to the social pressures of the time. Certain family members were able to retain their native Spanish and my father was the last to still speak Spanish fluently. This part of the family mixed with the part of the family that was from the Maghreb.

My Great Grandmother Huldah Lang-Lyons

Part of the Lyons family had left Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the late 1400's and traveled to Germany before they came to America. They started out in the Carolina's before some of them migrated south and west. More about Spanish Jewish mixture with Africans and African Americans can be found here.

French Creole

On my mother's side of the family, my great great grandfather Charles Knoble was mixed half French and half West African. We don't know where his mother was from, we know his father was French. When Charles Knoble was 12 he left home, on the East Coast, to start his own life and he eventually settled in the south.

My Great Great Grandfather Charles Knoble

He married a woman named Lettie Hayes, whom my grandmother claims was from India originally. I am not sure how true this is, since her name is not Indian. My grandmother may have mixed it up with one of the Native American ethnic groups.

African American or Black

I don't much go by these titles, since before my family was American they were something else. Much like the KRS-One song My Philosophy I am not Black, but brown in skin tone. I consider the term "black" a bit of a misnomer and I didn't use it personally. Both terms ignore the Maghrebi Jewish aspects of who I am, and because I know the locations where my family came from I prefer to identify with those.

Also Sephardic Jews lived in all the areas my family came from. So often use that as a title before I use African American. A Sephardic Jew can be a Jew of Spanish descent, African descent, and Middle Eastern descent. It depends on the Jewish culture their family connected with. The terms Black and African American are a bit vague for since they don't denote specific cultural nuances, and differences amongst various African American ethnic groups. See my previous post on this issue here.

At the same time I can identify with elements of the main-stream definition of being an African American. I was born in America and I did live and interact in a number of African American communities and cultures. There are parts of my family that identify with this more, and there are those who don't. It various from person to person and also on what they know about our family history.

The Total Package

I identify the most with this mixed ancestry since I believe in accepting the sum of my past, on a cultural level. Being born in America, I always hated how people often looked at me as a person without a past. At the same time it is difficult when so much of your family crosses a number of cultural lines. Yet, I knew on the religious side that the Judaic element would be the strongest since it has a stronger foundation for me. When I returned to Judaism back in 2000 it was because of the fact that I wanted to return to the ancient ways of the family. Being Jewish also did not denote denying other areas of my background since Jews have traveled and mixed with pretty much every population around the world. We also carry the cultural elements of who we are, while focusing on the religious reality of who we are.

Ehav Eliyahu Ever a Jew of Mixed Ancestry

See the next post on Self-Image The Present


Luscious Librarian said...

It truly is a blessing to be able to trace your ancestry back so far. So many people of so-called African-American descent can only go as far back as their parents can remember.

Ehav Ever said...

Hey LL,

Thanks for stopping by. To be honest with you I didn't know a lot about my family until about 5 years ago. I started asking questions to various family and then one door after another opened up. I found the really good stuff right before I left America. One of my uncles who married into the family was able to go back 8 generations, where they were born, when they were married, and where they were buried. I interviewed him about 2 years before he passed away.

Miriam said...

Hi Ehav. I agree w/ LL -its a blessing to know your heritage. Its also rare! I also tried to trace my family, but couldn't go far (not past the caribean island).

I'm also not crazy about the word "black" its hard to be just a color lol. but I understand, its a whole social structure. Anyway, I fear if I say too much not positive about this word, i'll be ostracized (like in high school lol)

Ehav Ever said...

Hey Miriam,

Have you ever tried DNA testing? I did a few years ago, I did it through a service that wasn't that good. I want to have it redone with Family Tree DNA. The last results seem to connect parts of DNA to Syria, India, and somewhere in Europe. It is funny to think last year when I was on the border with Lebanon some Arabs there kept calling me Suri (supposedly) Syrian.

I understand about the ostracized about the use of the word Black. Been there and done that. The problem I have with, besides the skin tone issue, is that it means SO MANY different things to SO MANY DIFFERENT people.

Anonymous said...

wow thats amazing life is so interesting i wish i could figure out about my ancestors wow thats amazing!!

Anonymous said...

I am doing some research on Rabbi Mordechia Aby Serour. He had three brothers Esau, Avraham and Yitzhaq.One of the brothers had a wife by the name of Oumou Moussa.If you have any information about this could you please relay it to me. Thank you, Curt Meyer contact