Actor Isaiah Washington, former star of the hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy, always wondered where his family originally came from. DNA testing revealed that he is a descendent of the Mende people, who today live in Sierra Leone. In his new memoir, "A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life," he explores his African ancestry. Read an excerpt.
Chapter 1: “What Part of Africa Are You From?”
For most of my life I have walked the streets of cities such as New York, DC, Chicago, Houston, LA, and others. I have traveled around the world, spending time in countries such as Germany, the Philippines, Japan, England, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, France, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Sweden. Yet, while each of these places is very different, no matter where I traveled there was one thing that was always the same: everywhere I went, native Africans asked me, “What part of Africa are you from?” On buses, on planes, on the sets of my acting gigs, inevitably someone would stop and tell me I looked just like a close relative from West Africa.
I would reply as I always did, “I was born in Houston, Texas.” And each time they would look at me as if I were lying. After each encounter, I was always left with a feeling that these Africans knew something that I didn’t. I prayed that one day I would understand what it was they saw in me, what it was that made them believe I was from Africa.
“Gimme yo’ money, you punk–ass faggot! Whatchu got?” One of the Frazier sisters shoved me to the ground. I was six years old and had just started walking myself to school. My mother would give me an extra quarter to buy a snack to go with my lunch, and every day, without fail, one of the Frazier sisters would beat me up and take it away from me.
The Frazier sisters were two light–skinned black girls from my neighborhood. Because my complexion was darker, many, including the Frazier sisters and their family, perceived me and my family as poor. They acted as if they were superior to me and took it upon themselves to subjugate me by calling me names like “little black monkey,” “black sambo,” “frog eyes,” and “black boy” as they harassed me daily for my school money. They acted as if in order to walk the streets I had to “pay them a toll.” They felt they owned the neighborhood because they were light skinned and perceived as better off than my darker–skinned self.
I was a laid–back, scrawny little kid with toothpick legs and kinky hair. I always avoided confrontations, even when they came right at me. I fought with my older sister, but when it came to anyone else, I was docile. I always ducked. Even though they were just a few years older, to me the Frazier sisters seemed like giants.
One day my grandmother, who we called Muh’ Dear, happened to see what they were doing to me. As usual, the sisters had taken my money and taunted me all the way to the front gate of Muh’ Dear’s house. I walked up the front steps to the screen door, but when I tried to open it, it was locked. My grandmother stood right behind it and looked down at me, her eyes steeled with a hardness I had seen her reserve only for what she called the “triflin’ass Negroes” in the neighborhood.
“You been runnin’ home almost every day,” she said. “It stops now.”
“Muh’ Dear, please?” I pleaded.
“No!” she said sternly.
I turned around and saw that the Frazier sisters were still standing at the gate. They were smirking at the fact that my grandmother was quietly scolding me. But they wouldn’t have been smiling if they could have heard what she was saying. “If you don’t fight those girls standing at my gate talkin’ shit, you will never come in this house again.”
I was afraid of the sisters for sure, but I was even more afraid of my grandmother. I tried to open the screen door again, but it wouldn’t budge. Her foot was propped up against it. She was serious.
“Mickey,” she said, using my family’s nickname for me, “you betta get them nasty heifers out from in front of my gate.”
That fifteen–step walk from the porch back to the gate felt like a mile. My eyes were already tearing up. I believed, one way or the other, my life was going to end. I slowly pushed open the gate.
“Whatchu want, punk–ass faggot?”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and swung my Hee Haw metal lunch box as hard and as fast as I could. Fear turned to fire, or else I just got lucky, because my swings connected. I hit them both. I felt the vibration from the blows through my lunch box as they screamed and cried out. I opened my eyes to see them running off down the road.
I looked down at myself. My shirt was a little ripped, but otherwise there was no damage except to the thermos whose shiny glass insulation had cracked into a million pieces when it flew out of my lunch box and hit the ground. I didn’t feel proud or boastful. I only did what I had to do to garner some respect.
I walked up to the gate, up the steps, and found Muh’ Dear standing there with the screen door wide open. She didn’t say a word. She just gave me a simple nod as I walked past her into the kitchen.
My grandmother Savannah Mae Holmes was the true matriarch of the family and a culinary genius. She could “throw down” in the kitchen, as the kids say. She loved and doted on me, but she was also as tough as nails.
My grandmother despised the Frazier girls and their “light–skinned” family. They were a constant reminder of how she herself was treated badly by her two lighter–skinned sisters. Although her sister and my Aunt Gussie never treated me poorly when I spent summers with them in Conroe, Texas, I do remember being interrogated by Muh’ Dear about being spoiled by my “highfalutin” grandaunt. Muh’ Dear said her cooking was better than my Aunt Gussie’s “rich whitefolk cooking.”
None of this made sense to me. Light skin versus dark skin, “good hair” (soft, wavy, long) versus “bad hair” (short and kinky). The battles around these issues that played out in my family, church, school, and neighborhood confused me. To me people were people, what did it matter if they were light or dark, had straight hair or an afro?
Muh’ Dear wore a wig all the time and insisted that my “nappy hair” be shaved from my head, fearing that it would bring me even more pain and problems than my dark skin would with people like the Frazier sisters. In fact, in all of my childhood photos, I am bald! The sentiment seemed to be that being dark skinned with kinky hair wasn’t okay, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I felt fine about who I was, it was other people that seemed to have a problem with me.
From "A Man From Another Land" by Isaiah Washington. Copyright © 2011
Reprinted by permission of Center Street/Hachette Book Group.