We Aren’t Who We Think We Are : Code Switch – NPR

Posted By on July 3, 2020


I'm Gene Demby.


I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.


Shereen, all right, so I have a weird question for you.

MERAJI: Hit me.

DEMBY: Does your family have any stories that they tell themselves about themselves that are not exactly true?

MERAJI: I feel like every family has these types of stories. I can think of two off the top of my head. On my Puerto Rican side, my Titi Lucy (ph) is totally convinced - or was, rest in peace, Titi Lucy - was totally convinced that we are related to the actor Benicio Del Toro. This is probably something I could figure out, but I have not tried to do that. I don't think it's true. It could be true. And then on my dad's side, on my Iranian side, we're supposed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

DEMBY: Oh, wow.

MERAJI: I don't even know how you find out if that's true or not. It would be dope if it was true, but I don't think it's true.

DEMBY: Yeah. There's also - the story's too good. It's like too good to check, too good to check.

MERAJI: Yes. I don't even want to check. Yes, I am a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Well, the truth is just about every family has some sort of myth or story that they tell themselves about who they are.

DEMBY: And this week, if the past month of fireworks hasn't thrown y'all, keep your third eye open.

MERAJI: It has been three months in my neighborhood - three months.

DEMBY: Yeah. It's been a lot.

MERAJI: I am not exaggerating. I love fireworks, so I'm not hating it, but anyway.

DEMBY: It's the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day, which means a lot of people are telling stories and myths about what it means to be American.

MERAJI: And there are lots of reasons why people tell these stories. Sometimes it's because people genuinely don't know the truth, so they exaggerate or they make something up.

DEMBY: And sometimes it just, like, make your family seem like they were part of some important historical moment.

MERAJI: Sometimes it's to hide something that is way too painful to talk about.

DEMBY: Yeah. And that can be especially true for African American families. You know, the further we go back in time - and this is true of my family - the harder it is to find records for who our family was and where they were and what they were doing. And when we do find those records, it's often, like, not a very pretty story, which leaves even more reason...

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: ...For people to invent a family lore.

MERAJI: So today, we're bringing in our teammate Leah Donnella. She's an editor and producer for the show. She actually does, like, everything on the show. You will hear her name in the credits like 15 times. And she became obsessed with a story that her family had been telling for more than 60 years. But it's a story that sounded a little too perfect to be true. Hey, Leah.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: What's going on?

MERAJI: Leah, you've been researching this family story for months now. What's it about? Set the scene for us.

L DONNELLA: Yeah. So I've been thinking about this story for a little bit more than a year, but it actually starts with my dad, Michael. And he's been looking into this story for decades. And his interest started, in part, because of our last name, which is Donnella.

DEMBY: Wait. What? What about your last name?

MERAJI: Donnella.

L DONNELLA: It's very beautiful.


DEMBY: I'm not shading your name. Sorry.

MERAJI: It is beautiful.

DEMBY: It's beautiful.

L DONNELLA: Thank you. I do like it. And my dad had a little bit more trouble with it, though. He said that all throughout his life, people have been commenting on it. Apparently they got real tripped up when they meet a Black man whose last name ends in an A for some reason.

DEMBY: Yeah. I thought, like, it was Italian or something.

MERAJI: Yeah. If you're a Spanish speaker, you want to say Doneya (ph) when you see it, you know. But then it has two Ns. And so if you're a Spanish speaker, you're like, I don't know. Is that name - like, is that a Spanish last name? It is definitely a curious last name. And I was like, where is that from?

DEMBY: And because you're from Philly, I assumed that it was like Italian, Italian American.

MERAJI: Donnella.

L DONNELLA: We've heard so many theories about it growing up. But my dad kind of wanted to figure this out. So my dad and I are both people who, as you two might know, can't let anything go.

MERAJI: Well, we know that about you, Leah. You're our editor. But now we know where you get it from.

L DONNELLA: Yeah, so you can thank my dad for the thoughtful edits. But last July, the two of us decided to figure out the truth once and for all. And so that started with us going to New Orleans together.

MERAJI: Oh, yes, New Orleans. All right, Leah, take us there, the Big Easy, one of my favorite cities in the United States.

DEMBY: The Crescent City, yes, one of the dopest places in the U.S.

L DONNELLA: So I had never been there before, so my dad was acting as my tour guide. And he took me straight to Bourbon Street.


L DONNELLA: It's early evening when we get there. The sun is just beginning to set, casting shadows over the crowds. But it's still about a hundred degrees outside. Tourists wielding iPhones push up next to performers with kettledrums. A pushcart is selling hotdogs for a dollar. My dad and I order plastic cups of beer to drink on the street because we can.


L DONNELLA: Thank you.

Also, because my dad loves beer and I'm always trying to be just like him. Chaotic processions march past us. We try to guess what they are.

M DONNELLA: This might be a funeral. Or it might just be a party.

L DONNELLA: Funeral? Party? It's hard to tell the difference here. And anyway, people always talk about New Orleans being haunted, one of the most haunted cities in America, they say. Well, I sure hope so because in addition to drinking beer and finding pretty good restaurants, my dad and I are trying to dig up a ghost, the ghost of my great-grandfather, Harrison Donnella. We'll soon be walking down the street where he used to live, sifting through records of his life, searching through graveyards.


L DONNELLA: Part of the reason we're interested in Harrison is because the story we learned about him and his wife, Lottie, my great-grandmother, was such a perfect origin story, like a modern-day, post-bellum, interracial "Romeo And Juliet." OK, I'm going to tell it with a little help from my dad.


L DONNELLA: My great-grandmother, Lottie Young, was a Black woman from Louisiana. And my great-grandfather, Harrison Donnella...

M DONNELLA: Had been born in Sicily and came to the United States as an immigrant.

L DONNELLA: Harrison was part of a huge wave of immigrants that came to Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, traveling by boat from Palermo to the Crescent City.


L DONNELLA: So Harrison and Lottie met in New Orleans at the beginning of the Jazz Age, maybe at a dance hall or strolling by the Mississippi, eating a beignet. And it wasn't long before they were truly, madly, deeply in love. But there was a problem because...

M DONNELLA: At the time, in New Orleans, it was illegal, as it was in many places, for a white person and a Black person to get married.

L DONNELLA: Louisiana was one of 30 states where interracial marriage was illegal in the 19-teens and '20s, which meant that as long as they stayed there, Lottie and Harrison couldn't be together - star-crossed lovers. Fate was keeping them apart. But they decided to defy fate.

M DONNELLA: So part of my theory was they came to Chicago to get married because they couldn't in New Orleans.

L DONNELLA: That's right. One night, as the story goes, they packed their bags and, at the stroke of midnight, they stole off to the Windy City in search of a better life. At least, that's how I imagined it. Anyway, in Chicago, Harrison and Lottie could finally be together. They got married in a Catholic church. Soon after, they had their first son, John Donnella, my great-uncle. After that, they had their second son, Joseph Donnella, my grandfather. And life was good, but it wasn't always easy.

M DONNELLA: I knew that they were poor. You know, both my father and my Uncle John, you know, greatly emphasize that they grew up in a very poor background.

L DONNELLA: John and Lottie both worked all the time. They lived in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago full of books and records, lots of that New Orleans jazz. But here's where it gets a little weird. As the years went by, something kind of funny started happening. People started to think of Harrison, this immigrant from Italy, as Black.


M DONNELLA: In Chicago - certainly, during the time I grew up in Chicago - even though it was technically lawful for a Black and white person to be married, it was still quite a segregated city racially, and quite socially uncommon and unaccepted, really.

L DONNELLA: My dad's theory was that in order for Harrison and Lottie to live together without causing a stir, it would be natural for people to assume that they were both the same race, which was, of course, going to be Black. Lottie was Black, and they lived in a Black neighborhood, sent their kids to Black schools, hung out with Black people with all different skin tones. And that assumption that Harrison was Black stayed with him the whole rest of his life. Harrison died in 1941 when he was 68 years old. And on his death certificate, no huge surprise, he's listed as colored. But his family, of course, didn't forget the real story of the young Italian man who fell in love in New Orleans, and they passed that down to my dad.

I think that story was especially meaningful for my parents because they were also an interracial couple trying to make it work in challenging social times. My dad, again, is Black, and my mom's people were immigrants from Eastern European Jewish stock. So I think this felt like a kind of nice prelude to their relationship. But, of course, there was something about this story that was not true.


M DONNELLA: Some of the things that my father said about him turned out to be in conflict with the public records that I was able to ascertain.


L DONNELLA: So fast-forward about 40 years. It's 1979. My dad is 25 years old, living in Atlanta, fresh out of law school, and he gets sent on that work trip to New Orleans. And while he's there, he decides to dig into this story a little. So he visits the public library to see if he can find out anything about his grandfather. He finds a bunch of documents, including a birth certificate for Harrison Donnella Jr. - an American birth certificate.

M DONNELLA: Basically, what I found out is that, you know, my father's family had been in this country for several generations. I would say at least four or five.

L DONNELLA: That's when my dad first realized that something was not checking out. Harrison Donnella Jr., my great-grandfather, was not an immigrant, not even the child of immigrants. My dad didn't even know if he was Italian at all. He was able to find the names of Harrison's parents - Harrison Donnella Sr., who grew up in New Orleans, and Anna Stewart (ph), who was from Texas. But earlier than that, it was still a mystery. My dad didn't know where these families came from, or even for sure what race they were. So I wondered if he knew what any of them looked like. My dad told me he's seen a picture of Harrison - just one. In it, he said, Harrison looked like he was in his 20s or 30s, kind of skinny.

M DONNELLA: And kind of pale.

L DONNELLA: It was a black-and-white picture, so the coloring was kind of ambiguous. My dad said Harrison seemed to have a full head of straight brown hair. He was wearing a suit.

M DONNELLA: But, I mean, I looked at the picture. And I think most people would look at it and say it's a white man, you know? But on the other hand, I have seen light-skinned Black people that you would also look at and assume they're white, too.


L DONNELLA: And even though that Italian thing turned out to be pretty dubious, even though no one in my family really knew very much about Italy or had any customs whatsoever that were tied to Italy, I and all three of my siblings grew up believing that we were at least a little Italian. And it wasn't just my generation. My dad had believed this story, too. And my dad says my grandfather and great-uncle, Harrison's own kids, they seem to have believed it, too, that their dad was a white immigrant from Italy, although they're dead now, so it's hard to know for sure what they really believed. My dad said he didn't think my grandparents were intentionally making this story up.

M DONNELLA: But part of the reason why it could be compelling was I was talking about people - you know, they come from modest or poor means. Like, the family history can be the link to nobility.

L DONNELLA: According to my dad, in 1930s Chicago, Sicilians had a reputation as being scrappy, hardworking, kind of edgy and cool.

M DONNELLA: So that would provide you with a higher social status in racist Chicago or many racist parts of the United States than being Black.

L DONNELLA: My dad thought maybe Harrison was just light-skinned, pretending to be Italian to get ahead. I also talked to my brother, David, about this, and he had a different theory, a much less romantic one.

DAVID DONNELLA: You know, you hear a lot of Black people talking about having, like, Indian heritage, right? And sometimes - a lot of times, actually - right? - that's - that was used as an explanation for, you know, why is grandma so much lighter-skinned than everybody else?

L DONNELLA: David brought up that part of the reason Black people look all sorts of ways is, of course, because of the legacy of slavery. The vast majority of African Americans have some white ancestry, and part of the reason is that a lot of enslaved Black women were raped by white men. So if Harrison was very light-skinned...

D DONNELLA: It might've been something that he had taken advantage of, the last name Donnella, and said that he - you know, we are Italian, and used that as an excuse - or not excuse, but (laughter).

L DONNELLA: But a more wholesome story than the truth. And I was starting to get a feeling that the truth was going to be kind of hard to stomach.


L DONNELLA: So I was determined to learn the truth. But after months of research, I'd run into more dead ends and false leads than I could count. My desk was a mess, covered with half-drawn family trees, wild theories scrawled on the back of old scripts, printouts of documents I found on Ancestry.com. There were days it probably looked like I was a TV detective, slightly crazed, trying to string together death certificates, census records, photographs of gravestones. But in those moments, I feel like I need to know.


L DONNELLA: Was Harrison a light-skinned Black man passing as Italian? Was he a white man assumed to be Black? Was the confusion about his identity imposed from other people, or was there something about his past that he was trying to hide? The answers to those questions wound up stretching all the way back to the antebellum South and would completely blow up everything that I and my dad and my family believed about who we were.


L DONNELLA: It is 7:47 p.m., and I am right now in Baton Rouge in my hotel room. I'm here to go to the Louisiana State Archives tomorrow. Back to Louisiana. I've spent the past few months digging up all the information I can find about my Donnella lineage, and I just have this bad feeling. I'm a little nervous for tomorrow because I don't know what I'll find, and I really don't want to be related to someone who owned slaves.

After talking to my family, I spent a long time thinking about what could be so bad that a family would want to hide it for generations. And one of the worst things I could imagine was having owned slaves. I didn't have any proof that that was the case, but I felt it in my gut. So the next morning, bright and early, I'm there at the archives, ready to go in and find some answers - well, if I can get in. My gear causes a bit of a stir.


L DONNELLA: A microphone.

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We Aren't Who We Think We Are : Code Switch - NPR

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