I never thought I’d see the day where I’d say, “a videogame made me track down my biological father.” And I guess even within that, that’s not totally the truth. I called, I Google searched, I cried. Nothing. A fruitless search for a man that doesn’t want to be found by me. Maybe it’s my nappy hair. My African-leaning visage that bears a more striking resemblance to my mother than he could have ever hoped. She has strong genes. I’m fine with it.
I feel like I’ve deleted so many words that I want to communicate to anyone who's read my work. There was a lot of pain there that I guess I hadn’t acknowledged for, well, my entire life.
I guess this is where I tell you the back story, but keep in mind. These feelings, these words, I’m not too sure of. I may be painting brighter, or darker, images based on unreconciled fragments of my life. Please, just sit with me.
I don’t know how my father looks. I remember an argument that could be totally something my barely-toddler brain fictionalized and kept running ad infinitum until the writing of this. I remember this argument so vividly. My mom holding my arm, while I wobble on newly walking legs. Bowlegged. Blurry vision. I was born with poor eyesight, but hadn’t been diagnosed to wear glasses until a year, or so, later.
I remember his boots. Clean. Unscuffed. Blue jeans, mildly dingy. I remember my mom yelling at him to pick me up. He did, it felt weird. He seemed to like me. “I’m your father!” I think that’s what I heard. Then I feel the warmth of my mom’s arms slowly envelope me. He’d call me ten years later from Arizona. I was in therapy in my early teens. I’d go fishing with my therapy group -- we were all the same age...similar stories. I liked it. One day my mom said, “you don’t have to do this, but if you want...you can talk to your father. He’s been calling.” She’d always been open to me talking to him if I’d felt like it, but I’d never considered.
I can tell from her face, he’d been calling a lot. She had the look of someone who just been emotionally, rung. I had no inclinations to talk to my father. I accepted him in not being there. I was, “okay with it.” He was very taken by my ability to fish. He told me that one day he wanted me to, “come out to Arizona to see what rez-life” was like. He’d apparently built a family there and wanted me to meet his father and the family that occupies his life. I didn’t want to.
He stopped calling. My mom, happy. It was just us. We were better off.
I never really knew my father’s side of the family. Years later, his father, supposedly tried figuring out where I was. My mom has had the same phone number for decades. I guess there was a falling out. Or perhaps I was just not worth talking about, to his son. My grandfather on my father’s side knows of every reservation from Arizona to Alaska. A proud, Ojibwe Chippewa, dark-skinned, frayed gray hair. I remember thinking, “he kinda looks black, but not quite.” Retired and not a fan of Ohio weather. He bounced around reservations. A man with just as many women problems as he’d had legal troubles too. Guess the apple didn’t fall too far. I hope he’s out of jail soon.
We’ve met, he’s shown me and encouraged me to get to know my history of the Ojibwe. I didn’t care for it. I’d been raised by my mother. A black woman. A black struggle I related to more, than whatever this stranger, with all this baggage was trying to introduce to me. Was this really my grandfather? Or just someone who knew of my biological father? He’d disappear when I’d call him in college. I’d only call because I knew the area code of Cococino Correctional. He’d e-mail me from different addresses. Asking, pleading, that I don’t judge him. That he was not like his son, my father. I knew that, but I see where he gets it from.
This all happening, while playing games, with blacks and natives. Me, struggling to adapt an identify with characters in entertainment. I always loved T-Hawk in Street Fighter. I played Michelle & Julia Chang in Tekken, Eddy Gordo too. There was something there for me, that I couldn’t resolve.
These feelings fall dormant often. I have native and indigenous friends whom have shared their stories with me. Dancers, artists, activist. I still can’t determine if I sought them out because of this void, or if they found me. When entering college, I remember the seminar at Ohio State University asking if “anyone Native American present would be entitled to special funding.” I’ve always put “African-American/Black” on any application. I still do. It’s how people see me. I didn’t inherit the ‘good hair’ that is so commonly stereotyped in my black community. I didn’t take the money, I already had a scholarship. I’d like to think, even if I didn’t, I’d find it disrespectful to accept it. I knew nothing of “that side.”
How did we get here?
I played a videogame. You know, as you do. I played Techland’s Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger. A game I still struggle with how much I enjoyed its portrayal of the Chiricahua Apache. It’s a game that is educating the player as to the setting they inhabit. In this case, the late 19th century wild West. The game costs $15, and is intended to being a “budget title.” It is very quick and to the point. You’re a cowboy, avenging his brother and you’ll stop at nothing to reconcile these primal issues that have been glamorized in several forms of fiction of the Spaghetti West.
The game is strange. It has these “golden nuggets” which are clever wiki-able facts about how the West really was. Well, in the time allotted to the player. Though the nuggets are optional, you are presented a story outside of those collectible that paints you as one of the many problems idolized of the time. A white, straight, trigger happy cowboy.
I applaud Techland trying to educate me to the more unsettling aspects of the west. Town burnings and massacres of families, where the hero was once the villain. Gun fights where everyone loses. Gunslinger gave me one of the best experiences I could hope to have in a genre I’ve kinda written off as for straight white dudes, and hey, if you [colored person] enjoy it...that’s just a bonus.
Then I got to digging. Turns out a third of cowboys were black. Of this era, there were black lawmen and bandits alike, women too. Was it too much of a risk to show and portray, these characters who existed in that time? I’m very torn about it. I don’t want to shoot colored folk under these conditions unless you are really going for something major. Whatever that means.
We agree to consistently show the “cowboy & indian” trope to gamers, because they are comfortable with that imagery. We have seen this in all forms of media, so why not parrot that in games? Gunslinger was “trying” to educate the player akin to how Spec Ops: The Line had. The same kind of fumbling errors occurs narratively. When Silas Greaves comes across the Chiricahua Apache, there is dialogue about how their land was taken from them. How this tribe, among others, were pushed to the mountains and caves, barren areas and forced to live...survive. Only for it to lead to this.
I’ve never felt an emotion so numbing and callously harsh. He looked a lot like my grandfather. They all did. I wanted to call him. I wanted to apologized for not embracing the Ojibwe Chippewa. I wanted to know more about myself, because this game seemed hell bent [even with its good intentions] to take something human from me.
I remember hearing Robert Greygrass, a Lakota Native and voice actor for Grey Wolf, guiding my character through lush mountains that Techland devs no doubt spent years crafting. Grey Wolf, asking of Silas Greaves, the pale-face character I inhabit, to reconsider my motivations. Grey Wolf, is depicted, in a stereotypical manner. A ‘mystical native’ capable of turning into an actual wolf -- and then vanishing. The only saving grace was that you never shoot or harm him. You just hear his voice as he tries to talk sense into the player -- I’m sorry, the character. An amazing performance from Robert Greygrass, he died in a car accident last year after his work was done on Gunslinger.
I was motivated to at least trying to reconcile these issues with my grandfather. He’s sinced moved. Somewhere, I’m okay with not knowing. I hear my father has also moved. I’m okay with not knowing that as well.
I am not okay with not knowing more about my heritage on both sides of my family. Barring my obvious issues with Gunslinger, I owe the game and it’s developers a great debt. It caused me to go on another journey, that I’m not sure any other form of media could have initiated.