“A Whiter Shade of Pale”

“A Whiter Shade of Pale”


White is the New Black


Procol Harum had a hit with this unique, lyrically challenged and, as was wont for the sixties era, meaning-ambiguous little four minute ditty.

Yet the title phrase has become endemic in more than just one cultural milieu.

As a redhead, I have, at times, been accused of being that very whiter shade of pale although in all “fair”ness, and I use that term quite loosely, I do have a manageable amount of melatonin in me so that I can actually obtain the semblance of a tan, skin cancers and other sun-related horrors be damned. But as a child, I too was consider by my peers almost another race or at least from some foreign tribe that had little resemblance to and almost nothing in common with the “other white meat” that I was surrounded by.

As all young, in any species, I wanted nothing more than to fit it, belong, assimilate, or at the very least, not stand out, bullying was extent even then. But at 6’4” and 147lbs by 16, there was absolutely no blending in possible for the rake-thin likes of me

I descend from a long and storied line of redheads. My father and I looked so alike that as a child, my nickname amongst all his Black and Latino restaurant crew was “Ditto”.

My mother’s family were straight off Ellis Island from Norway so, go figure. All my cousins are redheads. My mother’s mother was a redhead. My Father’s father was a redhead. It was fate. It was genetics. It was done. There is nothing more interesting in my mother’s lineage than a Lefsa paddle and some scary tales of plains Indians at the turn of the 20th Century.

My father’s family though has proven, with the assistance of Ancestry.com and some digging, to be much more interesting and nuanced despite the apparent direct line, Brahmin-bright, New England stoicism that permeates his branches of this joined family tree.

Yes, we go directly back to 1644 in this country. Yes we know the exact ship that the first forbearer, John Sherwin, arrived on. We hopped the pond and left behind ties to royalty, wealth, and privilege for shores unknown and ancestors yet conceived.

And therein lies the mystery, at least to me.

Washington D.C., where both my father and I were born, was and is a Border Town in the truest sense of the word. It has the added intrigue of having a tide of political humanity that ebbs and flows every two years like some stagnant saltwater marsh, the fetid merging of the fresh and the foul, in theory refreshed with each new tide but in reality, bogged further down by the human silt that each successive wave deposits as its legacy to the City That Would be Great. Add to this mosquitoed mash-up, the fact that Washington lies 70 miles south of the Mason Dixon Line and is surrounded by the rebel likes of Southern Maryland and pretty much all of “howdy y’all” Virginia and you have one of the more dysfunctional and yet oddly entertaining places on earth to call home.

My Great Aunt Bertha, Boston born and bred, painstakingly compiled the Sherwin family tree by hand back in the 1930’s, long before bit and byte assisted research, painstakingly logging from family bibles, gravestones, and public records’ searches. It was and is a marvel of pre-tech wonder in its complexity and thoroughness….as far as it goes.

I spent a month last summer on the British Isles digging deeper into family legend and lore and finding delightful and surprising interconnections and filaments that allowed me to travel hundreds of years further back in time than Aunt Bertha could ever have envisioned. Kings and Princes abound with straight-line derivations to my present day self, confirming the rather high opinion of me that I have always held. Tantalizing tidbits in time that will provide endless days of deep-diving in the future.

But closer to home, in both the literal and figurative sense, was a little explored and under-reported vein of what could turn out to be pure gold…..or maybe just Pyrite….but time and a little more excavation will unearth the truth.

My paternal grandmother, long gone before I was even a thought, was named Tora James Goff, names in those days of old were weird either by custom, family origin, or just plain odd thinking. But James? A woman named James. Not like the cultish Cash “A Boy Named Sue” of a later era but a barely mid-Victorian era woman named James. And not Jamie, Jameson, or Jemima even…Just James.

I dipped a generation deeper for a clue.

Tora’s father was a man named James Blackfoot Goff. Hmmmmm, I says. Blackfoot has a distinctly Indian feel when rolling off the American tongue. And so to Google.

And here the tale turns.

It seems the Blackfoot Nation, a loosely defined and categorized grouping to begin with, were almost entirely found in the far northern Dakota territories and southern Canadian provinces. Based on the lack of easy inter-state transportation options available to even the whitest of folk in the mid 1800’s, it is highly doubtful that any Blackfoot found themselves in the southern Virginia burg of Viewtown and even more unlikely that they somehow married into my not-so-distant relations there. Rappahanock County in 1856 was not much smaller than it is now and Viewtown today has a whopping 378 people in it. Social constructs, especially in the rural South, would dictate a certain degree of discretion and an White-Indian mingling….not so much.

So if not Blackfoot Indian, then who….? Back to the Google.

With a little more scrupulous terminology in the search quadrant, certain sociologic gems come bubbling to the surface like the infamous crude, that is, of Beverly Hillbilly fame in the next-door state of Kentucky.

It seems that at about this point in history, just preceding the War of Northern Aggression (I speak from the Southern watchtower here as this is, essentially, a tale of Southern origins), many social constructs were breaking down; the plantation system was still thriving but the writing was on the chalkboard; the Northern cities were becoming magnetic hubs, both for emigration from Europe as well as forward-thinking folk from the south who, upon seeing said chalkboard scribblings, were fleeing to the relative prosperity that the coming Industrial Revolution was presaging all along the eastern seaboard. Among these masses were a certain percentage of blacks, either peremptorily freed from bondage or simply self-liberatedTora’s fother, ie; runaways, taking flight to hoped-for safety from the brutality of their existence down yonder.

As these “free” blacks travelled north on what would soon become known as the Underground Railway, they paused along the way for rest and recuperation and the few, if only, people to offer such respite then were, themselves, the other persecuted population that we rampaging white folk were busy pushing about, the Indians.

So if not the Blackfoot Nation then who? I don’t think even smoke signals travelled the 1,500 miles from the northern borders to Virginia and the local Tutelo, Saponi, and Powhatan Nations seemed, at least linguistically, a far stretch from the Blackfoot termination.

And here the plot thickens.

Great Grandpappy, James Blackfoot Goff, did have a mother listed, also from the thriving mini-opolis of Viewtown, VA., one Catherine Goff but other than that, no apparent father. Now Catherine, born in Virginia in 1813, has no apparent mother OR father, or death place, listed either. Curious. For such a well-documented family in so many other portals to come to such a sudden, apparently ignominious, end seems very odd.

And here we arrive at the juncture of nation-building and social-deconstruction.

It appears that the Native tribes of the middle nation, having themselves been ambushed and abused by the renegading white nation pushing ever westward, felt a certain moralistic obligation to aid and assist the fleeing black populations on their pilgrimage northward. They provided them rest and refuge along the way, safety from the prying eyes and prodding muskets of the aggressively restive white population that continued their domination dirge west.

And with the limited linguistic cooperation between the patois-rich southern slave dialects, the puritan-perfect, British banter of the north, and the polyglot of the Mid-Atlantic mélange of the many, there was no single term that more aptly described these transient tribesmen than their physically characteristic “black feet”……..hence…..Blackfoot as a generic designation was birthed into lexicon.

Interesting. Makes sense, sociologically. Understandable, historically.

But where does that leave my beloved Gr Grand-Mama, Catherine. She without a husband of record. She with a son named James Blackfoot. She without named parents at all. Why James? Why Blackfoot? Why Goff for that matter? The names, James, Blackfoot, and Goff continued for another generation but they, too, petered out quickly compared to the British Roberts, Allens, and Zimris (well maybe not Zimri).

And so the questions remain.

Did Gammy Catherine have a sudden, unexpected fling with a traveling black man?

Was she a foundling herself, of no easily obtained parentage or influence and thus, un-beholden socially or morally to constrain herself to proper etiquette of the times?

Does this tale of the untold explain my mother’s casual, errant, comments of my childhood when, in teenage conflict with parental boundaries, I asked often impertinent and/or probing questions about their, hopefully, nefarious youths, she would snap simply;


“Ask your father….HE’S from the South”



















Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *