Melissa article, “An Ode to My Quaker Father: Growing Up Black and Quaker,” appears in the October 2014 issue of Friends Journal. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
FJ: Hello, I’m Martin Kelley, Senior Editor of Friends Journal. Today I’m with Melissa Valentine who is a writer living in Oakland, California.
MV: Thank you for inviting me.
FJ: People can go online and hear you reading the whole piece which is wonderful. You write here, very movingly. I’m going to read for you a little piece here: “Religion, like race, is demanded. ‘What are you?” I struggle to explain.” How has that question shaped you over time. “What are you?”: it’s such an existential question.
MV: Yes it is. I’ve been getting that question ever since I was a little girl. That section of the piece I wrote I say I’m five years old. I’ve been getting it for a long time. And funny enough, I still get it. How has it shaped me? It’s made me think about who I am and what I am. I think about that beyond race too. It’s been a challenge to be asked such a big question starting at such a young age. I have the opportunity to define myself. And of course, being biracial, I come from two very different backgrounds.
My mom is from the South and my dad is from the East Coast. Two different religions and two very different cultures. I think it gives me a broader perspective of the world. I think I have a more open mind because of it.
FJ: You grew up in a Quaker meeting and your dad was a Quaker— guess, an old-time Quaker generations back?
MV: Yes, it’s been cool to learn about some of my ancestors—my Quaker ancestors. Part of being a biracial person–my Mom’s legacy is slavery; on the Quaker side we’re abolitionists. That’s always been a point of pride for me. One of my great great aunts–I can’t remember her name right now. She started one of the first schools for African American children. She wrote a book (I wish I could remember her name right now). I have a lot of pride about that.
FJ: Has that been a gift I wonder? I didn’t grow up Quaker, there’s no genealogy yet people make assumptions the other way around too. Is it a gift to have to answer that question and not have people assume and perhaps assume wrongly?
MV: Since I’m not really an active Quaker anymore, I don’t get the chance to answer that question. Because when you look at me, you don’t see or assume I’m Quaker. It’s the total opposite for me: it’s like “what are you doing here?” Which is part of why I’ve stepped away from it a little bit. I did feel a little bit our of place. Finding my place in a spiritual setting has been a bit of a challenge. Feeling like I belong somewhere. I don’t get ask those questions. It’s more that I feel a need to explain why I’m here in the first place.
FJ: Were there any moments that where you gave up Quaker meeting.
MV: It didn’t happen that one day I decided I’m going to give up on this. I feel like it’s always been a part of me and probably always will be a part of me. And actually I have been looking into going to meeting in Oakland. I’ve been looking for some meetings. I write about going to the people of color meditation center. So I’m very interested in contemplative practices and meditation and having a spiritual experience in that quiet way. I’m very attracted to that.
FJ: So maybe we’ll see you in meeting here one day?
MV: Maybe, yeah. Yeah, like I said, I’m kind of looking for one. And that’s how I found the Friends Journal actually. It was sort of random, it was through Twitter. I decided I need to start working on my author platform and went to Twitter. I don’t know how I came across the QuakerQuaker Twitter feed and then I came across you guys’ Twitter feed. I saw you were looking for Friends of Color submissions and I thought, I definitely have something to say about that. And it is actually a big thread in my memoir that I’m writing. So I took some sections from the memoir and created this new piece. And it flowed out of me. But that’s how I found it, and once I found the Journal, I started looking if there were any Quaker meetings in Oakland.
FJ: There’s a couple of really great meetings in the Bay Area that are totally wonderful. You should definitely check them out. Many good Friends I know from there.
That’s all the time. I wish you had told us about learning it through Twitter before our board meeting. I could have told them just how wonderful the Twitter has been. Melissa, again, is a writer from Oakland and is in this issue of Friends Journal. If you go online to friendsjournal.org you will hear her reading. You can also sign up for our podcasts. It will show up there on the podcast feed for Friends Journal. Thank you Melissa for writing and for recording a podcast and for recording this interview.
MV: Absolutely, thank you so much for including me.
FJ: We’ll see you on Twitter?
MV: Or maybe at a Friends meeting in Oakland soon!