August 27, 2012

It's A Mozingo Thing

My great great grandmother had an awesome name: Mary Argent Mozingo. She was married to the equally well-named Ruffin Sullivan. They were country people, farmers, I suppose, in Wayne County, North Carolina. I knew their daughter, my great grandmother, who lived to be 105, but I never heard her talk of her parents. We found their names when we were in the market for names, and were surfing through family history records. My wife vetoed Mozingo, and my grandmother nixed Ruffin with a swiftness that hinted at family stories that did not get told very often.

While I was still campaigning for Mozingo--just, you know, as a second or third middle name, a fun option, maybe? no?--my mother did say that her grandmother always insisted her mother's name was Mozzinger. Or Mottsinger, and if it weren't for some ignorant census clerk somewhere who couldn't hear or spell right, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. In any case, it's not Mozingo.

This was the woman who eventually edited out the stories of working in a cigar factory in Richmond as a young girl, where she won five dollars once for the quickest rolling. And who destroyed oral history tape recordings of her family's history because of, well, I guess we can only speculate now, since those stories have been lost.

And there's no chance that a lone census taker messed up, Ellis Island-style, on the Mozingo. If anything, my ancestors' insecurity about Mozingo is one of the prime indicators of their true Mozingoness.

As LA Times writer Joe Mozingo found out, when he went searching for the origins of his name, which he'd always heard was Italian. Other Mozingos heard it was Portuguese, or Basque. Obviously, to almost everyone not named Mozingo, that is, Mozingo is an African name, brought to early colonial Virginia by one Edward Mozingo:

Edward had been a servant to Col. John Walker, a member of the colony's legislature. When Walker died in 1669, his widow inherited Edward and remarried a powerful Virginian, John Stone.

Edward sued Stone for his freedom. Little is said about the lawsuit in the court record, only that there was an appeals hearing in the high colonial court, that "Divers Witnesses" testified and that the judges concluded "Edward Mozingo a Negro man" had served his term after 28 years of indenture.

Joe Mozingo's three-part story of uncovering the Mozingo truth overflows with examples of hardship, racism, insecurity and denial that runs so natural and deep Americans have been soaking in it for centuries.

And that's just the white Mozingos. People whose identity and racial worldview don't have room for the complexities of rural intermarriage in 18th century America. For the black Mozingos, meanwhile, the countervailing impact of generations of discrimination, opportunity, passing, and self-loathing still play out in a Goldsboro, NC barbecue restaurant--which turns out to be the same place we've stopped for lunch every summer on the way to the Outer Banks.

The ways family functions as a machine for transmitting memory are one subject of my set of 12 short films, The Souvenir Series; I think I have to add the way family desperately tries to keep things silent for centuries to the mix, too.

In Search Of The Meaning Of 'Mozingo', part 1, part 2, and part 3 [latimes via my cousin cara]

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: August 27, 2012.

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