* This piece was written in response to a “personal cultural inventory” assignment, and is a reflection on connections between my cultural background and educational preferences.
My ancestry is difficult to trace. My family has shot across long distances, rooting only briefly before moving on. The oldest relative I’ve located is James Whitman Inman, who was born in London, England, in 1648. Three generations later, his grandson Edward Inman hopped the Atlantic and had a family in Rhode Island. The next generation was born in Maine, and the one that followed was rooted in Ohio. Emma Inman from Ohio married James Ward of Missouri, and the couple moved to Oklahoma during the 1889 land rush. My relatives converged there to take advantage of the land that remained after thousands of Native Americans were forcibly migrated to reservations. I know little about the Wards, but I can guess that they originated in the South given the number of African-Americans who share my last name.
James Ward prospered in Oklahoma and died in 1924. One of his sons, Jestus Ward, married Goldie Brasier, a cook for a sorority at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. When Oklahoma became a dust bowl Jestus left for California, leaving behind a family of nine. One of those left behind was my father, Chester, born in 1925. My father told me he was glad to see Jestus go, because he was an alcoholic who sometimes threatened him with a gun. My father also claimed that he dropped out of the eighth grade to “stare at the backside of a mule,” helping his mother support his family. Farm work wasn’t all that he tried; Dad apprenticed as a carpenter under his mother’s second husband, although they did not get along either.
My mother was Bessie Douglass. I know little about the Douglass family, except that her father was a farmer who was extremely moral and strict and her mother’s side of the family controlled the bootlegging in Oklahoma City during prohibition. To escape her father’s tyranny, Bessie ventured to California for several summers to pick grapes. My father was there at the same time, scarcely a hundred miles away. Chester had joined Jestus there in an unsuccessful search for work. My future parents returned to Oklahoma, and Bessie met Chester at a malt shop in Norman, Oklahoma. They married in 1943, and my father and his brother Kenneth left in a different direction searching for work.
Dad found work near Chicago, and soon sent for my mother. During their first winter, Kenneth wrecked their car. They spent a frozen and miserable few months with their first child, my oldest brother David, in a basement apartment. My father was desperate and decided to try California again. Life in California was hard, because no one wanted to rent to “Okies.” Eventually, my father got a job with an oil company, bought a plot of land, and built a house in Ojai, California, with his own hands. I was conceived the year that Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries was released, and born in 1958. I was named after an actor that played Geronimo in a Western, Jeff Chandler, and James Dean. My flaming red hair had changed to blonde when my father sold our home in 1963.