In Search of the Meaning of "Mozingo"
May 19, 2010 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Joe Mozingo had always been told that his family name was "maybe Italian." In a three-part article in the L.A. Times, the "blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist" journalist discovers that the Mozingo name actually traces back to an African slave freed in 1672.

What starts out as a genealogical mystery ends up being a profound and compelling meditation on race, then and now.

Part I: Mozingo discovers that his last name is actually Bantu (not Italian or French Basque), gets in touch with some people who share the name (some of them white, some of them black) and finds the connection to Edward Mozingo.

Part II: Talking to a fellow Mozingo genealogist, researching his family history in rural Virginia, and attending a family reunion in Indiana, Mozingo makes the unsurprising discovery that not everyone in the family is particularly excited to be descendents of a black slave.

Part III: Meeting various other Mozingo families, black and white alike, leads to new conceptions of race and its role, then and now.
posted by infinitywaltz (41 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating story.
This sentence "Mozingo discovers that his last name is actually Bantu..." is a little ambiguous. For some reason I didn't realize that it meant that his name actually comes from the Bantu people..I thought it meant that somehow is actual last name was not Mozingo like he thought but Bantu. I thought, how does that work? Then I read the article and now I understand.
Anyway thanks for posting this.
posted by amethysts at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2010


I was doing some genealogy research for someone and came across the name "Zeno Mozingo."

That's all I got.
posted by marxchivist at 10:37 AM on May 19, 2010


This is a great article so far in terms of content, but this dude needs to learn you can put more than two sentences in a paragraph. Also "blue-eyed surfing son of a dentist" sounds like a great voice-over dub for sanitizing movies on basic cable.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:40 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


This sentence "Mozingo discovers that his last name is actually Bantu..." is a little ambiguous.

O'Malley discovers that his last name is actually Irish.

Frankly, I thought it strange he'd think "Mozongo" was anything other than african. Never saw a mafia movie with a name quite like that.
posted by codswallop at 10:48 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's strange how they cling to "Italian" or "Spaniard" or "Irish" to explain their name. A few generations ago, these were groups whose whiteness was ill-defined and up for debate.

But then, we don't seem to be dealing with deep thinkers on the subject of race.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:49 AM on May 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Interesting that the guy's dad grew up in Missouri, as back in St. Louis I rented my student violins from Mozingo's Music.
posted by zsazsa at 10:49 AM on May 19, 2010


Also, we're all African, if you go back far enough. Get over it, Mozingos!
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:50 AM on May 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


"blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist"

Why is he mentioning the dentist part? My dentist is African-American. There's a dental school at a few HBCUs. Obviously, I'm reading too much into it, but I don't like what he may be implying.
posted by anniecat at 10:52 AM on May 19, 2010


It's strange how they cling to "Italian" or "Spaniard" or "Irish" to explain their name. A few generations ago, these were groups whose whiteness was ill-defined and up for debate.

Especially the story the one family had about the little Italian boy who stowed away on a ship to America and whose name was "Moses Mozingo." You know, because "Moses Mozingo" is such a stereotypical Italian name.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:52 AM on May 19, 2010


Never saw a mafia movie with a name quite like that.

Wow. Really? Italian = mafia?
posted by cashman at 10:53 AM on May 19, 2010


Mozingo means "I'm an African" in Italian.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:54 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Where are you from originally?"
"Kenya. Isn't everyone?"
posted by DaddyNewt at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Speaking of movies, I wonder if anyone is going to reference "True Romance" here.
posted by VikingSword at 11:02 AM on May 19, 2010


no, it means, "i'm italian" in bantu
posted by pyramid termite at 11:03 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


AFAICT, the rule of thumb here in the US is that names with high point values in Scrabble are either Italian or Polish. The white people I know with an "exotic" surname all get asked on a regular basis either "Are you Italian?" or "Are you Polish?" And by "exotic" I mean, like, Finnish or Dutch or Lebanese, so not even really that exotic at all.

Anyway, I'm not surprised that Mozingo also defaults to Italian. It's got a Z in it — but it ends in an O and there's no crazy consonant clusters, so it sure as shit couldn't be Polish, right? Must be Italian.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:11 AM on May 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Anyway, I'm not surprised that Mozingo also defaults to Italian. It's got a Z in it — but it ends in an O and there's no crazy consonant clusters, so it sure as shit couldn't be Polish, right? Must be Italian.

Like mozzarella, one of my favorite cheeses.
posted by anniecat at 11:18 AM on May 19, 2010


Fascinating story.

I'm Irish, and my wife is half-German/half-Chinese. One glance at her and you can tell that she checks both White and Asian on the census form (myself, I check "Some other race" since reading How the Irish Became White).

But our daughter--for all that fair hair and complexion are supposed to be recessive--has blond hair, blue eyes, and skin like alabaster. I look at photographs of her, in the arms of her fully Chinese grandmother, and find it hard to believe that so many features that we think of as racial markers can disappear in just two generations. The one feature my daughter does retain is the epicanthic fold. I expect that, when she grows older, people who try to guess her ethnicity at a glance will come up with something like Icelandic.

As we keep mixing, more people will look like her, and I expect that her own grandchildren will be darker skinned again.

The other thing this story drives home is the power of sticking a name on something. Going back eight generations, Joe Mozingo has 256 ancestors, give or take. I bet the African prince isn't the only non-white among them. The only reason that that single forebear is held to be of such particular interest is because of an accident of nomenclature that caused his name to survive.
posted by 256 at 11:22 AM on May 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read a book about a decade back about a man who was originally told his father was Italian, and he and his siblings passed for white. Then he had to move in with his father's family and found out he was black.

I think it was Life on the Color Line.

The blurring of race has been a problem in my family search as well. Ancestors that I know were at least some Amerind were listed as white in the '20 and '30 census.

"Mexican" is something that a lot of folks don't want to be, at least outside the Southwest.

My father's mother (short little indio woman from Central Mexico) always insisted we were "Mediterranean". When I lived in Florida, people would hear my name and ask if I was "Latin". And the scut work that was really bad was something "not even a Mexican" would do.

On preview: 256, my son is blonde, blue eyed, and people wonder if he's even mine, let alone my dark-haired husband's.
posted by lysdexic at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2010


I thought it strange he'd think "Mozongo" was anything other than african.

I'm not. My family's been here out west for ... a couple hundred years at least, and many of them were only marginally literate. As a result, we've ended up with a couple of different spellings for the same name. If I had a name like Mozongo and no clue about African heritage, I'd just assume it was maybe Italian (because of the Z and O) and had gone through a couple of the illiterate family and/or bureaucrats that were so common here in the new world.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:34 AM on May 19, 2010


I would eat my hat if my maternal grandfather were not partially Native American; he so looked like it, and in Oklahoma, that was hardly unusual. But there are no records of his father that I can find (interesting, no? he just vanished), and his family is Very Not Interested in Knowing Because They're White, Dammit.
posted by emjaybee at 11:44 AM on May 19, 2010


There's a dental school at a few HBCUs. Obviously, I'm reading too much into it, but I don't like what he may be implying.

I'm pretty sure that the majority of blacks at graduate schools aren't at HBCUs. I might be reading too much into it, but I don't like what you're implying here, either.
posted by thisjax at 11:49 AM on May 19, 2010


Also, we're all African, if you go back far enough. Get over it, Mozingos!

Reminds me of an exchange I overheard in Toronto. I was working as a bike courier at the time and had stopped during a lull to rest my legs in front of an elementary school at lunch hour. I think it was the first day of the school year.

Kid 1 (asian): Did you see see Sean's afro?
Kid 2 (black): Sean doesn't have an afro. He's Jewish.
Kid 1: So?
Kid 2: So. You can't have an afron unless you're from Africa.
Kid 3 (white): We're all from Africa!
Kids 1 & 2: <slow blink>
posted by 256 at 11:52 AM on May 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


I can totally relate to this guy's story. I recently found out that one of my ancestors was IRISH. I was crushed-- the "one drop rule" and all that.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:02 PM on May 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


mayor curley, it could be worse! I've recently discovered that some of my ancestors may have been NORTHERN IRISH!!!
posted by supermedusa at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not to mention those of us who discovered we were part Scotch Irish. Jeez. The infamy...
posted by small_ruminant at 12:09 PM on May 19, 2010


Not to mention those of us who discovered we were part Scotch Irish. Jeez. The infamy...

My ancestors got thrown out of every country in western Europe (except Italy). My mother did a genealogy and the one thing she found was just about everyone made the trip across the Atlantic in a tearing hurry, usually with dogs and pitchforks at their heels. So my heritage seems to involve being extremely unpopular.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:19 PM on May 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


the "one drop rule" and all that.

I was going to respond to this, but I have sworn off drunken Irishman jokes.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:20 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


"He was screwing the cow!" Amy rasped. "This isn't California!"

Apparently she hasn't heard that happy cows make better cheese.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:21 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Kid 1 (asian): Did you see see Sean's afro?
Kid 2 (black): Sean doesn't have an afro. He's Jewish.


It's called a Jewfro.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:47 PM on May 19, 2010


They must have been the only Bantu white supremacists in the United States.

Great line, but I'm pretty sure it isn't true. There has always been a lot more "race" mixing than folks were willing to admit.

Karmakaze, my people, too. It makes for rollicking tales at family reunions and such, but no one seems to really ponder what it means to get chased out of country after country. I mean, how did we survive long enough to reproduce? I guess the drinking preserved us.
posted by QIbHom at 1:13 PM on May 19, 2010


This is a great story. I identify somewhat since my last name, while extremely common and not particularly black-sounding, is pretty identified in the area I grew up in with black people. There were a bunch of people in my HS with the same last name as me, and I was the only white one. Our family moved there from the other side of the country, so I'm pretty sure there wasn't a close relation, but I wondered.
posted by empath at 1:27 PM on May 19, 2010


I have a similar problem. Of course, my last name is Reverendmartinlutherkingjr.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:29 PM on May 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Weird synchronicity moment: I've just read "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., who (it turns out) is the namesake of Dana Point, California as a result of his descriptions of the Pacific coast of the NA when it was Spanish/Mexican.
posted by clvrmnky at 2:52 PM on May 19, 2010


I wish he'd gone more into his philosophy. He seemingly was the ONLY person who embraced this black ancestor.

Is it a fondness for history? a search for a more meanigful, purposeful life? what it means to be American?
posted by Student of Man at 3:02 PM on May 19, 2010


It also occurs to me that direct, blood, relationships to who we think are our ancestors is tenuous at best. A fair amount of research has been done that indicates that, well, you don't always have the father (and father's father, and so on) you think you have.

The longer back you go, the more unsure of your direct, genetic lineage you can be.

I can't remember the exact "rate" of "assumed" lineage for various populations (and it does vary widely on culture and circumstance), but (for example) anthropologists looking at migrant US lineages in, say, New York state to Oklahoma during the expansion into the West have found quite a lot of evidence that families were often blended and then legalized through marriage later. It isn't hard to imagine the same thing happening in a population of freed slaves over generations during these times in the American South-East.

This does not detract from the author's experiences, of course. Even given that fact that "race" is a cultural artefact that has little or no basis in genetics of individuals, when tracing lineages it probably doesn't matter whether yer old dad is a "genitor" or a "pater."

But it does mean that statements like "my ancestor was a Bantu warrior" is likely not exactly true, even if they have his name.
posted by clvrmnky at 3:06 PM on May 19, 2010


Wow. One of the founding farm families in Maryville, MO were a family named Mozingo. I think the name is even mentioned in the county courthouse plaque. The family deeded some land east of town which is now Mozingo Lake. Given some of the history of this area (a lynching in 1931) and the latent racism I see from some of today's residents, I sincerely hope our local historical society picks up this story and creates some new perspectives.
posted by lleachie at 5:12 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wish he'd gone more into his philosophy. He seemingly was the ONLY person who embraced this black ancestor.

Is it a fondness for history? a search for a more meanigful, purposeful life? what it means to be American?


Honestly, if it were me, I'd do it for the lulz and to tweak my racist family members (of which there are plenty)

But it does mean that statements like "my ancestor was a Bantu warrior" is likely not exactly true, even if they have his name.

I hear that. There are rumors that a great grandfather was an Indian fighter, as in an Indian who fought the Whites. But, as with Karmakaze's family, most of my family tree involves getting out of dodge when things got tricky or the government wanted their land.

So I pretty much use my existence as proof that we weren't all that warrior like. Quixotic, yes. Warrior? Not so much.
posted by lysdexic at 6:20 PM on May 19, 2010


Wow. Really? Italian = mafia?

I think his point was more that Mafia movies contain a lot of Italian last names.
posted by EarBucket at 7:26 PM on May 19, 2010


I think his point was more that Mafia movies contain a lot of Italian last names.

Nah, I was just being racist against Eye-talians.
posted by codswallop at 9:30 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I keed, I keed...
posted by codswallop at 9:30 PM on May 19, 2010


no one seems to really ponder what it means to get chased out of country after country. I mean, how did we survive long enough to reproduce?

Confirmation bias. The ones who didn't survive long enough to reproduce... didn't leave descendants to wonder about it.

At some point after my husband and I realized that actually no, we didn't want to have children and really aren't cut out for it, I was thinking about why I had always expected (without really thinking about it) that I would have kids. I realized, well, my parents had kids, and their parents had kids, and their parents and their parents and their parents. It's kind of a family tradition, you know?

The flaw in this reasoning should be apparent...

posted by Lexica at 9:48 PM on May 22, 2010


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