06 September 2011

I stop being polite and start being Real (McCoy)

My surname is McCoy, which is a funny name because when I tell it to people they either shoot back some incredibly witty question about whether I'm the real or or not, or they stare blankly and ask if I said McCory. This is odd because while there is a famous space doctor named McCoy and a famous feuding hillbilly family named McCoy and a famous pottery company named McCoy and a famous jazz pianist named McCoy and a famous perky cruise director named McCoy, I have never once met a McCory or even heard of the name aside from having it repeated back to me by the aforementioned vacant starers.

Out here in Boston everyone is Irish or pretending to be Irish and most of them will ask if my family is from Ulster or Cork and then squint intently as though my reply will result in either a hug or an uppercut. However, the story I was told as a wee bairn was that our family name was changed from MacKay when we  came from Scotland, no doubt  searching the new world for peat. My father had a book of the tartans of Highland clans and my brother Robert and I looked at the page for our ancestors family so often the spine cracked to fall open on the MacKay's somewhat plain green-and-blue plaid.

I was a credulous child and I accepted this story about my heritage without question until my mid-twenties, when doubt began to settle in. Too many people I met seemed to think that the name was Irish. Digging around I discovered that while the McCoys were in fact related to the MacKays, the name variants go back many centuries and predate any Atlantic crossings: the name change may have originated with gallowglasses who moved to Ulster in the 13th century. My father has confirmed that the first immigrant in our family named McCoy, James, came to America in the 18th century from Ulster when he was 14, and there's a charming story about how during the passage he boasted about being good with horses, eventurally secure employment in the New World at a stable.

The thing is, whoever he was and wherever he came from, he was just a guy who happened to share my last name. Going back a few generations I have more English surnames than Scots (or Scots-Irish or whatever), and somewhere in there are German names, and French, and allegedly four or five generations back I have Cherokee and Creek great-great-great-great grandmothers. Calling myself Scottish seems as ridiculous as calling myself Native American based on whatever fraction of genetic material I share with these ancestors. My father grew up in Oklahoma and Indiana; my mother in Virginia and Indiana; really I'm a mutt.

But don't tell my uncle; he is proud enough of our alleged Scottishness to have purchased a kilt, a Tam o'Shanter, a set of bagpipes, and an Aberdeen Terrier. When I married my wife Marina (who is, by the way, unquestionably 100% Latvian in descent), he presented her with a pin to welcome her into the Clan MacKay. I often wonder what actual Scotts would think of him, if he were magically transported in full costume to some pub. Probably if it were in Edinburg they'd humor him, but I can't imagine it ending in anything other than a pummeling in Glasgow.

The fact is, despite having a distinctively Gaelic name, I have no sense of myself as having any ethnicity at all.  I have lived in small towns and big cities; even though I've lived in Boston for over 20 years, I don't think of myself as "from" here. But I don't think of myself as "from" anywhere. The idea of having a strong sense of ethnic identity is foreign to me. Maybe it's my white male privilege talking, but I like to think that my personality and abilities arise organically from my own choices and experiences and are not the result of any national character. Ethnic pride has a dark side—the belief that your own clan or race or creed is exceptional is the seed of prejudice and nationalism.

Still, I am not immune to the charms of ethnic imagination. I see Marina's strong connection to her Baltic heritage and it makes sense as the daughter of immigrant parents. Everywhere you go in Boston you see shamrock tattoos and that's nuts, but kind of cool, too. And as for me, I will happily recite Burns if you hand me a wee drap o' whisky.  But bagpipes? That's just silly.

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