Wes Ocean Bent, age 32
WHAT MIX ARE YOU?
I consider myself bi-racial and have always embraced my mother and father’s ancestry. When people ask about my racial heritage, I give them the full breakdown. My mom is African-American from Nashville, Tennessee, and my dad is English Canadian, born and raised in Ontario. The world may see me simply as an African American man with light complexion, but it’s important for me to recognize both sides.
WHERE DO YOU CURRENTLY LIVE?
I recently moved to Los Angeles, California (in the past month).
IS THE COMMUNITY YOU LIVE IN NOW DIVERSE?
Definitely! I relocated to Los Angeles to have access to more cultural diversity.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I grew up in Sonoma County, CA about an hour north of San Francisco. Sonoma and neighboring Napa are popular California Wine Country destinations. My hometown is also known for the iconic redwood forests and Snoopy (the famous Peanuts cartoon was created in my city). The population is mostly white and hispanic, however, there is a tight knit population of African Americans and many East Africans. I used to joke that I probably knew every black person in town. In high school I gravitated towards the black and mixed kids but our squad was pretty diverse.
HOW DID YOUR PARENTS MEET?
My parents met on a ferryboat in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was during the post-Vietnam War era, and my folks were definitely the free spirited type. They were both revolutionary in their own right and after they met were vocal about fighting for change in America. The rest is history…
WERE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT OBSTACLES IN THEIR RELATIONSHIP CORRELATED TO YOUR BACKGROUNDS?
Yes, there were tons of obstacles. At the time it was almost sacrilegious for a black woman, raised in the segregated south, to marry a white man and have children. I remember when I was with my dad, people would often look at us with a perplexed expression, a white father with two black sons. They must be adopted, right? To this day, every time my dad and I go to the airport, the ticket agent asks my dad, “Is this gentleman with you?” He usually replies, “we’re together, don’t you see the resemblance.”
With my mom, it was usually the subtle nuances of pulling a child close or running to grab their purse. Most of her adult life, my mom has worn dreadlocks which probably intimidated some people, especially living in a predominately white community. I’ve heard her respond to people countless times, “I don’t want your purse, I’ve got my own money.” It doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I guess some things you just learn to deal with and move on, but it wasn’t as easy as a child.
HAS YOUR EXTENDED FAMILY ALWAYS BEEN SUPPORTIVE OF YOU BEING MULTIRACIAL?
Fortunately, I’ve never had issues with my mother or father’s extended family and I’m extremely grateful for their acceptance and peace.
DID YOU CELEBRATE TRADITIONS FROM BOTH SIDES OF YOUR FAMILY?
Growing up we traveled to Nashville almost every year around Christmas, some of my happiest memories. I still remember the smell of black-eyed peas, collard greens, turkey with all the fixings, and chitins. Couldn’t get down with those, but there was always more than enough. My aunts and uncles were usually in the kitchen cookin’, chillin’, laughin’. They shared stories, played spades, and had a good time. This probably sounds familiar to some. After all, these traditions are an integral part of the black experience. Soul food is rooted in West African cuisine and represents the traditions of our African ancestors. I love to cook, it’s a rite of passage to honor these traditions that were handed down by my great, greats. I’ve learned important lessons from these traditions: love the ones that are here, celebrate and honor the ones that came before, and reach for the stars.
I’ve been blessed to have two strong households. Despite the long distances, my grandparents and extended family were always within reach. My paternal grandparents lived an idyllic Canadian quiet life. They enjoyed farming, playing cribbage and being together--riding horses bareback in Nova Scotia. I have a cookbook from the last family reunion. I suppose cooking is a way that I stay connected to my mixed cultural heritage.
WERE THERE MULTIPLE LANGUAGES SPOKEN IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD?
I speak English and some Spanish. My friends point out that I pronounce “theater” with a southern drawl. A throw back to Nashville.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR CULTURAL BACKGROUND?
I’ve always felt a visceral connection to the oldies and music of the Civil Rights era. Even as a youngster, I would listen to the Temptations, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Barry White, just to name a few. I enjoy the stories that are told through jazz, blues and folk music in the black community. You can hear the ache and pain of the movement, and hip-hop has been the latest instrument of change for my generation. Tupac got a lot of play in my house growing up too, partly due to close family ties. My parents didn’t approve much of Tupac’s explicit lyrics, but understood he was a byproduct of his environment and they could relate to his revolutionary nature.
WHAT ACTIONS DID YOUR PARENTS TAKE TO TEACH YOU ABOUT YOUR DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS?
My mom traveled to Ghana, West Africa for 13 consecutive years. She would return home with hand carved drums, yards of kente cloth and wax print. In 2012, I finally had the opportunity to go myself. We stayed for a few days at the WEB Dubois Center in Accra and two weeks in Tamale a predominately Muslim community in the Northern Region of Ghana. Our final destination was Cape Coast, home to the oldest and largest slave dungeons in the world. It was definitely a surreal experience standing on the ground, where millions of West Africans were stripped from their homeland and shipped off across the Atlantic to foreign lands. It was a stark reminder of the sacrifices my ancestors have made to endure slavery and still have the will to fight for freedom. We’re so many generations removed from our African lineage, but traveling to Ghana was one the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. I’m a firm believer in Yoruba proverb, Sankofa which means, “you must reach back to reclaim that which is lost in order to move forward.”
On my paternal side I am a descendent of John Bent who arrived on Plymouth rock in 1638 and founded Sudbury, Massachusetts. There is an oil painting of one of our ancestors in the Harvard Medical School library. Peter Bent Brigham founded Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston, Ma. Our family reunions honor other historically significant events that have shaped the Bent legacy as well. In the early 19th century Bent’s Fort was founded, one of the main trading posts in the Western United States prior to the Spanish American war. I’m proud of the pioneering spirit of my English heritage as well.
DID YOU TALK ABOUT RACE A LOT IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
Yes, it was a regular topic in my mom’s household. In middle school, my mom and her friends started the Black Student Union when they realized there was no existing club on campus. We would meet a couple times a week, usually watch a movie on Black History and have an open discussion about race and identity.
DO YOU IDENTIFY AS MIXED OR SOMETHING ELSE?
I’ve always identified as mixed, African American and English Canadian or black and white.
DOES RACE WEIGH INTO WHO YOU CHOOSE TO DATE? OR IF YOU HAVE A PARTNER WHAT RACE ARE THEY?
I’ve been known to have a type and race has probably played into it. I’m engaged and my fiancé is also multi-ethnic. Her mother is African American, born in Detroit, and her father is Ugandan.
WHAT DOES BEING MIXED MEAN TO YOU?
I think culturally when you think of the term, “mixed” you think of black/white or black/asian because it’s probably the most common. I also agree with those who identify race is a social construct. To this date I get tripped up on which bubble fill-in. I’m not purely African American or Caucasian. I usually circle “African American,” if no other choices but wish there was a “fill in the blank” option. The question kind of rubs me the wrong way, next time I think I’ll just leave it blank.
DO YOU HAVE A LOT OF FRIENDS WHO ARE MIXED?
My parents settled in Sonoma County, CA because it’s liberal and for the most part accepting of different races, religions and lifestyles. I met my best friend, Kenji in kindergarten; his father is African American and mother Japanese, both originally from the Bronx, NY. Kenji is just a good dude. He’s someone that I can call on anytime and confide in and say “I love you man” because that’s what brothers do. I met my good friend, Wes while attending Long Beach State University. We connected instantly on the whole biracial thing, quickly realized we both had a white father and black mother, which is fairly uncommon. He invited me to move to Brooklyn a few years later, and I had the opportunity to interact with people daily from various races/ethnicities and quickly realized I was part of a much larger multi-racial, international community.
ARE THERE ANY COMMENTS YOU ARE REALLY TIRED OF HEARING FROM PEOPLE IN REGARDS TO RACE/CULTURE?
I get tired of people throwing around the N-word like it’s the thing to do. It’s overused in hip-hop lyrics and many people have become numb to it. It’s never been part of my vocabulary, and I wouldn’t be caught dead saying that word in my mom’s household.
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM FOR THE FUTURE OF AMERICA IN REGARDS TO RACE?
I have a dream that politics, police, and people of color will bridge the gap in understanding. There’s a huge mistrust and rightfully so. It doesn’t help the cause that innocent people are dying at the hands of police. I try to stay hopeful and prayerful but sick and tired of being sick and tired. Although, I have a faith in the millennials and the next generation, partly because this country is becoming more and more blended/ mixed. I have a dream that there will be more transparency in the justice system, with tactical reform policies and rehabilitation for minor drug offenses. There are a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in US prisons, and it’s not a sustainable future.
ANYTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO SHARE?
When I was growing up most of my curriculum was structured around popular white fairy tales, and experiences in American History, with little reference to black history. I guess with the exception to the month of February. My mom always laughed at the notion of a month dedicated to “black history month,” and made sure we were informed on the history that wasn’t being taught in school. She told us about her experience with the black liberation movement, joining sit-ins to confront racial segregation. We also read books on black historians, including George Washington Carver, Madam C.J. Walker, WEB Dubois and countless others who were an integral part of US History. We would go to Oakland regularly just to be around people of color, drumming sessions, kwanzaa celebrations, etc. I remember going to see Maya Angelou when I was 9 years old, and had the pleasure of meeting her.
Colin Kaepernick’s recent decision to take a knee in protest of the injustices is very relatable to my experience. One morning in 5th grade, I decided to sit out the pledge of allegiance and was sent to the principal's office. They called my mom down to the school and said, in order for me to stay in that school, I had to stand during the morning pledge. After a long dispute with the school administration, I stayed at the school and compromised that I would stand up, but it was my choice whether or not I wanted to recite the pledge. I applaud Kaepernick and all the other public figures that are coming forth to take a stand, unwilling to settle until there’s "justice for ALL."
You can get to know Wes even better and check out his photography on his website.