Archive for the ‘biracial’ Category

Tiffany D. Jones at Mulatto Diaries has given me her kind permission to cross post her wonderful review of Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (2010). Some of you might know Heidi Durrow from her blog, The Light-skinneded Girl.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

– The History Boys

This is exactly how I felt while reading Heidi Durrow’s debut novel “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (available now wherever books are sold). Except that I do know her, and I thank God that she’s not dead because I need more from this author/friend of mine. Heidi has written one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure of reading, biracial subject matter or not. Truly beautiful, profound, poignant. All that good stuff and more! I read (more like devoured) TGWFFTS during an extremely difficult time in my life. I felt as though the book was saving me. And reminding me of all the good things I have to offer. And that no matter what hardships and tragedies we may go through in life, the story goes on – there’s another chapter to be lived.

Though the book is not entirely about being black and white, there are many beautiful passages that honestly touch upon the heart of that matter. I often find myself lamenting the fact that this biracial identity is so misunderstood out in the world at large. “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” offers much insight. I sincerely hope that it is widely read. We all need this book. Whether we know it or not.

A few of my favorite “themes” of the novel:

Loss of self, becoming the “new girl”, becoming “black”, forsaking white. Making deals with the self. Deals which become layers covering over the authentic self. The self that the biracial kid loses when they feel pressured to be just one thing. Then eventually you long to be just one thing because no matter how hard you pretend to be whatever it is they want you to be, you can never totally convince yourself that you are exclusively that one thing. Because you aren’t. But most people seem completely incapable of understanding that, of allowing that. So we find ourselves feeling alone and lonely in groups of people.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “I think what a family is shouldn’t be so hard to see. It should be the one thing people know just by looking at you.” Unfortunately, we’ve been trained to recognize families as homogeneous groups. Seeing interracial couples is still jarring for many. Mentally pairing a mother with a child that “does not look like” her can be a major stretch of the imagination. But it is not an imagined thing for many. It is a reality. And for whatever reason that people who don’t have to deal with this don’t seem to understand, we need our families to be recognized.

I could go on and on. I have pages of notes. But I hope this is enough to pique your interest and motivate you to buy (and read!) “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky”. I’d love to hear what you think!

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Staceyann Chin (1971- ) is a slam poet from Jamaica who now lives in the country of Brooklyn in New York City. She travels the world performing and teaching poetry. Unlike most poets she has been on Oprah’s television show and has her own Blockbuster Online page.

I thought maybe she was just television-driven fluff, that she had no substance, but when she made me cry at her grandmother’s death – not mine but hers – then I knew she could write.

She was a slam poet before slam poets were in fashion, when it was still underground in New York. Like in Ancient Greece, slam poets perform their poetry for an audience with judges picking the winner. Their pieces generally run three minutes long and tell a story. A video of one of her pieces is at the end of this post.

She got into slam poetry almost by accident: one day she went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The rest is history.

Her first published book is not of her poetry – she is not ready for that yet – but a  story in prose about her first 24 years: “The Other Side of Paradise” (2009).

She was born on Christmas day in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the unwanted daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and a poor black woman. Her mother left the country soon after and Chin was brought up by her grandmother, then in her sixties. Although unwanted by her mother, her grandmother loved her unconditionally. No one has ever loved her more. Because her grandmother could not read, Chin read the Bible to her, especially the psalms – a slam poet in training!

All that ended at age nine when her mother arrived from Canada, briefly, and put her with a great-aunt whose sons tried to force her into sex. She was shifted from house to house without a home, till age 16 when she went away to boarding school and then university – paid for by a Chinese businessman who denies he is her father.

At age 21 while at university she found out she was lesbian. She only told close friends: in Jamaica  you cannot live openly as a homosexual and expect to not be beaten up or, in the case of women, raped.

As much as she loved Jamaica, she had to leave: it would not allow her to live freely as a lesbian. So at age 24 she came to New York:

New York was my godsend. As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.

No one in New York cared if she kissed girls. She was free! Yet not free: she was black. In Jamaica, because of its colourism, she was favoured for her light skin. But in America she found herself at the bottom – for the very same skin, now seen as black. America may have been more enlightened about lesbians, but it was way less enlightened about black people.

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Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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pj_hairI saw this on the Mulatto Diaries. It is from an article about an adoption agency in Boston:

For a flat fee, the prospective parent(s) can adopt a healthy, Caucasian infant within one to two years. For those willing to accept biracial or at risk children that wait time can be as little as one year. Betsy notes that the agency is particularly proud of its Lindelli Fund, which provides subsidies to any parent wishing to adopt hard-to-place children.

More at the Mulatto Diaries.

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Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster“Imitation of Life” (1933) is a book written by Fannie Hurst, a once-famous American writer. The book was made into a Hollywood film in 1934 and 1959. It was the only Hollywood film of the 1930s to view race as a serious issue. The film was so famous among blacks that Peola, the name of one of the main characters, was still a byword for self-hating blacks as late as the 1970s.

My understanding of the story before I saw the two films was that it was about a black girl named Peola who looked white and tried to pass for white by disowning her very black-looking mother. In the end she sees the error of her ways and comes home to make up with her mother – only to find that her mother has just died! She cries on her mother’s grave and the story ends, the story of the tragic mulatto.

That would have been a great film, especially if they showed how her heart was torn between the white world and the black world and her fight to become a whole person at peace with herself.

Well, that in fact is pretty much the story of “Passing” (1929) by Nella Larsen, herself a black woman who could pass, not “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst, who was white even if she was part of the Harlem Renaissance scene.

Unlike “Passing”, “Imitation” has white main characters and was made into a Hollywood film. It seems that American film-goers, who are mostly white, do not care enough about a black girl passing to make a whole film about it. So, like in the 1959 poster pictured above, the black characters have the less important part of the story. (On the 1934 poster only the white characters appear!)

Both films are mainly about a white woman who becomes rich and famous and gives her daughter everything – but her love. Peola gets the subplot. She thinks by being white she will have everything – but she will not have her mother’s love.

The 1934 film sticks closer to the book, but it is slower and stiffer, like a stage play. Peola’s mother is pure Mammy, even to the point of wanting to give up millions to remain the servant of a white woman! Peola is not believable either: she wants to be white no matter what, her mother be damned! She is also a stereotype: the tragic mulatto – the idea that mixed-race people can never be happy.

In the 1959 film Peola, named Sarah Jane, gets more of a storyline so we find out more about her, but she and her mother are still the same two stereotypes, although less extreme and more believable. It also has a more powerful ending. Mahalia Jackson sings too!

The 1959 film is worth seeing, but do not get your hopes up. And, as always, the book is probably better than either film, though I do not know that for a fact: F. Scott Fitzgerald did say people would forget the book in ten years.

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stickersThe following is based on Dr Beverly Tatum’s excellent book, “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” (1997):

Most studies done on biracial or mixed-race children growing up in America have been done on those with a white and a black parent. There is no general agreement yet on the stages they go through, but Dr Tatum says it goes something like this:

  • ages 1 to 5: You become aware that your skin and hair is different than one of your parents. You want your same-sex parent to be like you. One girl said if she had a magic wand she would turn her mother brown like her. Your parents say you can be both black and white but it does not make sense.  You may get a good deal of unwanted attention. But worse than that is if you get cut off from the black side of your family and your white side bad mouths them. That, along with the racist messages coming from society, will make it hard for you to feel good about yourself down the road. It is not as bad the other way round because society will help you to feel good about your white side.
  • ages 6 to 12: By now your parents have stuck a label on you: black, white or biracial. You are starting to think of yourself that way too – and at the same time you are finding out how well that label works in practice. If you do not look like your label it is going to be rough. “Biracial” does not work in all towns and neighbourhoods. It depends. If you look white, then your friends are going to be in for a shock when they see your black parent. (It is less of a shock the other way round.)
  • ages 13 to 18: This is the hard part. You are going to be asked to choose sides. The tables at lunch become more divided by race. There is no biracial table. If you sit at a black table they might say you are “not black enough”. You will also have to hear their angry words about whites. You might share that anger if you have experienced racism too, but for you it will not be so straightforward. Yet at the white table you might hear racist remarks. Even if you look white, “passing” as white might not be as easy as you think if they know you are part black. You will run into the same trouble with dating – many white parents will see you as black no matter what. So if you are, say, a biracial girl growing up among whites, they might say you look beautiful and “exotic” but you are still dateless.
  • ages 19 to 25: You become more secure in yourself. You are less affected by what others think. You can freely accept both the white and black parts of yourself. It is much easier to think of yourself as “biracial” than it was in high school.

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KW-SmithThe following is based on Zadie Smith’s essay “Speaking in Tongues” (2009):

Zadie Smith is a writer. She speaks in a posh British accent. But when she was growing up in the  Willesden section of London, the daughter of a white Englishman and a black Jamaican woman, she had a different accent.

For a while she could speak in both accents as the circumstances required, but then bit by bit her childhood accent went away. All she had left was just her posh accent.

She spoke that way not because she hated where she was from, but because she thought the way people spoke at Cambridge University where she went was the way lettered people spoke. And she wanted to be a lettered person.

Now looking back she sees it as a loss. Most people have just one voice, even if it changes over time. But a fortunate few can speak in more than one voice. Two that come to mind are Shakespeare and, yes, Barack Obama.

Authors often have to be able to speak in many voices. It makes their stories more believable. Shakespeare was a master at it. He was so good that even though he was a Protestant people still wonder 400 years later whether he was a secret Catholic.

And it is partly why some wonder if Obama is a secret Muslim. Like Shakespeare he can speak in many voices. He changes how he speaks depending on his audience.  He says “we” instead of “I”. He can say things like this:

We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

Taking “awesome God” from the churches of Georgia and “poking around” from the kitchen tables of Indiana.

Shakespeare could do it because he grew up between Catholic and Protestant worlds. Obama can do it because he grew up between the black and white American worlds. And so he can see them as worlds. Instead of being stuck between them, like a tragic mulatto, he moves between them.

Some might see that as underhanded but Zadie Smith sees it as having a broader view of the world, seeing it more as it is. Most presidents, like most people, stick to their own kind and so have a narrow view of the world. Not Obama.

On the night that Obama won she was at a party of white New York liberals when she got a call from a German friend to come uptown to a Harlem reggae bar. She looked at her dress and thought about her posh British accent and did not want to go. But then she saw that as:

A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.

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