Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books
2020-03-26

Darryl Pinckney


Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

Read the entire review here.

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“What Are You?”: Addressing Racial Ambiguity

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2020-02-18 18:17Z by Steven

“What Are You?”: Addressing Racial Ambiguity

Critical Philosophy of Race
Volume 8, Numbers 1-2, 2020
pages 202-307

Céline Leboeuf, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Florida International University, Miami, Florida

“What are you?” This question, whether explicitly raised by another or implied in his gaze, is one with which many persons perceived to be racially ambiguous struggle. This article centers on encounters with this question. Its aim is twofold: first, to describe the phenomenology of a particular type of racializing encounter, one in which one of the parties is perceived to be racially ambiguous; second, to investigate how these often alienating encounters can be better negotiated. In the course of this investigation, this article examines the addressee’s point of view and consider possible responses to the other’s question. In addition, it discusses the addresser’s perspective, both to probe the curiosity underlying the “What are you?” question and to explore alternatives to it. By describing the phenomenology of these encounters, this article hopes to show that racial ambiguity, as distinct from mixed-race, is a category of lived experience that calls for deeper philosophical scrutiny.

Read or purchase the article here.

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What if We Just Forgot about Race?

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2020-02-13 16:26Z by Steven

What if We Just Forgot about Race?

National Review
2020-02-11

Kyle Smith, Critic-at-Large


Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

In his beautifully written new book, Thomas Chatterton Williams disputes the notion that his blackness should be central to his identity.

Picture a graph of American racial preoccupation over time. Over the last 50 years, the downward trend is unmistakable. After the civil-rights era, anger and frustration and dismay diminished in the Seventies. It diminished more in the Eighties and the Nineties and the Aughts. Then, after the election of Barack Obama, which was presented as the final victory of post-racial thinking, what? A steady increase in focus on race. Today everything is racialized. Race is inescapable. There is no sociopolitical subject that can be discussed without a prominent voice insisting “Actually, this is about race.”

And it’s exhausting. It’s hard to see how we bend the curve of race anguish down again. But then again, it’s a mistake to think that present trends must carry on indefinitely. Attitudes do evolve, adapt, grow. What if we dropped our fascination with race?…

Read or listen to the entire review here.

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Fateful Triangles in Brazil: A Forum on Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Part II

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, Politics/Public Policy on 2020-02-03 21:02Z by Steven

Fateful Triangles in Brazil: A Forum on Stuart Hall’s The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, Part II

Contexto International
Volume 41, Number 2, Rio de Janeiro (May/Aug. 2019)
pages 449-470
DOI: 10.1590/s0102-8529.2019410200012

Sharon A. Stanley, Professor of Political Science
University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee

João Nackle Urt, Assistant Professor
Federal University of Grande Dourados (UFGD), Dourados-MS, Brazil

Thiago Braz, Ph.D. Candidate
Institute of International Relations
Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Rio de Janeiro-RJ, Brazil

Stuart Hall, a founding scholar in the Birmingham School of cultural studies and eminent theorist of ethnicity, identity and difference in the African diaspora, as well as a leading analyst of the cultural politics of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, delivered the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University in 1994. In the lectures, published after a nearly quarter-century delay as The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (2017), Hall advances the argument that race, at least in North Atlantic contexts, operates as a ‘sliding signifier,’ such that, even after the notion of a biological essence to race has been widely discredited, race-thinking nonetheless renews itself by essentializing other characteristics such as cultural difference. Substituting Michel Foucault’s famous power-knowledge dyad with power-knowledge-difference, Hall argues that thinking through the fateful triangle of race, ethnicity and nation shows us how discursive systems attempt to deal with human difference.

In ‘Fateful Triangles in Brazil,’ Part II of Contexto Internacional’s forum on The Fateful Triangle, three scholars work with and against Hall’s arguments from the standpoint of racial politics in Brazil. Sharon Stanley argues that Hall’s account of hybrid identity may encounter difficulties in the Brazilian context, where discourses of racial mixture have, in the name of racial democracy, supported anti-black racism. João Nackle Urt investigates the vexed histories of ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nation’ in reference to indigenous peoples, particularly Brazilian Indians. Finally, Thiago Braz shows, from a perspective that draws on Afro-Brazilian thinkers, that emphasizing the contingency of becoming in the concept of diaspora may ignore the myriad ways by which Afro-diasporic Brazilians are marked as being black, and thus subject to violence and inequality.

Part I of the forum – with contributions by Donna Jones, Kevin Bruyneel and William Garcia – critically examines the promise and potential problems of Hall’s work from the context of North America and western Europe in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter and Brexit.

Read the entire article here.

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Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2019-12-24 02:48Z by Steven

Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Harpers’s
December 2019

Emily Bernard

Thomas Chatterton Williams loses his race

Self-Portrait in Black and White, by Thomas Chatterton Williams. W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $25.95.

What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
—Elizabeth Alexander, “Race”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!” declares Wanda Sykes in her 2016 Epix special, What Happened . . . Ms. Sykes? As one of her fans, I was glad to hear it. As a member of a racially and culturally mixed family, I was particularly charmed to learn the circumstances of Sykes’s joy. For ten years, Wanda Sykes has been a mother. Her wife, Alex Niedbalski, gave birth to twins Olivia and Lucas in 2009. “My kids are white white, you know? I mean blond hair, blue eyes. I’m talking Frozen,” says Sykes.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined myself in this situation.

“Here’s the thing. I’m a black woman from Virginia,” she continues. “I went to an H.B.C.U., historically black college—I went to Hampton University. I pledged the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. So I got a lot of black going on.” The audience roars. “And now I’m married to a white French woman, and I have two white kids. Fucked up my legacy.” She throws her arm up to the ceiling.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I love my family. I love my family dearly, you know, and I wish we could live in a color-blind society. Yeah. But I gotta admit, I see shit.”…

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

Still, Self-Portrait is a fluent, captivating, if often disquieting story. Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wanda Sykes have many of the same questions about the way race will affect how they relate to their children, and how their children will see themselves. “In all of these white rooms that she is being brought up in, what will she learn to think of herself?” Williams writes about Marlow. But there is not much to laugh about in Self-Portrait, which begins with a lot of hand-wringing over Marlow’s fate. “Will she develop my ancestral GPS,” Williams writes, “or will that signal fade—would it even be right for me to transmit my habits of orientation, some of which are riddled with guilt and steeped in illusion, to her untroubled head?”…

Read the entire review here.

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Color Blind

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy on 2019-11-12 19:02Z by Steven

Color Blind

The Nation
2019-11-11

Ismail Muhammad, Reviews Editor
The Believer


Charts for testing color blindness. (Wellcome Collection)

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s argument against race.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

Early in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, Clare Kendry speaks nervously of her daughter Margery’s birth. “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born,” she confesses. She is, for all intents and purposes, a white woman married to a wealthy white man. Yet she finds herself fearing that her child’s birth will reveal her for what she is: a black woman who passes for white. If a child of Clare’s came out dark, it would be evidence of her passing. Luckily, Margery was born fair skinned. “Thank goodness, she turned out all right.”

A similar scene unfolds at the beginning of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. In 2013, Williams—the son of a white woman and a black man—and his white French wife are living in Paris when she gives birth to their daughter, Marlow. Like Margery, Marlow arrives with fair skin. But this is not a comfort to Williams; instead, it comes as a shock. “It took my sluggish mind a moment to register and sort the sounds; and then it hit me that [the doctor] was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond,” he recalls.

Unlike Clare’s child, Williams’s blond baby is not the cause of relief but of psychic agitation. For Williams, she’s a portal into a new conception of his own racial identity. “I was aware…however vaguely, that whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different,” he writes. While Williams had long considered himself black, Marlow’s arrival unsettled his assumptions about how real race is to begin with. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he writes. How can the world consider this child black, and what does it say about his racial identity that he has fathered her? Even more important, his daughter’s birth raises a set of deeper existential and political questions. What does it say about race that some of the key assumptions that buttress Western conceptions of racial identity—that one’s skin color can tell us one’s race, for instance—dissolve in the face of reality’s manifold intricacies?…

Read the entire review here.

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Illusions: A Film by Julie Dash

Posted in Media Archive, Philosophy, United States, Videos, Women on 2019-11-03 02:45Z by Steven

Illusions: A Film by Julie Dash

Women Make Movies
1983
34 minutes
BW
16mm/DVD
Order No. 99306

Julie Dash, Director/Writer

This critically acclaimed drama from filmmaker Julie Dash (Daughers of the Dust) takes place in 1942 at a fictitious Hollywood motion picture studio.

The time is 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor; the place is National Studios, a fictitious Hollywood motion picture studio. Mignon Duprée, a Black woman studio executive who appears to be white and Ester Jeeter, an African American woman who is the singing voice for a white Hollywood star are forced to come to grips with a society that perpetuates false images as status quo. This highly-acclaimed drama by one of the leading African American women directors follows Mignon’s dilemma, Ester’s struggle and the use of cinema in wartime Hollywood: three illusions in conflict with reality.

For more information, click here.

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Can Americans Unlearn Race?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:51Z by Steven

Can Americans Unlearn Race?

American Interest
2019-10-15

Morten Høi Jensen


“Willie and Holcha” by William H. Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

In his lucid new memoir, Thomas Chatterton Williams channels Albert Camus and James Baldwin—and offers a thoughtful counterpoint to the tired racial dogmas of both Right and Left.

Reflecting on why he decided to leave America for Europe, James Baldwin once explained that he wanted to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” The racism of American society in the late 1940s prohibited him from doing so at home, where he was always “merely a Negro.” Only by going abroad could he find the freedom to really ask himself what it meant to be black, to be American, to be African-American. By encountering people so different from himself, Baldwin wrote, he felt at last “a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held.” The constraints of American notions of race and identity were loosened by the existence of entirely different notions. “The time has come,” Baldwin decided, “for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”

The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams has followed in the footsteps of Baldwin’s Parisian emigration. Raised in suburban New Jersey by a white mother and black father, Williams grew up thinking of himself not as half-white or of mixed race but as “black, period.” In his literary debut, Losing My Cool (2010), he recounted an adolescence suffused with hip-hop culture and received ideas about a particular kind of black identity. In high school, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Williams strode the hallways with a sweatshop’s worth of flashy apparel, paid homage to the gods of BET, and lived by the dubious moral code of the Big Tymers and Master P. At the local basketball court, he was awestruck by a player known as RaShawn, who sipped Olde English before games, kept in his pocket a knot of bills “as thick and layered as a Spanish onion,” and often resorted to viciously beating up his opponents. “He was like a star to me,” Williams admitted…

Read the entire review here.

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How to become an ex-black man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:25Z by Steven

How to become an ex-black man

The Washington Post
2019-10-11

Carlos Lozada, Book Critic

Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)
Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
By Thomas Chatterton Williams. Norton. 174 pp. $25.95

Thomas Chatterton Williams has seen the future, and he is it.

The son of a mother who is “unambiguously white” and a father whom none has described as “anything other than black,” Williams grew up in middle-class New Jersey suburbia, where he sought to assert his black identity through hip-hop, basketball and BET. Blackness, and America’s racial binary, became “so fundamental to my self-conception that I’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations,” he writes.

But now Williams has reflected, and he finds blackness lacking. Not just blackness but whiteness, too, and any divisions and hierarchies based on race or color, those resilient constructs to which Americans attach such weight. Williams, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, has come to see himself as an “ex-black man,” a transformation he contemplates in a thoughtful yet frustrating memoir, “Self-Portrait in Black and White.” The precipitating force was the birth of his daughter, Marlow, who entered the world with blond hair, light skin and “a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown.”

Upon seeing her, Williams realizes that “whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different.” It is for Marlow, and because of her, that Williams comes to embrace the “fluidity of racial borders.” To that end, he painstakingly reconsiders just about every potentially relevant aspect of his life — his relationships, his distant relatives, his DNA test (39.9 percent sub-Saharan, 58.7 percent European), his elementary school days, the shape of his face, even a single strand of light hair emanating from his clavicle — as part of his attempt at “outgrowing the bounds and divisions of identity, of touching the universal.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Race to the finish

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 00:16Z by Steven

Race to the finish

The Spectator
2019-10-15

J. Oliver Conroy

chatterton
Protesters in Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams reviewed

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
Thomas Chatterton Williams
W. W. Norton & Company, pp.192, $25.95

‘I have observed,’ Joseph Addison wrote in 1711 in the first article in the first issue of the first version of The Spectator, ‘that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure, ’till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an Author.’

Thomas Chatterton Williams has earned a reputation as a tough, thoughtful and genuinely interesting commentator on race. In an influential 2015 essay in the London Review of Books, he criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates for discounting the individual autonomy of black Americans. In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times he argued that the essentialism of leftist identity politics is dangerously similar to that of white nationalism.

Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd (2010), was a memoir of growing up as the son of a white mother and a black father from the segregated South. His extraordinary, self-taught father filled their small house with thousands of books and tutored his sons daily to ensure they would succeed…

Read the entire review here.

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