Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity
Specter Magazine: A Brooklyn-based Art Journal
Ghost+Blog (August 2011)
Baseball. Apple pie. Buying items in bulk. Buffets. All help create Americana, that itchy, dry-clean only fabric that bonds even the most disparate of us. As fixated as Americans are with the aforementioned, perhaps no pastime has been more consistent than toeing, monitoring, and often crossing the color line. Heidi W. Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010), a national bestseller and winner of the Bellwether Prize, explores the American obsession with racial categorization and identity through the (blue) eyes of Rachel Morse, a biracial girl forced to go live with her black grandmother in Portland, Oregon, after surviving a terrible tragedy.
With a black-identified biracial president in the White House, the timeliness of Durrow’s debut cannot be overstated. And perhaps Durrow owes a word of thanks to the POTUS for helping breathe new life into a conversation older than this hardly perfect Union we call home, for her work centers on bringing the mixed-race experience to the fore. With the tragic fall of Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey marrying Nick Cannon (still having a hard time grasping that), no other public figure but the POTUS–with help from blackcelebritykids.com–could help us keep our eye on the multiracial ball. Durrow does her best to keep us focused on the “beiging” of America through a Youtube channel, a film and literature festival, as well as a website. TGWFFTS is merely the fictional rendering of Durrow’s real life politics.
Or so it seems. Having no knowledge of Durrow’s other exploits might make gauging the larger theme of the novel slightly more difficult. Despite an interesting mystery at the core of the work, the narrative feels disjointed, incomplete, and contrived to the point of an awkward and unbelievable “happy” ending. In a very basic sense, Durrow tells way more often than she shows, rushing the stories of some of the more interesting, ancillary characters (Brick or Rachel’s father, Roger, for example), preventing the organic development of fuller, richer characters–and therefore a more compelling story– for readers to empathetically engage. What’s left, then, is Rachel’s underwhelming coming-of-age story slash devolution (the impression the novel leaves, not my opinion) into blackness…
…“I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m both.” Seems harmless and simple enough. And it’s a message Durrow, given her other work, might want her readers to have received by the end of TGWFFTS. But the idea of both, the idea of being a mixed- or multi-raced person, although a seemingly refreshing and timely one, especially since our country “came together” and elected a biracial president and everything, is inherently problematic, and for me, troubling. Mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness…
…Throughout the 1970s and 80s, interracial couples and (their) mixed-race children slowly became more visible on the landscape of an apparently racially stratified society. By the 1990s, mixed-race citizens, parents of multiracial children, and heads of interracial families were lobbying the federal government for a multiracial category on the United States Census, a move they thought would legitimize the interracial family and mixed-race children. Although the effort failed, arguing for a multiracial category on the US census form garnered the movement national attention.
Though the discourse on multiracialism addresses all the possible combinations and hues of God’s racial rainbow, blackness is uniquely affected by the idea of mixed-race identity. First, the significance of the Lovings to the formation of mixed-race identity placed particular significance to black-white pairings. Second, identifying as mixed-race relies on essentialist, de-politicized, nuclear-family-oriented notions of race: (mono)racial parent + (mono)racial parent = biracial child, thereby implicitly arguing for a kind of respectability predicated upon sexual practices and behaviors acceptable to larger (read: white) society–a space blacks have been perpetually excluded from. Such manuevers inevitably silence the fetishistic aspects of discourses concerning interracial relationships in exchange for language that could be summarized by the colloquial, Lov[ing] conquers all.
Third, mixed-race advocates will often argue that they are working against the one-drop rule, or hypodescent, a statute established precisely to monitor blacks and keep them for commingling with whites. Although the one-drop rule excluded blacks, it also worked as an umbrella identity, a force which was employed as a galvanizing mechanism to gain equal rights during the Jim Crow and civil rights periods. Blackness, then, became both an inherently multiracial and sociopolitical identity that people rallied around to fight oppression. Multiracial advocates make a similar claim about the breadth of mixed race identity, and further suggest that being bi- or multiracial is a new, post-1967 phenomenon that thusly allows one to appreciate more than one culture or racial heritage. Belief in this description of multiracial identity as a novelty requires a limited, monolithic understanding of blackness that denies the racial mixture inherent to it. This not only constricts the meaning of blackness and black identity, but also takes those varying tenets of blackness and recasts them as constitutive of multiracial identity. This process leads to misreading and ahistorical cherry-picking of black culture in order to create a multiracial history that otherwise would not exist…
Read the entire article here.