“The notion that to see myself is to see a mixed race, heterosexual, endomorphic contemporary, I think really reduces what the self is.”

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-06-06 19:59Z by Steven

Otis Houston: You agree that it’s important for people to see a black family in the White House, if only to demonstrate that it’s possible. Is it also important for black children to be able to see people who look like them on television, or in movies, or even in television commercials? Is there an importance in people, whatever their background, seeing folks who superficially resemble them included in mainstream media?

Thomas Chatterton Williams: Yeah, there probably is. I’m sure that there is. But one thing that often gets lost in a lot of these debates is that black people have only ever been around 12 percent of the population. So it doesn’t really bother me or my sense of myself if I don’t always see myself. Also — getting back to my own obtuseness or naïveté — I saw myself in Crime and Punishment in a way that I did with very few novels in which the protagonist resembled me and my American contemporary social identity. I saw myself in The Brothers Karamazov. I saw myself in the novels of Roberto Bolaño, and in Borges’s Ficciones set in Buenos Aires. The self is really something that I don’t think can be boiled down to physical appearance, necessarily, or to gender, to epoch, to time or era, to language. The notion that to see myself is to see a mixed race, heterosexual, endomorphic contemporary, I think really reduces what the self is.

I never saw myself more clearly than in the novels of Dostoyevsky when I was in college. No one has ever spoken more to my sense of myself. And I can see myself in Batman. I relate to Bruce Wayne more than I do to the Black Panther, if we have to go into comic books. I don’t want to be glib about it — I understand why a young boy or young girl needing some self-esteem, a young girl seeing Wonder Woman … I get it. But I think we really should not go too far with it, or we risk restricting the self too severely. The self is a multitudinous thing, right?

Otis Houston, “The Singular Power of Writing: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams,” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 12, 2019. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-singular-power-of-writing-a-conversation-with-thomas-chatterton-williams.

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The Singular Power of Writing: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive on 2019-06-04 19:50Z by Steven

The Singular Power of Writing: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Los Angeles Review of Books
2019-04-12

Otis Houston
Portland, Oregon

Otis Houston interviews Thomas Chatterton Williams

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS is the author of Losing My Cool, a memoir chronicling his experiences growing up in New Jersey as the son of a black father and a white mother and constructing an identity in the space between his love for hip-hop and for literature. His new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, forthcoming from Norton in October, explores a further complication in the author’s already fraught self-conception, and the often-contradictory ways in which society views and reifies racial categorization.

The author spoke to me by Skype from his home in Paris, France, where he lives with his wife and two children.

OTIS HOUSTON: You’ve been critical of the ways in which writers conceptualize their identity on the page, and about different ways of thinking about identity in relation to society. I thought we could start by talking about some of these themes in your upcoming book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, which questions some of the metrics by which we understand race in the 21st century.

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS: The book started for me in 2013 when my daughter, Marlow, was born. Prior to that, in 2012, I had written an op-ed in The New York Times kind of glibly and really confidently making the case that my kids would be black no matter what they looked like because it’s a kind of political stance more than a genetic identity.

My wife is French and she’s white, and it occurred to me that perhaps our kids would be kind of white-looking. But the reality of our daughter’s birth really struck me, and I realized that I couldn’t just send her out into the world with this antiquated logic of hypo-descent, which is really the slave master’s logic and reinforces some really bad stuff if you think about it for a minute, even though it has allowed the black community to have a lot of solidarity when they needed it.

We had this very Scandinavian-looking child, and for the first time in my life what I now call the fiction of race was thrust into my consciousness. It’s an experience that most people, black or white, don’t have to have because most people don’t live on the racial margins and don’t see how ridiculous it is to say something like, “My father is black, and my daughter is white, but they have the same smile.” And my daughter is blond-haired and has blue eyes and white skin, but she’s of 20 percent West African descent. Most people don’t actually have these kinds of contradictions. So, her birth really set me down this path. I wrote an essay about it for the Virginia Quarterly Review called “Black and Blue and Blond” about questioning and reassessing things I’d taken for granted, and Jonathan Franzen was kind enough to include it in the Best American Essays, which he edited in 2016…

Read the entire interview here.

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Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United Kingdom on 2018-05-27 23:46Z by Steven

Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK

The Los Angeles Review of Books
2015-12-06

Sandeep Parmar

As long as we have literature as a bulwark against intolerance, and as a force for change, then we have a chance. Europe needs writers to explicate this transition, for literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths, it relishes ambiguity, and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood…

Caryl Phillips, Color Me English

Nature rejects the monarch, not the man;
The subject, not the citizen: for kings
And subjects, mutual foes, forever play
A losing game into each other’s hands,
Whose stakes are vice and misery.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Queen Mab”

WHEN I LEFT LOS ANGELES in the summer after 9/11 to study creative writing in England, I was only supposed to be away for a year at most. England was a country I thought I knew — I was born there, lived there for a few years, and returned to visit my maternal grandparents nearly every summer in my teens. Wanting to study poetry, I enrolled in the University of East Anglia’s MA program. Based in Norwich, the writing MA at UEA boasts Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, and Ian McEwan — along with a host of lesser known but respectable poets — among its graduates. Compared to Los Angeles, Norwich felt strangely remote, enswathed by lakes and rivers and marshland studded by flint houses. Two hours from London, and a bit further to Derby (where my grandparents immigrated in the 1960s from Punjab) I found myself at the desolate end of a train line, cut off from the multicultural Britain of London and the heavily ghettoized Midlands. Norwich — and UEA — could not have been any less ethnically diverse. Whereas inner-city Derby, in particular the multiethnic Normanton road, felt like an entrenched if deeply divided community of Sikhs, Muslims, West Indians, and others, Norwich was eerily homogenous. When I inquired of a local cab driver about racism in the city, he assured me that it was not a problem because “there aren’t any black people.” This did not prove to be exactly true.

What was I doing there? I should have asked myself. And what kind of poet would I become? I never thought to question my attraction to British poetry, or my unfounded sense of its legitimacy. At 21, I was drawn back to the country of my own and my mother’s childhood for instinctual reasons I would only realize many years later. And so, forsaking sunshine, naively idolizing the English way of life as one giant costume drama, I wasted no time and devotedly read beyond the mere handful of 20th-century British poets I had encountered as an undergraduate at UCLA…

…A recent review of Sarah Howe’s book begins with the publisher’s blurb:

Loop of Jade is described as an exploration “of a dual heritage” — Chinese and British — a “journeying back…in search of her roots.” My heart sank a little. Without diminishing the importance of such endeavours, the intervening three decades of identity politics has also led to, perhaps, a sense of, well, here we go again.

The reviewer misses the point — it is not “identity politics” that is at fault here, but publishers who only stage a poet’s racial identity when that poet is not white. Howe’s book moves between lyric and experimental modes, and dodges the uneasy limits of poetic subjectivity. Her work retains a deeply intellectual authority over itself in an industry that would prefer to ornamentalize poets of color…

Read the entire article here.

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Passing and Being Passed Over in the United States

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-01-30 01:27Z by Steven

Passing and Being Passed Over in the United States

Los Angeles Review of Books
2017-12-15

Kavita Das

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America
By Brando Skyhorse, Lisa Page
Published 10.10.2017
Beacon Press
216 Pages

IN THE YEARS preceding the 2016 presidential election, the “birther” movement that had dogged Barack Obama during his initial run for president raised its ugly head once again, revived by Donald Trump, a bombastic businessman/reality-show celebrity, and one of Obama’s most outspoken critics. Using the platform afforded to him as a rich and powerful white man, Trump made claims that Obama was not an American citizen, calling for him to prove otherwise by producing his birth certificate. This claim was made — and repeated often — despite the abundance of unassailable proof to the contrary.

Trump — and the rest of the “birther” movement — essentially accused President Obama of passing as an American citizen. According to Brando Skyhorse, co-editor of the new anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, passing is the “knowing decision about hiding or omitting one’s background to obtain acceptance into a community.” Skyhorse knows whereof he speaks since he acknowledges engaging in the practice himself. The phenomenon of passing is neither new nor unique to the United States. Age-old fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” depict young women who pass as something other than their true selves in order to meet their Prince Charmings. Despite our country’s founding documents declaring that “all men are created equal,” endowed with rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” entrenched inequalities and stigmas associated with race, class, and sexuality have helped contribute to a long history of passing in the United States: African Americans and other people of color passing as white, poor people passing as affluent, LGBTQ individuals passing as straight…

Read the entire review here.

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The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-01-23 03:57Z by Steven

The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Los Angeles Review of Books
2017-08-01

Gabrielle Bellot, Staff Writer
Literary Hub

Danzy Senna, New People, A Novel (New York: Riverhead, 2017)

IN LONDON IN JULY, at the dawn of a new century, W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in front the Pan-African Conference about the challenges of the era to come. “[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century,” he said, in a statement that would later appear in and come to define his epochal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color-line.” The idea of describing American antiblack racial segregation by the simple, if not even deceptively charming, term color-line, had appeared two decades earlier in the title of Frederick Douglass’s 1881 essay, “The Color Line,” but it would come to be associated particularly with The Souls of Black Folk. So seductive was the phrase for Du Bois that he used it two more times to bookend an essay in the book, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” but it was, of course, more than a memorable line. The color-line was as explicit as it was psychic, delineated in signs, denials, and public executions as much as it was in one’s choice of path, one’s footfalls, one’s bones and dreams. Racism is merely obvious when it becomes visible; its potential existence follows us, invisibly and phantasmally, when we’ve come to expect it…

The problem of the 21st century in the United States is still the color-line, a line that extends back into prior centuries. This is the age of identity — as all ages have been, really, but the very notions of what it means to have an identity or to be something are now, more than ever, at the fore. But even as we have blurred racial lines in ways scarcely imaginable when The Souls of Black Folk appeared in 1903, we still have our clear-cut demarcations. And in many ways, lines of color, alongside the complexities of what it means to pass as one thing or another, may be what best defines Danzy Senna’s epochal — in its most literal sense — new novel, New People. Du Bois is not an explicit presence in the novel, yet his thematic and political concerns — updated, as it were, for this new era — haunt New People. These themes of passing and racial demarcations informed Senna’s first novel, Caucasia, as well. New People also explores an idea common in Percival Everett’s fiction — the two, incidentally, are married — of reclaiming and repackaging racial stereotypes as a person of color…

Read the entire review here.

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The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-05 21:41Z by Steven

The Ineradicable Color-Line: Danzy Senna’s “New People”

Los Angeles Review of Books
2017-08-01

Gabrielle Bellot

Danzy Senna, New People, A Novel (New York: Riverhead, 2017)

IN LONDON IN JULY, at the dawn of a new century, W. E. B. Du Bois spoke in front the Pan-African Conference about the challenges of the era to come. “[T]he problem of the Twentieth Century,” he said, in a statement that would later appear in and come to define his epochal collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, “is the problem of the color-line.” The idea of describing American antiblack racial segregation by the simple, if not even deceptively charming, term color-line, had appeared two decades earlier in the title of Frederick Douglass’s 1881 essay, “The Color Line,” but it would come to be associated particularly with The Souls of Black Folk. So seductive was the phrase for Du Bois that he used it two more times to bookend an essay in the book, “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” but it was, of course, more than a memorable line. The color-line was as explicit as it was psychic, delineated in signs, denials, and public executions as much as it was in one’s choice of path, one’s footfalls, one’s bones and dreams. Racism is merely obvious when it becomes visible; its potential existence follows us, invisibly and phantasmally, when we’ve come to expect it…

New People is a paean to the psychosocial complexities of being racially mixed, and, as a result, color-lines, passing, and double-consciousness are everywhere. The book follows Maria, who is on the cusp of marriage to her college love, Khalil. Obsessive and unreliable herself, she is doing her dissertation on Jonestown, a notorious historical example of fanaticism and deception. It is 1996 in Brooklyn, though much of it still feels atmospherically like 2017, only without social media. In her past, “Maria could honestly say she hated white people”; her mother, Gloria, astutely notes that Maria possesses “that particular rage of the light-skinned individual.” Khalil is Jewish and black with light skin; the first time Maria sees him, he looks “both entirely black and entirely white.” Like Maria, but with less self-torment, Khalil learns to embrace his mixed-race status shortly after beginning to date Maria. However, Maria does not feel any fire in her when she is with Khalil. (So cold is their romantic relationship, at least to her, that she wonders as she kisses him if she is really more attracted to women than Khalil.) The one who bewitches her is the black man who opens the book: an unnamed poet whose show she and Khalil have gone to see…

Read the entire review here.

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A Tale Which Must Never Be Told: A New Biography of George Herriman

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-03-19 14:32Z by Steven

A Tale Which Must Never Be Told: A New Biography of George Herriman

Los Angeles Review of Books
2017-03-18

Ben Schwartz

George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
By Michael Tisserand

Published 12.06.2016
Harper
560 Pages

ON MARCH 4, 1913, Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office and became our 28th president. While we remember Wilson for his internationalist foreign policy and progressive labor laws, he was also the first Southerner elected since the mid-19th century, and his racial policies reflected it. Wilson saw Jim Crow as the necessary remedy to the aftermath of the Civil War. As president, he normalized his revanchist views from the White House by expanding segregation of federal workers. Not surprisingly, 1913 also saw a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. An excerpt from Wilson’s revisionist writings proclaiming the Klan “a veritable empire of the South” even appears in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a box-office smash which Wilson personally screened at the White House, the first American film ever shown there.

In that reactionary atmosphere, on October 28, 1913, in the New York Evening Journal, William Randolph Hearst debuted a new comic strip, Krazy Kat, by one of his favorite cartoonists, George Herriman. It starred Krazy, an androgynous cat in love with Ignatz, a brick-throwing, cat-chasing mouse. They lived in Coconino County, Arizona, desert mesa country, and Herriman shifted their backgrounds panel-by-panel — night to day, day to night, mountain to desert to town to river — with no rhyme or reason. They spoke in a patois of slang, Elizabethan English, Yiddish, Spanish, French, and tossed off literary allusions. When asked once about his basic upending of the natural order of cats, mice, dogs, time, and space, Herriman summed up his Weltanschauung: “To me it’s just as sensible as the way it is.”.

Krazy Kat’s whimsy caught on quickly in the Age of Wilson, and its large and devoted fan base ranged from high society to poets to school children to the president himself. What none of them knew then was that George Herriman was black. He passed for white most of his life. And what we can only see now, thanks to an authoritative new biography of Herriman by New Orleans historian Michael Tisserand, is that, as far removed from social commentary as Krazy Kat may appear, race was as much on George Herriman’s mind as the president’s…

Read the entire review here.

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Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2016-11-23 02:21Z by Steven

Zadie Smith’s Rhythmic Play in Shadow and Light

Los Angeles Review of Books
2016-11-17

Walton Muyumba, Associate Professor Assistant Director of Creative Writing
Indiana University

Zadie Smith, Swing Time (New York: Penguin Press, 2016).

I FINISHED READING SWING TIME, Zadie Smith’s new novel, her fifth, around the time the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Among my initial reactions to this confluence was to think of Marcus Carl Franklin, the young African-American actor who portrayed one version of Dylan in Todd Haynes’s 2007 biographical film, I’m Not There. Franklin plays Woody, an imagined Dylan in his Woody Guthrie stage, a role Dylan himself constructed as a cross between the hoboing white troubadour and a wandering black blues man; on-screen, then, Franklin performs a performance of a performance. Haynes’s casting choice is cinematic legerdemain: blackface minstrelsy has had a central role in American entertainment from Thomas D. Rice to Bert Williams to Al Jolson to Fred Astaire to Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, so at the very least, Franklin’s performance points to the blues-idiom roots of Dylan’s musical archive and to the kinds of masking (even behind Negro performance and Welsh poetic traditions) that he has put on to “get over.” American culture, like America’s gene pool, is definitely mixed, but Franklin’s performance both represents Dylan’s musical core and disappears from our memory in the matrix of the other actors’ performances in Haynes’s film.

Smith knows about these kinds of erasures and disappearances. In the middle of Swing Time, the narrator/protagonist recalls watching, as a child, Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937) with her best friend, Tracey. Growing up in 1980s London, the girls share a love of dance, Michael Jackson, and Hollywood musicals. They are both biracial and live across the street from each other in mirroring council estates in northwest London. As they enter puberty, their early closeness begins to tear as Tracey’s dance talent opens opportunities for a future on stage, and the narrator begins a kind of extended period of wandering. The narrator’s mother, with her urgent need to shove her daughter toward the middle class, also works to disrupt their connection and let Tracey fade back to her lower class beginnings…

Roth is an interesting forerunner here: The Human Stain is about blackness, racial passing, and the private self, while Swing Time is about blackness, class passing, biracial identity, and the unknown self. Swing Time could be the narrator’s straightforward realist memoir about growing up biracial in a council flat with a compliant, Anglo father and an ambitious, Jamaican mother; about a long, strange friendship and rivalry with Tracey; about a middle class striving and the vagaries of ethnically mixed life in NW London; about the enabling fictions and intellectual freedoms of British university life in the late 1990s; or about experiences with pop celebrity as a member of an entourage, including building a school for girls in Gambia. Instead, Smith offers a narrator who goes sideways…

Read the entire review here.

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Sil Lai Abrams Blooms in Blackness

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-04 01:33Z by Steven

Sil Lai Abrams Blooms in Blackness

Los Angeles Review of Books
2016-08-31

Brooke Obie

Sil Lai Abrams, Black Lotus: A Woman’s Search for Racial Identity (New York: Gallery Books, 2016)

SIL LAI ABRAMS HAD HER SUSPICIONS about her race as a very young child. Her brown skin was much darker and her hair much curlier than her fair-skinned, straight-haired younger sister and brother. When she would walk down the street with her Chinese mother and White father, her White neighbors would stare and whisper.

“Your skin is brown because you were born in Hawaii,” her father would tell her anytime she asked, assuring her of her legitimacy as his own White child. It became her retort when she was met with “porch monkey” and other racist slurs by children at her majority-White school: “I’m Hawaiian!” she assured them, not Black.

The same father who raised her in Whiteness would strip her of that safety net of privilege when she was 14 years old. After Sil Lai laughs at racist jokes with her younger sister May Lai, one of which is how to “stop a nigger from jumping on the bed” — par for the course in her Seminole County, Florida, neighborhood — her father came into the room, appearing disgusted, only to say, “I don’t know why you’re laughing, Sil Lai. You’re one.”…

Read the entire review here.

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Beyond Blackness and Whiteness: Activists of Mixed Race Speak Out

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, United States on 2016-08-02 19:45Z by Steven

Beyond Blackness and Whiteness: Activists of Mixed Race Speak Out

The Los Angeles Review of Books
2016-08-02

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

SHORTLY BEFORE Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s names became viral hashtags on social media, the latest flare-up in the ongoing conversation about race and racial justice in the United States had been sparked by actor Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards. Some went so far as to call his speech “racist,” with more than 26,000 signatories petitioning to have the Grey’s Anatomy star ousted from the show; a choicely worded tweet from Shonda Rhimes promptly shut down that noise. Others asserted that, as a man of mixed race, Williams should refrain from speaking on issues of blackness, to which author Shannon Luders-Manuel responded in her essay “Can Biracial Activists Speak to Black Issues?” for The Establishment:

Blackness cannot be taken away from us. Biraciality cannot be taken away from us. They exist as tangibly as our skin, made from Europe and Africa. We are the colonizer and the colonized. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We bleed for our brothers and sisters. We carry on our backs the weight of what one half of us did to the other. We slip easily into white spheres, taking notes and taking names while nodding our European heads.

As one of the fastest growing demographics in the country, mixed Americans are broadening the discourse on race, identity, and the American experience. Can having a biracial or mixed identity provide a vantage of both privilege and oppression? I posed this question to Heidi Durrow, author and founder of the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles; comedian, writer, and activist Tehran Von Ghasri; and Aaron Samuels, co-founder and COO of Blavity. Their perspectives were as varied as their personal stories, and, for some, fraught with mixed emotions.

Read the entire article here.

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