When we’re young, it’s already incredibly difficult to figure out where we belong.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2020-02-03 20:16Z by Steven

When we’re young, it’s already incredibly difficult to figure out where we belong. It’s human nature to want to be liked, and sometimes we’ll do anything for approval. We’ll change the way we dress and what we listen to; we’ll code-switch our dialect depending on the people we’re with; whatever it takes to feel a part of something. Bobby had to do that as a child, as do a great number of mixed-race people who have been asked at far too young an age, “What are you, anyway?” Heard often enough, you begin to ask that question of yourself subconsciously, and seek to find the answers in others. Bobby had only his mother and his grandfather in his life, and Isabel could hardly take care of herself. That left his grandfather a hateful bigot. It didn’t take much to steer Bobby down the path he eventually took, and even embraced, because when he emulated his grandfather, he received love and approval, which is all he was every looking for. —John Vercher

Alex Segura, “Throwing Rocks: An Interview with John Vercher,” Los Angeles Review of Books, January 29, 2020. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/throwing-rocks-an-interview-with-john-vercher.

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Throwing Rocks: An Interview with John Vercher

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-01-31 19:00Z by Steven

Throwing Rocks: An Interview with John Vercher

Los Angeles Review of Books
2020-01-29

Alex Segura interviews John Vercher

JOHN VERCHER’S TAUT, impressive debut crime novel, Three-Fifths, follows Bobby Saraceno — a mixed-race man living a lie. Saraceno has spent his life passing as a white man, raised by his racist maternal grandfather in Pittsburgh. Bobby’s kept his true self hidden from everyone, even his fellow comic book fan/best friend, Aaron, who’s just returned home after a prison stint. Aaron not only comes back as a more hardened man, but also as a radical white supremacist. When Bobby witnesses Aaron commit a hateful, race-based crime, his world begins to pull apart. Not only must Bobby keep his mixed race a secret from his militant friend, but he must also make sure he doesn’t land on the police’s radar as an accomplice to Aaron’s vicious crime. But an unexpected return threatens to destroy Bobby’s tricky balancing act.

Three-Fifths is a tale of lost histories, identity, dangerous secrets, and deadly obsessions. It’s a confident, thoughtful novel that doesn’t hesitate to show the brutality of violence and the complexities of race relations, without pumping the brakes for the faint of heart. It’s a confident, mannered debut that feels carefully seasoned — like the work of an author leveling up after a string of starter novels, as opposed to a newcomer. I talked to Vercher about his motivations and influences.

ALEX SEGURA: John, can you talk a bit about why Three-Fifths was the story you wanted to tell now? It feels remarkably urgent, but pensive at the same time, if that makes sense.

JOHN VERCHER: It’s a story I always wanted to tell, in the sense that little to nothing has changed in our country in regards to race between 1995 when the story takes place to now. Similarly, little was different from the same 24-year time span from 1971 to 1995, and even further back. Having said that, I was fortunate that Three-Fifths found a home when it did, because there does seem to be, as a function of our increased access to all forms of media, more talk than ever about race and identity. It would be better if we were having conversations about it rather than talking at each other, and as always, books are some of the best means to spark those kinds of conversations. It was my hope that Three-Fifths could do that, even for the smallest of audiences…

Read the entire interview here.

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Black No More?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-15 23:57Z by Steven

Black No More?

Los Angeles Review of Books
2019-10-15

Cinque Henderson

LAST NOVEMBER, Thomas Chatterton Williams appeared on a podcast with four other black intellectuals who had gathered to discuss the state of race relations in America. Together, the men, who included Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, comprised an “all-star” team of what in our crude political nomenclature might be called black conservatives, though at least one of them confessed to voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They were not there to discuss the nature of affirmative action or racial inequality, but rather to discuss how those types of things get discussed: an hour-and-a-half-long discourse on racial discourse in the United States called “On Anti-Racism.” They seemed to agree on many things, especially the failures of #BlackLivesMatter, but their central concern was that that there is no hope of getting past racism in this country as long as commentators on the left keep calling things racist when there are more complicated explanations at play. As a listener, I was not entirely unsympathetic to this view.

If there was an intellectual nemesis in the conversation, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blistering polemics on the intractable and unchanging nature of racism has dominated racial discourse over the past six years. If there was a political nemesis, it was perhaps DeRay McKesson, the de facto leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and maybe Barack Obama, who came in for a mild rebuke, even though I don’t think any of them harbors any particular animus toward the former president. The conversation was fascinating, frustrating, enlightening, bizarre (at one point McWhorter asked, “Why should I care that a certain number of whites are racist?”), but ultimately it was less than satisfying — the format hopelessly ill-suited to the type of ambitious, boundary-expanding discussions these men were interested in having. Williams’s new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, represents a better medium for such ambition. It is equally bizarre…

Read the entire review here.

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“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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