“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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Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Monographs, Philosophy on 2019-05-18 15:30Z by Steven

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

W. W. Norton
2019-10-15
2018 pages
5.5 × 8.3 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-60886-1

Thomas Chatterton Williams

A meditation on race and identity from one of our most provocative cultural critics.

A reckoning with the way we choose to see and define ourselves, Self-Portrait in Black and White is the searching story of one American family’s multigenerational transformation from what is called black to what is assumed to be white. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the son of a “black” father from the segregated South and a “white” mother from the West, spent his whole life believing the dictum that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person black. This was so fundamental to his self-conception that he’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations—but the shock of his experience as the black father of two extremely white-looking children led him to question these long-held convictions.

“It is not that I have come to believe that I am no longer black or that my daughter is white,” Williams writes. “It is that these categories cannot adequately capture either of us.” Beautifully written and bound to upset received opinions on race, Self-Portrait in Black and White is an urgent work for our time.

Note from Steven F. Riley: See Chatterton Williams’ article “Black and Blue and Blond” in the Volume 91, Number 1 (Winter 2015) edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2018-06-30 03:08Z by Steven

For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive. Adrian Margaret Smith Piper was born in 1948 in Washington Heights, and raised there and on Riverside Drive. On her paternal side, she is the product of a long line of whites and extremely light-skinned, straight-haired black property owners and, on her mother Olive’s side, mixed-race, planter-class Jamaican immigrants. Her father, Daniel, received two separate and contradictory birth certificates. The first one labeled him as “white,” while the second, which his mother demanded as a corrective, put him down as “octoroon.” (At MoMA, they are hung on the wall, as part of the installation of “Cornered.”) Piper’s paternal grandfather, also Daniel, went the opposite route after the birth of his second, slightly darker son, Billy, abandoning his wife and children and moving out West to start a new “white” family in Washington State. Daniel Sr.’s brother, Piper’s great-uncle, William, lived his life as a Caucasian man of distinction, founding the Piper Aircraft Corporation and making his name as “the Henry Ford of Aviation.” He ended up with his face on a postage stamp and a fortune big enough to endow a building at his alma mater, Harvard.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?The New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/magazine/adrian-pipers-self-imposed-exile-from-america-and-from-race-itself.html.

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Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-06-30 01:10Z by Steven

Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

The New York Times Magazine
2018-06-27

Thomas Chatterton Williams


Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng

The conceptual artist’s life and work push against the boundaries

Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and analytic philosopher, is almost as well known for what she has stopped doing as for what she has done. By 1985, she had given up alcohol, meat and sex. In 2005, she took a leave of absence from her job at Wellesley, sold her home on Cape Cod and shipped all of her belongings to Germany. On a lecture tour in the United States the next year, she discovered a mark on her plane ticket that suggested, to her, that she’d been placed on a watch list; she has not set foot in America since. Then, in 2012, on her 64th birthday, she “retired from being black.” She did this by uploading a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, in which she had darkened her skin — normally café très-au-lait — to the color of elephant hide. It was accompanied by a news bulletin announcing her retirement. The pithy text superimposed at the bottom of the photo elaborated: “Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage,” she wrote. “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” (Through extensive genealogical work, she later determined that her African heritage is closer to one-eighth.)

The piece was, like much of Piper’s art and writing, absurdly comical in no small part because it was so brutally honest. It was inspired by Piper’s dawning realization that she was unable to fulfill other people’s expectations through the lens of race; since the early 2000s, she had stopped allowing any of her artwork to be exhibited in all-black shows, which she came to see as ghettoizing. In 2015, she announced that she would no longer talk to the press about her work.

Such inflexibility has done little to damage her standing in the art world. On a drizzly evening in March, a well-turned-out crowd of several hundred alighted upon the Museum of Modern Art to sip prosecco, schmooze and Instagram snippets of Piper’s immense body of work. The occasion was the opening of the enormous, and enormously demanding for the casual viewer, 50-year career retrospective, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016,” on display through July 22. The exhibition draws its title from Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason,” a lifelong touchstone for Piper, and marks the first time in MoMA’s history that the work of any living artist has earned the entirety of its sprawling sixth-floor special-exhibitions gallery. Alongside a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, which Piper won in 2015, this is among the very highest honors the art world can proffer…


‘‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features’’ (1981)
The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

I’d flown from Paris to see the opening of “Synthesis” after having struck up a polite but formal email correspondence with Piper. In the last message she had sent me, about three weeks earlier, she refused to speak to me on the record unless she or her archivist could independently fact-check the article before publication. “I decided a long time ago that I would prefer no representation to misrepresentation,” she wrote, and it seemed that, with this impossible condition, she would not grant an exemption from her indefinite moratorium. She suggested, as an alternative, that I consult her website and extensive body of published writing, an incalculable number of academic articles, essays and books. But I had already read many of those, and they had left me convinced that she has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered…

Read the entire article here.

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“Race, Identity, and the Boundaries of Blackness”

Posted in Articles, Europe, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Videos on 2017-11-16 22:55Z by Steven

“Race, Identity, and the Boundaries of Blackness”

U.S. Embassy & Consulates In Germany
2017-11-07

Thomas Chatterton Williams, fellow at the American Academy Berlin, read from his thought-provoking essay “Black and Blue and Blond” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 which is now the basis of a book project. With journalist Rose-Anne Clermont he pursued the question where race fits in the construction of modern identity. Both reflected upon their own biographies and what it means living in Germany, France and the U.S. as a mixed-race family. The mainly young high-school age audience engaged in a lively, well informed discussion on defining and questioning identity, challenging stereotypes and expanding our notions of family and community.

Read the entire article here.

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Who Are We, Really?

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-10-08 01:05Z by Steven

Who Are We, Really?

View from Rue Saint-Georges
The American Scholar
2016-09-21

Thomas Chatterton Williams


Detail from The Redemption of Ham by Modesto Brocos y Gómez (1895)

Lately, as I’ve been working on my second book, a meditation on the absurdity of sorting human beings into metaphorical color categories, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of passing. In his 1948 autobiography, A Man Called White, the pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed former NAACP leader, Walter White, observed, “Many Negroes are judged as whites. Every year approximately twelve-thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration.” Or as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has tabulated more recently, “How many ostensibly ‘white’ Americans walking around today would be classified as ‘black’ under the one-drop rule? Judging by the last U.S. Census, 7,872,702. To put that in context, that number is equal to roughly 20 percent, or a fifth, of the total number of people identified as African American in the same census count!”…

Read the entire article here.

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Op-Ed Thomas Chatterton Williams: My black privilege

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Justice, United States on 2016-01-04 21:46Z by Steven

Op-Ed Thomas Chatterton Williams: My black privilege

The Los Angeles Times
2016-01-03

Thomas Chatterton Williams

A couple of years ago, I participated in an Aspen Institute symposium on the state of race. During the roundtable that followed the panels, as I spoke about my experiences growing up black in the 1990s, I was interrupted by a Latino sociologist and former gang member from UC Santa Barbara. People who care about people of color, the professor instructed me, ought to focus their energies on continued systemic racism and forget about anything so nebulous and untrustworthy as observation. Like it or not, I was the victim of greater social forces. It did not matter that I had come to see my life as something of my own making — the evidence of my senses was useless.

I thought about this exchange often in 2015, a year in which the discussion of racism — always relevant — became omnipresent. This was mostly a good thing. Yet it is dismaying how hard it is now to have a serious conversation about black experience without coming across some version of the professor’s condescending remarks.

Perhaps the most influential book last year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’Between the World and Me,” a jeremiad whose thesis is that black people “have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels.” The string of high-profile police killings of black men and women seemed to underscore Coates’ point, and galvanized support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which, in turn, forced an urgent critique of the very real bias plaguing the criminal justice system. That movement has also frequently veered away from the work of reforming law enforcement practices, enlisting itself in a social media-driven culture war over far more ambiguous problems, such as microaggressions and safe spaces.

Black people everywhere, many of our most audible voices seem to say, will always and everywhere be “the faces at the bottom of the well,” as Coates put it.

But the truth is more complicated than that. I am a black man of mixed race heritage, and while every black member of my family has encountered racism, we are also the ones in the family who hold graduate degrees, own businesses and travel abroad. My black father, born in 1937 in segregated Texas, is an exponentially more worldly man than my maternal white Protestant grandfather, whose racism always struck me more as a sad function of his provincialism or powerlessness than anything else. I don’t mean to excuse the corrosive effects of his views; I simply wish to note that when I compare these two men, I do not recognize my father as the victim…

Read the entire article here.

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The Next Great Migration

Posted in Articles, Europe, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-06 02:01Z by Steven

The Next Great Migration

The New York Times
2015-03-01

Thomas Chatterton Williams

PARIS — AT dinner last summer with my brother-in-law, a grandson of Jews who fled Algeria for France, the conversation turned to the rash of anti-Semitic incidents plaguing the country. At such times, the question inevitably arises in the minds of many Jews: “Where could we go?” He mentioned Tel Aviv, London and New York, but the location mattered less than the reassurance that departure remained an option. He’s not alone in this thinking: 7,000 French Jews emigrated in 2014.

Over the past year, as I watched with outrage at the dizzying spate of unpunished extrajudicial police killings of black men and women across America, I’ve wondered why more black Americans don’t think similarly. Why shouldn’t more of us weigh expatriation, even if only temporary, as a viable means of securing those lofty yet elusive ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Blacks leaving America in search of equality is not new. The practice dates from at least antebellum Louisiana, when free mulattoes in New Orleans sent their children to France to live in accordance with their means and not their color. It continued after World War II, when a number of black G.I.s, artists and jazzmen shared Richard Wright’s sentiment that there is “more freedom in one square block of Paris than there is in the entire United States of America.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Season 2, Episode 11: Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams

Posted in Audio, Interviews, Media Archive, United States on 2015-01-08 19:30Z by Steven

Season 2, Episode 11: Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams

The Mixed Experience
2015-01-08

Heidi Durrow, Host

We continue the second part of the season with writer Thomas Chatterton Williams author of Losing My Cool and the newly published essay in Virginia Quarterly ReviewBlack and Blue and Blond.”

Listen to the episode here. Download the episode here.

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