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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

“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.

Tags: , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Tags: , , ,

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.

Tags: , , ,

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.

Tags: , ,

Black and Blue and Blond

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2015-01-06 18:21Z by Steven

Black and Blue and Blond

Virginia Quarterly Review
Volume 91, Number 1 (Winter 2015)
pages 80-87

Thomas Chatterton Williams


The author and his daughter at her great-grandmother’s house in Normandy, 2014.

Where does race fit in the construction of modern identity?

In 1517, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things…”

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell”

“But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”

Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans

“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

There is a millennia-old philosophical experiment that has perplexed minds as fine and diverse as those of Socrates, Plutarch, and John Locke. It’s called Theseus’s Paradox (or the Ship of Theseus), and the premise is this: The mythical founding-king of Athens kept a thirty-oar ship docked in the Athenian harbor. The vessel was preserved in a sea-worthy state through the continual replacement of old timber planks with new ones, piecemeal, until the question inevitably arose: After all of the original planks have been replaced by new and different planks, is it still, in fact, the same ship?

For some time now, a recurring vision has put me in mind of Theseus and those shuffling pieces of wood. Only, it’s people I see and not boats: a lineage of people distending over time. At the end of the line, there is a teenage boy with fair skin and blond hair and probably light eyes, seated at a café table somewhere in Europe. It is fifty or sixty years into the future. And this boy, gathered with his friends, is glibly remarking—in the dispassionate tone of one of my old white Catholic school classmates claiming to have Cherokee or Iroquois blood—that as improbable as it would seem to look at him, apparently he had black ancestors once upon a time in America. He says it all so matter-of-factly, with no visceral aspect to the telling. I imagine his friends’ vague surprise, perhaps a raised eyebrow or two or perhaps not even that—and if I want to torture myself, I can detect an ironic smirk or giggle. Then, to my horror, I see the conversation grow not ugly or embittered or anything like that but simply pass on, giving way to other lesser matters, plans for the weekend or questions about the menu perhaps. And then it’s over. Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a whole vibrant and populated world collapse without a trace. I see an entirely different ship…

…I realize now that this vision of the boy from the future I’ve had in my head for the past year traces itself much further back into the past. It must necessarily stretch back at least to 1971, in San Diego, where my father, who was—having been born in 1937 in Jim Crow Texas—the grandson of a woman wed to a man born before the Emancipation Proclamation, met my mother, the native-Californian product of European immigrants from places as diverse as Austria-Hungary, Germany, England, and France. This unlikely courtship came all of four years after the Loving v. Virginia verdict repealed anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country. In ways that are perhaps still impossible for me to fully appreciate, their romance amounted to a radical political act, though now, some four decades on, it seems a lot less like any form of defiance than like what all successful marriages fundamentally must be: the obvious and undeniable joining of two people who love and understand each other enormously.

But that’s not the beginning, either. This trajectory I now find myself on no more starts in San Diego than in Paris. Not since it is extremely safe to assume that my father, with his freckles, with his mother’s Irish maiden name, and with his skin a shade of brown between polished teak and red clay, did not arrive from African shores alone. As James Baldwin, perspicacious as ever, noted of his travels around precisely the kind of segregated Southern towns my father would instantly recognize as home, the line between “whites” and “coloreds” in America has always been traversed and logically imprecise: “the prohibition … of the social mingling [revealing] the extent of the sexual amalgamation.” There were (and still are): “Girls the color of honey, men nearly the color of chalk, hair like silk, hair like cotton, hair like wire, eyes blue, gray, green, hazel, black, like the gypsy’s, brown like the Arab’s, narrow nostrils, thin, wide lips, thin lips, every conceivable variation struck along incredible gamuts…” Indeed, to be black (or white) for any significant amount of time in America is fundamentally to occupy a position on the mongrel spectrum—strict binaries have always failed spectacularly to contain this elementary truth.

And yet in spite of that, I’ve spent the past year trying to think my way through the wholly absurd question of what it means for a person to be or not to be black. It’s an existential Rubik’s Cube I thought I’d solved and put away in childhood. My parents were never less than adamant on the point that both my older brother and I are black. And the in many ways simpler New Jersey world we grew up in—him in the seventies and eighties, me in the eighties and nineties—tended to receive us that way without significant protest, especially when it came to other blacks. This is probably because, on a certain level, every black American knows what, again, Baldwin knew: “Whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe… his ancestors are both white and black.” Still, in the realm of lived experience, race is nothing if not an improvisational feat, and it would be in terribly bad faith to pretend there is not some fine, unspoken, and impossible-to-spell-out balance to all of this. And so I cannot help but wonder if indeed a threshold—the full consequences of which I may or may not even see in my own lifetime—has been crossed. (It’s not a wholly academic exercise, either, since my father was an only child and in the past year my brother married and had a daughter with a woman from West Siberia.)…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: ,

Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-01-02 20:05Z by Steven

Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd

Penguin Books
April 2010
240 pages
Paperback ISBN: 9780143119623
ePub ISBN: 9781101404348

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Growing up, Thomas Chatterton Williams knew he loved three things in life: his parents, literature, and the intoxicating hip-hop culture that surrounded him. For years, he managed to juggle two disparate lifestyles, “keeping it real” in his friends’ eyes and studying for the SATs under his father’s strict tutelage-until it all threatened to spin out of control. Written with remarkable candor and emotional depth, Losing My Cool portrays the allure and danger of hip-hop culture with the authority of a true fan who’s lived through it all, while demonstrating the saving grace of literature and the power of the bond between father and son.

Tags: ,

Do Mixed-Race (Black/White) People have an Ethical Obligation to Identify as Black?

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2014-11-01 18:44Z by Steven

Do Mixed-Race (Black/White) People have an Ethical Obligation to Identify as Black?

The Center for the Study of Biracial Children
2014-08-15

Francis Wardle, PhD.

So says Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a March, 2012 article published in the New York Times. This article joins an increasing number of vocal voices published in progressive publications and in books published by academic presses. But why? At a period of time when same-sex marriage is becoming acceptable, and gender identification is greatly expanded, why do intellectuals insist on the very narrow one-drop-rule definition of blacks in America?

This particular article, As Black as We Wish to Be, is by a black man married to a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed French woman. While insisting that his children must be loyal to the black community, he hypocritically argues that “exhortations to stick with one’s own, however well intentioned, won’t be able to change that” (marrying outside of the black race). As my black wife suggests, it seems that some black men who marry white women try to assuage their guilt by insisting their children identify as black.

What are Mr. Williams’ arguments? One, all biracial children “look black”, and therefore should identify as black, 2) America is still not fully equitable, providing social and economic justice to all, 3) people who choose a mixed-race identity are engaged in the “private joys of self-expression” (i.e. are selfish), 4) the one-drop rule that was created to protect the purity and superiority of the white race is not all that bad, 5) identifying as mixed by people who are truly mixed will have a devastating impact on government support for black programs and overall black well-being, especially in our schools, 6) racial self-identification means that racial identity will become a matter of individual will, and 7) identifying as black is required to “honor those who came before us”.

Let me address each of these arguments briefly…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,