Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man

Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man

Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices
Summer 2021

Herb Harris
Arlington, Virginia

When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left

Langston Hughes

The more I stared at the drawing, the more alien and unrecognizable it became. I had labored over every line, but it was not the person I intended to draw. It began as a self portrait, but a stranger emerged who had been living somewhere within me. He was now crashing through the page.

I am a descendant of slaves and their owners. This contradiction manifests itself in every aspect of my physical appearance. My beige skin is light enough to pass as white. My angular nose and thin lips corroborate this story. My almond-shaped brown eyes are deep-set and give little clue to my identity. My hair might give me away, but its loose brown curls suggest to most people some vaguely white-ish ethnicity rather than an African origin. In general, people take in these details and read the whole as white. When I tell others that I am black, this usually requires a lengthy explanation that stretches back into little-known aspects of the history of slavery. I have to explain to people, who often seem to be hearing it for the first time, that sexual exploitation of slaves was so widespread that most black people in the United States today have some degree of European heritage. They generally imagine some version of a sanitized mythology that involves consensual romance.

“You mean like Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson?”

“No, I mean like rape.”…

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