The Great Xanadu of Race Politics

mixed-raceI’ve been in the practice of storytelling through art since elementary school. I didn’t begin to tell my own story, however, until graduate school, where I wrote about the adventures of a dark-skinned mixed boy and a Russian-American girl in rural Kansas. After two years of study, I managed to complete my thesis, but was well short of a finished first draft.

After spending several more years writing a mixture of what could be described as The Little Prince meets Pedro Paramo, I realized the main character’s search for identity and purpose in a world that regarded him as anomalous because of his skin color and unorthodox beliefs were, in essence, my own.

Knowing my heritage, I managed to confounded the color line and mass-mediated stereotypes as a child. “You don’t sound Black” and “You are not the usual Black” are comments I’ve heard most often, the runners up being: “I can tell you’re mixed because your hair is different” or “What country are you really from?”

I’ve developed a series of responses over the years—some of which mention I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish ancestry—but, no matter how I respond, I always wonder why people from seemingly all backgrounds police Black identity so zealously, especially in regard to dark-skinned people of African descent.

An ex-girlfriend was of a similar mix type, but her appearance was notably different than mine. She had pale skin, blue eyes, and straightened brown hair with natural blonde highlights. I identified as mixed because of my upbringing and knowledge of my ancestry; she identified as Black because of her upbringing, adherence to the one-drop rule, and what I assume to be disinterest in her Native and Anglo ancestries. While our inevitable split was not due solely to identity politics, the policing of Blackness played a large part in our relationship’s demise.

Until recently, I was in the occasional habit of defending my ancestries with genealogical records, DNA test results, and family photographs, but I stopped all together because the act of proving serves to trivialize my experience and existence. I also stopped because identity police are annoying. Now I tell them “I am who my ancestors are” and let their minds silently explode.

The novel I mentioned earlier has actually become a memoir in verse even though the characters and happenings are fictional. If the concept of a poetic fictional memoir seems contradictory, blame artistic license, cultural inheritance, and the subversive nature of poetry. I was brought up to know storytelling is more about getting to the underlying truth than simply relating details. Given that, I’ve come to realize the concept of being both dark skinned and mixed is difficult to convey accurately without writing about in academic detail the usual suspects of colonialism, colorism, racism, and general human cruelty. Writing my truth in essence seems more natural and meaningful beyond mere details of record, and has become an effective way to transcend identity politics.

F3b1 haplogroup

My Mother’s Haplogroup – Region: Southeastern Asia

Along for the Ride?

A few months ago I visited Cannery Row with my girlfriend on a marvelous sunny day. We ate fine food, listened to live jazz on the plaza while enjoying a view of Monterey Bay, window shopped expensive underwater camera equipment, and walked Ocean View Avenue with droves of other tourists; yet, I felt a lingering sadness. The Depression-era Row, “the poem and the Cannery Rowstink and the grating noise,” Steinbeck wrote about, came to mind as we walked by the older architecture and imagery. Perhaps the novel and my general knowledge of Ocean View Avenue influenced my immediate feelings, but the melancholy seemed to reach beyond that, beyond the restaurants, gift shops, cafes, hotels, and salons to a history of haves and have nots.

I’ve worked my share of miserable jobs and have had to subsist on rice for several days when teaching English in Japan, but I always felt on the verge of soaring above it all. True poverty grants few opportunities and little hope. Steinbeck’s beautifully tragic depictions of the working poor in Cannery Row are bleak, where the only blessing for the poor is to have other impoverished people around to survive. I imagined the dark frustrations of the people handling massive amounts of fish and metal for hours because canning was the best they could do to make a living, saw in my mind the grief of disheveled men and women living under trees or whatever  makeshift shelter they could construct.

Having read the book a while ago, I decided to reread it. I found the following entry I most likely glossed over because I wasn’t writing a novel then:

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

With that in mind, and with the end in sight, the new approach to writing the novel is to set aside a time—one hour, thirty minutes, whatever, and show up to write. If the symbolic flat worms crawl into my bottle of sea water, great. If not, I practiced my craft and didn’t injure any marine animals on my knife blade.

Okay, the analogy fell apart, but you get the idea.

The Art of Living Black

1001BlackMen511Web-463x600A few weeks ago I attended The Art of Living Black (TAOLB), a group art exhibition that includes sculptors, painters, jewelry makers, mixed media artists, photographers, and doll makers of African descent. The annual event is held from the beginning of January through the end of March at various venues throughout the Bay Area, including my Alma mater, Mills College.

1001BlackMen504Web-429x600The only artist of the group I know personally is Ajuan Mance, my former professor at Mills and the author of Inventing Black Women: African American Women Poets and Self-Representation, 1877-2000. Ajuan is one of those crazy-smart scholars who happens to be personable and artistic. She carries herself with a smooth confidence that rivals President Obama’s. Her series of drawings, 1001 Black Men,  is inspired by the men she sees in Oakland, and by memories of her family, friends, and neighbors back east.  On her website, 8-rock.com,  Ajuan writes of her series:

“I push past entrenched stereotypes to create images of Black men that reflect the wonderful complexity of African American lives—our history so deeply embedded in our present, our celebrations so often tempered by grief and, yes, the pleasure and danger we find in so many of the people, places, and activities that give us joy.”

At the time of this posting, the latest in the series is number 512. The first piece of art I saw from Ajuan was during her office hours my first year at Mills. I remember being nervous that day for several reasons, one of which was the uncertainty of what to write for my thesis, as my novel was in its infancy at the time, and the other was not wanting to sound like a dumb-ass while talking to Ajuan about African-American history, my mixed-race heritage, the social construction of race, and the exclusivity of whiteness. As we talked, I noticed a painting, leaning next to her against a desk or chair, similar in style to those in her current series, of a Black man, only more abstract. As I became comfortable in our conversation, I let my eyes wonder and art seemed to jump out from all angles of the office. I expected books, of which I saw plenty, but not paintings and sketches. I had been inspired by Ajuan from day one of class by the way she carried herself and by what she said and how, but the combination of scholar-artist added another layer of respect and her works continue to inspire in me creative energy.

Thea Bowman by Thearthur Wright As I walked through the exhibition to see Ajuan, I stopped to look at Thearthur Wright‘s striking paintings in black, brown, gold, and white. This alone would be worth mentioning due to his talent and the initial impact the paintings had on me, but the hot kicker is they were painted with bleach! He withheld this fact for a good while into our conversation and my mind was blown when he finally mentioned it. I asked him about technique, especially with bleach, and he said he works in dots, many dots, and the age of the bleach determines the color on the canvas. By that point, my mind had already begun humming as it does when good art and a new way of creating comes about. He also mentioned he started out as writer and had several publications, but painting came later in life and eventually became his focus, especially after retiring from a career as an electrician.

I write this in preparation, as inspiration to write into the novel this weekend. My novel is now in two parts. The first draft of part one is complete. My goal is to have the first draft of part two finished by May. Hard task because of work and other commitments, but being a novelist is one of those dreams I can’t let go.

Happy Hour and Hemingway

IMAG0581Every city has at least one landmark. Oakland has quite a few, one being Lake Merritt. I walked partway around it today with a dear writer friend and thought how lovely was the day with its cool breezes and high sun in clear skies. Being such a relaxing day, and my only day off this week, I was in the mood for the late-afternoon happy hour at the chalet across the lake. As we walked, I thought of writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their stories of decadent living. Not that my life is decadent by any means, but given the level of poverty in Oakland and around the lake, having the option to treat my friend to brunch at a trendy bar and grill makes me feel pretty well-to-do.  Actually, so does having a day of leisure.

To be fair, not all characters in Hemingway’s and Fitgerald’s books are rich. There are often those without money in wealthy circles. When a co-worker saw me reading The Sun Also Rises, he asked what it was about, to which I replied “rich people traveling and living it up,” to which he asked, “What, like the Great Gatsby?” to which I replied it was—not in the sense of plot, but rather, the upper crust living life at their leisure, usually above the means of the average U.S. citizen. At that point, I was only halfway through the book and not sure my assessment was accurate. There was, I felt, more to the novel than the narrator’s travels between Paris and Spain and his interactions with friends and an ex-lover. After having finished the book I can say the happenings are not much more than that, but below the surface plot is the human story of acceptance and rejection, of caring for someone who makes themselves emotionally untouchable, all which puts the banality of the character’s days and nights in context. Also, Hemingway’s signature writing style of simple words and mostly short sentences invokes a poetic atmosphere that makes the mundane details of human life a treat to read. In The Sun Also Rises, the style casts a nonchalance over the work in the sense the only problems the characters have is in relation to one another; even characters without much money seem inconvenienced by their situations instead of plagued.

Since my work weeks have topped fifty-plus hours, I haven’t spent much time writing the novel. Thinking and note taking, yes, but no writing. Another dear friend of mine said maybe the book is meant to be my life’s work, which I’m starting to believe, seeing that it’s taking a lifetime to write.