Friday, October 21, 2011

And Either I’m Nobody, Or I’m A Nation

Climbing into a rickshaw or walking through the busy streets of Udaipur, Rajasthan, I see an expression I never knew I longed for. 

My poor Hindi, my all too eager smile, and my unsure footsteps in this unknown city belie my foreignness.
But, perhaps, in all other ways my face, my color can easily be lost in the interminable swirl of browns and thick blur of vivid all around me.

I arrived in India two weeks ago, the end (or perhaps just the beginning) of a deeply personal journey I began over three years ago to figure out what it meant (if anything) for me to be Indian. What does it mean, when I had been raised African and Afro-Costa Rican; when my memories are wrapped up in the black and brown faces of my family and their stories of “back home”;  when even my very politics are steeped in blackness and latindad and when language and culture anchor and bind me to proud histories that trace the routes of slavery and migration from Africa, to the Caribbean, Central and North America?

It seems fitting then, that the Universe took her poetic license and fashioned the Dominican Republic--really the Caribbean--as the cuna, the cradle of my multitudes. My creation story, my own brief and wondrous life began in the “Ground Zero of the New World.” There begins my myth threaded into the countless other magic fictions born there  everyday.

India too, like Africa, feels like an ancestral place to my very being. Something about its haze, its smell, its taste, its movement is reminiscent of the other "back homes" etched in my rememory. In Hindi, 'to remember' and 'to miss' (as in I miss you), are the same word... And I miss what I cannot remember.

Some days India feels like a coming home, a place of rest. Maybe it’s all the Octavia Butler sci-fi I’ve
been reading, but thousands of feet in the air, tossing in my seat on my Air India flight, listening to "Shiva Mantra" and "Aisa Des Hai Mera"  on repeat, I had a fever dream, a dozy hallucination that had me wondering if land, earth, tierra... had flesh memories. If the minute I stepped on Indian soil, she would know me. Understand me, if only in theory, as one of her own. Perhaps it's the same way we Africans in the diaspora long for the continent, long for recognition, familiarity. I wanted it to be a fiercely intimate pact between us that, “You are a part of me, and yes, I am a part of you.”-- A mutual agreement, a validation. Something I have no need to defend to anyone, Indian, African, Latin@ or otherwise. 

Home and nation, culture and race, history and destiny, truth and myth.... questions yet unformed, answers still hidden and scattered across the world.

My story Osiris. And I, I could be Isis.

* Inspired by Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Derek Walcott's poem at the beginning of the novel

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oberlin College's Multiracial Student Resource Pamphlet

Here's the Oberlin Multiracial Student Resources pamphlet I put together this past summer.

A few things didn't make it into the final version. This section came out of a discussion with the students from the ExCo. I've included them below:

A Mixed Toolbox 

MIXED ME: Empowering Multiracial Identities

“To thine own self...”: Self-identifying:  Develop confidence in identifying yourself and demand that others respect your identity.

“The more you knowwww”- Education: Explore your own background as well as resources, writing, scholarship dealing with multiracial experiences, histories of people of color and issues of social, economic and racial justice.

Power To the People: Developing Critical Consciousness: Understand the role of power & privilege and systemic structures on your identity and how it relates to that of other historically marginalized or underrepresented groups. 

In Solidarity: Be An Ally: Support other multiracial people, but also other historically underrepresented and marginalized groups.


Understand that the question “What are you?” can be a very sensitive one for multiracial people.

Be conscious of how simple remarks or even compliments can “other” or “exotify” multiracial people.

Be mindful not to homogenize mixed experiences and identities. Multiracial identities are diverse and complex. They may  be distinct from other identities and experiences, but there are also many commonalities and shared histories.

Recognize that multiracial people indeed exist and include multiraciality in discussions on race and multicultural activities and events.

Respect everyone’s process. Respect that individuals have the right to self-identify and that policing mixed identities or ignoring them altogether can be alienating to multiracial people.

Take time to explore and read up on multiracial issues. Yet perhaps most importantly, take time to explore your own identities and the spaces you occupy in the social system as it relates to power and privilege.

* Please see the MRC’s Privilege, Allyship & Safe Space Resource pamphlet for more information and definitions.

Mixed Dreams Guest: Rita Kamani-Renedo

On a New York-based, historically situated Multi Narrative
by Rita Kamani-Renedo 

On Monday, September 26th, I traveled to Brooklyn after work to attend an event at the Brooklyn Historical Society called “Who Are You? A discussion about mixed heritage.” I didn’t know what to expect but I was ecstatic (well, as ecstatic as one can be on a Monday after a full day of work). My “multi” friends and I had long contemplated the need for a conversation about multiraciality and mixed-heritage that is situated within New York’s unique historical context—a fabric that is woven from narratives of immigration, urban decay and plight, gentrification, racial altercations, ethnic enclaves, and post-9/11 politics. Many conversations that I have been a part of have assumed that multiracial means “White and something else.” Those of us who are the products of two people of color or two (or more) distinct immigrant identities have sometimes felt that conversations around racial mixing have excluded our experiences, and there was always something about a New York-focused discourse that seemed would embrace our experiences much more. We “East Coasters” have often lamented the lack of public dialogues, artistic projects or action campaigns around mixed issues in places like New York or Washington when we look west towards California and the Pacific Northwest, where organizations like the Mavin Foundation, the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival and the Association of MultiEthnic Americans seem be constantly reshaping public dialogue on issues of multiraciality. But the West Coast’s history of racial mixing is uniquely shaped by its histories of expansionist policies, the encounters/destruction of the region’s Native American, Spanish, French and Anglo inhabitants, immigration through Angel Island, the Gold Rush and the construction of railroads that brought thousands of Chinese workers to the region, and of course, the region’s geographic proximity to Asia, Mexico and Central America. The demographic, racial, and cultural landscapes of the region’s urban centers have also transformed racial and ethnic identities in ways that are vastly different from the ways that identities and histories have crossed borders in New York. Thus, a conversation that considers New York’s distinct historical, economic, ethnic, racial and cultural terrain is necessary, now more than ever.

This is precisely the vision of the folks at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) who have initiated the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations (CBBG) public programming and oral history project. This initiative seeks to provide a forum for dialogue around “mixed-heritage families, race, ethnicity, cultural and identity, infused with historical perspective.” Such an historical perspective will allow the project’s participants to explore the stories of mixed-heritage individuals and communities who have been shaped and who have shaped Brooklyn’s own racial history. Upcoming events will examine the 1991 Crown Heights Riots, Spike Lee’s iconic Jungle Fever, and Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. This conversation is bound to draw upon Brooklyn’s rich cultural mélange—Jews, Poles, Haitians, Russians, Dominicans, Italians, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, West Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, not to mention the hipsters, the hip-hop-ers, the musicians, writers, artists and activists who call Brooklyn home. I am gradually learning more about the CBBG, and last night’s event helped me to understand more about the vision and scope of this exciting project.

The evening began with an introduction by Jen Chau, the Founder and Executive Director of Swirl. Jen’s comments (which started with a personal anecdote about the time a 2000 Census workers curiously asked Jen what country “Biracial” is) were followed by brief presentations by Judith Sloan, co-author and co-creator of Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America, Suleiman Osman, author of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification, Race and the Search for Authenticity in Post-War New York, and Katrina Grigg-Saito, creator of the documentary and installation, FishBird. All three of the panelists focused on the historical context and the geographic complexities of multiraciality. Katrina Grigg-Saito’s project actually emerged when she heard a woman in the UK say, in reference to mixed-race people, “a fish can love a bird but where would they live?” This question really touches upon one of the central questions explored at Monday’s event and one that I have long pondered – what does location have to do with one’s experience as a person of mixed-heritage? This really begs two more sub questions that I am exploring in this post and will continue to throughout this project. First, if there is a need for conversation around mixed-heritage that is situated within a particular geographic and historical context—Brooklyn, to be exact—what will that conversation look like? Second, for those of us who identify as mixed-heritage, how does our geographic location—and all the cultural, racial, economic, political and social implications it bears—impact or shape our experiences? Are there certain places—cities or countries, perhaps—that can feel more like “home” to mixed-heritage folks?

This last question takes me back to one mixed dreamer’s recent post about the concrete jungle itself. As Nicole so eloquently said, “In New York, my identity and all that I am seems to make sense. The ‘uniqueness’ of my own life is but a thread in the fabric, part of the millions of interwoven identities and narratives of migration, change, process and formation that make the city a home for the transient, a place for the liminal, those existing here and there and yet all the while staking claim and setting roots deep in the here.” If you haven’t yet, check out Nicole’s reflections on space, place, race and how “region and geography play such a critical role in identity formation”. She refers to how the city’s histories of migration, movement, and conflict have brought together Blackness and Latinidad in ways that have not been possible in other parts of the United States. The city’s Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Trinidadians, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Haitians, and so many more embody Afro-latinidad and reaffirm the multi identities that emerged from the mixing of people across continents, cultures, and colors.

This makes me think about my own unique history. When I tell people I was born in Queens, we often make jokes – “Where else would an Indian man from Ethiopia and a Chilean woman meet and make a baby?” Queens—the most diverse county in the United States of America. Ride the 7 train and in addition to passing the historic and extraordinary tattooed walls of 5Pointz, you’ll pass through Pakistan, Ecuador, Colombia, Russia, China, India, Turkey, Bangladesh…all without a passport! Now, I’m the last person to feed you the “melting pot” story that so many New York-lovers sing and dance. There are lines, borders, walls, boundaries, all throughout New York. I live on a block that is primarily Dominican. You cross the street and move away from Broadway towards Amsterdam, and you’re on a block that is almost exclusively African American or African. One block in Jackson Heights will have you speaking Spanish and eating arepas, while on the next one smells of curry and sounds of Amitabh Bachchan overwhelm your senses. And while gentrification might be pushing these lines in one direction or another, the stark differences and inequalities can still be found. My love of Queens does not equate to any kind of claim that all the Colombians and Russians and Chinese and Pakistanis are getting together and making Col-Rus-Chin-stanis (I tried). It’s not that simple, and that’s not what “multi” is about. But, there’s GOTTA be something about the geographic intimacy of so many different nationalities that allows for the unique coming together of histories and identities that otherwise may never interact.

Perhaps this hunch is what always drew me to New York growing up. I was born here but sadly, not raised. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I started spending time here and eventually moved back to the city of my birth. It was then that I realized there was something that felt like home about this fast-paced, walk-fast, look-straight-ahead, hustle-and-bustle, belly-of-the-beast world. Despite the city’s vastness and the fact that to visit a friend I sometimes have to travel 1.5 hours on a train, I have gained a sense of community here that I could never create in any other cosmopolitan center. Perhaps it’s because, as Staceyann Chin so beautifully explains, “I fit in because there was no criterion for belonging.” I believe that in New York City, you can be many things at once. Perhaps the boxes are not as rigid or people don’t expect you to fit into them so much. Or maybe, you just get to pick many and move throughout them as you please. As Staceyann Chin, a Black, Chinese, queer feminist from Jamaica, said about her beloved Brooklyn, “These noisy streets offer ample room, and by extension time, to hate Jamaica, to fall in love with Jamaica, and finally, to find the medium through which I can separate the impossible from the possible and become my most comfortable self.” I believe that in being in New York, you can still continue to be in other places, other countries, other worlds. Perhaps I am my most comfortable self when I can carry my histories within me and know that around me, identities that are as disparate as my own are colliding and changing every day around me.