Thursday, October 20, 2011

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 m√©lange—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.

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