Thursday, September 27, 2012

What My Mother Gave Me

[Blogger's Note: While mixed identity is a very personal and political issue for me, I don't usually use this space to write exclusively about my own life. Though my work and writing make it clear I identify as black, African, Latina, mixed, multi etc, on both the Mixed Dreams twitter and Tumblr sites I've still been asked "what are you?" Since what really spurred me to begin this crusade was so deeply personal and so inscribed in that very question and the realities of my  life, I thought we'd take a break from our "usual programming" to reflect on the evolution of my own mixed story. This post is dedicated to my parents.]

"To lose your mother was to be denied your kin, country, and identity. To lose your mother was to forget your past."
                                                                                                -Dr. Saidiya Hartman

I am the spitting image of my mother.

Three years ago I learned the 'truth' about my origin story. The 'truth', however, didn't make the myth of my early life any less real--any less a rooted marker of who I was and who I am or will become. And that, I owe to my mother.

 Mom and I in 2009
You see, three years ago I was told that I was kinda, sorta adopted-- not legally with paperwork and red tape, not brought from some far off place to an entirely different family, but taken in quietly, seamlessly, secretly by the love and determination of a woman who loved my father very much. That woman became the only mother I have ever known.

My father, who I write about in "Native Speaker," has always been a very strong and visible part of my identity. The Cameroonian name I inherited from him, make my African identity proud and visible against a face that is sometimes hard to place. My Cameroonian family is large and spread all over the world and the blackness I share with them is rooted in a vibrant ancestral past  and a contemporary post-colonial African present.

And yet, in key ways it was my mother who gave me kin, country and identity. 

I did not have the luxury of forgetting. For in order to forget, one must first remember. Instead my early past was simply erased from my young memory by those who rewrote my history to protect, to move on, to survive. In that way my story is no different than the countless mythologies created as people leave homes and re-fashion new identities --always moving, surviving, leaving behind imprints and shadows of their private truths and hazy fictions as they go.

I am the spitting image of my mother. And yet, she was not the woman who gave birth to me. 

My mother is Afro-Costa Rican. We're both "mutts", as she likes to say. Her skin looks just like mine, her first language is my first language, we were both born in Latin America. And, she too, did not grow up with her biological mother. The similarities are striking. Three years ago when I found out she wasn't my 'birth' mother, that my 'birth' mother was Indian, that after all that, I was a classic taboo--a "forbidden love child"-- it was my mother's Afro-Latina/Caribbean identity that anchored me in the face of a simple truth that threatened to uproot and displace me and all I was.

I dedicated my undergraduate life to developing my black consciousness and in particular, my Afro-Latina consciousness. I even spent a summer with my maternal grandmother in Costa Rica unearthing the lost histories of blacks in Limon, Costa Rica-- empowered by their rich transnational narratives, their liminality and their resistance as Africana people. Fluent, familiar Spanish danced effortlessly on my tongue. Rice and peas, escovitch fish and platano tasted like home. I saw my mother's face-- my face-- in everyone I saw and I felt keenly a part of a history, a people, a legacy. It was then that I realized that it was my Afro-Latina identity moreso than my Cameroonian identity that connected me to a living history of blacks in the Americas. It was my Afro-Latina identity that carved out a space for me to understand the breadth of mixedness-- of blackness, its contours, it's depth, it's beautiful distress. It rooted me to a sense of place and home that weaved me seamlessly into a diverse black Atlantic legacy charting it's way from west African shores to Jamaica to Costa Rica to my birthplace in Santo Domingo to Jamaica, Queens where I spent my early years and even Staten Island where I grew up black and middle class in an overwhelmingly white wealthy suburb-- a proud part of the multitude that contained multitudes. 

Don't get me wrong, while grounding, my parent's identities did not spare me my black girl/mixed girl woes. Sure, having two black parents should have been easy enough. But from an early age I could sense that our family identity wasn't quite the 'norm.' The "mixed-up" anxiety I had and the struggles with identity I faced growing up and into my college years were a product of an alienation born from being a "hyphen"-- an "and" in a system where that hyphen is still rendered illegitimate, where multitudes are bound and limited to sound-bite definitions and caging boxes. I was a black girl in a white world. An immigrant daughter in American society. A first-generation African girl in an African-American culture. An Afro-Latina/Caribbean girl in a mestizo Latino world.

Dr. Saidiya Hartman writes "To lose your mother was to be denied your kin, country, and identity. To lose your mother was to forget your past." I lost my birth mother-- Not to death, but to the past, to culture, to tradition, to destiny.... who knows? I was denied entry to an identity, to kin and to a country that should have been my birth right. 

Last year, I traveled to India for nine months to find out more about this identity, this country, this kin that was erased from my history. And as I wrote in my post "And I'm Either No One, Or I'm A Nation" India, too, felt vaguely familiar. For the first time in my life I was not automatically read as "black" and to my incredible surprise I found myself passing. That "passage" felt like an act of trespass and yet it was deeply validating. But as in most spaces, that validation gave way to the more familiar sensation that I am perpetually a stranger in a strange land. And well, that's okay. It's who I am.

Since my time in India and over the last three years I've reflected a great deal on how transgressive my racial history has been-- how constructed and (re)constructed. My experiences have shaken my previous conceptions of what race is, what family is and what identity is. They have profoundly underscored cultural critic Stuart Hall's mantra that "Identity is always in the process of being and becoming." That goes for someone with as complex a history as mine as for a whitebread kid in Ohio. The paradox of identity is that it is meant to ground and define and yet by its very nature it is always in flux. So, what do we hold on to? 

For now, I hold on to my mother. The woman who gave me everything. I hold on with the understanding that this is not who I will always be, but that at the core of my mixed journey is knowing that while we may not always be writers of our past, we are creators of our future. That identities come from somewhere and have histories, but they also have transgressive and yet unwritten futures. I stand proudly in all my truths and contradictions.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Shades of Black (The Flip Side of the 'Zoe-Nina' Debate)

In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon penned 'The Four Women', which begins, "My skin is Black/ My arms are long/ My hair is wooly/ My back is strong/ Strong enough to take the pain/ Inflicted again and again." Nina had the posture, past and physicality to make this song not only brazen, but also believable and therefore revolutionary in it's telling. How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup?   - Nicole Moore "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film"
 Zoe Saldana                                              Nina Simone

The blogosphere floodgates flew open two weeks ago  as news broke that actress Zoe Saldana would be playing the role of the iconic Nina Simone in an (allegedly "unauthorized") indie biopic of the late singer and civil rights activist. The film is said to be less of a portrait of the legend and will focus on a speculative love affair between Simone and her assistant/manager Clifton Henderson (to be played by British actor David Oyelowo)

News of Saldana's role unearthed difficult questions about blackness, race and issues of authenticity. While critiques ranged from the legitimacy of the story itself  to the need for more black directors, screenwriters and producers to tell our stories in a more sensitive and critical way than the usual Hollywood "whitewashed" versions, the overwhelming number of critiques focused on the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role (as an undeniable product of Hollywood "whitewashing".)

And, don't get it twisted, I'm right there questioning whether a story not even authorized by Nina Simone's daughter or her estate should really be going around masquerading as a 'biopic' and helllllll yes we need to take control of our own narratives and representations in the media. But reading the following statements and countless statements like these that made up the hailstorm as the public sounded off on Zoe's casting was troubling to say the least: 

"She's (Saldana) too light-skinned to be taken seriously as Nina Simone."
"And besides--she's a Latina. She's stealing jobs from real black actresses." 
Whether you're a Saldana fan or think she has the acting skills of a pineapple is one thing. But a disturbingly large number of responses to the news said things like "Saldana is too pretty to play Nina Simone" (ummm, and by "prettier" you mean what exactly?? confront your own skewed colorism and then maybe we can have an intelligent conversation.) "Zoe Saldana isn't even black, she's Dominican (responding to that would take a separate post entirely--but let's just say we all came on the same ships, they just stopped in different area codes.) 

I was torn. On one hand, I believe Nina Simone is an iconic figure whose story in film should match her revolutionary spirit which was a profound reflection of her experiences as a black woman. And yet, the discussions surrounding the issue were making me uncomfortable. Was it merely just my light-skinned guilt smarting-- a little light-skinned privilege with no place to go?

 I felt like I wanted to come to Saldana's defense, a fellow Afro-Latina who has invariably been cast in roles that don't recognize her latinidad and yet have established her as a black actress from playing Judith Scott and Bernie Mac's daughter in Guess Who and Nick Cannon's love interest in Drumline (you all know that was a black movie) to the barrier-breaking Uhura in the J.J. Abrams film remake of  Star Trek. Then all of a sudden, Saldana is being accused of capitalizing on blackness for "monetary value" or "taking jobs from "REAL BLACK actresses" when she's only ever been seen or identified herself as black (the operative word in AFRO-Latina; and, since when has being black ever added any 'monetary value?' People, pleeassee.)

Many comments have also failed to recognize the fact that Saldana has been just as much a product of racialization and an industry that has made it a habit of rendering black bodies (and other bodies of color) invisible. Is Saldana's own racial and ethnic erasure in film illegitimate? Why is her body seen as the vehicle of black erasure?  Does her skin color or her Latina heritage make her own struggle as an actress of color navigating one of the most racist industries any less difficult-- any less real? Are we just talking about skin color or something else altogether?

How would we have felt if actress Kerry Washington had been cast  as Nina Simone? Or if Saldana was cast to play black (and since all we can seem to talk about is skin tone--very light-skinned) revolutionary Angela Davis? Is REAL BLACKNESS less about which side of the paper-bag test you fall on and more about an assumed identity politics that go along with it

Nicole Moore's article "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone and the Erasure of Black Women in Film" states: "Because Simone's blackness extended as much to her musical prowess as to her physicality and image, it's perplexing that the film's production team, led by Jimmy Iovine, expects anyone, particularly in the black community, to (re)imagine Nina Simone as fair-skinned, thin-lipped and narrow-nosed?"

This statement makes me wonder what we're really seeing when we look at Zoe Saldana. Are we measuring her nose and lips (which are really not that much thinner/ "finer" than Nina Simone's)? Or are we looking at her skin tone, her straightened hair, her thin frame, her mainstream fame and summing up the extent of her "pain" and "struggle" accordingly?  Additionally Moore's article likened Saldana's performance to a type of racial "drag" comparing Tyler Perry as Madea to Saldana as Simone even going as far as to suggest Saldana in "black face" asking How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup? What makes this actress' racial identity so illegitimate, so inauthentic and so far from blackness that she would need to don an 'afro-wig' and 'dark makeup'? Why can't a 'cafe au lait' complected, 'Afro-Latina' Zoe 'bring the pain'??

So, as you can see, I've been all kinds of mixed up. And it's taken me a few weeks to write this.

I've poured over countless drafts and have had one too many late night conversations with any dear friend that will listen about why the "Zoe-Nina" debate has got me sick and damn tired. I've read countless articles and opinion posts (the most critical and well-executed being Nicole Moore's article quote above and this article by Emmanual Akitobi.) And while I agreed with much of what was being said, I felt like not enough was being said about some of the vitriol being spewed in the other direction against a largely anonymous, generalized mass of  "light-skinned women" and "multiracial women" that were being accused of erasing blackness. I also felt that while the blogosphere lent itself to making sure many voices were heard and people could address the controversy head-on, it was also creating a space where no further meaningful discussion could be had because the reaction especially from black women was, understandably, visceral and swift.

I've swung back and forth between saying what's on my mind or holding  (read: policing) my tongue because I understand profoundly that colorism is real-- that light-skinned privilege is real--that talking about colorism as a black woman hurts and  that talking about light-skinned privilege as a mixed woman is treading dangerously through a painful minefield.

While I love me some Zoe Saldana, I'd be the first to say I'm very doubtful she would live up to the role.  I do believe that Hollywood has a serious and disturbing color problem.  And I do believe that lighter black actresses, are more palatable to a gaze that has yet to confront its own oppressive and marginalizing tendencies (read: its white supremacist nature)-- and no where is that more keenly felt than on the body of dark-skinned black women. 
Adepero Oduye
Paula Patton
Viola Davis
But let's not bash the actresses. In discussions about the debate, along with Saldana, actresses Jacqueline Flemming, Paula Patton, Thandie Newton and Halle Berry have been grouped as the ostensive "Wannabes" against actresses like Adepero Oduye, Viola Davis, Anika Noni Rose, and singers India Arie and Lauryn Hill who have all been suggested as recasting alternatives for the Simone film.

What I find interesting is that all of the actresses in the first group would have been called black just a a few short years ago and now they are being called "bi-racial" and "light-skinned" to differentiate them for "real black" women.  All of these women at one point or another have identified themselves as black, some even clearly stating they are NOT MULTIRACIAL. 

Ultimately, no matter what shade we are, we're still pawns in a system that doesn't value or respect blackness-- its beauty, its history or its incredible diversity. And, the very fact we're  having this conversation is because black women (whether we're dark or we're fair) are still scrambling for scraps and an equal place at the table. 
And light skin does not have to be inherently anti-black. In the United States, it is a reality and a reminder that white blood and mixed blood have been an inextricable part of black history. Let's not forget that the one-drop rule was made to confront multiraciality and to police light skin. And today the value on lighter and bright is no less an instrument of the same system-- just a different manifestation. It has been used as a tool to divide and marginalize black folk. And that's where my heart kinda breaks a little. Let's dismantle the system, not each other.** 

** There is a strong petition in calling on Jimmy Iovine and Cynthia Mort to recast Saldana and what I really appreciate is that it explicitly makes it about the system and not Saldana. 
In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon did indeed write 'The Four Women'. It was a song about the realities and pain of black womanhood. Each of the four women was a different shade-- black, yellow, tan and brown.  Their collective and individual pain was just as real... And each was just as black as the next.

My skin is black My arms are longMy hair is woolly My back is strong Strong enough to take the pain Inflicted again and again What do they call me My name is Aunt Sarah My name is Aunt Sarah Aunt Sarah 

My skin is yellow My hair is long Between two worlds I do belong My father was rich and white He forced my mother late one night What do they call me My name is Saffronia My name is Saffronia 

My skin is tan My hair is fine My hips invite you My mouth like wine Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy What do they call me My name is Sweet Thing My name is Sweet Thing 

 My skin is brown And my manner is tough I'll kill the first mother I see My life has to been rough I'm awfully bitter these days Because my parents were slaves What do they call me My name is PEACHES