Rooted - Fall 21
ARIANNA AJ NOURSE
WRITER AND ART ADVISER
On Error and Continuity: Some Passing Thoughts
Part I: The Lesson
A. A list of verbal and non-verbal messages received by the author, Arianna Nourse née Jacobs:
B. They said to me, "Frank, it's not you, it's them." You see, they had accepted me as being a part of them. I became captain of the football team. And I was like this person who stood out in that respect. It wasn’t me they were having a problem with, it was “those people” and those people were my people.
The author’s father, on mediating between the perpetrators and survivors of a hate crime at his high school in the 60s (1).
Part II: The Shift
I want to tell you a story about last Spring.
In the early stages of a (marital) separation, I pulled the hatches down around my business, myself, and my two young children, too nervous to attempt even a comforting rerun of Curb. Physically and emotionally shut in, my adult life collapsed and then contracted some more, until I existed as but a superficial whisper of mine own self.
To be clear, we are talking a really, really superficial whisper. And to avoid any and all doubt, I mean I existed almost solely on social media.
Sequestered alone at night, I scrolled to disassociate from my own upset, only to absorb the mirrored panic and boredom and denial of others.
Inside, our world is safe, I told my kids. My world is safe for now, I told myself.
And then my feed began to quake with fury. Two more Black men had been nonchalantly murdered on camera and a Black woman had been assassinated in her bed (2). In between breakfasts and Brio building with the kids, there were check-in texts from the Newly Wizened. For those who already knew what this was, there were FaceTimes, WhatsApps, and Zooms (sometimes all three in quick succession, a desperate fight against a withered internet connection).
Yes, it was a lot.
Yes, I’m from San Francisco.
Yes, from from San Francisco.
Intake air, exhale The Answer.
(You might already know the one by now.)
Part III: A White and Black and Tan Fantasy
My father is Black, my mother is Jewish. This line I served weakly, weekly, to enquiring minds throughout my youth, never once realizing I was describing two Others rather than myself. I offered The Answer quietly to rapt audiences thrice my age, calling time on investigations that once took me all the way to my great-great grandparents. Can we stop now?
During The Reckoning of 2020, Black people the world over said “enough”. As we had before. As we will again.
Inside, I, too, felt that great fury; and I also felt a little fraud. How much of the pain did I share? How much of the pain did I cause? I clocked my sun-free lockdown arms incredulously -- for surely my skin had never been this white before. Pinpointing my position between survivor and apologist, I parsed the hidden memories, and attempted to locate a definitive answer to the question I’d been asked repeatedly, curiously, demandingly, my whole life: And what was I?
There was a fantasy to biraciality when I was growing up: The best of two cultures! The seamless navigation through Black and White! Optimistic suggestions from the utopian-minded Whites who populated my 1980s and 90s. Did they know that they were lying, even then? Did they intend to stop at the intro, to bury the lead? Singing and holding hands is nice, but what of the marooning? The isolation? (Good preparation, in retrospect, that).
But I never got to see myself reflected in either mother or father or peer.
Ouch, bad luck, kid but what I wouldn’t give for that tan!
As a young girl, with frizzy hair opposing my Goody barrettes and situated against the sharp white background of my family and peers, a school friend asked me what colour I thought I was(3). I told her I was brown, and she countered I was Black. In my 20s, in Manhattan, with wintry pallor and a Japanese straightening perm, ladies chided me for not speaking the language of my presumed ancestors: was I not proud to be Dominican? And in London, in my 30s, with two weeks of vitamin D per year and acquired hair nearing my waist, a collector at dinner beside me would respond to my disclosure incredulously: “YOU’RE black? But I don’t believe it!”
In Europe, the image of Black America doesn’t typically square with shooting weekends or Chelsea dinner parties. In my arsenal, I carried some Oh Reallys for the But I would have guessed Spains. My hair might have been from India(4), but I myself couldn’t possibly have been from anywhere below Sicily.
No way, not here.
Not here, not there. Between the two poles of a pseudo-binary, I had seemed to shift unknowingly, after twelve years in the London Fog, from Black to what? Slotted into my elegant England of fancy dress and wedding raves(5), I couldn’t help but wonder: was I inadvertently passing?
Part IV. Verbum iactum est
Since the 1960s, philosopher, artist and yogini Adrian Piper has stood as a beacon of criticality and precision as she names and dissects the chokehold of Manichean categorisation. Also “light-skinned” from a family tree of multitudes, Piper began her four-year conceptual performance cycle My Calling (Card) #1 thirty-five years ago, or two years after my birth.
In the typed card that underpins the work, Piper outlines the arc of previous misadventures in self-disclosure: forestalling racist remarks by Whites who wrongly assume they are speaking entre eux; their defensive rebuttals, their insults, their disbelief. Piper drily acquiesces to the entitled demand for the benefit of the doubt, sliding the disclosure from a preemptory to amendatory position. Her calling in part, but also mine: to record concretely the veracity of a life for those who would not hear.
The magician presents her card once the racist die is cast: an uncanny prediction of the moment; and a witness to her past.
Piper frequently uses her whole body to dissect convention, getting into the ring with her “audience” in Funk Lessons, Catalysis(6) or her meta-performances. Most crucial to observe is the artist's concurrent track of critical distance, her oft-ironically-dispassionate voice carrying us through moments of haute tension. And so: an art of great physicality and the greatly analytical; it is the form and content, both, that point us to modes of multiplicity.
In my own life, I’ve named these racist dinner party wobbles the “Big Black Bouncer Moment”: when a White guest spices up a personal story by pointedly referring to a character’s Blackness. Blackness as evidence of a perceived threat level; Blackness as melodramatic device, preceding the safe denouement. Rarely does the animated storyteller note my own freshly stiffened pose, a body alert to threats it, too, perceives. They named them micro aggressions huh? An absence of sticks and stones? Oh just Fawn already, laugh it off. Freeze, and sit in silence. Take Flight, go exit quietly. But please, dear friend, don’t Fight(7). You’re Black but you don’t have to make a thing about it, do you?
Part V: Dear Friends
Three decades ago, I moved to a school 15 miles north of my home in San Francisco. My father, conversely, moved to Amsterdam - a bit further away. From my father, I inherited mischievous eyes, a smooth forehead, and a complex relationship to exceptionalism. Like I, he was one of few Black students in an otherwise White student body. He, bussed over from Newark, a result of municipal integration policies; I, bussed over from San Francisco, a result of, depending on whom you ask, fierce intelligence or that gosh darn affirmative action.
I later gleaned from lifelong friends that every unhappy family at my suburban school was indeed unhappy in its own way. But in September 1990, I saw only happy families - and they all looked very much alike.
And you can sing this ditty to the rhyme The House That Jack Built, if you wish:
This is the dadThis is the dad
to toss the friends
into the pool
beside the house
within the grounds granddad built(8)
I became a sympathetic ear. I developed comedic timing. By the end of my school days, I’d acquired a bit of pretty privilege, too. Popularity and group adaptation were fairly easy to manage; the continuous anxiety about my difference, not so much. Piper’s list of strategies for:
" surviving and flourishing in a global environment include but are not limited to self- mastery; mastery of local conventions, practices and standards in diverse communities; overachievement; passing and self-concealment; social self-abnegation; tactical self-camouflage."
- Adrian Piper, from The APRA Foundation Berlin Multi-Disciplinary Fellowship Mission Statement and Guidelines
To this list, I would add “willed amnesia”: for when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but as I became a woman, I repressed everything. If you don’t tell, it didn’t happen. Ignore it and it will go away. Ask a question back and they’ll forget you didn’t answer.
And on the best days, you might forget it all, too.
Part VI: One noun, two syllables
Error | er ·ror
1. a measurement of the difference between the observed value of a quantity and its true value
2. the amount of deviation from a standard
3. just a simple mistake
Part VII: Open the box, Schrödinger, for God’s sake
In their book Raising Biracial Children, Kerry and Rocquemore and Tracey Laszloffy tell us that -
Irrespective of the identity mixed-race people construct, the degree of validation or rejection they experience from others can either reinforce their self-understanding and support a sense of identity cohesion, or can undermine their sense of self and create psychic distress(9).
Their model, for study:
Now lean in near and follow closely. This time, it’s personal:
A. Let our individual sense of racial identity be represented by the variable I.
If the observer agrees that we are I, we call that a validation or a mutual identification(11):
I’m Black, actually. I thought so!
B. The observer may choose to denigrate I, may find I repugnant, even. So while we still have validation on a primary level, we now face rejection on a secondary one:
Actually, I’m brown. Well, I don’t want to play with you either way.
The secondary rejection is fierce and it is cruel, but in the very least I remains.
For the mixed specimen though, new interpersonal introductions forever threaten a wretched double rejection: on the secondary level, yes, but also on the primary one.
A note: such rejection can come from both Black and White groups, equally.
so go home and cry you little Oreo!
so why haven’t I seen you at Jack and Jill?
Next, pin down the nebulous and chart those split-second pings between the binaries. Stop rubbing against the memory’s grain and soon you will recall. I am 13 or 14, and the mother of classmate A.L. is upset, so upset. She pins me against the gym’s splintered shingles and demands I go back to Africa.
But I don’t get it, Mrs L: earlier this year, your very own daughter assured me that I wasn’t really black.
In a country obsessed with supremacies and one-drops, what happens when such a fundamental aspect of oneself can be awarded and revoked by any random stranger outside any given room at any given time? These incessant re-evaluations of self in public give way to doubt even when alone. If there is no observer to affirm me out loud, for how long can I remain I? Open the box and tell me, Schrödinger: am I Black or am I White?(12)
Part VIII: That’s it; I’m Beat
The Scottish-Barbadian artist Alberta Whittle describes a bone-level exhaustion from the demands to place oneself for the comfort of perplexed others (13). When in rural Scotland for a residency, Whittle met innumerable White strangers in need of reassurance. Who was this new visitor? An obligatory prelude. A beat. And what was this new visitor? Just out of curiosity, of course - but as history tells us, there are no benevolent inquisitions. At what point can we name the micro as macro to the curious stranger who “doesn’t see race”? Whittle stopped going out. Disguise the hair, disguise the face, disguise the feminine. What would it take to blend in just enough to buy a quart of milk, obligation-free? Would a tartan skirt and lambswool jumper from Scots R Us suffice?
I remind myself of the antecedents to my own camouflage – battle fatigues in a war you didn’t start. Our hero conjures rainbows and keeps her core safe. I didn’t know I should be protecting mine. Cozy weekends at the Cambridge house you prayed wasn’t built on sugar. Expert blanking of the blackmoor statue in the drawing room in Chiswick. I said ignore it and it will go away. At least, that is, until the world splits open, and suddenly you can’t ignore it anymore.
Part VIII: So, now you’re, like, Black?
There is a saying, and that saying goes: “’Race’ is an invention; Racism is real”. The first part refutes essentialist reductivism as well as the literal dehumanisation of Blacks. The second part acknowledges that while skin-based distinctions and hierarchies are not rooted in fact, they are unquestionably at the root of the dominant culture.
Perhaps we need an addendum to the saying.
Race is an invention but –
Your racism is real.
Your racism’s so real it can spur a shame and a rage and a fear and a sadness so known, we need only to close our eyes, take pause, and then exhale our breath to be seen.
Your racism’s so real it can drive my father across an ocean and his father out of Georgia and his who-knows-how-many-greats grandfathers from Nigeria and four centuries later I’ll still have to use the qualifier African before you believe that I’m American.
Your racism’s so real a Louisiana judge will uphold you “coloured” on your birth certificate in 1985, even when you’re 31/32nds white.
And in Virginia:
In any large gathering or school of colored people, especially in cities, many will be observed who are scarcely distinguishable as colored. These persons, however, are not white in reality, nor by the new definition of this law, that a white person is one with no trace of the blood of another race.
From, The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Virginia, United States of America The U.S. of A: a country where optically white and capital “W” White remain two distinct races.
In a still from Duck Test, the artist Sula Bermúdez-Silverman and hair stylist Rachel Dolezal face one another in the mirror of what is seemingly a Black beauty salon. Their skin appears more or less the same shade of what we tend to call white. Their hair is both curly: Bermúdez-Silverman’s thanks to her Black-Puerto Rican and Jewish roots; Dolezal’s thanks to a very fine wig she uses to cover up her own.
Bermúdez-Silverman describes her curls as that which ensures she is read as Black. And curls are the tools Dolezal gathered in her arms, when she took one last look around, and left Whiteness behind. For Dolezal, the wigs and the braids kept questioners at bay - until that day one questioner broke through(14). Throughout Duck test, Dolezal weaves faux locs into the artist’s hair as they engage in pleasant conversation that the audience cannot hear. Bermúdez-Silverman explains that Dolezal had taken up the mic too many times before. Upon completion of the performance, we see two women of the same skin colour, both with hair that’s not their own: but only one is “truly” Black.
Of course, it is not really the coil or its lack that qualifies or disqualifies a person from any racial group. Since 1662, US hypodescent laws have strained to protect White property and White wombs from light-skinned Black interlopers. But there were never any laws to protect Black communities from light-skinned Whites.
From trespassing alchemists, emboldened by the knowledge, that all it takes to turn White into Black in America is but a whispered rumour.
Part IX: Pretenders to a throne
And so I ask myself, now as I write, or in moments when sleep refuses to find me: what is it about Dolezal’s performance that feels, for many, for me, so intrusive, so parasitic?
It is not so simply that the ultimate priviledge she holds to "choose" a race when it suits her: a light-skinned Black woman can also take a wig on and off slipping through Newtoian barriers setting up and then passing back into Blackness. Certainly, Dolezal may be named publicly as a usurper of Black space, having ensconced herself as head of her local NAACP chapter, and taken a “diversity” seat on a local police commission. Of course, any of these acts of entitllement and betrayal alone are more than enough to endict. Even for those of us who believe deeply in rehabilitation.
but it’s not just this I think you know it’s a whole lot more besides this is a story of last Spring wrapped with other days inside so what is The Answer then? one clue – a noun five syllables a state of endless misbehaviour of Acts applied without debate for there were other laws back in our once upon a time laws to protect alleged owners laws to protect those Owners’ crimes crimes that still haunt the True Descendants crimes that nip at us like hounds crimes my bones can feel on freezing days crimes that pinned him to the ground if taking Blacks’s illegal now (15) then they’ll take what they can get a wig a name a seat my faith a dad his breath - And that’s just con·tin·u·i·ty, sweetheart.
Part X: A Most Untragic Ending
As a mixed woman, I will admit my fear that Dolezal, any number of Kardashians, or the ubiquitous Brown and Black - washing influencers online expose a certain precarity in my position. It took me years to fully believe that a Black space was for me to claim.
Years when I once stood in the Black space, and I shifted on my feet. And glanced back over my shoulder, like some part-time petty thief.
When I snatched handfuls of my heritage and stuffed them in my pockets. And held them tightly in the other space, the space where no one looked like me.
The prolific hug of paint at Eugene’s in the Western Addition; the sedating smell of tomes at Marcus Books on Fillmore(16).
His news clippings and photos, from before he moved away.
These are my birthrights, not hers, and I seek to protect my inheritance.
Race is just a myth but –
Blackness is so real it spurs a unifying web of humour and resilience and creativity and tenderness. I wrap myself in this to protect me from the gaze.
1 . WordUp Podcast, Amsterdam, Season 2, episode 9. https://worduppodcast.weebly.com/s2e9-frank-sheppard.html Accessed 8 Apr. 2021
2. Ahmaud Arbery, 8 May 1994—23 February 2020. Breonna Taylor, 5 May 1993—13 March 2020. George Floyd, 14 October 1973—25 May 2020. And two days later, there was Tony McDade 19 June 1981-27 May 2020.
3. In her essay “How it Feels to Be a Colored Me” (1928), Zora Neale Hurston writes: “I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
4. Indian hair – or “Indian” hair, given the near impossibility of authenticating its journey from head-to-head – is referred to in the extensions trade as very desirable, second only to –yep–European hair (mostly Eastern).
5. Fancy dress parties in England a/k/a costume parties.
6. “Audience” must remain in quotes when referring to the Catalysis series in particular, for Piper did not disclose her uncanny gestures as art to observers, allowing a widened range of reactions from her unknowing participants. Lippard, Lucy, and Adrian Piper. “Catalysis: An Interview with Adrian Piper.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 16, no. 1, 1972, pp. 76–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1144734. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
7. Many laypeople are aware of the term “fight or flight,” coined by physiologist Walter B Cannon in 1927 to describe differing human responses to threatening stimuli. Perhaps less commonly known are two further Fs: Freeze (David H Barlow, Anxiety and its Disorders, 2002) and Fawn (Pete Walker, Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response, 2003). People pleasing ie. helping others to feel ok at the expense of oneself can be read as a variety of the Fawn trauma response, and may be familiar to those who’ve felt compelled to assimilate.
8. To be read to the rhythm of nursery rhyme The House that Jack Built (Roud Folk Song Index no. 20584)
10. Ibid p 9.
11. The authors write: "When we assert some aspect of our identity to others, there are two levels at which validation or rejection may occur. The first involves whether the other person sees us in the same way we see ourselves. We refer to this visual agreement as 'mutual identification.' If others do not perceive ourselves, an immediate rejection occurs." Ibid, pp 9-10.
12. The Copenhagen Interpretation posits a nonbinary existence for all entities until the moment they are observed, at which point the either/or is revealed. In 1933, Erwin Schrödinger proposed his famous cat-in--box thought experiment to prove that while explainable at the quantum level, such a quantum superposition is inapplicable and absurd at the level of larger objects.
13. Telephone conversation between the author and Alberta Whittle on 15 February 2021
14. In her now-infamous 2015 interview with reporter Jeff Humphrey, the Spokane, Ore. NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal is asked point blankly: “Are you African-American?” The five frozen-faced seconds that form her response signal this jig is finito.
15. See: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness
16. That is, Eugene E White: a prolific painter whose studio doubled as the first Black-owned gallery in San Francisco. Oakland’s Marcus Books was founded by Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson in 1960 and remains the oldest independent Black-owned bookshop in the U.S.A. Its origins were on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.