Rooted - Fall 21
Writer and Art Advisor
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 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 playing mediator following 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 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; still identifiable under scrutiny, yes, but only as a superficial fraction of itself. Handled without care, the shrunken remainder lived wholly on Instagram, where it was trotted out to forage for laughs and likes— or quietly dispatched to bequeath them.
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?
Fantasy so often cloaked the experience of 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).
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 the United Kingdom, the image of Black America doesn’t typically square with shooting weekends or Parsons Green dinner parties. In my arsenal, I carried some Oh Reallys for the But I would have guessed Spain. My hair might have been from India⁴, 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 fictive binary, I had seemed to shift unknowingly, after twelve years in the London Fog, from Black to…what? Burrowed into an England of fancy-dress [costumed] weddings and 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 categorization. Also “light-skinned” from a family tree of multitudes, Piper frequently uses her whole body to dissect convention, getting into the ring with audiences that are sometimes eager, and other times unwitting. In Funk Lessons (1982-84), participants were invited to join “A Collaborative experiment in Cross-Cultural Transfusion.” An Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University at the time, Piper variably armed herself with microphone, chalkboard and “a simple two-step” to inculcate unseasoned or cynical attendees with the moves and power of funk.⁶ The musical genre had been condescended to by the erudite-and-mostly-White, Piper had observed, and she sought a collapse of the disingenuous and racialized schism between cerebral and sensual. Speaking with an oft-dispassionate tone, and positioned at the head of the class, Piper leads a stiff crowd through increasing proficiency in hip, foot and shoulder gyration. The performances are exhilarating and even optimistic: collectively, they insist on not simply analyzing comfortably but physically metabolizing, however awkwardly, the disregarded power churning in the depths of the cultural strata.
There are also other works, works that cut cleanly to the soul of what it is to be dismissed to those depths. Works that don’t end in a celebratory dance party. Positioned within upper middle class and academic White crowds, Piper was too often mistaken for “one of them.” She began her push-back performance cycle, My Calling (Card) #1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties), 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 beside her at dinner who wrongly assume they are speaking entre eux, informing them she is Black before the fact. She writes of their rebuttals, their insults, their disbelief. Piper then drily acquiesces to their demand for the benefit of the doubt, sliding the disclosure moment from a peremptory to amendatory position, sliding a card across a table.
The magician presents her card once the racist die is cast:
Uncanny prediction of the moment, handheld witness to her past.
Damned if she tells them before, damned if she tells them later, but lo she will tell them what she is. And oh, she will tell them what she’s heard, heard loud and clear. Even when whistled in higher octaves. This funk music is just so messy. Those protestors are just so angry. That Barack is just so clean and articulate and nice looking.
In my own life, I’ve named the inevitable dinner party wobbles amongst sophisticates 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, 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 homogenous 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.
Status: Very high.
And you can sing this ditty to the rhyme The House That Jack Built, if you wish:
This is the dad
to toss the friends
into the pool
beside the house
within the grounds granddad built⁸
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 V: Dear Friends
Error | er ·ror
- a measurement of the difference between the observed value of a quantity and its true value
- the amount of deviation from a standard
- just a simple mistake
Part VII: Open the box, Schrödinger, for God’s sake
In their book Raising Biracial Children, Kerry Ann Rockquemore 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 Black.
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 significantly, 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 lambs wool 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 blackamoor statue in the drawing room in Cheswick. 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 dehumanization 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 knowable we need only to close our eyes and freeze for its violence to be grasped by a knowing stranger across a silent room. 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-great grandfathers from Nigeria and 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 as “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
Part IX: White in Reality
In her film Duck Test, the artist Sula Bermúdez-Silverman and then-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 that 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 has explained that Dolezal had taken up the mic too many times before. Her audio is not needed this time around. 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 actually a coil or its lack that qualifies a person as belonging in a country where White and optically-White were long ruled separate races. In what is now the USA, hypodescent laws have strained to protect White property and White wombs from light-skinned Black interlopers since 1661.
But there were never any laws to protect Black communities from green-eyed Whites.
From those trespassing alchemists, emboldened by this knowledge:
that all it ever took to turn White into Black in America was
a whispered rumour.
Part X: 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 simply that ultimate privilege she holds to "choose" a race as and when it suits her: for a light-skinned Black woman, too, can slip continually between those faulty barriers; can set up shop on the other side, and then pass right back. Certainly, Dolezal—who in 2018 switched to the Igbo-inspired Nkechi Amare Diallo—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 entitlement and betrayal alone are more than enough to indict. 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’s The Answer then? one clue –
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
and that nip at us like hounds
crimes my bones still feel on freezing days—
crimes that pinned him to the ground
if taking Blacks’s illegal now
then they’ll take what they can get
a wig a name a seat
a faith a dad his breath and
— And that’s just con·tin·u·i·ty, sweetheart.
Part X: Pretenders to a throne
As a mixed woman, I will admit a sometimes-fear of some precarity in my position. I have been pinned to that Non-Newtonian barrier where viscosity can quickly shift and my back holds memories of contours that will suck you back through…. just... when you’ve started…. to relax.
(So do stay skittish in there, cat: did you really think they wouldn't come back for one last check?) )
It took years for me to trust that a Black space was for me to claim.
Years when I once stood in that Black space
and I shifted on my feet
And glanced back over my shoulder
like some part-time petty thief
Years 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.
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.