Mulatto Bildungsroman
Moira Kirstin Boyd
May 16, 2002

I was wee when the Hudson still froze. We, my siblings and I, were bundled brown skin trudging across to the Bronx. Here, in Inwood, my family is not noticed; we are just a few amongst many. Anyone attempting difference is quickly reminded of the commonality of poverty; odds are we are wearing a neighbour’s hand-me-down.
I’ve known Anne forever; I have no sense that there might have been a time when we have not been confidants.
Green Gables was a dilapidated run down farm house in the middle of the woods when I was wee. Freda and I held hands and fancied ourselves kindred spirits as we traipsed through those woods wondering aloud if indeed we were walking the same steps as Anne and Diana once had. Freda made me kindred when she saw that I too had curly hair; she became kindred when I learned that she was a she in the midst of all boys: a configuration of family not unlike my own. Forty years later we still hold hands when we meet at airports or during a stroll out onto a pier.
I grew up in Spytyn Dyvil, and was raised on Prince Edward Island; from the spitting devil to Anne’s land: I am both. I am black, I am white; no more one than the other. I am Canadian, I am American; I’m ‘from away’ on both sides of this 49th parallel. I am not a tourist in either place but I am made a foreigner wherever I go. I am often asked for my papers of identity – sometimes I am strip searched before I am let go to carry on with what might have occupied me before the inquisition. Make no mistake: it is an inquisition in the truest sense of the word for the inquisitor’s sole purpose is to gather information from me that will quench their odd thirst. The agenda seems always to be the same, and always I am discarded like the torn nylons of a whore at the end of a long night.

I recently read an essay titled Orphans, Twins and L.M. Montgomery. It was written by one Elizabeth Waterston. I, like Genet, upon finishing Sartre’s St. Genet, feel discovered and found out; laid bare by her words. Waterston writes: “…Millions who have grown up loving the story of the orphan Anne Shirley have found that it helped them move through some of the traumas of adolescence.” This is a truth for me. Anne has always been with me and it was she that I have turned to while waiting for body and mind to synchronize. She was the one that sent words of courage and placed them lightly and sometimes ferociously upon my tongue. She gave me chutzpah and credence of self. Anne is with me when I have no words of my own; she sees me through the turbulences of my life.
She is so real to me that perhaps it is me that is the imaginary one.

In my room, as a child, is a white sewing machine, the sort that one needs to reach into, like the womb of a woman giving life through caesarean. This night I am washed, soft, and ready for bed. I scramble to the top of the machine to inspect myself in the mirror which hangs above it. At this age my reflection is a playmate; a friend to wiggle and twist with; someone who looks like me; who seems happy to do what I do. Mirrors are marvellous. When I was wee I spent all available time in front of the mirror. I was looking for things not seen. I searched my eyes for my soul. I longed to see the other side of myself. I wore my mother’s lingerie, and socked full her brassiere in attempt to see myself older. I was Fay Wray wrestling with Kong. I was a glamorous smoker, a belly dancer, and a stripper. I was a magnificent mulatto strutting with myself.
There did come a time that my reflection became confusing. I so wish to know if this experience is had by all, of if indeed, this is what makes the mulatto a tragic figure in the imaginations of those not of mixed parentage. My reflection eventually became perplexing for it did not mirror my assumption of self: I thought I looked exactly like Marion, ma mere.
Ma mere had waist length blond hair. I had spent many hours in the shower on the reverse side of a curtain shielded from prying eyes with a bottle of White Rain moulding my hair into the various do’s of the day – my mother’s style being just one. I am Diana Ross with a starched flip, I have pigtails and when I am sure no one is looking I don the do of Barbie – the one I am forbidden to want or speak of, the doll that Marion is sure will lead me down the road to touching myself or thrusting my soon to be budding breasts into the faces of strange men. I long for Barbie’s life. I can’t wait to thrust and touch. I do not look like Marion in an obvious way and it is this truth that aligns me with Anne for it is then that I begin to fancy myself surely an orphan.
Through Anne I learned to love myself. Anne was at my side as I came to terms with my curly hair not being foot length and blond like ma mere’s, the woman once known as Marion.
There are all sorts of orphans I suppose; I don’t know what sort I am for both my parents are alive. When I was wee Marion was known as Jeanne; she changed her name when I was sturdy and grown. In department stores Jeanne often lost sight of me, and like many children I was taken in by clerks who soothed my brow and fed me treats while ma mere’s name was broadcast over a PA system. What if she had changed her name while rummaging for fabrics?
In Pokemouche Freda hears what I hear: she hears Jeanne’s own cousin say that Marion once, when approached by this cousin, denied to the cousin that it was she. Some of us want to be orphans; others yearn for eternal anonymity.
I could have been lost to her forever; I should have been taken home by the clerks whom were so much better at soothing my brow and feeding me treats.
O, all it is,
is just another reason to hold one’s head high;
never matter,
O never mind.
It is not easy for me to be bi-racial - my configuration seems to exhaust everyone else. I have often been asked if I feel like the light skinned Negro character, Sara Jane Johnson, depicted in Douglas Sirk’s film, An Imitation of Life. So often have I been asked about this film that curiosity finally caused me to go out and rent it. I’m not sure what I expected but I was rather appalled that anyone who claimed to have known me would ever get the idea that I was anything like that film. I had expected to view a film that perhaps depicted some of the feelings or experiences that I have had. It was upsetting to think that others thought of me as a confused, lost and miserable woman who felt ostracized by life, and the burden of my skin colour. To think that others thought I had no niche, and therefore floundered, was disconcerting.
I have encountered scepticism throughout my life from individuals who can not fathom some of my varied and sometimes bizarre encounters. But it has given me great solace to learn that others who identify themselves as bi-racial have had similar encounters.
In Lise Funderburg’s remarkable book Black, White, Other she asked all of the participants for her book to name any and all people they could think of who might be bi-racial: everyone was able to mention Imitation of Life.
I interpret this to mean that I am not alone in having had that film thrust upon me for it was always in the context of the ‘tragic mulatto’. I have yet to meet any person of mixed heritage who views themselves as tragic. It is only those who do not live in our skins that can not understand the concept and therefore deem it as some sort of tragedy.
I must talk about this film for a moment for I think many misinterpret this film and what it is truly about. The only aspect I wish to address in An Imitation of Life, is its depiction of a character who desperately tries to pass for white. Sara Jane’s mother is darker than her daughter but there is no indication that Sara’s father is white. The film begins when -Sara Jane is about nine, or so, and she and her mother move in with a white woman. This woman’s daughter is about the same age as Sara Jane. Sara Jane’s mother is soft-spoken, well-spoken, and extremely kind, yet nothing that she does is acceptable or tolerated by Sara Jane. Sara Jane’s sole goal in this film is to get as far away from her mother’s skin colour, and to be known, and accepted as a white woman. This film asks one to assume much, the biggest assumption being that those of us who can pass are doing so because we wish to be white; a theory which I disagree with.
I posit that white theories that imagine blacks wishing to be white are theories based upon the belief that power and whiteness will always be inextricable. I believe that passing for another race is more a desire to have the same privileges and opportunities of that race than having anything to do with wanting to change one’s race. I am not dismissing internalized racism, but rather excluding it: for the moment I do not think it relevant.
In any case, Imitation of Life is not a film about me, nor can I read into it any feature of being bi-racial. Yet, over and over, I am asked if this film depicts my experiences. I struggle to understand what it is about this film that makes some make this leap for me. The leap that skin colour is somehow connected to being bi-racial. I always come back to one conclusion: Jim Crow.
To be able to ‘pass’ is to suggest that Jim Crow fails in its attempts to keep each side separate, it further suggests that the white society that created the institution is losing the ground of power. The bi-racial is visual representation of that ground being lost- whites witnessing their eventual demise of power. The irony in all of this is that the power had by those that created the Jim Crow system is the same power that created the ‘passer’ and the bi-racial. Black women under slavery did not have control over when or how they might reproduce offspring. This irony, I wonder if, is internalized racism for whites, for how does one emotionally part with one’s own children, sending them to such a plight as slavery? I can’t believe that internalized racism is a dilemma for African American’s only. Further, I believe that the “What are you?” questions that are levelled at me are a direct hold over from Jim Crow: Blacks having to carry papers which whites could scrutinize at any time.
Jim Crow was constructed by a white society that needed to ensure that blacks could never become white no matter how white one might appear. This became the ‘One Drop Rule’, a rule that is fostered, and in effect to this very day. So what is the connection between the mulatto and one that might make additional opportunities in passing? If one can pass, it is assumed that one is light skinned enough to do so. If one is bi-racial it is assumed that one is lighter than the parent that is the black one – on the path to passing perhaps. Passing for the one that can, as I said before, is done to attain the privileges and opportunities of the race that has the privilege, in this case and at this time, white society. So what might this all mean to a white society that constructed Jim Crow? In a simplistic explanation we might assume that Jim Crow keeps one side with the goodies and the other without the goodies, one up one down. But what If you can no longer tell by looking what side one is on? I think this produces a fear in whites. Passers have the potential of infiltration; for achieving opportunities. Once the line is made vague and indistinguishable, power becomes vague and indistinguishable.
In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker gives the following dialogue to the character Adam: “…I remembered when we first arrived in America. His excitement to be, finally, “safe” and back home. And his shock at being constantly harassed because he was black. No, no he used to correct me. They behave this way not because I’m black but because they are white”. I am always reminded of this passage when I am stopped, and asked to explain myself. I have to always remind myself that I am not being asked this nonsense or being treated this way because I am black but rather because they are white and have created a legacy that they, separate from my being, are psychically working out; are ridding themselves of their internalized racism. It is Althea Prince, whom in her essay, Stop Calling Us “Slaves,” nudges me, and reminds me that I am not a descendent of slaves. I am a descendent of Africans – free ones to boot.

I encountered a whole range of emotions while reading Lawrence Hill’s, Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. I dived into the book with high expectations and finished with the belief that I had stumbled upon a living ‘tragic mulatto’. I admire anyone for laying bare their guts, through words, for the entire world to see, but I felt sorry for Mr. Hill. I wanted to befriend him and hold him near for he seems so lost. It needs to be said too that I have held the belief and perhaps the fantasy that life in Canada is a finer life for those of us that run the hue spectrum of tawny. Lawrence Hill demolished that thought. But I ask myself why? What made his book so very different from Lise Funderburg’s? Both books incorporate the format of interview alongside autobiography of author. Both keep the subject/s limited to individuals with one parent being Black and the other being White. So how did so profoundly different books emerge? How did mulattoes below the 49th parallel emerge with so much gusto and those north of the border seem so isolated; going through life without a road map?
I think some of the clues are that Funderburg interviewed sixty-five subjects and Hill thirty-four. To a certain extent this tells me there are fewer bi-racials to be found perhaps in Canada. What struck me the most however about Hill’s book though was how insecure and out of place he felt in his own skin. Mr. Hill recounts a story about changing his barber, who he had gone to for years, because the barber was not black and Mr. Hill therefore felt he was being disloyal to his blackness. I can’t relate to this on any level. Almost all of his interviewees seemed angry, preoccupied with the colour of their skin, and the texture of their hair. Mr Hill made me feel thankful that here in America we have many more years of practice at being bi-racial and had moved beyond those types of concerns.

My perspective is not better, merely different. I have never felt certain that I knew what a person felt like who was not bi-racial. It is because of the questions that I am often compelled to answer, that I make the leap, and assume, that not being bi-racial is perhaps something to be considered differently; I had thought we were all the same, though I have never felt compelled to intrude into the lives of others in ways that I have often been expected to tolerate.

I am sitting on Sutter Street, on my stoop, in the Fillmore district a million miles from Rustico. I am lonely. Lonely and feeling flyaway, like a Tibetan prayer flag: all too susceptible to things blown in on a whim. Prone to being carried away to places I do not wish to go. I am quiet inside. I pray that my confessions are carried on winds to ears that listen. I miss Freda.
Everything is sexualized here: my clothes and hair, the colour of my skin, they way that I speak. Everything draws me to the attention of others. I am amused at times but mostly I feel an urge to cover myself. One dresses for others here; never for utilitarian means.
Had I ever worn something down to here, or up to there I’d have been taken to task by a whole community. Here I am taken to task for looking so retarded – dressing, as I’m told, like sloppy white people. I am at that age where they might succeed with my emotional demise, for they seem always to thrust a dent or two into my psyche.
I spend time in front of the mirror again only now I practice to be anything other than what I am. All that I am is wrong and needs to be retranslated. I must work on my speech, my accent. My reflection is only as deep as what others might be allowed to see. I must find a cigarette to smoke that does not draw attention and that I can inhale without feeling sick from the flavour. I draw the line at menthol – no way am I going to smoke menthol’s – inhaling the Swiss Alps – I might as well quit. Anne suggests that I do things with flair; she says: don’t let the troops get you down. Someone I admire, a mentor, smokes Sherman’s so I take up this brand later learning that the great Garbo smoked this brand too.
How do I describe what it is like to pull out a box of Sherman’s as a teenager, in a primarily Black attended school bathroom filled with Kool smokers? I might as well have pulled out my breast for a lick. No understanding or curiosity here. No, “Can I get one off of ya?” I am glanced at askew as though my breast has taken to travel on its own. I have left the real black girls speechless, and they, in unison, and in single file leave me to the empty stalls of a high school bathroom; alone with the drip of ancient sinks. They have defined me: I am a high-yellow-half-bred-bitch-white-cigarette-smoking-thinks-she’s-better-than-everyone else. I still do not understand this compulsion to define others to my way of thinking. I don’t know what this fear of difference means to some. I say to myself: Garbo smoked Sherman’s: what do they know? And like Garbo I will become metamorphic and change from awkward foreigner to the woman the world stops breathing for when sighted.
Thus I am welcomed back to America.
In America when I am young and slim; tanned and exotic everyone wants to be close. Black men desire me because I am high yellow. White men because I am not too dark; they say I am exotic. What they don’t say is that I am still dark enough for them to leave my feelings and concerns out of the equation. I am reduced to a thing to place another thing into; a receptacle. I am no longer a person that has any meaning beyond her genitals. This pisses me off. When I exert my wanderlust and my tree climbing abilities I am abruptly taken to task. I am asked, “Why do you act so white?”
What would Anne do? Anne would open her box of Sherman’s and find gumption. She would light it and let the scope of imagination fill the air. Yes, this too shall pass.
There is something about my appearance that upsets some people. I am not sure if upset is the right word to be using here. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say something about me unnerves. Too, something about me makes people feel free to degrade.
The other day, while looking at an apartment to rent, I was once again asked to divulge my racial ethnicity. If truth be told, I find this question boring, extremely impolite, never asked for any good reason and a good indication that the requesting party is a bigot.
This is what happened: After laying it out and being asked to repeat it because he needed to get it straight he informed me that I was a mongrel and that he was not racist.
This is what I thought: If I tell him he is a racist or if I had told him that my ethnicity was none of his dammed business I would be prevented from seeing the apartment. He would also, more than likely, have considered me a hostile person. I judged him to be in his seventies and that told me that he most likely grew up seeing signs of segregation and that he probably thought he was liberated. My upbringing instilled in me a respect for my elders so I said nothing to this man.
At the end of the viewing he told me that he liked me and that he would rent the apartment to me. I do not want the apartment because I don’t want to give my money or have anything to do with a person who views me as a mongrel. A mongrel is a dog. I had to go home and look the word up because I couldn’t believe that I had been referred to as a dog and I had hopes that perhaps there was another definition, less insulting, that he had intended. Alas, as pretty as you please, he had used a word that can not be construed as anything but an insult. I also think he ‘liked’ me because I was silent and smiled ever so vaguely when he called me a mongrel. I was a good Negro which means a Negro who is acceptable to whites. A good Negro is one who doesn’t get bent out of shape when insulted. This line of questioning is par for the course with those of us of mixed heritage. Lawrence Hill devotes an entire chapter to this line of questioning. The chapter is called The Question. In the often humorous book, Talking About Difference: Encounters in Culture Language and Identity, writers from Canada of mixed heritage write about this theme too. Lawrence Hill has an essay in this book titled: Zebra: Growing Up Black and White in Canada. In this earlier essay Mr. Hill is more likeable to me. He mentions that when he is asked The Question he refuses to answer not because he is ashamed but rather because it is always demanded of him to answer. It seems our not-so-easy-to-define makeup and appearance drives some people to distraction. Having read so many stories on the subject, some riotously funny, I have learned two things. One, I am not paranoid: it really is happening, and two, I have learned some snappy comebacks for the next time I am asked The Question.
I have never asked anyone what race or ethnicity they are. This is not because I am better than those who do; it is because I can not think of one way to use the information to further the relationship and gain a friend. Thus I render the question rude on top of useless. I also never ask someone what they do for a living because I assume no one, except Tina Turner, is working at a job that they would stay with if given the chance to be independently wealthy. I am however aware that this question can produce useful information but for the most part, how and when it is asked is a good indication of how you are perceived. I do however ask about culture, if, and only when, I am invited to do so – which is to say, when it is made abundantly clear by the speaker that they wish to talk about their ethnicity and culture. Even then, I never assume that this disclosure is my opportunity to become an investigative reporter. I am careful to formulate my question so as to not psychologically rape the individual or make them feel like I have felt when grilled which is to say like I am subjecting them to the inquisition.
There is a story that I tell about coming back to America and living in the Fillmore district in San Francisco which at that time was like saying Harlem. People immediately associated Fillmore with Blacks. But unlike Harlem, which is historically Black, the Fillmore is now all white, and before it was Black it was Asian. The story is about my ‘getting rid’ of a Macy’s shopping bag filled with marijuana lids for a guy who asked me if I thought I could get rid of them. I had no experience with slang or African American vernacular and I took his words literally. I do not smoke pot then or now but I was always, at that time, asked if I had any pot. I saw this as an opportunity to make friends and to finally have the item I was always asked for. Unlike cigarettes, I observed that pot smokers passed joints around. It was a shared thing and users tended to be friendly by my estimation. So there was nothing in my experience with pot to make me understand or believe that it was something that was purchased. It was grown, like potatoes or rhubarb, and therefore I assumed that like too many tomatoes on the vine, it was given away instead of seen going to waste.
I’m a beatific idiot.
I love myself for this experience.
I gave the pot away and never collected a dime. When people offered me money I declined in the same way I would decline taking payment for goodies my garden might yield.
I think this is a funny story but every time I tell it to strangers I am always asked the same thing:
Where are you from?
This question would be normal if it weren’t for the next question which is always:
What are you?
It should simply be a funny story but it seems to upset quite a few people. One person went so far as to grill me about the details of my family members and friends – his questions - he was a student and a policeman, where aimed at uncovering the drug addicted or incarcerated people he was sure I was related to. When he found none, he simply shook his head in disbelief. He never spoke to me when passing but rather shook his head each time he saw me. For him, it was irrational to his sensibilities to encounter a person of colour who did not have a keen understanding of drug use. He was sure I was lying. I had told him a story that failed to confirm and conform to his idea of who I was based solely on race. These two questions which are persistently asked of me, with the telling of this story, suggest a few things to me.
First, to be asked where I am from is to imply that my story is foreign in nature. It makes the assumption that my story has never happened to anyone who looks like me or talks like me in New York City, San Francisco, and Hartsdale, New York; all places that I have told this story. Or I might assume that all of the people I have told are pot smokers and have never met a non pot smoker and are astonished that such a person exists. Perhaps it is true that I am indeed the only non smoker in these cities. Maybe my story is not funny at all and in reality all my listeners are non smokers and are horrified that in their midst is a drug dealer. I have told this story in Crompond, New York too, to riotous effect even, but the listeners were smoking pot and because I have often heard that smokers get something called ‘the giggles’ as a side-effect to smoking marijuana I can not trust the authenticity of their laughter.
When ‘Where are you from?’ is followed by ‘What are you?, I realize that there is something about my story that jars the listeners’ perceptions of who I am and where they think I am from. There is something about my telling of the story that makes the listener ask two questions that do not seem like questions of natural progression. I might ask how the story teller got out of the situation – a deeply religious adult I was living with stepped in, told the young man to get lost or she would call the police. She, in turn, saw my naiveté as proof positive that God works in mysterious ways and through idiots and children; I had inadvertently rid the Fillmore of one more drug pusher. Her laughter was hard and long. Or I might ask if the teller was forced to retrace their steps and collect the money for the marijuana. I also might ask if I ever saw the young man again. No. These two questions asked together with the telling of that story suggest to me that when people hear my story they assume it is not the story or experience or experience of a person who looks like me. I have gained a considerable amount of weight with each telling of that story but no one ever asks me what weight I was when this event happened. You may see this example on the page and you might say to yourself that that is a dumb question or perhaps you might ask yourself what would her weight have to do with the story but I ask, what does my racial makeup have to do with the story? Those two questions, I believe, are really asking and saying something quite different. Those two questions tell me that something about my story and me has upset and caused confusion within the order of things of the listener. The questions are asked to reformulate and make certain what was assumed about me just by looking. And the only thing we can tell about another person just by looking is on the surface: obvious physical handicap, deformity, size and skin colour. We can not tell race from looking but we sure can assume it.
When I wear a Star of David in New York City every Hassidic within sight assumes I am Sephardic, I am often assumed to be a Moor. I am Spanish when conversations are begun in Spanish and ended when I am discovered as having inadvertently passed. When I lived on the outskirts of Little Italy in the Bronx I was often asked if I was Sicilian.
I do not mind being asked if I am these various identities. I enjoy it in fact because it makes me feel that I truly am connected to mankind as I should be. But when I answer no to all of the above and I’m immediately asked to reveal what I am by complete strangers I realize that the person with questions now needs to reassess what they assumed so as to not make the mistake again. The reactions I get are similar to those individuals who suddenly discover that they have been unwittingly involved romantically with a trans-sexual. They feel tricked and want to know how they could have been so fooled, for to fall in love with the wrong gender is to be avoided and so it is with race.
I tell Freda the marijuana story and ask her when she first understood what pot was. She says she was in her late teens. She says no one had that stuff on the island when we were kindred.
Much more recently, I am at a holiday party with D. She is the daughter of a well known person and I would guess that inadvertently that makes her famous and sought after too. We are sitting together on a day bed in the late evening chatting. We know one another because I am employed by her mother. I like her, and I assume that so far she likes me. In all ways she is polite and well intentioned. Suddenly a hand extends to her, interrupting our conversation. My hand is shaken only when D kindly turns towards me and introduces me to the body attached to handshake. A firm one I might add. So firm that that it feels aggressive. I hold myself back from rubbing it in feigned soreness. The hand shaker acknowledges me and immediately returns wholeheartedly to D. I am left to listen or disappear. I am sure I can sense that D is slightly amused and embarrassed by the hand shaker’s aggression. She, the hand shaker, is clutching a glass of wine with a mitt that is as huge as my grandmother Germaine’s. I wonder if she is from New Brunswick. I am struck by this woman’s focus. She is on a mission and its sole point is to make herself known to D. I am no one to her. But I am weary of going away when not wanted. I wait until something is said that will afford me the opportunity to join in.
The woman, who surely comes from somewhere near New Brunswick, finally reveals that her job has recently exposed her to an upsurge of clients that are into drugs and far more desperate than she has seen in all her years as a social helper. She also reveals that she is from Northern Maine which gives me fleeting smugness – a stones throw from New Brunswick – we’re probably related with mitts like that. But right now she is as busy as a fart in a mitt trying to seduce D.
It is then that she includes me into the conversation with eye contact. I interpret the inclusion at this point to mean that she believes me to be knowledgeable on the subjects of desperation and drugs. I can’t hide my face; I imagine it pinched; about to fold in on itself. She reveals quite sincerely that in all her years she had not known such problems exist to this extent. She wonders aloud if she is naïve. I tell her that I believe most of the world is desperate and immediately I think of the term ‘economic segregation’. I make a mental note to think more about that term at a later time. D nods her head in agreement with me which prompts the interloper to begin wondering who I am. She wants immediately to know what I do for a living. I smile like Pirate Jenny and tell her that I work for D’s mother. This is what she says:
Her: I didn’t know that.
Me: I can’t imagine why you would. We have only just met.
Her: But this is a small town. That’s the sort of thing I would know about.
Me: I can’t imagine why. I don’t know anything about you.
Her: How did you get to Vermont?
I glance at D and she kindly steps in to answer:
D: New York, Canada, Massachusetts, Vermont
Her: What part of Canada?
Me: Prince Edward Island
Her husband arrives: He is introduced all around. He has caught the part about Prince Edward Island.
Her Husband: Why did you come to Vermont? What are you doing here?
D’s husband arrives.
D’s husband: You don’t have to answer that question.
Me: Are you two the Vermont Police? I don’t know what to say…
She and husband look confused. The room empties and I feel as though we single-handedly pooped on the party. I have to remind myself constantly that anyone who approaches me with a “what are you doing here?” question is trying to ruin my enjoyment at the same damned party.
“What are you doing here?” is not the sort of question that one asks to be friendly or inclusive. It is asked when one is startled and cannot understand the relationships placed before them. It is asked of me often as a desperate attempt to understand how I, a person of colour, snuck past their noses and became lodged in their community without their knowledge or approval. How else can one explain her surprise that she did not know about my employment? Would there have been anything to talk about had I been white? I cringe at the thoughts I am led to involving the importance others place on having known or not know of my engagement with D’s mother. You see, D’s mother is 92: Do people now have less respect for her for having hired me? Do they see my engagement as a reflection of her mental state? Will they now keep a wary eye out for her well being lest I bring desperation and drugs to her? It is me that suffers the outward scrutiny and I am weary and feel often less and less inclined towards politeness. I walk a precarious line here for this is also my job and responsibility. I must suffer humiliation, not from my employer but from those around her who waddle around and up to me in their ignorance and insensitivity. I am thankful that my care and her family are worldly and aware.
Beyond my own observations or experiences there is the family member in their midst who, like me, is mixed. She is loved and not hidden. But she detests coming to this small town. I suspect that when she goes out with her family here she is stared at. I would bet my eye teeth on it. For this well known family is readily spotted around town, and her being the only one of colour in the group, would be stared at. When one is well known everyone believes they know you to a certain extent. We all like to think that we know our celebrities. We also like to believe that they are just like us. But what if we discover that they are not like us when we learn of the colour in their midst’s that is not explained or excused, but merely allowed to be? If you are unable to contain your curiosity, and you are on a familiar basis with this family, you might go over and say hello in the hopes of an introduction. The person of colour will be lingered over a moment longer than all the rest. That moment will be so brief it will be indiscernible to all but the brown ones. In that flash one will be told by an outsider that they don’t belong. The look is always accusatory in some fashion and the person of colour knows that look all too well. It’s a look that can cause coloured folk to feel beat to snot.

In the few short years since I’ve read Native Son, I have had the opportunity, because of my various experiences, to rethink Richard Wright and to, at times, high five his literary creation of Bigger Thomas in all his rage-full glory. I understand both Wright and Bigger more than I want to. Sadly I think Bigger was not so hard for Wright to conjure up. I’ve heard that Wright was a sad, angry man. Anecdotally, my friend Gray, while in Paris, describes Wright as, “An angry black man looking for a fight with any poor white schmo that stumbled past his table”. Wright wanted some guts for garters and Gray was one of those white schmoes who were eaten alive.
Ces’t domage.
Ces’t la vie.
In the literary canon I can find the silence of black male characters that often translates to the silence that living black men feel in this society. But I, as woman, feel it too. Bigger Thomas is white society’s nightmare. The huge murderous black man out to rape white woman. But I can’t help but feel that the interrogation that is presented to me without any sort of foreplay or introduction is not dissimilar from enslaved women not having control over their reproductive rights. I shall answer the questions posed to me because I am feminine, I am weak. Both feel intrusive, like a rape: the female made controllable, made submissive, the male controllable only through emasculation and silence.
It is maddening to be violated. It causes me to feel full of rage and indignation. And at these times I wish I had the literary freedom of Bigger- the freedom to just be an imaginary character upon a page, with no real consequences to be had, for I too, for just a moment, might enjoy letting loose if for only just a page.
I heard the author Djanet Spears, while visiting Toronto, answer a question posed to her by stating: “Being black is not a monolith”. I thought this profound and O so true. Yes, my skin is brown and I think that most people who are not brown believe this means I can speak for all other brown people. I think it no less corrosive for blacks to think we are all alike than for whites to think this. I think once we begin the mind expansion of who we are, and all that we entail, everyone else will follow. We must be our own navigators.



- Spytin Dyvil is the Old Dutch name meaning Spitting Devil. It is in reference to where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River, in Northern most Manhattan; there the waters are tumultuous whirlpools and spin violently.

- To be anywhere other than Prince Edward Island or The Maritimes.

- Waterston, Elizabeth 1988. Orphans, Twins and L.M. Montgomery. In Family Fictions In Canadian Literature, ed. Peter Hinchcliffe, 68-76. Waterloo: University of waterloo Press.

- St. Genet written by Jean-Paul Satre was a tour de force critique and psychoanalysis of Jean Genet’s written work. Upon reading it, Genet found he was unable to write for some time because he felt exposed, and vulnerable, and had not realized how transparent he had been or might have been to the reader while writing.

- Pokemouche, New Brunswick: where this writer’s maternal grandmother once lived.

- A 1959 film starring Juanita Moore, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner.

- Funderburg, Lise. Black, White, Other. William Morrow, New York, 1994. Page 12.

- See Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition by F. James Davis for a full historical overview of Jim Crow in America.

- Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1992. Page 38.

- Prince, Althea. Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince. Insomniac, Toronto, 2001. Page 39.

- Ibid. Page 173.

- James, Carl E and Shadd, Adrienne. Talking About Difference: Encounters in Culture Language and Identity. Between the Lines, Toronto, 1994.

- Ibid. Page 46.

- Wright, Richard. Native Son. The main protagonist, an African-American called Bigger Thomas is a murderer. It is Wright’s premise that white society creates Bigger through racism