Jon Michael Spencer, The New Colored People

I picked up this book knowing I would be challenged. The title itself presents a category I find troubling, considering the historical context of the word “colored.” The book is broken into four main chapters: “The Rainbow People of God,” “The Blessings of the One-Drop Rule”, “The Curses of the Amorphous Middle Status,” and “Thou Shalt Not Racially Classify.”  In the beginning chapters, Spencer does exactly what I expected – he claims awareness of the opinions of multiracial people, but presents his strong views against a “multiracial movement,” using his observations as a professor in South Africa as the foundation for his analysis. It is important to note that this book was written in 1997, as the debate about creating a multiracial category on the Census gained momentum. What we now know, of course, is that instead of an exculsive multiracial category, people are allowed to check more than one racial classification. This outcome is the one most favorable to Spencer in his closing statement. I disagreed with a lot of what his he to say leading up to the ‘check more than one box’ idea; which is a solution that is beneficial (and considered a victory among multiracial people) so far. However, he does bring up points that are important to critically analyze in order to have an educated opinion on the issue. I have put in bold the statements I find most beneficial to further examine.

  • “In addition to the discrimination that mixed race blacks suffer from the internalized racism common to all people of color, mixed race people have suffered from a history of discrimination resulting from the deeply rooted fear of miscegenation in American society” (37).
  • “Despite the fact that black children are sometimes cruel to mixed race black children and the black community is sometime tentative about mixed race adults, there is a measure of acceptance in the black community that is rarely matched by whites” (55).
  • “…it makes sense that the one-drop rule would be viewed…as a necessity. It makes sense not simply for the sake of mixed race blacks having a ‘steady home’ but for the sake of the black community being able to maintain a healthy cohesiveness” (57).
  • But if we believe that mixed race people represent the need for a new social consciousness that would permit greater fluidity in people’s racial identities and therefore more racial tolerance…then what alternatives are there for mixed race people in terms of their racial identification?” (142).
  • The problem is that mixed race people do not feel like full American citizens because of the discrimination they have historically faced as a result of the persistent old fashioned ideas about miscegnation. Perhaps this is why [they] are pushing for a multiracial identity rather than for the right to call themselves American” (143).
  • “For the multiracial ideal to work…it must be open to all mixed people – anyone at all who owns up to being racially mixed. It is only with the broadest definition of multiracial that the multiracialists could possibly meet their own ideal of everyone recognizing their multiraciality, their human oneness” (156).

Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, What Are You

What: A collection of stories from mixed race youth, interspersed with comments on the psycological and sociological impacts of these experiences from Gaskins. It’s pretty interesting- the titles of the chapters are a big clue to the themes Gaskins believes are most important in the experience of these youth: “I Don’t Think of Being Biracial as a Burden,” “Check One Box,” “Who’s That White Lady” (referring to the experience of having one white parent as a dark-skinned child), “My So-Called Identity,” “Are You Dating Me or My Hair,” and “Are You This? Are You That?”

Words:

  • “I never encountered outright prejudice from people, but I always knew there was something different about me. There were just these comments here and there. There were these things I experienced and knew about that they just didn’t” (33).
  • “People say, ‘Oh, I wish I was biracial because biracial people are the most beautiful people’. Biracial people are just really objectified, you know” (38).
  • “If you’re dark, or can get dark, you don’t really have to deal with that- that physicality of not being able to look like who you are” (41).
  • “In the United States, you can’t just be a little black, concludes G. Reginald Daniel [UC Santa Barbara]…you either are or you aren’t” (63).
  • “I hoped that my hair would tell me which way to ‘swing,’ and even more secretly, I hoped it would swing towards the brown-black straightness of my father’s Japanese head” (168).
  • “There are a whole bunch of issues around dating that multiracial people deal with. Like who you date can be viewed by other people as reflecting who you align yourself with.people percieve it as making a choice” (221).
  • “It’s the watering down of the exotic so it’s palatable. I realize the politics of it now” (237)

Nella Larsen, Passing

Writer:  Penned her novels during the Harlem Renaissance – Born in Chicago, raised by her Danish mother –Published Quicksand, and Passing as her most notable works

Story:  Clare and Irene were two childhood friends. They lost touch when Clare’s father died and she moved in with two white aunts. By hiding that Clare was part-black, they allowed her to ‘pass’ as a white woman and marry a white racist. Irene lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift, and marries a black doctor. The novel centers on the meeting of the two childhood friends later in life, and the unfolding of events as each woman is fascinated and seduced by the other’s daring lifestyle. The novel traces a tragic path as Irene becomes paranoid that her husband is having an affair with Clare (the reader is never told whether her fears are justified or not, and numerous cues point in both directions). Clare’s race is revealed to her husband John Bellew. The novel ends with Clare’s sudden death by “falling” out of a window. (Wikipedia Summary)

Version: Penguin Classic, 2003

Words:

  • “I’ve often wondered why more colored girls…never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve” (25).
  • “Later, when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from a feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in the great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well” (34).
  • Clare: “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. Thank goodness, she turned out alright. But, I’ll never risk it again. Never!  The strain is simply too – too hellish” (36).
  • Zulena: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. Why shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (56).
  • Irene: “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored” (78).
  • “She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race” (98).