Erasures in Identity
Part 1: “What’s color got to do with it? Identity in a time of shitty words"
Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to sift through lots of memories— identity related stuff, digging for stuff for my 2nd manuscript on textiles and text. Believe it or not, Trump’s shit-hole comment kind of helped me along in processing my thoughts as well as a few blog posts by writers of Arab descent. It’s a mess of meditations on memories that open up some emotional crap, but over the next four blog posts, I hope I’ll somehow connect it all together. I hope.
So I started reflecting on race and identity (what’s new), and I can’t tell you how often I hear that “color has nothing to do with it”. But it does. Trump’s recent “shit-hole” comment tells us that it does. Words like these construct a perception of reality that resonates and are difficult to undo in our psyches. My whole life has been a construction of other peoples’ words. What’s more, the English language (and most languages) with its conventions is all about creating division; to separate and isolate. Always an us and them, here and there- never like musical notes that work together rather than against. And what’s more, generalized labels like “African” and “Arab” mean if we argue for a specific identity, then wouldn’t we be negating the argument put forth, that language separates and redacts ? If I argue I am Lebanese-Ghanaian American, am I saying there is an us and them in the Arab countries and African countries? Yes, I am. How do I reconcile this argument? Do I go with Arab-African American and just accept/rationalize that it’s better to redact the self and sacrifice the individual identity for the greater story? I honestly don’t know and perhaps that’s because I am a mixed-race person who experiences specific relationships with specific nations. So, I started writing this blog post as a way to figure all this stuff out, to figure out how other people’s language has redacted my story and throughout my life and has had a part in forming my perception of my identity, and it took me back to when I first initiated the immigration paperwork to the United States from the United Kingdom back in the 90s.
As you can imagine, the phrase “shit-hole” wasn’t openly listed on the forms as a place, not that UK would be categorized as such, but certainly, my birth country Ghana would be. But that didn’t mean that equally abhorrent ways of referring to people of color didn’t exist. Of course it did. Something even more sinister lurked in plain sight. Yes, right there on the immigration paperwork was the question related to my complexion. The form asked me to describe my complexion. At the time, I was offended but I persisted, after all, this was a government document, surely, the question had to be relevant in some respect. Back then, I was heavily into visual arts and so the idea of coloring mattered immensely to me. What color and shades would I choose to describe my complexion? Would I choose my mother’s mother who was Ghanaian? A rich blue black, or would I choose my mother’s father, a Lebanese who from the sepia and black and white photos I guessed wore a light carameled olive complexion. My mother herself was a richer shade of caramel and olive- I think of her as being golden— like the rich burnt copper coloring of the Egyptian busts in museums. Or would I choose my father’s Lebanese coloring? He is what one might describe as a light olive with no hints of gold or caramel. Answering this immigration question about my complexion was difficult. When I looked at my skin, I saw all shades of all my ancestors. And I saw all their insecurities brought on by growing up in postcolonial nations. I saw my Ghanaian grandmother who often spoke of her dreams in which when she extended her arms, they were always white. And my mother, who after arriving in Lebanon often hoped to be mistaken for an Egyptian. Who suggested my sisters and I apply yoghurt masks to our faces. It was not for the sake of maintaining youthfulness, but in the hopes it would lighten our skin tone and minimize the patchiness that comes with having mixed-race skin. In a country like Lebanon, where for most citizens being a darker shade automatically and ignorantly classified you to servanthood, my mother attempted to protect us by moving us in proximity to being lighter-skinned: Better the lighter step-sister than the darker native, I imagined she thought. My mother was also faced with her daughters’ tears of being bullied by school children: “Abdo Abeed Snaenou Beed” they would sing, meaning, “Slave of black slaves with white teeth”. But it wasn’t just the ridicule of our color that made us feel like shit, it was also that we didn’t speak Lebanese. Or, rather, it was that when we spoke it, it sounded the way the Sri-Lankan maids in Lebanon spoke it. It was a time of living without language and without color for anyone who was not pure Lebanese. It was being a nothing. And without a doubt, it compelled my mother to resort to measures that defied her own sense of self. There were no lessons of pride of one’s dark skin color, just methods of deception and acceptance for her children at any cost.
That first year living in Lebanon, also revealed much about my own ignorance and insecurities. I remember once, the school bus pulled up outside the apartment building where we lived and one child pointed to our balcony, to the dark skinned woman hanging laundry on a clothesline. I started to have what felt like an anxiety attack, but pretended to play it cool and ignore what would come next: laughs and sounds of disgust that my mother was dark-skinned. But something happened that freed me from impending ridicule. They asked assuming the woman was our maid. And I let my school friends assume my mother was a maid hanging laundry on the balcony. Why children would care whether or not we had a maid, struck me as odd. In retrospect, they must have known. Of course they knew that she was my mother. If my color didn’t betray me, my language did. My language inadequacy matched my color which was not closer to white than it was to black and it wasn’t closer to black than it was to white. I was not light enough to pass but not dark enough— I was colored enough to confuse and raise questions. But I thought I was fooling everyone. For the next few years, I had to maintain the lie and hide my mother; hide her color, hide her from friends; hide her like she didn’t exist. I didn’t invite friends over, and I only ever spoke about my pure Lebanese father as though I had no mother. I was actually content for people to think I was motherless than for them to know the secret: that my mother was a mixed-raced woman. And then there was my father, whose ignorance like most “white” people was that he was never quite sure such racism was even happening because it wasn’t something he had experienced. In fact my father would not experience a color insecurity and discrimination until he arrived on Western soil when with his Lebanese coloring and accent profiled him into the olive Arab.
I remembered how back in postcolonial Ghana, Ghanaian school children would call out to me, “obroni-wawoo”, as in, “poor imitation of a white man’, “the-not-there-ghost-man”. I wasn’t white nor black, and to the Ghanians, I was the color of pathetic, “an attempt to be something I was not”. Still, in a postcolonial nation like Ghana, in a world where language constructs perception of reality, the English language constructed new terms; new privileges; new powers. In fact, it’s not news that “psychologists and linguists have debated since the early twentieth century whether the language we speak can influence the way we perceive the world. For example, different languages divides the color spectrum somewhat differently.” And thus through language, the lighter-skinned people of Ghana were in proximity to power. So while I suffered the insults, I grew up with a strange sense of power and privilege. Before leaving Ghana to Lebanon I had only ever spoken English. Though I had been around the Twi dialect for eleven years, I had only slightly internalized a basic understanding of it. Thus, my first language felt like it was English even though at times it felt unknown to me, like it was hidden. After Ghana, I spent six years in Lebanon trying to perfect my Lebanese, a language I had never spoken except to say “Good morning”. So I started that summer I arrived in East Beirut with learning the Lebanese language from the alphabet up, and by the end of the summer, I was able to read and write but without comprehension. Arabic is like a connect-the-dots language. There aren't mysterious pronunciations, silent letters. Everything you need to read a word is on the page. But learning Arabic and learning Lebanese were almost two different languages. One was formal and the other I dubbed, slang and it felt near impossible to become proficient. But I didn't stay long enough to find out. We left Lebanon and spent a year in Germany which came with its nationalism and racism towards the migrant Turks and everyone who couldn’t speak German was automatically of Turkish descent and out to rob Germany of its beauty. I remember once, late at night sitting on a train watching neo-nazis fixated on me. I knew that wasn’t the “checking out a pretty girl” look, but the, “I’m going to slice you to pieces” look. Over the years, I had become quite good at identifying the “Racist gaze”, the “I am going to attack you” gaze. By the time I arrived in the UK I had already spent a year in the English Baccalaureate at an International School in Germany, and so for the most part, my English was strengthened. So it did come as a surprise when my A’level history teacher in London recommended that I should be allowed to bring in an Arabic-English dictionary to help me on the A’Level History exams. There I was in Lebanon mocked for not speaking the language fluently, and now the perception was I was fluent in Arabic. Neither language was serving me and I started thinking about my identity formation in terms of language. I failed the A’Level history exam (not for language but for a lack of knowledge- gaps and gaps of knowledge that I could not catch up on) but I did get a C on A’level English (a grade considered to be quite good for A’levels). I couldn’t help but consider the fact that the university examining board that graded A’Levels hadn’t seen me, hadn’t seen my coloring, that they knew nothing about me, and if they had, whether they would have graded me differently.
So to answer the question, the ignorant immigration complexion question, was confronting many ignorant questions and assumptions I had faced my entire life. And it was paralyzing. To identify complexion, I had to be less of a fragment, less of a remnant. It felt I would have to align myself with whiteness. But being mixed-race is to be remnant, it is to be discarded. There is no whole fabric to which the mixed-race child can return. The immigration question also reminded me of how I had over the years let the desire to be in proximity to white power influence life decisions. So more than ever, I wanted to resist and rebel. I wanted to write something facetious. I wanted to mock them and their question. But this was official government paperwork, this was no joking matter. By the next morning, while standing in front of the mirror, applying my foundation, it dawned on me that I could use my foundation color name, “honey beige tan”. Why not? It would be my inside joke and in a way it wouldn’t really answer the question because make-up foundation color tones are all wrong for most mixed-raced persons. By the time I started wearing foundation it seemed the only foundation skin colors that existed on the market were either dark or light, with non-human colors in between. As for finding foundation for my skin tone, it took hundreds of dollars to eventually arrive at a color that was close but still not a match. Perfect color match in a liquid foundation bottle is impossible as is identifying one’s exact complexion for an immigration form, as is the notion of color complexion mattering at all on an immigration form. The immigration paperwork experience troubled me and would be my first introduction to the non-white American experience that dark-skinned Americans live everyday.
It would be many years later before I would recognize that the question of complexion on that immigration form was not merely a bureaucratic statistic gathering exercise, or that the American government was institutionally racist, but the complexion question was for something far more embedded and wide-spread. It seemed to me that the government wanted to find out one thing: Was I or wasn’t I black? What’s color got to do with it? Everything it would seem. Why else would the form ask for a person’s complexion? Surely, it’s not to target the white-skinned applicants? The only reason to ask that question about one’s color seems to me is to identify how much of proximity one was to black. It was to target darker-skinned persons applying to enter the country. The decision to place the question on the form was in itself a warning to all applicants of color, that their color would be an issue for them. Because some who are dark-skinned mixed-raced, like my cousins who have a white, blue-eyed Swiss father and a half black mother, appear far more black regardless of their proximity genetically to whiteness. I am always surprised that when I share just the idea of the complexion question with people, the response is never a complete grasp of the implications but rather the absurdity of the immigration question itself. Yes, it’s both. But it is also that an absurd question can have serious implications. If we fail to confront shitty questions, we allow destructive oppressive ideas to perpetuate. I thus can’t help but think of the perception of skin color inferiority is one constructed from language. Like language on the immigration form. The immigration question was sub-text, it was coded language that reveals a bigoted framework within which socio-political factors operate. When I think of coded language I think of how words like “thug” are applied, of when a protest is described as being attended by a “rowdy” group or being attended by “thugs”. The words are carefully selected to describe the group and it is dependent on the color of the skin of those protesting. Words like “shit-hole” in reference to nations of dark-skinned people may not feel like coded language. It may feel pretty direct and explicit. But it’s comments like these which remind us of the deep-seated racism, and of how language if left unchecked, constructs perception and reality in the human psyche.
And the thing is, for most Western governments, it is less about your DNA composition than it is about where your color will force you to be grouped once you enter the country; with whom you will identify, and who will accept you into their fabric. It is about the government’s awareness that by allowing a person with too much proximity to blackness, they would have less opportunities available to them; that it is language that shapes institutionally racist countries. And in countries like America, it’s not that the government is concerned about a lack of opportunities for dark-skinned people entering the country, but that it knows that the fabric of the privileged citizens in the United States will not accept the dark-skinned person into their neighborhoods, homes, jobs, and that the dark-skinned person will fall into the mass of citizens who are already impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized. It is a fact that there are fewer job prospects, lower incomes, and longer prison sentences for dark-skinned people.
Perhaps if we used a language of value and integrity to talk about people of all races, we would reshape the perception of remnant versus whole. That there is no whole fabric to which the remnant can return, but that the whole too is a remnant the moment a piece is cut from it. The labeling of skin color invariably turns one piece of the fabric to being labeled “remnant” and the other “whole”. Yes, the system sucks big time with its discriminatory practices but it is a practice enforced through language evidenced through the very fact that a government document requested a human being’s complexion. I cannot help but think that the citizens of America who select with intention, governing parties who they believe will deliver on the promise of discriminatory practices are not examining the language that is being used upon them to manipulate their thinking. I can’t help but think that the system is a reflection of its perceived identity constructed from a language based on differences, based on separation through color.
So until language is not used to construct a negative and ignorant perception of reality and citizens realize that skin color is a language construct (because a foundation makeup color in the color, “white” does not exist), and until demographics are not ignorantly formed from liquid foundation colors at all, I cannot be done reflecting on separation through color and language. I cannot be silent and let my reality be shaped by someone else’s exploitative language. No one should because, “What’s color got to do with it?” it’s got everything to do with language.
Textiles: a word that is thought as thread, text re-sculpted to texture. I love it when things are embedded in things and words carry multiple meanings. This week I started research for my second book of poetry and I am already overwhelmed with my discoveries. I started with the Kente cloth. I’d already written a poem related to the cloth in my manuscript “ A Hemmed Remnant” but I felt I hadn’t looked close enough at how the patterns in the Kente spoke stories. My father’s name is Emad, عماد meaning pillar, support in Arabic. My mother often jokingly referred to family members acting like my father as “Emmada”. Today I learned of a Kente cloth called the Emmada which means “what we have not heard or seen before”. With over 300 Kente designs, each Kente’s name is associated with proverbs and stories which also determine the pattern and yarn. The Kente patterns have multiple meanings and I can’t help but think of writing poems that mimic the Kente practice.
The Kente names are not just randomly created. No, they are given by weavers who obtain them through dreams or contemplative moments with the spiritual world. My father was born in Ghana to Lebanese parents and to a long history with manufacturing textiles. I suppose it is perfect that his name would coincidentally echo a symbol of Ghana.
Entering the mind of poetry
I have to say, in entering each gate of Jane Hirshfield’s collected essays, I was immediately immersed into an exploration of the complexity of poetry, and discovering through the process a reverence for the mysterious workings of poetry. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, is a logical, business-like approach though it is peppered with a Zen Buddhist mind-set. It is designed to help any writer at any stage in their career answer the questions of poetry: What it is, why analyze it, why write it, what is it for and so on. Hirshfield, in her collection of essays written over ten years in a series of free-standing lectures, attempts to convey how a poem has an inner and outer meaning that come together to form itself as a thing of beauty. But I’m not sure if we can ever claim to set configurations on location of meaning. I did enjoy how over several sections in Nine Gates she explores the richness of classical Japanese verse in which she discusses the nuances of translation from Japanese to English. It seems that through her concise description of the nature of poetry in our lives, Hirshfield hopes that readers will move from ordinary conceptions of identity embedded in language, to form more of an intimacy with language and with the self. Still, Hirshfield’s conveyance of her profound intellectual relationship with literature and frequent referenced literary figures and texts suggest that while the book can be read by anyone, it is best suited for those with an English literature background.
An accompaniment to Cixous
Rootprints, translated by Eric Prenowitz is a compilation of works by numerous writers including Hélène Cixous, Mireille Calle Gruber, and Jacques Derrida. The book explores the world of Cixous through interviews, articles and essays, by examining her approach to fiction, feminism and literary theory. Indeed, the book can be considered an exploration into Cixous’s view on writing as “a place of tension, reversibility and meaning” (141). The first half of the book is comprised of an interview between Calle-Gruber and Cixous with selected excerpts from Cixous’s notebook located in boxes throughout. With its medley of snapshot entries into her literary thinking, the latter part of the book is a compilation of articles written by Calle-Gruber as well as Jacques Derrida on Cixous and vice versa; on the intersection of art, history, language and feminism. By the end of Rootprints, one begins to connect with Cixous through her reflections on her family photographs, of which offer insight into Cixous’s writing and familial experiences.
While known for being a literary theorist and feminist writer, Cixous’s interview by French author Mireille Calle-Gruber is particularly interesting with regards to the discussion about her passion for the theater and in which she describes the audience as “implicated actively present in the space of language”(101) and “the reflexive self of all characters” (102). In the interview section, both authors are distinguished by their initials as well as different fonts of which Calle Gruber’s font is smaller than Cixous’s (which may inaccurately portray her as an inferior or secondary thinker to Cixous). Calle-Gruber breaks with the traditional placid question-answer practices and instead engages dynamically in dialogue, establishing her presence in the book as a vital and critical voice towards understanding literary theory and Cixous’s thinking. While Rootprints is not the book with which to introduce Cixous’s works as it does not capture the beauty and power of her writing and theory, Calle Gruber’s analysis in the section titled, “Portrait of the writing” does bring clarity to the complexity of Cixous’s literary theory. Indeed the arrangement of the book could be better edited to place “Portrait of writing” at the beginning of the book, followed with the section on photographs and concluding with the interview.
Rootprints is best suited for those who have had prior exposure to Cixous or those in advanced literature studies including women studies and linguistics. I highly recommended to read Rootprints as an accompaniment to any Cixous work.