Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2019-12-24 02:48Z by Steven

Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

December 2019

Emily Bernard

Thomas Chatterton Williams loses his race

Self-Portrait in Black and White, by Thomas Chatterton Williams. W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $25.95.

What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
—Elizabeth Alexander, “Race”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!” declares Wanda Sykes in her 2016 Epix special, What Happened . . . Ms. Sykes? As one of her fans, I was glad to hear it. As a member of a racially and culturally mixed family, I was particularly charmed to learn the circumstances of Sykes’s joy. For ten years, Wanda Sykes has been a mother. Her wife, Alex Niedbalski, gave birth to twins Olivia and Lucas in 2009. “My kids are white white, you know? I mean blond hair, blue eyes. I’m talking Frozen,” says Sykes.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined myself in this situation.

“Here’s the thing. I’m a black woman from Virginia,” she continues. “I went to an H.B.C.U., historically black college—I went to Hampton University. I pledged the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. So I got a lot of black going on.” The audience roars. “And now I’m married to a white French woman, and I have two white kids. Fucked up my legacy.” She throws her arm up to the ceiling.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I love my family. I love my family dearly, you know, and I wish we could live in a color-blind society. Yeah. But I gotta admit, I see shit.”…

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

Still, Self-Portrait is a fluent, captivating, if often disquieting story. Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wanda Sykes have many of the same questions about the way race will affect how they relate to their children, and how their children will see themselves. “In all of these white rooms that she is being brought up in, what will she learn to think of herself?” Williams writes about Marlow. But there is not much to laugh about in Self-Portrait, which begins with a lot of hand-wringing over Marlow’s fate. “Will she develop my ancestral GPS,” Williams writes, “or will that signal fade—would it even be right for me to transmit my habits of orientation, some of which are riddled with guilt and steeped in illusion, to her untroubled head?”…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-02-25 23:47Z by Steven

What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

The Chicago Tribune

Christopher Borrelli

Nella Larsen, author of “Passing.” (Carl Van Vechten)

Nella Larsen was a mystery in life, and a mystery after her death in 1964. According to biographers, when she died her half sister inherited the $35,000 that remained in Larsen’s savings, then said she didn’t know she had a half sister.

Which wasn’t true.

Yet, in many ways, it’s the response you expect.

Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in 1891, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nella Larsen, 1892, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nellye Larson, 1893, in Chicago.

Biographers have run across a few possibilities, and the agreed-upon details are this: Nella Larsen was born in 1891, in Chicago, as Nellie Walker. Larsen fudged her vitals on occasion, depending on who was asking and what form she was completing. She lived her life at times with a sort of concentrated vagueness — “in the shadows,” wrote George Hutchinson, one of her biographers. Just as her career was taking off, she broke ties with her closest friends, and she spent her last three decades working as a nurse, living in a relative, self-imposed anonymity. Which sounds melodramatic, yet Larsen — who had been a major star of the Harlem Renaissance after leaving Chicago (but never quite cast aside the rejection that she felt here) — lived a life that could fuel melodramas.

As it happens, she left great ones, slim novels that amount to 250 pages, combined. Indeed, “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929) constitute most of her published work. Yet both are portraits of Chicago women who, like Larsen, navigated the blurriest of racial lines in the early 20th century, having been born to one black parent and one white parent. Both novels are about women who “passed” — that is, they presented themselves, day to day, as white. Her biographers say it’s unlikely Larsen herself did this, yet her protagonists are haunted by identity, frozen out by the black bourgeois, not at ease in white society, torn by the task of self-identifying in a binary-minded country…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Barack Obama, Books, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2012-07-17 04:20Z by Steven

Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics

200 pages
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-415-68678-5

Edited by

Richard H. King, Professor Emeritus of American and Canadian Studies
University of Nottingham

In this collection, academics from both sides of the Atlantic analyze the confluence of a politician, a process, and a problem—Barack Obama, the 2008 US presidential election, and the ‘problem’ of race in contemporary America. The special focus falls upon Barack Obama himself, who appears in many guises: as an individual from biracial and transnational backgrounds; a skilled, urban African-American organizer and then politician; and as intellectual and author of a bestselling autobiographical exploration.

There is a certain representative quality about Obama that makes him a convenient way into the labyrinth of American race relations, national and regional politics (including the South and Hawaii), and past history (particularly from the 1960s to the present). Contributors also explore the role Michelle Obama has played in this process, both separately from and together with her husband, while one theme running through many chapters concerns the myriad ways that the American left, right and centre differ on the nature and future of race in a country that daily becomes more mixed in ethnic and racial terms. Race is everywhere; race is nowhere. The essays are grouped by their approach to the topic of Obama and race: via historical analysis, cultural studies, political science and sociology, as well as pedagogy. The result is an exciting mix of perspectives on one of the most fascinating phenomena of our time.
This book was originally published as a special issue of the journal Patterns of Prejudice.


  1. Obama and race: culture, history, politics Richard H. King, University of Nottingham, UK
  2. The riddle of race Emily Bernard, University of Vermont, USA
  3. ‘A curious relationship’: Barack Obama, the 1960s and the election of 2008 Brian Ward, University of Manchester, UK
  4. Barack Hussein Obama: the use of history in the creation of an ‘American’ president George Lewis, University of Leicester, UK
  5. Becoming black, becoming president Richard H. King, University of Nottingham, UK
  6. Two great days in Harlem Carmel King, freelance photographer, UK
  7. How to read Michelle Obama Maria Lauret, Sussex University, UK
  8. Barack Obama and the American island of the colour blind Peter Kuryla, Belmont University, USA
  9. Barack Obama as the post-racial candidate for a post-racial America: perspectives from Asian America and Hawaii Jonathan Y. Okamura, University of Hawaii, USA
  10. Barack Obama and the South: demography as electoral opportunity Donald W. Beachler, Ithaca College, USA
  11. Teaching Obama: history, critical race theory and social work education Damon Freeman, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Prologue: the riddle of race

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2011-05-29 18:24Z by Steven

Prologue: the riddle of race

Patterns of Prejudice
Volume 45, Issue 1 & 2 (Special Issue: Obama and Race) (2011)
Pages 4-14
DOI: 10.1080/0031322X.2011.563141

Emily Bernard, Associate Professor of English and ALANA [African Americans, Latinos/as, Asian Americans and Native Americans] US Ethnic Studies
University of Vermont

James Vellacott, ‘President Obama shakes the hand of PC Michael Zamora on the way into Number 10’, London, 1 April 2009. Credit: Mirrorpix.

Bernard explores the myth of racelessness as it is currently circulating in American social discourse. The election of the first black American president has unleashed the term across the cultural landscape, from the mainstream media to the classrooms in which she teaches African American literature. Students use the term as a twenty-first-century incarnation of the civil rights-era concept of colour blindness. But racelessness does not represent an aspiration for equality as much as it represents an ambition to turn away from the realities of difference. It is code for a common ambition to avoid the realities of institutional racial inequalities, as well as personal experiences of cultural difference. The myth of racelessness intersects uncomfortably with current academic discourse that promotes the view of race as a social construction. Scientifically proven and irrefutably true, this discourse does not allow any room for the social experience of race and racial difference as it is lived by everyone every day, whether we like it or not. The election of President Barack Obama is a portal on to this current confusion about the concept of race, specifically, and blackness, in particular. Many pundits have speculated that Obama would not have been electable if he had had dark skin, if he were irrefutably black, in colour and culture. The fact that he himself has elected to call himself ‘black’ serves as the platform of Bernard’s essay on the case of race in the United States.

Post black

A classroom at an Ivy League university. A black professor at the helm. The audience, a palette of skin colours. Black, white and brown bodies have come here for answers: answers to the puzzle of race.

The professor calls herself African American but she was born in Italy, not in the United States, and has she never been to Africa. Her racial identity is born of a sense of affinity; it is, essentially, a choice. Because her skin is brown, no one questions this choice. Everyone in this room, in fact, equates this affinity with authority, which is why her lecture on the meaning of race goes unchallenged.

Today, the professor is not really talking about race, but not-race. She tells us, her multicoloured audience, that race no longer holds meaning, that it never held meaning, that it is a fiction or, in academic language, a construction.

Most of us, including me, nod our heads. That is, except for one young woman, a student at the law school, who raises her hand and waits to be recognized.

‘Look, I don’t really understand what you mean when you say that “race is a construction”. Race is real, and I know what it is. I’m black. It’s where I’m from and how I live.’

The professor turns to address the woman directly. Her tone is agreeable and her gestures are sympathetic, but her language does not change. She continues to speak in the artful theoretical vocabulary that has brought her to international prominence. She seems as frustrated as the young woman that her words cannot bridge the gulf between them. In the academic world in which I was trained, we were taught to view lived experience with suspicion, and to dismiss emotion as a meaningful category of analysis. Time is up. People stand to speak to the professor, to thank her for her insights and congratulate her on her work, except for the law student, who heads directly for the door.

Such dramas are being played out in classrooms around the country these days, including my own…

…Race is a fiction. When we use it to narrate our experience in the world, we take the easy way out, and neglect other factors that name and place us. The easy way out is a one-way street; our real lives are lived at the intersections, where race meets class meets gender and so on. Inextricably intertwined is what we are; the boundaries to which we pledge ourselves do not exist. Underneath the umbrella of race, categories like gender, sexuality, class, even geography, are also invisibly huddled. Each of these categories contains its own story, a story that intersects with the story of race, but a story that race alone cannot encompass. In other words, a different kind of blackness—a different story—is lived in, say, Northern California than in rural Mississippi. To be gay, black and rich—or straight, white and poor—in these respective places adds more meaning to the experience of race than the term ‘race’ can communicate. Identity honours no borders, neither in language nor in life.

But the fact that race is a fiction does not rob it of meaning. Certainly, race is an invention, but that doesn’t make it untrue…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: ,