Reviews — From the January 2017 issue

In The Shade

Zadie Smith and the limits of being oneself

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In college, the narrator is granted a temporary reprieve from her unstable sense of identity by her boyfriend, Rakim, who holds that “all the male sons of Africa were Gods” and speaks with an ardent certainty that she initially finds appealing. He scolds her for her love of musicals and her femininity, deeming it to be of the “wrong kind,” since she has little interest in domesticity. He traces all her flaws to the blood of her white father, running through her “like a poison.” The narrator eventually comes to find his preoccupations stifling, tediously binary:

Why did he think it so important for me to know that Beethoven dedicated a sonata to a mulatto violinist, or that Shakespeare’s dark lady really was dark, or that Queen Victoria had deigned to raise a child of Africa, “bright as any white girl”? I did not want to rely on each European fact having its African shadow, as if without the scaffolding of the European fact everything African might turn to dust in my hands. It gave me no pleasure to see that sweet-faced girl dressed like one of Victoria’s own children, frozen in a formal photograph, with a new kind of cord around her neck. I always wanted life — movement.

Movement, dance, a refusal to stand still: Swing Time is in large part the story of the narrator’s resistance to being pinned down, whether to family or to relationships or to a fixed idea of who she is. She chafes at Rakim’s attempts to “educate” her not because she subscribes to bland liberal fantasies about transcending race but because his doctrinaire theories are incommensurate with her experience as the daughter of a black mother and a white father. Yet his adamant essentialism turns out, like Rakim himself, to be more complicated than it first appears. At graduation, a couple of years after she has broken up with him, the narrator learns that his mother is white.

Smith, herself the daughter of a black mother and a white father, has written of how

when your personal multiplicity is printed on your face [you] have no choice but to cross borders and speak in tongues. That’s how you get from your mother to your father, from talking to one set of folks who think you’re not black enough to another who figure you insufficiently white.

Rakim and the narrator show there are various ways of crossing those borders — or choosing not to. Rakim, so determined to deny a part of his identity, is in danger of losing himself to his commitments. The narrator, by contrast, is in danger of losing herself to her multiplicity: so full of negative capability, without any clear commitments of her own.

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is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.

More from Jennifer Szalai:

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