Discussed in this essay:
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.”
Sykes’s kids started calling her “Mommy Boo” after hearing their French mother refer to her as “Boo.” “And Olivia’s gotten worse,” Sykes complains. “She’s even chopped that down.” Olivia has rechristened her American mother “Mom-Boo.” “Now I sound like a character from The Jungle Book!” Sykes then does a bit about Olivia running up to her in a grocery store with a bunch of bananas in her hand. “Here, Mom-Boo!” she says, bananas in her outstretched hand. “And I see how other black people look at me when they hear that.”
More than a century ago, the author, activist, and statesman W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “double-consciousness” to describe the “peculiar sensation . . . of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Where Du Bois sees pathos, even tragedy, Sykes sees humor—a blues humor, what Langston Hughes described as “laughing to keep from crying.” We are best served, as far as I’m concerned, by adopting the ironic lens of blues humor when engaged in the tricky practice of parenting while black, particularly those of us who belong to families in which the social or genetic identities of children do not match those of their parents. I can’t seem to help it; I greet with laughter my Ethiopia-born daughters’ explanation for the gaps in my culinary skills: “Well, you’re the only person in this family who’s not Italian.” I am, like my daughters, black. But their attachment to their Italian-American father and his relatives is integral to their identities. How very strange are race and family, indeed.
Excellent material too. Several recent books by black writers have been composed from the perch of parenthood: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry; and now, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a memoirist and journalist who frequently comes under fire for his dissenting opinions on race—for rejecting, for instance, the joyless idea that racism is the defining feature of African-American life.
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?”
Marlow’s pale skin rattles him. So does what it represents; he marvels, when looking at her picture, that not terribly long ago, his daughter “would have been enslaved by people who looked just like her.” His eagerness to collapse the color divide between them drives him, at one point, to edit photos of her, using filters on his iPhone to make her seem darker. “If I felt strange conspiring to manage my daughter’s looks,” Williams writes, “I was also pleased and even relieved to have visual testimony that she was, however faintly, ‘black’ in the most extraordinarily elastic sense of the term.”
To say that he has a black father and a white daughter no longer makes sense to him, if it ever did. His daughter’s alarming body is itself an embodiment of the lie of race, the incarnation of its utter and elemental absurdity. Race, we know, is a social construct, a bankrupt attempt to biologize a political system, and Williams’s solution is to renounce racial identity altogether.
Williams’s dilemma is not new. Rejecting blackness is itself a literary trope with a long history, beginning with the slave narrative. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, author Harriet Jacobs’s uncle Benjamin decides to escape from the plantation in North Carolina by abandoning his life as a black man. He is light-skinned and literate; freedom amounts to walking away and assuming a new identity. We don’t begrudge him. There is no mystery as to why a black person would cast off the identity that kept him enslaved. Readers may view Uncle Benjamin’s choice as a kind of heroic rebellion. But freedom has a cost: Benjamin never sees most of his family again.
In the literature of passing, it is impossible to have both family and freedom. The speaker in “Passing,” a 1956 story by Langston Hughes, walks by his own mother on the street without even a nod. “That’s the kind of thing that makes passing hard,” he notes, “having to deny your own family when you see them.” In A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Allyson Hobbs writes that the history of passing is the history of bereavement. “It is my contention,” Hobbs writes, “that the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from.” A social death must occur so that the new (white) self can be born.
Unlike the protagonist of Hughes’s story, Williams’s rejection of blackness will not be accompanied by an abandonment of his black family. He intends to pay no price for his retirement from race. Williams does not want to be called black, but he does not want to be white either. Still, what Williams wants is the same thing that Hughes’s speaker, and every other black person who has ever passed for white, has ever wanted: to be free from the historical weight of black identity. “I do not, and do not wish, to see myself in the master,” Williams writes, “but can—and should—I really claim to glimpse in the slave’s face my own eternal reflection?”
There are many openly felt and beautifully rendered moments like this in Self-Portrait that become frustrating when one considers them closely. Blackness has changed since Uncle Benjamin’s time. In 2019, blackness is more than the face of a slave, just as it is more than “the guilt and the pain” that Williams is determined not to pass on to Marlow. Williams knows this, which is why he recognizes that nothing will change after he makes the decision to change his racial name. “I am left with myself as the same,” he writes, “as a man and a human being who is free to choose and who has made choices and is not reducible to a set of historical circumstances and mistakes.”
Black writers announcing their freedom from the designs of others is an old and important rite of passage. But freedom that must be announced is freedom that must be invented, something crafted as opposed to organic. Ultimately freedom is, like race, something conceived and then practiced. The question of what it means to be free is no simpler than the question of what it means to be black.
Williams formed his own sense of blackness in 1990s New Jersey, as chronicled in his first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. (The original subtitle was How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture.) There he describes himself as a teenager in love with a street culture that required tough posturing. “I consciously learned and performed my race,” he writes, “like a teacher’s pet in an advanced placement course on black masculinity.”
In Losing My Cool, blackness is spectacle. It is practiced on asphalt and articulated through hip-hop music and culture, the fulcrum of Williams’s adolescent identity. Blackness has often been reduced to the way it sounds and looks, how black people “cut through the air.” But aren’t we also black when we are still and quiet? In his book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, professor Kevin Quashie asks his readers to turn away from conventional definitions of blackness as “expressive, dramatic, or loud” and consider instead how African-American identity is just as much an intimate and inward way of being. All identities are relational; they reside in the stories we tell one another. Blackness is both style and content, what we say and how we say it.
The conventional language around race, however, confounds us. How to talk about a thing that doesn’t exist but that we use continuously, something we (think we) see but aren’t really supposed to name? “It is virtually impossible to pass a day in the United States without making use of race,” writes Dorothy Roberts in Fatal Invention. “It is the first or second thing we notice about a stranger we pass on the street or a new acquaintance approaching to shake our hand.” But what we notice is no longer supposed to be relevant in a culture that flirts with concepts of color blindness and its more sophisticated cousin, post-racialism. Race is the product of racism, so it would seem that the project of eradicating racism would lead to the elimination of the concept. But then what will we call ourselves, those of us who say that black describes who we are and who we want to remain?
No wonder so many people I know suffer from race fatigue, those of us who are caught in the all-American skin game, a phrase both Williams and I borrow from Stanley Crouch. It is a game, a cruel one, writes Williams. I too get tired of it periodically. There seems to be a general consensus that there are not enough honest discussions going on about race, at least publicly. Williams has been critical of the race rhetoric of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the “one-size-fits-all contemporary discourse around implacable white supremacy.” Where, in his own memoir, Coates portrays white people as representatives of “larger, impersonal social forces,” Williams sees “morally fallible” human beings. Like Williams, I am worn down by the rigidity in present-day public discourse on race. I am saturated by the sterile and programmatic mantras we are fed, including “race is a social construct.” I am sick of the finger-pointing and genuflection; I am wearied by the uncreative policing of language, which I see happening among my students at the University of Vermont.
On the other hand, our language doesn’t so much contain our experiences as it determines them. “Our language, formal and informal alike, shapes our reality,” writes Williams. Language is not the product of self-invention; it is self-invention. In Self-Portrait we witness Williams on a journey of both self-discovery and self-creation, and his memoir is most valuable as a way deeper into, as opposed to a way out of, race talk.
Race is a fiction, to be sure. But just because it is a story does not mean there is no truth to it. I believe it is possible to be both black and human, a product of history and also a flesh-and-blood person. I am black all the time. I am black when I am in classrooms and at podiums, talking about race. I am also black when I am alone, walking my dog in the woods near my home in my suburban town in Vermont. I am black when I am having serious conversations with my daughters about racial identity. I am black when I am laughing with my daughters about how ridiculous the concept of racial identity is.
I do not equate blackness and trauma, and in this respect I found a companion in Self-Portrait. Williams recounts the public reaction to his friend, the entrepreneur and political commentator Kmele Foster, a “dark-skinned man” who has also refused to call himself black. “Of course, the most common response to his position is dismissive,” Williams writes. “‘Yeah, okay, that’s all well and good, but wait until you have a run-in with the police, and then you’ll see just how black you are.’” For Williams, “this is not an argument; it’s a threat.”
But ultimately Williams commits the same crime for which he has often indicted Coates—reducing blackness to suffering. Williams writes of his daughter:
I would not willfully pass on to her the guilt and the pain of an artificial and externally imposed identity the belief in which has been harming one half of my ancestors since the moment the first one stepped off the boat from Africa.
If this is all Williams imagines blackness to be, no wonder he wants to reject it.
Blackness is more than an “allegiance to pain,” as Williams puts it. If it contains this component, then blackness is equally constituted by the ability to transcend that pain, to treat the injury with the mighty and subtle tools of humor, insight, and imagination. Blackness is as various and complex as all of us human beings who live and die under its flag. In fact, Self-Portrait is at its most exciting and satisfying when it reveals what a distinctly black story it tells. And ultimately, Williams’s race refusal is only a story, amounting to nothing more than a discursive rebellion. It’s as if he has no skin in the game.
I wish it were otherwise, however perversely. I wish there were something truly at stake to give Williams’s pronouncement more dramatic heft. I wanted to see how far he was willing to take it, what price he would be willing to pay. But Self-Portrait is hardly a how-to book. Like the Victorian novels that end with a variation of Reader, I married him, sparing us tedious glimpses into the mundane realities of married life, Williams effectively concludes Self-Portrait with: Reader, I rejected it. “I am not renouncing my blackness and going about my day,” he insists. But it is not clear what does happen after the renunciation. We have no idea where his new name—ex-black—will take him, or whether it will affect his life in any meaningful way. Rather than solving it, Williams’s memoir illuminates the problem of race. But if the book itself is an elaboration of a simple rhetorical gesture, it is rich in symbolic and historical weight. Williams is the most recent among generations of black authors who have flirted with equating individual liberty with a rejection of racial identity. It is not a coincidence that his final chapter, “Self-Portrait of an Ex-Black Man,” bears the ancestral echo of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel by James Weldon Johnson, first published in 1912. The trauma of having witnessed a lynching leads the ex-colored man to resolve, like Williams, neither to “disclaim the black race nor claim the white race.” Instead he would allow the world to take him “for what it would.”
So far, Williams has not lived up to the example set by his father, who was able
to hold two bitterly conflicting ideas in his head at once: race is not real; race has harmed me severely—regardless of the particular circumstances, and not to allow his own biography or history to dictate his children’s.
Williams takes in his daughter’s appearance through his own biography; it is his personal history that sets him on a journey of self-invention. There is no such thing as a neutral gaze. Williams sees his daughter through a filter of his own anxieties. Early in the book he asks: “How indeed can you learn to look at yourself in the mirror and actually see what’s there without the background noise of prejudice and myth?” Double consciousness describes the way we are seen and also the way that we see. Fatherhood engenders in Williams a further kind of double vision: “When I look at my daughter now, I see another facet of myself, I see my own inimitable child. But I also know that most people who meet her will—and will want to—call her ‘white.’ ”
In the end, this book about race is no more or less than a story about being a parent, a narrative portrait of a father’s attempt to discover a language that would connect his identity with that of his daughter, who does not look like him. So, finally, Williams’s turning away from race is just a parent’s primal impulse to turn toward his child. Language is the bond, just as language is a marker of the depth of his attachment to his father. “I want to suggest,” he writes, “that one becomes, in part, one’s children and grandchildren every bit as much as one carries within herself one’s parents and grandparents.”
In the epilogue of Self-Portrait, Williams describes a recurring daydream that haunts him. Marlow is a young woman, living in Europe, who mentions to her friends that she “once had black ancestors in America.” The information is shared in passing. “If I want to torture myself,” Williams writes,
I detect an ironic smirk or giggle. Then, to my horror, I see the conversation grow not ugly or embittered or anything like that but simply pass on, giving way to other, lesser matters, plans for the weekend or questions about the menu, perhaps. And then it’s over. Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a culture, the whole vibrant and populated world of my ancestors—and of myself—dissolve into the void. I see a potential Marlow that I could no longer recognize.
Williams conjures this nightmare, this worst-case scenario, to see if he can live with it. He doesn’t want Marlow to choose whiteness, but will she do so by default? If she, like the ex-black man, and the ex-colored man before him, decides to let the world take her for what it will, how will she see herself?
Of course, we can’t know the answers to these questions, and neither can Williams. Marlow is a child, and not only his child, but the most recent addition to a lineage of black people who lived and died before she was born but nonetheless shape her. Blackness may not be evident on her body, but race itself, and also her paternal line, are inscribed in the story she will inevitably tell about herself. It exists in her very name: the name Marlow is, in part, a nod to a character in the HBO series The Wire, a show that her parents both love. Her middle name, Cora, is a “tribute to my father’s beloved grandmother,” Williams tells us, “a member of the first generation of her line to be born into emancipation.” Like her father and grandfather, Marlow will surely compose her own narrative of selfhood.
A writer can’t see the future, particularly a memoirist, who by definition is primarily concerned with the past. In 2012, Williams took to the pages of the New York Times and proclaimed that “mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black.” In 2019, he confesses, “I wince when I read that op-ed.” If history is a teacher, it is not unlikely that, several years from now, we will get a new life story from Williams. “I’ve always only been able to see a black man in the mirror staring back,” he tells us early in Self-Portrait. I look forward to finding out what Williams, who calls himself an ex-black man today, becomes tomorrow.