(A letter on writing about race, originally written as a response to an open letter by poet Claudia Rankine, who had, at the time, her own mixed feelings about Tony Hoagland’s poem, “The Change.” The original letter, published online in March 2011, can be found here, along with the incredibly thought provoking responses of many other writers, artists, and people who are constantly considering this complex and important issue. This is an excerpt from the letter as published in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. )
What I often find most problematic when it comes to writing race is how I’m supposed to feel about writing race. I am a black woman. I know that. And if you’re reading this, you know it as well. It’s not something I think about always; but it’s clearly not something that I forget. With that said, I feel like race isn’t something I always want (or need) to talk about; but it is something that other people won’t let me forget. And that’s where I get frustrated—when the choice is taken from me, when somebody decides that I need to address race because they’re looking at me and seeing someone who is colored and, therefore, must have something to say about it.
“But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes.”
I first came across Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me” when I was seventeen years old—by way of artist Glenn Ligon’s appropriated text in one of his well-known door paintings hanging in the Whitney Museum of American Art. On one of these paintings, in black oil stick against a white background, read the words:
“I do not always feel colored.”
I remember thinking, looking at the painting at the time, that I do not always feel colored. I am from Brooklyn, where I grew up in a predominantly Caribbean community. My family is from Haiti. I am first generation American. Even with such a seemingly obvious example of Other, I never felt like I was. Never felt different. Never felt like something else.
I first felt colored when I went to college in Western Massachusetts. The leading factor in my sudden awareness of skin tone was an external and aggressive demand to identify as, stand for and say something—none of which I had ever been forced to do before. It made me react with refusal to actively join the conversation.
Several years later, I find myself continually asking: Because I am black, because I am Caribbean, because everyone knows this, am I somehow more accountable, more responsible for handling, explaining and sharing this history?
You want to talk about race? Fine. Let’s talk about race. But these conversations often happen in academic, intellectual and—in those ways—private spheres, where race becomes an idea completely disconnected from itself in action. And what is the point of that? You’re going to talk to me about the issue of race in America as an “issue” of “race” in “America.” I do not need to be turned into an idea to understand who I am.
My history is dripping all over me, always. It is in my hands, in my face, in the bags under my eyes, in my gaze, in the tips of my fingers, in my feet. I don’t need to tell you about it in order for you to know. But there are also times when I do feel inspired to drop knowledge and talk about why and who and what it all means. For me. I think that’s important to remember: how personal this all is. Race and culture are both very, very personal…