For decades—no one knows exactly how long—my grandfather kept a portrait of his mother, the only image that remained of her, in the back of his bedroom closet, facing the wall. When we discovered it after he died, in 1998, no one, not even my step-grandmother, knew it was there.
The portrait showed a woman with an impatient expression and very striking features: dark hair, and prominent dark eyebrows, set a little higher in the oval of the face than you might expect. It reminded me a little of the famous self-portraits I’d seen of Frida Kahlo. It also reminded me of myself. This woman, Amy—Amelia—Brazil, my great-grandmother, resembled me more closely than either of my own parents.
As I understand it—to the degree I will ever understand it—my grandfather spent his adult life resenting her, resisting her influence; though when she died in 1963, he didn’t refuse his inheritance, which gave him the financial stability he’d never achieved himself. His father had died when he was in his twenties, and Amy went on to marry three other men, each one wealthier than the last. My mother remembers her as a grande dame among the influential families of Piedmont—the genteel town set high on a hill in the middle of Oakland—who took her out for fancy dinners at Trader Vic’s and paid for trips to Europe my grandparents couldn’t afford.
But there’s another way of telling this story: Amy Brazil was not white. Nor was she, as I’d usually heard, Portuguese: her parents were immigrants from Flores, an island in the Azores, a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic. (Technically an autonomous region of Portugal, the Azores lie almost nine hundred miles west of the Iberian peninsula and northwest of Morocco.) Like islanders in many parts of the world, Azoreans complicate continental racial logic; they are descended from Christian or Jewish Portuguese colonists, north Africans, sub-Saharan African slaves, emigrants from other parts of Europe, or all of the above. I never met Amy, but I did once meet her brother, my great-great uncle George Bartholemew Brazil, who lived alone (he never married or had children) in a large Victorian house in Oakland, near Fruitvale Station. It was the house his own father had built in 1906. His skin was a medium, lustrous brown, and he had blue eyes. I would never have recognized him as a relative without being told.
Amy Brazil, the face in the frame so much like my face, became white by powdering her skin. Every day, all day. Through artificial means, that is, she passed. She found herself to be unacceptable and chose to do something about it. She reinvented herself. If I had to guess, I would say that was what my grandfather hated most about her. Through marriage, she passed, and passed down whiteness to her only child, my grandfather, and through him to me.
This is not a story but the marker of an absence of one. It’s unexceptional. There’s a teleological quality about it: this is how we became who we inarguably are. Azoreans who emigrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took advantage of their unclassifiable racial appearance, and the geographic uncertainty of their origins, to perform what Matthew Frye Jacobsen, in Whiteness of a Different Color, calls the special “alchemy of race” available to southern Europeans: they became white through conscious acts of differentiation, assimilation and erasure. George Brazil’s grandfather, who came from Flores to Boston in 1861 and immediately enlisted in the Union Navy, changed to his name to “Patterson,” the name of the captain of his ship. This was a matter of survival in an era when scientific racism, Social Darwinism, and political nativism all agreed on the inherent inferiority of “swarthy” or “Mediterranean” Europeans, alongside Jews and Slavs.
For years I thought about writing a story about Amy Brazil; she seemed like an obvious subject, my own great-grandmother, a “dramatic” person, given to grand gestures. But I could never fix her in view. A face in a painting, in this case, was not enough; a few pieces of heavy jewelry, some Chinese export furniture she’d acquired on cruises—she loved chinoiserie—and the smell of the Jean Patou perfume Eau de Joy, which, my mother told me, she used to sprinkle on her clothes instead of taking them to the cleaners. These are the details; somebody else should use them. I tried to imagine her meeting my great-grandfather, the serious and doomed young doctor, who’d grown a beard to appear older to his patients; nothing came. Maybe most family stories work this way; most actual lives are not as remarkable as writers want them to be. I was looking for the drama of her passing, among other things, but found none, because it was successful: she remade herself. That was the end of her story.
Racial classification is a reductive process: any way of simplifying the world, making it artificial, involves first taking things away. Severing connections and bonds: practicing symbolic, as well as actual, violence. One of the results of this symbolic violence is to make interesting lives, layered histories, and complex identifications disappear. In other words: by flattening life, racism makes it feel boring, pointless, exhausting, embarrassing. This is what happened to me, when I tried to write the story of my great-grandparents: I stopped because I was afraid it would be pointless. I had nothing to build on and nothing to go on.
Is it possible to describe the shape, the limits, the dimensions, of this state of boredom? I sometimes think if I could do that I could unlock, with my own Kryptonite, the secret power of whiteness over American life. At the college in central New Jersey where I’ve taught for twelve years, I often find myself sitting face to face with a student telling me, explicitly or implicitly, I don’t know what to write about. A statement that rotates silently around the truism write what you know. This sentence presents not only an epistemological—what does it mean to know, what kind of knowledge presents itself to be written?—but an ontological trap. Who is the self, what is the place, where is the point of origin, that I am supposed to know? What does the “what” in “what you know” consist of? Because of the demographics of suburban New Jersey, the student in front of me most often identifies as white and has an Italian surname. She was an American success story until she entered my creative writing class. Predictability, for her, has always been an asset.
“Regretting the absence of meaning itself has meaning,” Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Being Singular Plural. Not because we need to chase after some absolute, hidden truth; because, as he puts it, “We do not ‘have’ meaning anymore, because we ourselves are meaning—entirely, without reserve, infinitely, with no meaning other than ‘us.’” Interracial life always seems to be sending its regrets and not showing up. I want to bring it out into the open. Not only as a subject for writing—which it has been, in an American context, at least since William Wells Brown published Clotel, or The President’s Daughter in 1853—but as its own distinct subjectivity. What would it mean, what does it mean, to write from a point of view that is not divided but intrinsically plural?
What does it mean, or does it mean, to be the great-grandchild of a woman who passed? For most of my life I would have said: nothing. To have known, or not known, this detail makes almost no difference in my life. What does it mean in the present?
This morning I was standing in my son’s first grade classroom at drop-off time and contemplating the faces of the children in the room. Asa is multiracial, and so, by my count, are at least a third of his classmates. In most cases I have no way of knowing, by looking at them, what their ethnic origins are. They are noticeably indeterminate, unlocatable, by normative American racial standards. In some cases I know some version of an origin story—the kind that you hear in one or two sentences on the playground—but mostly I’m happy not to ask. These children are not tragic figures; not isolated; also not intrinsically remarkable or interesting; not carriers of some torch of utopian promise. They are “the future” only in the obvious sense that they will be alive after you and I, the people reading this, are dead. They are one version of the ordinary present. This is a subset of a subset of the population, a public school in the West Village of Manhattan, but the demographics of the United States are shifting toward the composition of this class. A major study from the Pew Foundation found 17% of new marriages, roughly one in six, were identifiably interracial as of 2015; 14% of the population polled in 2015 disapproved of intermarriage, compared to 63% in 1990.
Is it possible to locate an aesthetic in this classroom, let alone, or attached to, a politics? For someone my age the reflexive answer would include a passing reference to United Colors of Benetton’s advertisements and/or Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” (“I believe that children are the future / teach them well and let them lead the way.”) Which is to say, in shorthand, no. Or, it’s been done: it was done by McCann-Erickson, the ad agency, with the “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” TV spot for Coca-Cola in 1970, a moment savagely recreated by Matthew Weiner as the apotheosis of Mad Men. These images of a multiracial peace, all the colors of the rainbow, have been around as long as I have and are a staple cliché, now, of two different eras: the 1970s and the late 2000s, particularly 2008, the year it seemed, for a brief moment, that a postracial future had actually arrived. Anne Anlin Cheng calls these images “hybrid euphoria.” Another term for them, used by Lee Edelman and others, is “reproductive futurism”: a politics that believes that children are both the inspiration and the solution.
I get that. I imagine that anyone who has ever been in an interracial relationship imagines love is the answer and then eventually (if the relationship lasts) realizes it isn’t. There’s a reason superimposing romantic and reproductive love over politics makes intuitive sense: the rhetoric of love assumes that love works, love is forever, when other kinds of bonds are severed. It requires a kind of emotional maturity entirely absent from American political life to grapple with the necessity of different kinds of love, concern, or care. On the simplest level, there’s the idea of Christian love itself, which has to be broken down into three separate terms, eros, philos, agape. Martin Luther King took great pains to separate agape from eros, a position best summarized by Cornel West’s famous line, “justice is what love looks like in public.” But the rhetoric of the 1960s and ‘70s made this distinction socially and politically impossible. The result, Jeff Chang writes, is the central paradox of the “post-racial” moment: “While our images depict a nation moving toward desegregation, our indices reveal growing resegregation and inequity.”
In a sense what this conversation hinges on, what the question of interracial life has always hinged on, is the nature of the simple word “freedom,” by which I mean nothing more or less than the promise made to my generation, before we were old enough to understand what promises were: free to be you and me. Freedom to do what, exactly? Free to be what, exactly? Those of us born in the 1970s have been the test market, the focus group, for freedom, for the most part as an incoherent disorganizing force that, in the guise of the free market, has always taken more than it gives. For my generation, interracial marriage, if it expresses anything, primarily expresses freedom through a private and individualized concept of citizenship as consumption: this is my choice. Out of many friends my own age and younger in interracial marriages and relationships, I can’t name one (including myself) who would say that idealism, or political commitment, brought them together, or that their relationship is meant to be a “statement.” That would be embarrassingly retro, recalling our parents’ era; before “multiculturalism” and “diversity” became neoliberal buzzwords, a corporate Fruitopia.
I’m writing this essay for Mina and Asa, in memory of George and Amy Brazil, and also for myself: because I think embarrassed silence around pluralism and hybridity—the fact of hybridity, in my own body, or my children’s bodies—is as dangerous, or more dangerous, than euphoria. It leads back to a kind of cynicism that only affirms the power of privatized citizenship, and it deflects the possibility of another kind of freedom, which is out there, at least in the fictive world of a story like “Elbow Room”: a freedom that dodges all straitjackets.
American writers keep telling the story of the tragic mulatto because they can’t believe, against all available evidence, that sometimes love really can triumph over death. In a climate like the present, it’s hard to affirm that belief, or for that matter, affirm much of anything. But that’s what the imagination is for.
There’s another foundational novel within this narrative I haven’t mentioned, because I’m incapable of writing about it with much of a degree of critical distance. Until recently it was almost forgotten; now, as part of the larger revival of interest in Baldwin’s work, it may finally be recognized as a necessary and central postwar American novel, as important as On The Road or Invisible Man or Herzog or The Crying of Lot 49. I first read Another Country when I was in graduate school in Michigan, and I remember the night I finished it: I said out loud, to Sonya, lying next to me in bed, “I will never be able to write a novel like this.” It felt like a confession of failure. She said, sensibly, also probably half-asleep, “no one expects you to.”
What was I thinking, at that moment? Which is to say, why would I project my white, heterosexual male self, born in 1974, onto a novel published by a gay black man in 1962? I could easily and fatuously call that state of mind “negative capability,” in the sense Keats intended—refusing to connect the dots, or warp poetics into a theory, the way he despised Coleridge for turning from “Kublai Khan” to German idealist philosophy. But negative capability is an evocative and renewable concept that has led many lives since 1817; most recently, the philosopher and political theorist Roberto Unger has made it a central point of argument in his work. Negative capability, for him, is an active psychological state, in which the political subject simply refuses to respect the limitations of the present—that is, false necessity. It means, in his words, “to seize on deviant, suppressed, or repressed elements in present or remembered experience and to push them toward a dominant position, all the while changing them in the course of this extension.”
Unger, in his own way, is an unrepentant optimist, while refusing to hold onto any rigid predictions or narratives about history; his most recent book is called The Religion of the Future. Another Country (published in 1962) also practices, in its own way—with the force of Biblical prophecy turned to secular ends—the religion of the future. It shifts from extreme darkness into one displaced version of hope. Very briefly—because this is a book that has to be read, not summarized—it has three movements. In the first, Rufus, a struggling black musician who has just left a doomed and abusive relationship with a white woman, wanders the streets of New York, descending into a depressive spiral, and finally jumps off the George Washington Bridge. The novel reorganizes itself around the reverberations of Rufus’s death; what was a descent into the underground from a single consciousness becomes a collective aftermath. In this desperate circumstance, Rufus’s best friend Vivaldo—who is white—and Rufus’s sister, Ida, fall into and then out of love. Entangled in their relationship is Eric, Rufus’ former lover, who, like Baldwin, fled sexual repression to find love in Paris; Yves, Eric’s current lover; and Richard and Cass, a young white couple who were close to Rufus and are undone by his death.
Another Country is narrated in a loose, accumulative, naturalistic style that treats Rufus’s death as a catastrophe but not a tragedy; the emphasis is on the state of mourning as a state of possibility, the most radical openness. Unlike nearly every other interracial couple in American literature up to that point, Ida and Vivaldo don’t always live in a state of fear, secrecy, or denial. At moments, in little flashes, they get to act the way we imagine couples act, rather than as vehicles for history:
“Love me,” he said. “I want you to love me.”
She caught one of his hands as it moved along her belly.
“You think I’m one of those just-love-to-love girls.”
“Baby,” he said, “I sure hope so; we’re going to to be great, let me tell you. We haven’t even started yet.” His voice had dropped to a whisper and their two hands knotted together in a teasing tug of war.
When I teach Another Country, I’m always surprised at how my students recoil, just a little, from Baldwin’s frank bodily descriptions. For them the most unthinkable part of the novel is another kind of crossing: not Ida’s relationship with Vivaldo but what happens to Vivaldo after Ida abandons him: he goes to Eric for companionship and support, and winds up sleeping with him. “He seemed to have fallen through a great hole in time,” Baldwin writes of Vivaldo, the morning after, “back to his innocence, he felt clear, washed, and empty, waiting to be filled . . . he felt fantastically protected, liberated, by the knowledge that, no matter where, once the clawing day descended, he felt compelled to go . . . there was a man in the world who loved him.”
In the 1991 law review article that first defined the term “intersectionality,” Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote that when people think intersectionally, they may find it “easier to . . . summon the courage to challenge groups that are, after all, in one sense, “home” to us, in the name of parts of us that are not made at home.” It may seem like a strange and pointless exercise to look backward from legal scholarship in the era of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas to a novel written before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but that is Another Country’s problem: it represents a form of life that wouldn’t find a public name for itself for thirty years. To be bisexually and interracially romantic, even in Greenwich Village, was to feel like a minority that might literally fit in a closet. “There were not enough of us,” Audre Lorde writes in Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, speaking of the tiny group of black lesbians she knew in the Village in Baldwin’s era: “We tried to build a community of sorts where we could, at the very least, survive within a world we correctly perceived to be hostile to us;.”
There’s something about this kind of intersectional thinking that involves not only silences but actual leaps in time—temporal fractures, inconsistencies, dislocations, aporias. One artistic response to this situation has been to move interracial love into the realm of science fiction, fantasy, or fabulism. If interracial love feels, as it so often does, like a utopian state of impossibility. In which all our defenses and preconceptions are cast aside, and I, the lover, take shelter with you, the beloved, in our private refuge—the apartment, the bedroom, the tolerant community, the bar, even the no-questions-asked hotel—that utopian moment and its possibilities becomes detached from ordinary chronology or historical necessity.
I’m trying to think of a way to draw a line to represent my racial history, my relation to whiteness, as Amy Brazil’s great-grandchild—that is, as a descendant of multiracial people, one of whom chose, deliberately, to become white—and as a father of multiracial children. One way to do it, representing whiteness as normal, neutral, and central, would be to start with a curve upward to a straight horizontal line (whiteness as the horizon line, but also the flatline of the ECG) and then a curve downward, representing my children, one of whose skin is darker than Amy Brazil’s ever was. Physiologically, in a map of melanin content, the line would go in reverse: I would be the bottom of the trough.
These are lines that call themselves into question, that have no business being lines at all.
Excerpted from White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. (Graywolf, 2019)