I was ten. That made me just old enough to ride my bike through someone else’s town alone. We had arrived in a small New Hampshire hamlet earlier that day, and I wanted to check out the local catch-all store, where I knew I might find some Star Wars figurines. The Empire Strikes Back had come out that summer.
The store was in a strip mall, which backed up on an undeveloped bit of wilderness. There was a long path that split a stretch of scrubby pines out back, offering a shortcut to the home of our local host. I thought it would save me time. I figured that it was safe.
It was not. “There he is!” An angry chorus of voices, all shouting, came from the barrens. I saw a half dozen or so white faces, not much older than mine. A chaotic chase for what must have been less than a hundred yards behind the strip mall. “N—–!” “Get the n—–!” With every word, the voices got closer, angrier, and whiter. I felt like my heart would explode.
Capture was inevitable. I was terrified by what must come next. Once encircled, though, the encounter took a strange and awkward turn. I recall the heat of the afternoon, pale pink knuckles clenched tightly around handlebars, and the sun glinting off BMX chrome. Our chests were heaving to recover lost breath. I was sure, at first, that they would beat me down. Of course, having caught me and cornered me, my pursuers had no real plan to do anything. Except, that is, to threaten my older adopted brother – nearly the same age, wearing matching clothes, but dark brown-skinned, not white like me – who’d had the good sense to know that the sight of a Black boy on a bike riding through the woods in rural New England would only make for trouble. He had been spotted when we arrived, and this group had obviously been on the lookout.
“You’re the n—– ‘s brother,” one sneered. “Get him out of town.” Even now, I am transfixed by the gravity and complexity and danger and oddness of that moment. There was my own racial panic. There was their spiteful recognition that my skin was as white as theirs. And the crackling atmospherics of hate, their anger that my brother was anywhere nearby, and that he was alien, unwelcome, abject, Black.
I broke free of their circle. They, having delivered their message, and having no other plans for me, let me go. My whiteness ensured my safe retreat.
A former professor of mine, Clem Price, upon hearing this narrative, told me that you aren’t truly an American if you haven’t been chased through the streets with someone hollering the word “n—-” at your back. He offered this as an expression of solidarity, wanting the young man in front of him to explore more deeply the connections between his research interests and his personal life. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps racial violence does indeed confer the stripes of real citizenship if, like Clem, you are Black.
For me – a white kid from central New jersey – the primary lesson that day wasn’t quite so simple. Because even as I had felt the racial terror of that moment deep in my bones, I had also learned that my white skin could inoculate me against the logical endpoint of the chase. I was never in real danger. I would have no cuts or bruises that day. If the chase had to be real for Clem’s truth to hold, then there are only difficult lessons to be learned from that New Hampshire afternoon. Because, in the end, even if those boys had called me a “n—-,” tracked me urgently across town, and trapped me behind the five-and-dime, they never once laid a finger on me. My oldest brother, more alert than me to the racial electricity of that day, had anticipated this sort of encounter. He stayed home. If it had been him and not me that had been ensnared by their trap, the ending would surely have been bloody.
* * *
After a lifetime of encounters with the color line, I am likely to tell this story whenever I am asked to explain certain things, especially to white people, who are dazzled by my experience with racial integration. Leaning forward with intense curiosity on their faces, they’ll ask me to explain my family. They’ll also insist that I explain myself, my lifelong encounters with the color line, which were always and inevitably shaped by my whiteness, but which took on additional textures and weights that reflect my siblings’ marginalized identities and positions. To those who inquire, I take note of this particular encounter with the dyad of whiteness and antiblackness, because, to me, it illustrates my experiences growing up in a family shaped by the complicated captivity of adoption. It showcases the centrally important role of race in my life, in the lives of my brothers and sisters, and in the social life of “us.” And it cannot easily be reduced to a simple moral lesson. Through a brief set of vignettes, this piece continues those explanations.
The facts are simple. I was born to kind and imaginative white parents, fashioned into a white child, and raised behind a white picket fence in a large, multiracial, adoptive family that grew progressively and radically more non-white over time. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, barricaded behind that picket fence, my parents adopted four children from the warzones of the American Century – Korea, Vietnam, and the South Bronx. Amid these adoptive acquisitions, they produced another biological child of their own, shaping him as white, too. They raised all six of us together in a big old house in a small central Jersey farm town, far from New York and Philadelphia, and in a part of the state not yet reached by the major interstates. Quite consciously, and through the conspicuous display of this cosmopolitan assemblage, they labored to create a utopian family representing, as my father would repeatedly put it, “the three great racial divisions of mankind.” Constructed as a monument to radical futurity, we lived a short drive from the end of the nearest commuter railroad – that is, in the middle of nowhere. There, we were science fiction.
Our father, born and raised in Jersey City, might have chosen the location whimsically. It often felt to me as if he had taken the railroad to its terminus and driven until he could drive no more, settling in the sort of place that one might have found in fictional 1950s Iowa, a single loop of homes built on the remains of an old nineteenth-century orchard, with no people of color for miles. He was a big, bold figure: tall, lean, outsized, grandiose, and theatrical, with a quick wit and enormous compassion for us and the world. Lording over breakfast, with the newspaper unfolded on the table, he would speak to us often about the globe’s impending overpopulation, about the need for reorienting, world-shaking corrections. He read deeply in the biographies of great white men who had made what he saw as a critical difference in the racialized world: Abraham Lincoln and John Brown. Principled and unafraid, he was not the sort of person to sit by and watch something terrible happen; after that incident in New Hampshire, for instance, he and my mother sought out and confronted the parents of those juvenile racists. It can take just this sort of figure – a charismatic human of extraordinary sincerity – to bind six strangers to each other as family, to put them on stage for the world to watch and elicit a mix of adoration and respect from them all. No detail was random. He chose our backdrop – that isolated hamlet – with a keen eye for the picturesque.
Growing up in a large adopted family in the late Cold War taught me – and us – a lot about race. As a polyglot, multiracial unit in post-Civil Rights Era America, we were objects of intense display and performance, delegating domestic normalcy and foreign diaspora to challenge stock racial imaginaries. To challenge them and, of course, occasionally to embody them. At Christmas mass, the three of us closest in age (together, color-coded as white, Black, and yellow) were sometimes featured as “the wise men,” heralds of the Messiah, and bringers of the gifts.
As a public property, the six of us were invested in a radically overdetermined “we.” There was a great dissonance in this construct – a disconnection between our individual structural positions, which reflected the nation’s vast social divides, and our shared commitment to our common cause as “family.” We were not alone. We became acutely conscious of the presence of other such families. At night, we would watch the DeBolts on television. Or Diff’rent Strokes. In the summers, we attended Welcome House picnics, where we witnessed other parallel orchestrations. In private and much less frequently, we would hear about Pearl Buck, Jim Jones, Josephine Baker, and the rainbow tribes that had “failed.” It was clear that families like ours had a glamor to them, that they were a reminder of the nation’s obsession with multiracial ensembles or of its deeper fear of political unions across racial lines. Some of that dark cinematic magic rubbed off onto all of us, soaked into our skin, and stayed with us in our day-to-day lives. Some of it disturbed us, too. The fairy-tale mythos could be an intoxicant.
Our movement through the world gave us an uncommon education, but it also shielded us. The lessons came at us sideways, out of alignment with what we saw on the nightly news. Ensconced in the rural Jersey countryside, we learned comparatively little about the bloody grit of residential segregation, violence and crime, and the political economy of oppression – except for what we gleaned from each other, and especially from the shared stories of the past lives of my adopted siblings, stories that offloaded the worst of racism onto the far-away landscapes of the American empire. Bullets on the riverbank. Orphanages full of “abandoned” children. Sex and the occupying army. Prejudices against mixed-race kids. In our town, though, we came to understand a lot about the abstractions of sightlines, about official and unofficial surveillance, and about overlapping and contradictory schemes of classification. “I have had to deal with very little direct racism,” my oldest brother told me, when we discussed this piece, “I have been made aware of a lot of indirect racism.”
The visual provocation of a multiracial family was the point. My earliest memories are of a troubling public surveillance of the whole ensemble. As a boy, I sat on my front porch, watching the cars drive by slowly, and saw how quickly the heads would turn to see the wide world of rainbow at play in our picket-fenced front yard. Our false and performed comity was presumed to be an indicator of the nation’s fate, and our private life was the race problem in microcosm. A mixed creation in a sea of homogenous white families, we were studied and data-mined by strangers, family, and friends at every baseball game, every town picnic, every reunion.
As a consequence of our strange local celebrity, the children became compulsory students of the American racial dynamic. Each in our own way, we learned together to signify with stereotype; to embody or transgress the essence of difference; to study those who watched us, catching the moment when they assessed our bodies, scrutinized our features, and defined us for their purposes. We learned where to unwind so that no one could watch us and learned how to play when we were, in turn, being admired (or condemned) by our publics. The backyard – hemmed in by shrubs and trees – was private; the sunny front yard, across from the general store, was not.
Such sensations come with the enterprise. Years later, writing a book about Josephine Baker’s family, I would ask one of her adopted sons, Jari, how it felt to be on display so often, to be drawn out into the front-facing public gardens at Les Milandes to enthrall the audiences with the vision of interracial play. He wanted to talk, as well, about the private treehouse the children had built by the river, where they might amuse themselves out of the spotlight. One imagines the ubiquitous presence of cameras, capturing the private lives of these famous children and the awareness of those young people about the scopic regime that attends their adoption and their integration into the family. They felt the need, once more, for privacy and publicity in equal measures.
Like Josephine’s more famous creation, our assemblage in New Jersey was well removed from urban complexities. This was on purpose. Our town was a white racial preserve – a homeland for deeply conservative folks, for farmers who spoke of Values, Family, and Truth, and for exiles from the troubled concrete-and-glass core of America. Once again, there were no major highways and no railway lines, except for the slow commercial trains that lumbered through at night. The city, my father would explain, was hardly a place for a child to grow up – he was a lover of big open spaces – and it was certainly no place for a family like ours, fashioned as a response to the problems of racism, colonialism, and overpopulation. He had escaped Jersey City to build something new and different. “I wanted two of every race,” he noted, as if he were Noah preparing for the biblical flood and as if we were the chosen stock from which the world would be reconstituted. Cities, my father believed, were dirty, dying, demographically dense, dystopian spaces, fractured by race and class. Everyone deserved better. And we, bound together, were the future. These things he believed in earnest, and he impressed them upon us as gospel.
People in and around our small town were generally supportive of the principle, but they also seemed to grow more and more concerned with each adoption. The public gaze intensified with each new child, as if our collective and growing assemblage was repeatedly acknowledged as a determined, comprehensive provocation aimed very much at the natural order of things. As it surely was. These intensifications, though, were reminders that all large adoptive families are public properties. They are engagements with the nation’s future, heralds of what is to come as the nation’s demographics are transformed by the simplest and most powerful force in the world’s history: human movement. International and multiracial adoptive families are, too, powerful reminders of the empire’s sharp edge, of the desolation left behind after wars, natural disasters, and failed public policies. According to the engineered logic of such things, our bodies – and the other indicators of the varied weirdness of “us” – became mysterious and often threatening objects of speculation. At some point, though, we must have become familiar in our town. Because if the sensation of being watched never lessened, there were fewer and fewer openly asked questions, and never any racial epithets. We became a quirky oddity, an extension of our liberal outsider parents, especially our father, increasingly ensconced as a respected local attorney and later a judge. We mostly encountered racism, to borrow from my brother, indirectly.
Outside of that town, however, spectatorship could turn into an angry confrontation. We learned quickly not to vacation in the South. Once, when I was just about seven, we had gone to Virginia and stayed at a local campground on the Chesapeake Bay. My memories of that trip center around a mosquito fumigation truck that trundled through the campground at night and how all of the children followed it, laughing and running through the smoke, but our mother remembers differently. She recalls that the Black campers were segregated into a corner of the campground. As our parents set up the campsite along the water – far from the inland sites reserved for Black families – we set out to visit the camp’s playground. There, the local boys with thick Southern tongues called my oldest brother “boy,” despite our repeated efforts to fix his real name in their minds. We had unwittingly integrated the campground. She would make sure that never happened again.
That story did not embed itself in my mind, did not haunt me as other stories did. It was my oldest brother’s story, not mine. The story of the shadow, as W.E.B. Du Bois once called it, sweeping over him, provisioning him with second sight, with a sense of his body as “a problem.”
My oldest brother, the son of an African American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, a survivor of “Operation Babylift,” was understood locally as “Black.” It was he who had wisely stayed away from the New Hampshire woods. When I asked him recently whether he remembered any of this, he invoked “the dome of protection Dad put around me.” “When Dad was near,” he continued, “I pretty much ignored the looks and feelings of strangers.” Ignored them, perhaps, but they still were felt. “I was very aware of how people looked at me,” he went on. That awareness was something he had “learned in Vietnam,” where he stood out as a visual reminder of the ongoing war, of race-mixing, of Blackness. “There were many people who wanted me dead,” he remembered, “and anyone who has eyes can see that. It was an unpleasant experience to have someone look at me that way. Compared to death looks in Vietnam, the hate stares in America made me feel like it was their problem and not mine.” As long as our father was around, he felt protected. And as long as he felt safe, he could “go back to having fun.”
As much as I might envision all of this as “our story,” it was really a fractured and fragmented reality in which each of us felt the impact of race and color differently and, in most cases, privately. For my oldest brother – only a month and a half older than I, so close in age and height and interests that we used to joke that we were twins, our parents dressing us alike as children – the distinction between terrible, eliminationist agendas and mere “hate stares” was clear. For me, such a distinction was unfathomable.
* * *
It is Thanksgiving, 2011.
Our family is gathered around the fireplace in our mother’s new home. Nearly all of us are there, drawn from the deep South, the Midwest, and the mid-Atlantic. Our father had passed away ten years earlier. We have not all been together since his funeral. Our youngest brother is missing, and it isn’t clear when he’ll get there. He is the least predictable of our unpredictable lot. On impulse, I pull out my phone and search for his name.
With a lump in the throat, I find his mugshot, along with an accompanying news story. Huddled around the phone, reading it as a group, we learn that he had been arrested for “nine break-ins and seven larcenies,” all committed over the two-month stretch leading up to the holiday. More specifically, he’d been using bolt cutters and small tools to strip away semi-rare metals from air conditioning units and household plumbing in vacant or renovated homes. He had been selling his haul for cash, which he then used, the police surmised, to fuel a drug habit. “He wants some prison time, so give it to him,” one commentator added at the bottom of the story.
The youngest of our assemblage was born in the south Bronx. He joined us in 1983. Popular culture had represented his home-scape as the stuff of legend and stereotype, an apocalyptic shadowland of burned-out buildings and race wars. The adoption agency presented him to us as the son of a crack-addicted, alcoholic mother, his body weak and marked by physical and psychological imperfection. He was defined as “brain-damaged” by the state, cast aside by his grandmother, and cycled through a carnivalesque sequence of foster homes. Under normal circumstances, left alone in the Bronx, we were assured by the agency that he would become a foot soldier in the coming drug wars, a bit player in the all-too-real New Jack City of the early 1980s. Forsaken and left behind, he would have drifted in and out of the prison system from the start, his childhood quietly revoked without comment, his Blackness, his urbanism, his impoverishment all assigning to him a prematurely aged criminal justice profile. In this alternate universe, should he live to be eighteen, he might have eventually run a corner, or a street, or a block. But he likely would not have lived to be thirty.
The appeal the agency made to us – once more, the family of the future, headed by a white patriarch – was to save him from a fate that was described as otherwise inevitable. This appeal to take up the work of salvage was undeniably racist, yet it resonated on some lower frequency with our original purpose. Ripped from what conservative America had defined as a desolate dystopia and relocated to our idyll of white picket fences and little red schoolhouses, his story would take a different turn. The public presumption was that he could be reformed, reanimated by that unparalleled engine of success: all-white, “real” America. His childhood – including his right to public education, to innocent bike rides, to tinkling laughter on the playground – was to be protected. The supposed inevitably of his criminality would be, at the very least, suspended. Tired of the decline of cities and the intractability of the race problem, the public seemed to wait for – and to want – another bootstrapping narrative to emerge, one that celebrated the white-headed household. Our adoptive family, then, was enlisted as an engine of “reform,” offering a liberal multiracial pedagogy of incorporation and integration at a moment of catastrophic state failure. In an increasingly inequitable world, “we” were presumed to offer the closest thing to an ideal. This is what we were told, and it is what we told ourselves.
What was it, I wonder now, that had prompted me to search for news of his whereabouts online? This was not his first arrest. Nor was it his second. There had been a very recent history in which we had been helping him to recover from shorter stints in prison, a decade of buying him new clothes, provisioning him with gift cards, checking in with him by text and phone. A decade of hope and repeated disasters, in which his well-intentioned effort to recover from some small stretch behind bars and our attempts to help him confronted the concretized realities of the carceral state. But the diminishing state support for formerly incarcerated persons and the dehumanizing prejudices of the age of mass incarceration had grooved the landscape such that he was repeatedly, despairingly looped back into prison.
His adoption – our last – was preceded, rather formally, by a family meeting, where we discussed our aims and ambitions as a group. The original proposal, as I remember it, was that we might adopt a child of color from abroad with more pronounced special needs, such as a physical disability. Settling on a young boy from nearby New York City, we hoped – like many others – that such a small child could be extracted from what was so routinely described as a vast dystopian landscape, his natural goodness restored to its original brilliance, his future assured by our racial comity. Such hopes were marshaled against the Reagan Era’s divisive racial politics, which militated against housing projects and basketball courts and graffiti, and seemed determined to burn Black neighborhoods and Black life out of existence. Opening our home was something we could do, a small act of great significance. Conservative racism put wind in our sails, assuring us that we were the only solution within reach to the seemingly intractable problems of urban cityscapes and the rising tide of avowedly racist policymakers. As we plotted the adoption, we most often cited the lesson of the DeBolts, a far vaster assemblage than ours, built of bodies broken in war and poverty, all redeemed (or so their award-winning documentary assured) by what was presented as an ingenious American system of parenting.
We were wrong. It is important to acknowledge that. Wrong, that is, to think, imperiously, that he needed fixing or saving. That is the inherent logic, though, of the multiracial adoptive family, where salvage and repair discourses abound. This was what we were built to do. We also failed, in the end, to equip him to survive the ocean of misrepresentations he confronted. “White supremacy,” the slam poet Guante reminds us, “is not the shark but the water.” We spent too much time on the lookout for sharks while he drowned. We couldn’t see the destructive, corrosive work of institutions, of ideologies, of economies. We believed, mistakenly, that we were magic. Not understanding our mistake, we missed the clash between our family’s symbolic potential as a single, dazzlingly futuristic unit and the powerful swells of antiblackness, which repeatedly threatened us as well. We drifted in that same ocean until we were ultimately swept up in its same currents.
A small, adorable child, my youngest brother struggled in school, stubbornly fighting his own “improvement.” He pushed back half-heartedly but consistently against our intimacies. Keeping us at bay, he used theft alongside work, anger mixed with kindness, secrecy leavened by openness. His transgressions were ordinary, nothing too far beyond what I had done at his age; there had been minor break-ins and police interventions and a wild set of drinking binges, notable occurrences in a small white town where your father was the judge, and your mother was a schoolteacher. And notable, too, in a small town where your family had been an object of quiet obsession. There was perhaps nothing in this that went too far beyond typical teenage rebellion, no action which – if coded white – might not have been easily forgiven. But antiblackness labeled these things otherwise. The state criminalized his actions. And within the house, his resistance to incorporation led to a new system of borders and locks and walls sprung up, a new kind of carceral homeland with one simple goal: to reform and also to restrain.
The failure of that effort came dramatically, quickly, and permanently. There was a conflict one afternoon, and it engulfed us. He argued with another sibling. It became violent. A snap decision was made. A powerful, instinctive, earthquake-sized decision. One minute he was there with us, and the next minute he was confined to a nearby clinic, received by medical authorities eager to apply a whole new reformist regime.
Methylphenidate, Ritalin, Eskalith, Prozac, Tegretol, Lithium, Thorazine, and Corgar. The prescriptions grew more complex, the interactions harder to gauge, the doses doubled and then doubled again, even as he moved from institution to institution, from a small hospital for persons at risk of suicide and the depressed to assorted wilderness schools for “at-risk kids.” At each step, there was failure. At one “ranch” school, he stole a car and burned it. At another, he escaped and eventually assaulted an officer. He was in touch with us throughout. During a frantic phone call while he was on the run, I remember counseling him to go to the Nation of Islam in Chicago, thinking that their commitment to order and discipline might appeal to him or might save him.
All of this long, terrible story unfolded while our youngest brother was still a teenager, still the adopted child of an affluent and prominent pair of parents, with considerable resources to spend on his behalf and a great deal of experience and the best of intentions. In white America, he was required to go to school, though the only schools that seemed to “work” – to displace the danger, to contain it safely – were more like prison hospitals, run by private for-profit corporations.
My father kept careful notes. Reading through his file on our brother is an exfoliation of liberalism – a vast, desperate determination to protect this one symbolic body’s status as a redeemable child, to find the right solution through science and medicine and therapy, to preserve his rights, broadly construed. After a confrontation with a police officer in Colorado, he needed to be transported to a new school in Texas, but as a minor, he wasn’t subject to the law in the same way as a prisoner. And so our father, desperate to find a safe harbor for his son, paid out of his pocket for sheriff’s deputies to transport him. Our mother wrote long, impassioned, thoughtful letters to him, over and over again, explaining the first order rationale for the social contract, pressing him to respect the most basic bonds of citizenship, taking up – in essence – the civic education of this man-child adrift between worlds, offering a liberal pedagogy she earnestly expressed in loving prose.
If success is measured by a productive return to civil society, these efforts failed. Some problems are just too big to be solved by bootstrapping, by hard family work, by ideologies of rescue. Structural racism cannot be resolved by good intentions and heartfelt correspondence. And the family, even one as futuristic as ours, cannot be a remedy for the problems of political economy, of racial formation, of a world in which incorporation and integration are understood as primarily operations of salvage and repair. I doubt, as well, that civil society’s notion of a “productive return” would ever have been permitted to him.
Eventually, the penal state intervened decisively. Reform schools gave way to jails and then prisons. Escapes led to other, more major offenses. The school-to-prison pipeline became, for him, a one-way superhighway. What came next – once he was formally branded a “criminal,” and once he began to move in and out of the prison industrial complex – is too long and too complex and too heartbreaking to narrate here and now. It is also not my story to share.
* * *
I am in the hallway of my middle school.
My teacher has asked me to wheel an overloaded cart to another room. And when I enter, someone in the back of the room calls out, “Hey, it’s n—– lips!” A knowing laugh crackles the end of his words. The room responds with a low, collective giggle. I park the cart near the blackboard and duck out, shamefacedly.
That nickname – a very little thing, in a world of real-time uprisings against the sweeping punishments of the conservative counterrevolution – was another reminder of the naiveté of our family’s progressive narrative. I remember first hearing it in seventh grade. It stuck, following me everywhere. For the rest of middle school, I was greeted with it at every doorway, in every hallway, on every playing field, and at every party or social event. I expected it.
“There’s n—– lips!”
It wasn’t so much the newly prescribed Blackness of my face that left me twisted on the inside, but what I presumed was my strange mixed-up racial location. The rest of me, it seemed, was white. My lips – the very instruments of expression and intimacy – were apparently otherwise. There was, back then, no language I knew to capture the experience of racial contingency, no common sense that race was a mutable, flexible thing, that identities were relational, or social and politically determined. Indeed, the very premise of “us” – of our family – was that race was real and self-evident. We were a mixed platoon, each a fixed type, all meant to be seen in all our variegation. The point of such a group was the establishment of common humanity and the accumulation of shared experiences that sutured the six of us together across hardened color lines. This I know now, though I did not know it then. Instead, I believed that no logic could explain what I saw as a disconnect between my detailed physiognomy – my troublesome lips – and my generic, scripted whiteness, except that my racial character – my whiteness, my role in this ensemble – seemed flawed to those who looked closely.
And so, at night, by the flicker of the television, I privately concluded that my classmates looked at me, looked at my oldest brother, looked at whatever was presented to them in national popular culture, and saw a physical resemblance. And, being young, I agreed with them, not knowing, really, what that meant. I would hold up two mirrors so that I could see my profile and assess for myself what Blackness might have looked like to others or to see how it could be measured by those who saw me. I would hold a pencil or a ruler from the tip of my nose to my chin and tighten my lips to make them smaller so that they wouldn’t protrude so far and wouldn’t interrupt that precious line. I would stare, with painful envy, at those I perceived to be unquestionably white children, with their perfect profiles, their diminished lips, and their constrained, civilized mouths. I learned to cover my mouth with my hand while listening or laughing. When it was my turn to talk in class, I would be stubbornly silent.
That year, when I was thirteen, I told my parents – confessed to them – that I felt, in a word or two, racialized in the wrong way, that a bright line had been drawn between my physiognomy and my family’s diverse composition. I remember that it all felt so hopeless and that I might never escape that nickname, which I heard everywhere.
Perhaps, my parents thought, the color line could be redrawn. Or maybe they were just seeking to soothe their child. In any case, I was brought to a plastic surgeon, who promised to give me the racial clarity I so desperately wanted. A simple set of cuts, a summer of recovery, and all would be well, with a new racial reveal at the start of the next school year. This seems a weird sort of racial effacement, or perhaps it was a form of racial editing, aimed at clarifying for our public (and for me) the color line in my household, to firmly and permanently mark myself as something other than my brothers and my sisters. To affirm, once and for all, my whiteness.
I expected a racial miracle. An end to what I saw as an indeterminacy that made me stand out. However, when I arrived at school in the fall and proudly offered what I thought was my newer, whiter, European face to this discerning audience, they cared not a bit and shouted with glee: “n—– lips is back!”
Even now, reading these words to myself, I am struck by an acute, visceral recall of the reveal. That after a summer spent in isolation, healing from surgery, gauging my healing (or “progress”) in the mirror, I could be so deflated, so inconsolable. So thoroughly complicit, I now know, in the project of antiblackness. The unease that comes from this memory captures my general discomfort with the whole of our radical experiment, then and now. With the “us” so often mentioned here. I cannot celebrate that social magic of our ensemble that sometimes worked; I cannot excoriate the deliberate, machine-like production either. What is the sign of the family? Or of our individual and collective physiology? What is the sign of the Black child behind the white picket fence? My discomfort, I believe, was – and is – linked to the concept of belonging. Belonging to a family. Belonging to a race. And the strange, unsettling way we all were compelled to choose, as children, to belong to things that all at once pulled us together, pushed us apart, and pushed us into the limelight.
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois recalls the moment when “the shadow swept across him.” Playing an innocent card game with a group of children, an exchange of pretty little cartes-des-visites. “The exchange was merry,” he remembered, “till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”
The passage is famous. It is the first cornerstone of disciplines and fields, an epigraph to hundreds of books, a wellspring of sentiment for generations of those marked in the same fashion. Most of those who write about Du Bois dwell, as he does, on the aftershocks of that moment, on the perverse acquisition of a “second sight” into the workings of humanity, and on the determination to “wrest” away the “prizes” accorded to Du Bois’s peers and yet still denied to him based on some illusion. When I first read it, I was most struck – awestruck, even – by his admission that race was made, not born, and that it could materialize with a thunderous suddenness, that it could happen to you in moments that would be cauterized into memory as if into flesh. It was an explanation, to me, of so much.
From the moment that I read it, I also recognized that Du Bois’s insights about the color line and Black life did not apply to me. Or could never apply to me. On my skin, on the superficial scar that runs across the inside of my bottom lip, one finds not the imprint of Blackness but of whiteness, not the memory of the color line but instead the dictates of antiblackness, which instructs on racial clarity, with often terrible consequences.
Du Bois had set out to turn racism into a wellspring of understanding, among other things. Over time, he argued, an accumulation of these moments – a young girl refusing one’s card, the denial of funding for a Ph.D. in Berlin, an encounter with a lynched man’s body parts in a butcher shop – can turn ordinary flesh into scar tissue. And, when that happens, when the encounter with race isn’t singular but oft-repeated, then your racial life becomes a matter of recounting the origins of each scar, each a memorial to a wound imperfectly healed, and of translating for future generations what literary critic Hortense Spillers once called the “hieroglyphics of the flesh.” At every turn, then, there is the flesh, or there is scar tissue and white skin. And there are memorials to the past waiting to be read.
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When our father passed away in 2001, we all gathered in a local funeral home to wait for the public wake. He was a prominent figure, the head of this potent ensemble, and there was a long line of mourners outside. “He was a saint,” people would tell us as we lined up like the set pieces in a Benetton advertisement, ready to receive visitors. Those who had once watched us so closely now paused to endorse his wild-eyed liberal intentions, now that they could advance no further.
When we had learned of his passing – a sudden, surprising death – we were scattered around the world. We gathered quickly, hustling back to New Jersey. I was in Spain, researching a book. My oldest brother – my adoptive, antipodal twin – was in North Carolina. Our youngest brother wasn’t with us, though. The prodigal son was in the local jail, less than a mile from the funeral home, locked up for another violent offense. We appealed for compassion, though I cannot remember to whom. Arrangements were made, a small town’s accommodation to the passing hero’s legacy, so that his youngest son could honor him. In a way, this bending-of-the-rules was the last act of liberal pedagogy, a reminder that the passing of the white patriarch, the architect of our multiracial ensemble, should extract the performance of grief from each of us. Before the front doors swung open for the public, then, the sheriff’s office brought our brother to the funeral home’s back entrance to pay his respects. We were required, the officiant instructed, to stay separated from him. Our youngest brother wasn’t allowed to see us, to be embraced, to be comforted. He arrived in a squad car in handcuffs. A partition door separated us. As he stood before the casket, bookended by uniformed officers, we pulled that door open a few inches and peeked through it. We were all hoping to make reassuring eye contact of some kind.
I can still recall the feel of the wood on that partition door, slick with old varnish, as I sought out my brother’s face. Our family was torn asunder by loss; our diverse structural positions encoded in the funeral home’s very layout. That glossy door, once meant to give bereaved families some privacy, now stood in for so much more. After a brief moment, there was a flash of connection – we, seeing him, in a suit we had arranged to be delivered, flanked by his jailors, and he, seeing us, in our variegated consanguinity. And then, with no fanfare, he was escorted out and returned to the custody of the carceral state. For a time, he sat alone with his thoughts in the back of a police car, as the doors were swept open and we stood in line to face our father’s admirers, each of us a fixed racial symbol, graciously accepting the town’s condolences. Our youngest brother’s absence – and his representation as “the bad son” – ensured that we, in our pleasing multiplicity, were seen as dutiful.
His final excision cut deeply. That was the end of us.