Monday, November 16, 2009

Caucasia and me

The first time I came across a work of literature about a biracial character was Alex Haley's Queen. I found a tattered copy in my mother's small bookcase and I engulfed it with desperate fervor. While not as revered as Roots, due to the Haley's death before its completion and its subsequent completion by a less academic author, it had an impact on me like no other book, as I finally saw myself reflected in the protagonist. One downside to this novel was that it takes place during slavery -- an era in which I of course have no personal experience. It thus put my story into antiquity and outside of the goings on of 21 century life.

The second major work of literature to touch me on a racial level was Lise Funderburg's ethnography, Black, White, Other. I came across the title in a copy of Teaching Tolerance magazine, made my first purchase in 1995, and ate up the essays written by biracial men and women that the editor had interviewed. These were Americans just like me -- some young, some old, some in college, some in the working world, and all connected by the double ethnicity they shared.

After that came a short string of men's biracial memoirs (three over a period of over about ten years), followed by a similarly short string of biracial fiction that just happened to make its way into my grad school studies. The fiction I came across almost by happenstance, and mostly included antebellum novels written by white authors, thrown into syllabi dealing with Victorianism and Romanticism. I saw myself, but I saw myself through their lens, not through my own. I was a trope, I stood for something, but I was not a human being with a character arc or the ability to simply exist on the page. And, while this isn't true of all antebellum literature of the time, I was always male.

Then came Danzy Senna's Caucasia. Just having finished it about ten minutes ago, I have a similar feeling to the one I felt after completing my novel. A sense of finally seeing myself written down, my story finally told. Only, in this instance, I had the luxury of reading about myself through someone who shared my own experiences but was not in fact me. What does this mean to the biracial academic? It means that her personhood, her existence, is no longer silent in mainstream literature. Finally she is not just an antebellum figure to stand in for the injustices of slavery, and no longer is she a figure that is just as racialized as the institution the abolitionists sought to destroy. She is not just the protagonist of a memoir who has no place in fiction. Finally she is a heroine in a novel that tells her story -- one where the Pakistani mistakes her for a fellow countryman, one where her father hides behind his theories on race and wishes his daughter were blacker, one where she must constantly change her form in order to survive, where her skin at once makes her stand out from those around her and blend into any definition of the Other.

This can be seen as a tale of the tragic mulatto, yes. But it is also a tale of resilience, wisdom, and insight. It is not a tragedy, and it is not a blind celebration. Rather it is a fashioning of the mulatta protagonist into the role of all protagonists -- one who sees her world and herself and struggles to come to terms with both. It is a tale of self-discovery, growth, and character development -- present in most fiction, but absent in most biracial fiction of the past. In the literary sense, it is finally granted the agency to be a tale of everyone, everywhere, for we all struggle to find our place in the world, and we all have obstacles we must overcome.

The next step will be to have a work of fiction where the biracial protagonist is able to have a plot that is not about being biracial. This will only happen when the society in which she lives ceases to define its citizens in black and white terms. Until that day, Birdie and Cole Lee of Caucasia, and Shannon Luders-Manuel of Haight-Ashbury, will work to break the black/white binary and will assert themselves outside the box, embracing their differences yet longing to not be defined by them. In time, Birdie, Cole and Shannon will simply exist, and that will be a beautiful thing.

--Shannon Luders-Manuel