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CONVERSATIONS: Writing About Race and Identity
Gustavo Arellano, journalist
Barbara Ferrer, novelist
Ragan Fox, poet
M. Ayodele Heath, poet
Keith Roach, poet

Ragan Fox: How are we defining “racial identity”? Many people associate writing about racial identity with writing about marginalization, while whiteness is often mistaken for absence. When, for example, I see people write about or perform race, they tend to talk about issues of oppression and empowerment. I'm speaking specifically about my experiences in the performance poetry community.

For those who engage in more performative forms of writing, it's tough to write about racial identity; because it's become cliché—at least among performance poets. The trick is to write about identity in ways that avoid trite and reductive explanations of a person's subjectivities. I'm tired of reading work and audiencing performances where an identity poet is the hero of his or her own poem and some anonymous power-holding straw figure is the antagonist. This goes for poems about other salient forms of identity, too. Lord knows, I have my fair share of pieces in which I, superior and enlightened, point fingers at ambiguous folks who “just don't properly understand the world.”

Playing the antagonist is a much more interesting and bold choice! I'd like to see more folks implicating their own messed up ways of looking at the world. We're all racist, homophobic, sexist, classist, and ethnocentric by virtue of the culture in which we live. We can work through these issues in our artistic endeavors; but many writers and performers have to make bolder choices. I want to read unflattering autobiographical work.

Keith Roach: Identity is at once the most obvious aspect of being and concomitantly the most difficult to identify. Identity is layered and delivered in parcels with a variety of wrappings. Identity is an experience both private and shared and often shared in ways that are controversial and adversarial. So what to write? Which shell gets polished today and who needs to know anyway? Perhaps I, the owner and maintainer of this definition of self and definition as self. I am connected by birth or accident to hosts of others who imagine me imagining them, why they are here and how long they intend to stay. Finally, I long for the discovery of identity through crisis and love or just love's crisis. Unfolding catastrophically or through the filter of generations lived over generations or moments. The whole will be always elusive and fleeting. When a writer presents me with an ultimate identity, I may be amused, but more likely more interested in finishing the story myself or at least starting a pool on the possible inevitable outcome. I'd like to think that there is an identity in every story I tell. More importantly, of the ones I leave out.

Barbara Ferrer: The thing for me, about writing identity, is that I never set out to be any kind of flag waver. I write from that most basic of tenets, “Write what you know.” What I know is that I'm a woman, a first generation Cuban-American growing up in a Miami that has been indelibly marked by multiple influxes of Cuban immigrants, each distinctly different. I'm the only one of my siblings born in the United States, but it doesn't make me any less Cuban than my brother or sister or any more American than them. Or anyone else in the same circumstances. I simply am what I am.

Which is I think is what tends to get under my skin with respect to writing-- the individuals who expect me to fly colors and be obvious about who or what I am as if it's the only thing that defines my writing. Or the individuals who somehow think less of my writing or find my cultural identity lacking because I don't go out there waving my pride flag.

I simply am what I am. I write how I write. Who I am as a person—my background, my experiences, that infuses everything I write, of that there should never be any doubt, but I despise being pre-judged based solely on the parameters of my cultural identity.

M. Ayodele Heath: From the moment the umbilical cord is snipped – that is, from the moment the very first separation is made, Man begins the search for self. And She first begins to explore it–not through the pressing of her tiny right palm into her own tiny left palm, nor the flailing of her newly-freed feet against the air, but in the utterance of her first cry.

Yes, it is in this sound of the blue vibration of vocal chords exciting atoms and bouncing back off of walls - it is in the self's first recognition of something of the self being received and transformed by the world and reflected back to the self that the Self is found. The self discovers Self through voice.

And in the bloody placenta of the first creative writing course, a writer seeks to resurrect this same exercise which he first found upon wriggling out of the womb–through mucus, through blood, through sweat, through tears - to capture that which cannot be held–the writer's DNA: voice.

To me as a writer (especially as a poet), conversations about identity begin (and end) with voice – the Puerto Rican drag queen from the Bronx, the elderly Black quiltmaker in Alabama, the CEO of an international energy corporation, the Jamaican cab driver, the Nebraskan housewife, the multi-million dollar wide receiver, the slave.

While costumes begin to tell the story of a character's identity, who a character really is is told through their voice – their pitch, their pauses, their punctuation; their cadence, their diction, their clichés; their accents, their hates, their desires.  Every choice that shapes a character's sound makes him who he is.  His identity is perhaps in his laugh, but even more truly in his cry.

Gustavo Arellano: I come to this from a different perspective than everyone else. I'm a reporter–I detail and analyze the lives of others, with some introspection thrown in once in a while. I view most writing about identity as overly grandiose, too self-serving, and incredibly whiny. Growing up, I vowed never to write about my primary "otherness"--that of being a Mexican in the United States. Yet I quickly found myself drawn to those stories, not out of laziness but because few others were telling our stories--and those who did committed the sins that turned me off to the genre in the first place. I admire those who write about their identities--they write not because they think their stories are important but because their stories ARE important. Identity writing wouldn't exist if the mainstream had accepted our various communities from the start.

Ragan Fox: I tentatively agree with Barbara. I say "tentative" because I think the "flag waving" metaphor is something of a straw figure that reductively characterizes the work of people who might interrogate identity-related issues in a more overt fashion. Conversely, I understand the burden of synecdoche, or how some folks unfairly expect one person to represent an entire community or identity position. Three years ago, I performed at a University in Arkansas, and the following message was written in sidewalk chalk outside the entry of the theatre: "Ragan Fox is QUEER! Performance poet tonight at 8!" The organizer scribbled the words on concrete earlier in the day and couldn't understand why I was taken aback by the promotion. Writing from the margins, my work often gets reduced to "gay poet talks loudly about gay issues." My racial identity never seems to emerge salient in any discussion of who I am. This isn't to say that I don't implicate whiteness in my work; because I frequently interrogate white privilege and ironically cite racist discourses in my oral and writer performances.

Ayodele, your first writing course was like a bloody placenta!?! Ew! My first writing course was more like having sex for the first time: clumsy, messy, and little encouragement from my audience. I'm intrigued by your focus on voice, and, by extension, orality. Voice is frequently equated with power. Conversations about "voice" often frustrate me. I hate it when people say things like, "I'm giving this community a voice," or "This culture doesn't have a voice." I don't think you're making this claim, but I'd like to use your conversation as a springboard to call attention to the "giving people a voice" refrain. It seems like President Bush, for example, justifies his illegal and unjust war by claiming to "give a voice" to Iraqis. I say this because he takes such pride in the country's recent elections and America's role in the event.

Finally, I really like what Gustavo said about being drawn to narratives about his racial and ethnic identities. The narratives of cultural others have been largely excluded from literary and historical canons. Writing about marginalized identity is something of an obligation when one considers the importance of archival. Many of us are, quite literally, writing our way into history.

Barbara Ferrer: I understand precisely where you’re coming from, Gustavo — while I write fiction I write very pragmatic prose.  I simply don’t have the gift for beautiful language and metaphor, so for me to say I write about “identity” in and of itself, I think would be a falsehood.  As I said in my original post, I write how I write and from my experiences.  But at the same time, don’t you think that sometimes the mainstream attempts to force their “idea” of identity writing on an individual?  It’s the idea of it, or rather, what someone else’s idea of it should be that tends to make me crazy.  For example, I write my fiction as Caridad Ferrer — Caridad is my middle name, but it’s not the name that I would have chosen to write under.  That’s the name the publisher — I won’t say forced, but perhaps, “suggested strongly” I should use because to them, “Barbara” wasn’t Latina enough.

Yet, as Ayodele says, a writer’s identity is in their voice — I know it is in mine, and while I understand the business mechanisms of the publishing industry, it still mystifies me that the Powers That Be, as it were, weren’t willing to allow my voice—and only my voice— to speak for itself.

Keith Roach: If you are going to wear the trappings, or have them attached, then expect to be expected to voice them.

There are, it seems, two ways to look at the notion of identity. Inward or outward, self defined or defined by social or ethnic categories. This is not to suggest that I am suggesting that these are polar opposites, but the difference can be a function of degrees. We are charged with dueling with the imposition of such categories.

In this nation, race and class are, at least, the main arbiters of defining people. Depending on perspective, one may carry more weight than the other but both may be, in concert, a sentence of a diminished citizenship.

As a writer, I get to choose my own trappings. This, above all, may very well be the key to any power that this peculiar craft may offer. Here, though, is the crux of this matter of confluences. The easiest way to go is to identify self as a function of personal desire or inclination, and/or modify the identification imposed by history and society or society's histrionics.

There is a ton of profit in racial id'ing, and a wealth of material from which to draw though I fear that too much of what I have encountered is about reinventing the wheel. Black people in this nation have, in part, identity by imposition. This most insidious form of identity, the imposed, requires the most attention, it is the most difficult to transcend.

I am a poet, but 80 percent of my poetry is what most would call love poems (why, also, I have pretty much retired from reading at all) every now and then I will delve into politic, social dynamics or the like. As a writer, or as writers, we are in a position to do the alchemy of transforming base identity into other forms of the individual and collective.

M. Ayodele Heath: Ragan, I agree with you that in some circles, whiteness is mistaken for absence – for lack of flavor, for lack of spice.

But tell that to a tongue lapping vanilla... or salt!

In the West, Whiteness is also used for the default value – a canvas, a blank sheet of paper, as the reference point from which all colors are measured. And it is in this role that it is perceived as oppressor. Rightly or wrongly, Whiteness, without even trying, simply based on its history is perceived as the standard.

But isn't white just a color? No lesser or greater than yellow or red? Or black or brown?

Barbara, you raise an interesting issue regarding racial identity as it relates to place – that there is some perceived difference between your Cubanness (born in America) versus the Cubanness of your siblings (born in the homeland) – though you all, presumably, were raised in Miami.

There are parallel identity issues in the Black diaspora: that somehow Black is less Black when born in America than when born in Africa. But I tend to agree with Keith that identity is complicated as much about how others choose to identify us as it is about how we as individuals choose to identify ourselves. Which is to say that identity is fluid, but it is important to recognize that it is also a two-way street.  And historically, this street has been littered with head-on collisions.

For example, in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, is an exhibit about the Population Registration Act, illustrating the futility of the notion of race as it relates to identity. Under the Population Registration Act, all non whites were required to register with the government and were issued  a passbook which they had to carry at all times for the purpose of restricting where they could live, learn, and work; whether they could vote in a national election; and who they could marry -- based solely on their race.

But how subjective this identity was!  Race was determined by minor government officials who, in nearly 100 documented cases changed the race of an individual overnight.  Based on factors such flatness of nose, crispness of consonants, circle of friends,  a "pencil test" for hair texture, and even music tastes some South Africans turned from Black to Coloured or Indian to Black or Coloured to White.

So, in the end, what is racial identity really?  Is it a set of physical requirements?  Or is it brainwashing?

Keith Roach: I might add, in response to a point here, that white folk have the luxury of not ever thinking about race. That is what the default value is of white. Every other identification is referred by way of.

Ragan Fox: Keith, two quick responses:

1) White people don't think about race? Really? I think that many white people in our culture have the luxury of unearned privilege; but I don't know how fair it is to assume that white folks don't think about race.  Racial dynamics permeate the very core of what it means to live in the United States (among other countries).  We're all racist to some degree because a history of racist thought constrains and enables how we think and act.  EVERYONE thinks about race.

2) I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you claim that, "Every other identification is referred by way of."

Keith Roach: Ragan, what I was aiming at is that whites do not have to think about race, if that is more clear. Black people are forced to think about race because of the daily little reminders that one confronts. Being followed in a store, for example. The second statement was corollary to the idea expressed my Ayodele, that "whiteness" was perceived as the "standard". I am just stating further that everything is measured from that singular point.

One thing I have always found interesting is the differing descriptions of criminals who commit the same kinds of crimes, be they black or white. There were two recent incidents (in and around New York State), one of a white escapee from a penitentiary, the other, a criminal on the run. Both murdered state troopers. Both were regarded by the MSM as almost heroic outlaw figures. Do the compare and contrast with the language used to describe black whose crimes were similar, the language is suggestive of subhuman attributes. My point, Ragan, is that most whites will not pick up on that at all.

Ragan Fox: Keith, I agree with you that many white folks in the U.S. don't pick up on spotlighting (i.e., saying the "white escapee" or the "black lawyer).  But I still get a bit uneasy when you – appear – to equate white as standard ways of thought with white people not thinking about race.  I say "appear," because I don't want to put words into your mouth; I only mean to implicate how – I – read your words.  Dealing with racism and thinking about race are connected but aren't synonymous.  The distinction is important because EVERYONE in our culture (by virtue of a shared place and time) has to think about race, just as everyone in our culture is racist.  Sweeping generalizations about race and how most people from any given race think about race perpetuate us/them modes of thought.  Going back to my initial post on this subject, it's too easy to point fingers and assume the enlightened position.  Before this conversation ends, how provocative would it be for each of us to own and implicate our OWN internalized racism?

Barbara Ferrer: The appearance factor is an odd thing for me and actually not something I tend to think of first – again, by virtue of my background and where I grew up. I look "white," with my fair skin and green eyes. More than once I've heard, "You sure don't look Latina." My mother looks whiter still with blond hair and blue-green eyes. But the minute she opens her mouth and out comes the accented voice, that's when the demeanor changes, either to acceptance that she's "one of us" or to derision or dismissal because clearly, she's "not one of us."

Not to mention, there are many Latinos who are either of native or African origin, so perhaps that's why one reason I don't tend to focus on appearance as a marker--combined with my background in music and theatre. If anything, I tend to be more aurally-oriented, listening to a person's voice and speech patterns as clues to their particular background.

And is that as odd as I think it might be?