The 2000 U.S. census was the first to give Americans the option to check more than one box for race. Nearly 7 million people declared themselves to be multiracial that year, a number that’s expected to shoot up in the 2010 count. As more of the nation’s population identifies itself as of mixed race, the authors of a new book say Americans’ traditional ideas of racial identity are in for a challenge.In the book Blended Nation, photographer Mike Tauber and producer Pamela Singh combine portraits of mixed-race Americans with stories of living beyond the sometimes rigid notions of race. The husband-and-wife team tell host Liane Hansen they wanted to highlight the personal experiences of life between categories.
Blended Nation: Portraits and Interviews of Mixed-Race America,
By Mike Tauber and Pamela Singh,
Hardcover, 136 pages
Channel Photographics: $34.95
Sure Deborah Orr may be criticizing U.K. society but the words ring true across the Atlantic in her article published in today’s The Guardian, “Diversity and Equality are not the Same Thing”
Here are some of the meatier sections to her astute argument:
…the Conservative leadership has embraced not equality, but diversity.
This is social progress, of course. But it is not the progress that the left once envisaged. On the contrary, in the same time as the argument for diversity has made such strides, the increased equality that was assumed to be part of its goal, has not materialised at all. Instead, inequality in Britain is now much greater than it was prior to the success of its various “equality” campaigns…
Does this matter? Is it important to understand that diversity and equality are different things, and that they are sometimes even at odds with each other? After all, the rooting out of discrimination achieves social justice, whether in the name of diversity or equality…
Yet who in the political mainstream is advancing this argument? Even Barack Obama, the world’s most potent embodiment of the advance of diversity, has trouble setting out, let alone winning, the equality argument.
In the current issue of the London Review of Books, US academic David Bromwich writes about Obama’s difficulties in persuading the nation of the overall benefit of his healthcare reforms. In a stinging phrase, just as applicable in this country, he says: “Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by a liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality.” Miserably, he’s quite right.
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Being citizen of the world is crazy-making. You belong to nowhere and every where claims you. You could be Egyptian, Thai, Fijian, Spanish or Persian, and strangers with a downright rudeness will marvel at your hair, dissect your skin color, and speak brazenly about the otherness of you. Mixed race, multi-culturals must learn to straddle borders and serve as ambassador to a crowd that only pretends to be homogenized. Members of the “rainbow tribe” learn to belong to multiple worlds and become schizophrenic in the process. Bharati Mukherjee’s rambunctious and mythic novel, Leave It To Me is a fast-paced tale that lassos and wrestles the mixed race experience to the ground. Her writing, as in Jasmine and Middlemen & Other Stories, scintillates. She cuts through all the B.S. and morass to get to the beating, bleeding heart of our racially complex world.
Debby DiMartino, or the reinvented and reincarnated Devi, is a force of a nature. What makes her a great main character is that we don’t know what she’s capable of and neither does she. The best literary characters instill just enough fear in their readers, so that we’re surprised, almost aghast, at their potency. Half Indian and half American, Devi raises a path of destruction and retribution as she seeks her birth parents. Born and raised in Schenectady by her adoptive Italian American parents, the family that cared for and loved her throughout childhood, adolescent, and teenage years gets tossed aside, while Devi follows a thin line between sanity and insanity, stalking her heritage to the Bay Area of California, a bastion for changelings and shape-shifters. Circuiting the cracked out Haight, berserk Berkeley, and even an off-road jaunt through the Caldicott Tunnel for an evening of suburban madness in Lafayette, Devi meets soul-searchers and cosmonauts who are more lost and more confused than her own orphaned and jumbled self. With psychic and transcripted transmissions from Rajasthan, Mukherjee alights the Pacific Rim with a burning tale of explosive souls enmeshed in a Vietnam love versus war saga. Devi’s origin is the twisted tale of a hippie American mother, who romanticizes the East, bowing to her Oriental lover and lo! a hapless baby with a hunger for revenge is borne. Leave It to Me, is a perverse dance of both classic and contemporary themes, when Casteneda meets Conrad.
rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Writers are dangerous,” so says A.S. Byatt, and when you read Chris Abani you see exactly how the truth can kill. Abani’s stories show us life balanced on the blade of a knife. His novel, Graceland, chronicles a dark page of Nigeria’s history as we follow a young boy learning to live and love in the turbulent eighties. Graceland opens with a nod to Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.” Elvis, our young Nigerian protagonist, desperately wants to be a dancer, and in the midst of war and political revolution, this dream dries up, festers like a sore, and decays with the death that surrounds him.
Graceland, like Jessica Hagedorn’s novels Dogeaters or Dream Jungle, crams fistfuls of characters into bustling Third World nightmares. Whether its Manila or Lagos, each soul, for better or for worse, is forced to angle their own path to survival. Graceland is an Inferno on earth, and Abani’s hero, Elvis, follows the footsteps of Florentine pilgrim, Dante. As Elvis matures from self indulgent and naive boy to awakened man, he’s initiated into the sinful ways of his world, and, like Dante, he sees firsthand how degrees of sin match degrees of survival. Though unlike our Tuscan journeyman, Elvis is granted two guides, Redemption and the King of Beggars. Each play tug-o-war with Elvis’ conscience. Redemption, who entangles Elvis into a life of crime, lifts the veil of innocence for us and our hero when he asks, “So are you telling me dat stealing bread from bakery to feed yourself and killing some boy is de same? Everything got degree.”
As in Inferno, the one pure source of light, our pilgrim’s enduring star, is Beatrice, Elvis’ mother. Though Elvis strays from his path and is lost in the dark wood of his country in strife, his mother through her written notes on Igbo culture and her record of recipes for sustenance and medicine, reading more like prophecies, keep Elvis sane and compassionate.
What’s disturbing and therefore powerful about Graceland is knowing that Abani’s novel is most likely true. Though the characters are make believe, anyone who reads the newspapers or watches the BBC news knows that Elvis’ journey happens everyday. Pick a country, any country, whether it be Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, or Mexico, Abani’s work serves as live wire transmissions of today’s “urban anonymity” from all the dark nooks of our global metropolises. In that respect, we also see the over-reach of American and Western culture and ideals. As Barthelme’s writing reveals, no part of our life is left unadulterated by the media, and, in Abani’s novel, we also find that no corner of the earth is left untainted by Western influences. The consequences of this is a protagonist who is hyper self-conscious. His dreams and hopes feed off movies and music, which are then appropriated and made new by his Nigerian culture. The media is constantly recycling and transforming itself, as the lives it influences actively transform and reinvent new identities as new modes of survival.
Graceland is a testament to the shock and awe practice of today’s geopolitics. Abani doesn’t flinch to bring these stories to light. His writing is dangerous only in that he holds a mirror up to us and asks us to take a hard look at ourselves.
Serendipitously, the New York Times has posted a global map of US’ “huddled masses,” Immigration and Jobs: Maps of Foreign-Born Workers- Graphic Interactive. The universe is in mixed race conversation. Note how Mexico and the Philippines are at the top of the Immigration list..
Thursday evening, April 9, 2009, NPR aired the show In the Mix: Conversations with Artists…Between Races. Spliced with sound bytes from 44th President Obama’s Inaugural Speech, producer and narrator, Dmae Roberts, raised all too familiar themes and experiences of confused identities, raising awareness, and the exasperating questions I’m habitually poked and prodded with by strangers and acquaintances. “What was she?” shall be written on my epitaph. But with the proliferation of mixed race people, like myself, according to the show, “Nearly 7 million Americans are of mixed race” and “by year 2020 half of the people will be of mixed race,” perhaps we won’t have to serve as Cultural Ambassadors and explain how babies are created, no matter the ethnic backgrounds.
Quotes from some of the artist interviews:
“Coming from no where and everywhere. Openness to everything different.”
“Identity is a puzzle that has to be solved.”
“Love complexity, revel in it. Life isn’t black and white.”
Velina Hasu Houston:
“Misidentities, made me curious about other cultures across the world.”
“Create communities not just on race Life is a negotiation.
“Point of departure to intersections”
Mixed Race Vocabulary: inclusive, sensitivity, rainbow tribe, Heinz 57, cultural consciousness, melting pot.
In search of a suitable port for Spanish galleons coming from Manila, Antonio de la Ascension arrived on the island of Santa Catalina with Spanish troops in 1602. Ascension recorded one of the first written historical accounts of Los Angeles and it’s native peoples, who would later be called the Gabrielinos, after the San Gabriel Mission. Antonio de la Ascension recorded the encounter in “Along the Coast, 1602” published in Los Angeles: Biography of a City.
The soldiers ran all over the island and in one part of it fell in with a place of worship or temple where the natives perform their sacrifices and adoration. When the soldiers reached this place inside the circle there were two large crows, larger than ordinary, which flew away when they saw strangers, and alighted on some nearby rocks. One of the soldiers, seeing their size aimed at them [the crows] with his harquebus, and discharging it, killed them both. When the Indians saw this they began to weep and display great emotion. In my opinion, the Devil talked to them through these crows because all the men and women hold them in great fear and respect.
Ascension depicted a very violent genesis of a city where cultures have always seemed to clash and collide. Today, over eighty languages are spoken in the City of Angels. Culture clash is a way of life. In his, inaugural address, “A City of Purpose” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa affirmed, “Los Angeles is not only the one city that best embodies bold dreams. It is the destination of people’s imaginations, all around the world, whether or not they ever set foot here.” For some Los Angeles is a dream of promised American ideals and for others it is a nightmare of urban sprawl and catastrophe. In commemorating the death of Raymond Chandler, the LA Weekly also commemorates El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Judith Freeman in her article, “Raymond Chandler: 50 Years Dead,” writes:
He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface…
Toward the end of his life Chandler said, “The story of our time isn’t the story of war or the atomic bomb. It’s the story of an idealist married to a gangster and how their children and home life turn out.” He could be describing The Sopranos.
Only it isn’t The Sopranos. It’s us. It’s the story of our time, just as he said, the unending and timeless tale of America, with its idealists on one end of the ideological spectrum, and its gangsters on the other, be they Wall Street crooks or your ordinary garden-variety thugs. We are the children he spoke of. And we are still waiting, 50 years after Chandler’s death — with ever more urgent concerns filling our minds — to see just how our collective home life will turn out.
Seismically fractured and infinitely diverse, the experiences Angelenas/os face are not strictly unique to the City of Angels but mirror the world. Chandler knew this and gave us to ourselves. His words still haunt a city that represents the very best and the very worst of our nation. Our City of Angels, the place that I called home for so long, will always be a reflection of ourselves and our inextricable links to [an]other.
From The GoodReads Review:
Pico Iyer opened his New York Times review of Yiyun Li’s latest novel, The Vagrants saying:
All the world’s stories are America’s stories now, and this constant glory of our literature; as never before in our lifetimes, so many histories flooding into America, and so many Americans going out to claim the world as an extension of their homes, that our imaginations are being stretched (one hopes) along with the words we use, the wisdoms we inhabit, the sounds and philosophies we can begin to reinvent. What Barack Obama represents on the global stage, those of his generation and younger (from Kenya, from the Dominican Republic, from Korea) are bringing to life on the planetary page.
From our Latino landscapers, to our South or South East Asian nurse technicians, to our U.S. Banks inextricably intertwined with international banks, as Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there” because “there” is here, and the other is us. The world is hot, flat, and crowded, so says Tom Friedmann. How do we stay cool, calm, and compassionate? Kwame Anthony Appiah proposes a philosophy and world view in his book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which outlines how we can stretch our imaginations, why we should inhabit the sounds and philosophies different from our own, and how we can reinvent ourselves and our worldview while we struggle to co-exist on this shrinking, ozone-depleted, big, blue ball. Like our 44th president and like most people of younger generations, including myself, Appiah is of mixed race. His mother, English, his father from Ghana, Appiah was raised in his father’s homeland and currently teaches at Princeton University. In Cosmpolitanism he speaks compassionately and honestly about pluralism; his philosophy obviously and insightfully infused with his own multiracial, multi-cultural, and multi-national heritage.
Filled with critical examinations about how we are all inter-connected, whether we like it or not, debates on cultural property, evaluations of facts versus faith, and questions against our own prized rationalism, Appiah succinctly defines his philosophy of Cosmopolitanism at the beginning of the text as: “the one thought that cosmopolitans share is that no local loyalty can ever justify forgetting that each human being has responsibilites to every other.” Though he warns at the beginning, “There’s a sense in which cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.” His philosophical treatise is crammed with enlightened and engaging anecdotes about his father’s tribe, the Akan, and stories he’s heard from colleagues or lifted from the news. Appiah, overall, makes a strong case in explaining his philosophical ideals, yet at the conclusion he problematizes his thesis when he tries to argue why we should be responsible for another life clear across the big blue ball.
In the concluding chapter he bookends his thesis with a reference to a Balzac story, Pere Goirot, and this fiction is his last scrap of evidence to reason a pressing yet stubbornly abstract argument. Why use fiction as support, especially when trying to convince us to make living, breathing connections across a very real and often volatilely physical world? As a fiction writer, I’m honored that a philosopher would turn to story-telling and invoke, therefore virtually vindicate a genre often excused as anachronistic entertainment. Appiah pays tribute to the magic that stories conjure. He praises how fiction allows us to imagine alternatives in what could otherwise be a cold and unforgiving world. Still, this nod to stories and their import is at the cost of his entire thesis, and, as a Composition instructor, as well, in the end, his case doesn’t hold water if he’s going to refer to the make-believe.
Students in my Argument & Research were assigned to read and write about Appiah’s book, and they grappled with complex ideas, seeming to be genuinely interested in the principles Appiah critiqued and proposed. Inspired by Appiah’s sincere and compassionate treatise, I was able to develop some very creative and urgently relevant formal writing assignments. As a class, we were all humbled by the complexity and diversity of humanity, and, as Appiah so gently nudged us to do, we actively felt more connected to the world at large. Mission accomplished!