Shades of Beige

I met with Betts at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles, after she read from The Beiging of America as a featured writer. You see some of the generational stuff. And that’s kind of my hope is for what will happen with this book — that these are some narratives that make people feel like they have a raft, or something that they can connect to. I try to at least think about that as a writer and an editor, and as a teacher. The anthology, published by 2Leaf Press, is the third in the series “Explorations in Diversity.” Betts penned the afterword for the first in the series, What Does it Mean to Be White in America?, and contributed to the second, Black Lives Have Always Mattered. Cathy has this beautiful thing where she talks about being a kid who’s in the South. And they’re human stories. And now we’re done with that. Those are still canonical works to me. I thought it was funny, but then that idea of the police officer following us home, as an adult, really made me feel like, wait, this was really scary. We need to rethink how we look at humans and value human life. But I think in a lot of ways, my parents affirmed that I was supposed to be here, that they loved me. I think none of us has the same ethnic background — racial background. What does it mean to you to have Mixed Remixed founder Heidi Durrow write the afterword for the anthology? If light-skinned privilege does exist, do you leverage that as a moment to advocate for the people you care about? I did not relate to how tragic these women were and how horrible their lives were. When I’m in the classroom, I know there are certain things I can talk about to the students about race, because they don’t get as nervous or they don’t act like, “Oh, you’re going to be super militant.” So if I’m going to have that moment of privilege, please let’s understand that you will probably take it a lot better from me than you would from somebody else, and why is that? There’s white people in my family, but there’s also a lot of white people who are struggling just as bad. Now, have there been earlier books? Different parts of the country where we spent time in the United States or grew up in the United States. In the afterword, I talked about, what does it mean for me as a person of color who is sometimes mistaken for white, and what does that mean when I tell them, unequivocally, I am not. I think we’re starting to see that a little more in television, and in contemporary fiction. So in a lot of ways I kind of envision her as a connector who’s bringing a lot of people together to talk about some of these issues and make it a little bit more of a visible presence in terms of talking about it on a larger front. We get all these other messages, like we’re supposed to be quiet, we’re supposed to sit down, we’re supposed to be passive, we’re supposed to assimilate, and I think in a lot of ways my parents didn’t give me that training. Then I went back to addressing stuff that was directly in that book. It just points again to this idea of, who do we criminalize and who do we not criminalize. I’m in the Midwest talking about how we experienced race, not just as seeing it through the lens of blackness, but also through class. You are perfectly valid as a human being on this earth — don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” I think if you’re a marginalized person at all, we don’t always get that message. You need to get out of the car.” I’m a little kid yelling at the police officer. I was five years old. That’s the early 1970s. She uses her platform as a half-black, half-white scholar and artist to bridge racial divides through voice and pen. You understand you’re beautiful, right?” Those moments like that really made me say, people say things to hurt you, to make you weak, but that’s not you. Virginia? After that, Sean and Gabrielle pulled me into this process with Cathy Schlund-Vials who has done a lot of stuff in terms of looking at mixed race identity, particularly in Asian-American communities and looking at Asian-American studies. How has Heidi become an important mouthpiece for the mixed experience? I really like how some of these stories give you intergenerational context. I really appreciate that there is at least one book that I think tackles that. When Juliet was reading through her piece earlier [on the panel], talking about “Ain’t I American,” there is still this equation where America equals whiteness. Betts hails from Kankakee, Illinois. But in terms of a story that really felt like something I could see myself in, Caucasia by Danzy Senna was definitely one of them. And he says, “You’re not a mutt, you’re beautiful. And you can recover from that. There was this scene in Caucasia where [Birdie] is in the park with her father and they think he took her from somebody. It was one of the reasons why I initially got involved with the Mixed Remixed Festival in 2010 [then called the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival], because I just hadn’t seen anything like that when I was growing up. I think no, we’re not necessarily done with that, but we’re dealing with: What are the ramifications of law[s] changing the way we interact with each other? AUGUST 8, 2017

TARA BETTS IS a professor, author, and award-winning poet who most recently co-edited the anthology The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the Twenty-First Century, along with Cathy J. You’re talking about, what does it mean to relate to your family, what does it mean to feel alienated from your family, how do you experience traumatic events. She has appeared on Def Poetry Jam and other televised performances, and has published multiple chapbooks and full-length poetry collections. We all have academic credentials in the same respect, but I think in terms of everything else, our lives are so very different. The circumstances are dictating that our neighborhoods don’t mix — our lives don’t mix. I think there’s been a backlash against that. ¤
Shannon Luders-Manuel is a critical mixed race scholar and writer living in Los Angeles. Mostly because she had a scene in the book that reminded me of something that really happened to me and my grandmother when I was a kid. And it scares me to think about how much economics dictates so much of that at this point. Basically, all the contributors to that anthology were white writers who identify as white. And not like, “You were made out of love!,” in that stereotypical way. Schlund-Vials and Sean Patrick Forbes. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from New England College, and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University. Her proudly displayed tattoo of famous lines from her mentor Lucille Clifton beautifully sum up Betts’s own spirit:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? I think it’s problematic because if you are a mixed-race person or it’s clear that people can’t put you in a neat little box, you are going to experience racism and discrimination — or people stereotype you in really disrespectful and rude ways still, even in 2017. That makes a big difference in terms of how you look at the book, not just the composition of each person, but the geography and the time in which they grew up. If you’re a woman, if you’re queer, if you’re male, or if you’re along the gender spectrum. And hopefully this is just another book that maybe will end up on a library shelf, will end up on somebody’s coffee table, will end up somewhere — and the person who needs to read it will see it. I think I’m the youngest one out of the three. Everyone goes through that. You don’t feel as trapped being in one place. And what are the behaviors we need to change for that to start to shift. Virginia, the US Supreme Court case, and also people who are a little bit younger than that, or younger than me. I hope that it kind of dismisses this idea of the “tragic mulatto” that I think is far too deeply entrenched, in most stories where people think you don’t fit in. Even if you just identify as monoracial, you may have those parents or those great-grandparents, or grandparents, or the cousin … There’s somebody in your family who is probably going to resonate with some of the elements in these stories. In your introduction, you describe the way others saw you based on demographics and who you were with. What did you learn from the stories you selected for the anthology? But I also hope that it’s one of those things that shows that American stories are very complex — that they’re nuanced. [The police] see me in the car with her and pulled us over, thinking she had abducted me. It’s really problematic to kind of consider, how do we construct that? I mean, look at what happened to the president of the United States. What do you hope monoracial readers will glean from the anthology? And you see that really reflected in the introduction. You can recover from feeling like you aren’t these things, or feeling like people want to define you as those things. Especially if you think of Mat Johnson, or Emily Raboteau, or think about poets like Natasha Trethewey or Charif Shanahan, they’re doing really interesting things. i had no model. I think Heidi has been given a lot of legitimacy because she’s on such a great press, she’s really visible, she’s really friendly, she’s really outgoing, and she does have really interesting things to say. I think about some of these pieces where there are older contributors, like I mentioned earlier, and they’re writing about these times where I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be the person I am now, 20 or 30 years earlier. My heart goes out to other people when I hear they don’t have that. I mentioned in the book that my parents said there were race riots in Kankakee, Illinois — this tiny Midwestern town. TARA BETTS: I’ve had a working relationship with Gabrielle David, the founder and publisher of 2Leaf Press. You’re constantly anticipating these moments, I think, if you’re really aware of your position racially in the United States. ¤
SHANNON LUDERS-MANUEL: What led you, Cathy, and Sean to first want to create this anthology? I hope that however people identify, whether it’s monoracial or multiracial, or whatever category or label they use, that they think about that. Have there been books that necessarily haven’t gotten the press that they should have? Because that’s problematic too. I think we’re more on that level now, still. I made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed. The New York Times recently published an essay called “How Interracial Love Is Saving America.” You touch briefly on your feelings about that in your introduction to the anthology, citing Lauren Michele Jackson’s Buzzfeed article, “Why a New Mixed Race Generation Will Not Solve Racism.” Can you expand on why this utopian notion is problematic? Until we start to acknowledge that “American” can look like many different things, that’s not going to change. Even if we’re the same color, you don’t match your parents all the time. They trained me in other ways, like you better do good in school. I think there are painful moments in your childhood if you grow up with parents of different races, or there are moments when you become acutely aware of your existence surprising other people. She is the author of   Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide: Educators’ Guide   (2016). Sometimes I think you have multiple places to seek solace because of that. Do we necessarily have to match our parents? It was late at night. Why do you think the anthology is especially important in this era? I loved reading Nella Larsen [author of Quicksand], but I did not relate to [protagonist] Helga Crane. And they get pulled into this ideology that somehow this [segregation] is going to save them, and it’s not. And then too, how does gender play into that? I think they had called me a mutt or something. But I think other people need to know that this isn’t just you that this happens to, and it shows you how internalized racism tries to damage us. How did your varying histories, ethnicities, and professional walks help make the anthology well rounded? A Cave Canem graduate and recipient of the 1999 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, Betts is a native of the Chicago black poetry slam scene. She sits across from me at the table at which she was a panelist. Yes. But then there’s also this thing of different countries that comes into play. Did you plan for the release of the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Loving v. The coda of that story was he eventually left us alone, but he followed us home and watched us get out of the car, at her house. I’m thinking about F. Aside from the definitions imposed upon you, how did you see yourself? I think it’s been really interesting to read some of these narratives. I think there has also been this idea that, well, you know, Loving v. There are people who were born before Loving v. What’s the first book that really resonated with you in terms of your mixed-race identity? Douglas Brown’s piece, and he’s talking about: What does it mean to be a father? My grandmother, who basically presents as black — brown skin, broad features — took me home in the car with her. I was born seven years after that decision. What are the ramifications of having de facto segregation? Did you always embrace a mixed identity, or did that come later? Do you come to a book because it tells you compelling stories that you relate to? In particular because I think there’s a certain obscuring of racial history in the United States that’s happening right now, especially as our former President Obama has exited the White House, and we’ve never had that discussion before, about what does it mean to have a person of color in the White House. Virginia, that happened such a long time ago. And then Sean is talking a lot about, what does it mean to be of Caribbean descent and then also having different lineages that aren’t just strictly defined as the black/white dichotomy. I helped work on an anthology about whiteness in America. I think they tried to get a broad cross-section of people who represent that racial experience — that cultural identity that has identities within it. Was there any story that challenged you or broadened your understanding of the mixed experience even further? When the policeman flashed the light in her face, I jumped up in the car seat and said, “Why do you have that light in my grandmother’s face? He stopped me and he hugged me. But I think it was important to document that in the ways that she did it. born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself? The poor still look like a lot of people who I know and love. I think Heidi is doing a really great job, not just in terms of having a really compelling novel like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, which I love. I remember one time I got teased by a bunch of kids in my neighborhood, and my dad saw me just run into the house with tears streaming down my face, because I got teased so bad. I think this book does do that in many ways. You can recover from people verbally abusing you. Definitely we wanted it to coincide with the anniversary. Because of her, I heard about Michele Elam’s work and some other writers that I might not have heard about if it hadn’t been [for] her. They were like, “You are our child, there is nothing wrong with you.