Is Fanshen a noun, a verb, or an adjective? Is it a who or a what? What does it have to do with the history of race and racism? Or, as Grandma Cynthia puts it, “De next time you talk to your mommy an’ your daddy, ahsk dem for me – what in God’s name is a Fanshen?…Why dem give you dat name?”
These are some of the central questions that Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni addresses in her brilliant and timely one-woman show, One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval.
I am present for Fanshen’s debut performance on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at the Arena Theater on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. The Arena is small, intimate, packed, and a few people have traveled across the country to see this debut. I sit in the front row with my good friend Rocco Robinson, and we notice right away that the audience is relaxed, friendly, and excited; the set is simple, arousing, and well thought out.
Fanshen is an educator, a writer, a film maker, and an accomplished actor who recently played a part in Argo, the Academy’s Best Picture for 2012. Fanshen is also well known within the nascent multiracial community for being the co-creator and co-host (with Heidi Durrow) of the award-winning podcast series, Mixed Chicks Chat (2007-2012) and of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival (2008-2012). Both projects have been instrumental in making the public more aware of the so-called mixed experience, and of the growing number of critical and creative works about multiracial lives and issues.
Both collaborative projects have also been a means for Fanshen and Heidi to come to a deeper understanding of their own mixed experiences and identities, which, in turn, has facilitated the development of their own creative works. Heidi was the first Mixed Chick to gain national recognition for her bestselling novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010). Now it is Fanshen’s turn to deconstruct longstanding racial assumptions, traditions, and allegiances with her own hybrid, experimental work.
One Drop of Love emphasizes the history of the construct of race from the 1700s to the present. More specifically, the interrelated American history of race and the decennial Census constitutes the factual and visual backdrop against which Fanshen performs her own personal history and evolution. Fanshen plays herself at different junctures in her life and, using multiple dialects and gestures, fifteen other characters (including her family) of different ages, genders, nationalities, and ethno-racial-cultural backgrounds. Though the subject matter is difficult, her acting ability helps her engage, entertain, touch, and enthrall her audience. Considered altogether, her multiple character depictions and interactions expose into view how the history of race–in conjunction with a shared belief in static racial categories, values, identities, and traditions–impacts intimate relationships, social opportunities, self-perception, and personal growth.
One Drop of Love is also a compelling story that conveys many universal themes such as love, forgiveness, doubt, determination, and the daughter-father bond. The main conflict of the story is Fanshen’s misperception of her father’s failure in 2005 to come to her wedding in Jamaica. This painful event prompts her to reassess her relationship with him and to investigate her entire family history. This event also motivates her to think critically about her own complex and debilitating experiences with race and racism, and about the implications and possibilities of becoming multiracial.
Why does Fanshen need to reveal her painful and complicated multiracial experiences? The first answer has to do with education. Fanshen is an educator who cares deeply about others, and through her show she wants to challenge her audience to think anew about the history of race and its lasting influence on society, families, and individuals. Moreover, Fanshen wants to counter the widespread notion that multiracials like her are representative of an emergent post-racial America. In actuality, her multiracial experiences and the ways in which others read her ambiguous body evidence the evolution and continued presence of race and racism in American culture.
The second answer has to do with Fanshen’s struggle to assert, define, and develop her own unique mixed persona. This particular aspect of One Drop of Love correlates with the work of Rebecca Walker, the author of Black, White, and Jewish (2001) and Baby Love (2007), and specifically with a statement that she makes in a Conversation from the Cullman Center with writer Danzy Senna. Walker states “that [she] had to write the books that [she] did…to claim [her] own subjectivity…[and] to create a self-defining beinghood…” that breaks from the expectations and “mythologies” of the Civil Rights Movement that were “projected” upon her by her parents and by society (21:30-25:55).
Like Walker and Senna, Fanshen is a Movement child, the product of a 1960s interracial marriage between two socially conscious, liberal, idealistic, and well-intended individuals who resisted the racist culture of the black-white color line to be together. In the 1960s, they believed that through their interracial union, social activism, and mixed race children (Fanshen and her brother) they were helping to overcome race and racism, and helping to transform society for the better.
As Mama Trudy puts it, “And Fanshen. Don’t Forget. Your father and I made you on purpose.”
In light of their shared purpose, they named Fanshen after the title of William Hinton’s 1966 classic book about the Communist Revolution in China. This is one of the more surprising and thought-provoking moments in the show. Fanshen is a Mandarin word that literally means to turn over, free oneself, and stand up. Hinton’s book documents the redistribution of property, wealth, and resources to the Chinese peasantry, and examines the collective efforts among leaders to create new villages unburdened by racial and class beliefs, divisions, and antagonisms.
In naming their daughter after the book Fanshen, her parents projected upon her being and body their own Movement ideals and wishes. In other words, Fanshen was supposed to be a symbol of her parent’s late-1960s notion of a Civil Rights Movement Xanadu…By the mid-1970s they were divorced.
Unaware of the impact that race was having on her sense of self and belonging, Fanshen unknowingly followed in her father’s footsteps to gain his racial approval. In the 1970s, her father became a committed Pan-Africanist who believed in the idea of an authentic Pan-African Black identity. In parallel fashion, Fanshen, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, joined the Black Student Union and asserted herself racially as Black. After college, 1993 Fanshen, like her father two decades earlier, felt the need to travel to Africa to reconnect with her African roots. She joined the Peace Corps and taught English to high-school age students in the Cape Verdean Islands, West Africa.
To her surprise, the local Cape Verdeans did not really recognize her Black identity. They were unfamiliar with the American history of race and with the one-drop rule, which defines an individual with any amount of African ancestry as Black. Indeed, she recounts an incident where one of her Cape Verdean students mistook the pictures of Malcolm, Martin, and Maya Angelou on the walls of her home for her father, brother, and mother.
Instead of leaving her with a stronger sense of racial certitude, belonging, and identity, Fanshen’s African homecoming rendered her more racially wounded and confused. Her actual interactions with the Cape Verdean locals exposed her and her father’s shared belief in the narrative of Pan-Africanism and in the notion of an authentic Pan-African Black identity as flawed and overly romantic.
In a like manner to Walker and Senna, Fanshen has come to realize after much reflection from 2005 to the present that her experiential lived life and ambiguous body have often been at odds with the narratives (integrationist and cultural pluralist) of the Civil Rights Movement which shaped the racial identities, values, goals, and practices of her parents and of countless other groups, personas, and institutions. Similar to the works of Walker and Senna, One Drop of Love exposes into view shortcomings and ruptures in these narratives.
Fanshen has also come to realize that racial identities are fluid, contingent, variable, and performed. Racial categories, meanings, values, and images are also subject to social, historical, and economic changes. Fanshen demonstrates that individuals can study and negotiate the construct of race, and work on its limits and meanings. For instance, Fanshen critiques and alters the established meaning of the one drop rule, which is based on racial hate, by replacing “rule” with love.
In conclusion, Fanshen and One Drop of Love are evolving from one performance to the next. She plans to take her show on the road to colleges, universities, and to other venues across the country. Her most recent performance was on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. One Drop of Love will also become a documentary that will include clips from her various performances and of audience members who share their thoughts on race and racism right after the show. Of minor import, the production team now includes Ben Affleck, Chay Carter, and Matt Damon. Don’t miss it. One Drop of Love is major.