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Complicating Race or Reproducing Whiteness? Heidi Durrow and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

[This is an excerpt from a paper (currently being revised) that I presented last month at the 2014 MELUS Conference in Oklahoma City.]

[…] Heidi Durrow is also the latest member of the mixed-experience generation to achieve widespread recognition following the publication of her deeply autobiographical first novel. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was published in 2010 after winning the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for a first novel that addresses social justice issues. It became a national bestseller in 2011, and is now available in French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a book that was repeatedly rejected by the traditional publishing industry.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky recounts the racialization, alienation, coming of age, and coming to multiracial consciousness of Durrow’s fictional intermediary, Rachel Morse. Rachel is the sole survivor of a heartbreaking tragedy: her Danish mother Nella jumps from a rooftop in Chicago with all her biracial children. After recovering, Rachel is sent to live with her paternal grandmother who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Her alcoholic father, an airman stationed overseas, has disappeared from her life. The year is 1982. Rachel is seen as a light-skinned black girl by her new family and by the surrounding community. From the 5th grade onward, she identifies herself as black, but is still ridiculed for talking white; she is both resented and desired for her good hair and blue eyes. In short, Durrow’s novel recounts from multiple perspectives how Rachel comes to understand the tragedy that claimed her mother and siblings, and in the process reclaim her Danish cultural memory, becoming Afro-Viking like Durrow.

Some commentators are troubled by Rachel’s evolution from light-skinned black girl to Afro-Viking and by the great deal of uncritical attention that Durrow has received from the mainstream media. They say that Durrow’s work implements and promotes the politics of the American Multiracial Movement. In other words, they see her as a multiracial activist who also happens to write fiction. Or, as Summer McDonald puts it in her article “Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity,” Durrow’s novel “is a fictional rendering of her real life politics.” In particular, McDonald and other commentators such as Rainier Spencer, Jared Sexton, and Steven F. Riley disagree with a central message conveyed by multiracial advocates and apparently by Durrow—namely, that asserting a mixed-race identity is a socially just and progressive act. In McDonald’s words, “mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness.” Put differently, mixed-race identity, and Durrow’s in particular, “…reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness—which it knows it can never access—and definitely above blackness.” Riley, who was a frequent contributor to Mixed Chicks Chat, agrees with McDonald; he adds that Durrow’s work reflects “her desire to be identified as ‘not black’” (“Canon” Responses).

Excuse the pun and my use of a template from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, but I have mixed feelings about Durrow’s work, which includes her novel, her festivals, her blog, podcasts, as well as her interviews in print and on YouTube. On the one hand, I think it is fair and useful for commentators to ask how Durrow’s work relates to white privilege and to the history of white supremacy. On the other hand, I think that Durrow’s novel (and other work) defies the limits of black/white America and ruptures the tradition of black/white passing narratives.

That said, many of the criticisms that commentators levy against multiracial advocates and mixed-race identity are spot on. Simply asserting a mixed-race identity in light of the popular formula “I’m not black, I’m not white; I’m both or mixed” is far from progressive or revolutionary. I concur with David Theo Goldberg’s point in “Made in the USA: Racial Mixing ‘N Matching” that “…the challenge to the project of racial purity in the celebration of mixed-race identities is at best ambiguous, (re)fixing the premises of the racializing project in place as it challenges that project’s very terms of articulation” (Racial Subjects 61). Put differently, popular versions of mixed-race identity generally work to reproduce race, rather than challenge and complicate it, insofar as most people who assert and/or celebrate mixed-race identities assume that races are real and that ethnic and racial group identities, histories, and cultures are stable and durable.

I also agree with the point that the mainstream media extends “the racializing project” when it presents interracial families, mixed-race children, and generation mixed as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of an impending post-racial America. As Jared Sexton (Amalgamation Schemes) and others have shown, the recent celebration of multiracials in the mainstream media assumes and privileges heterosexual unions between members of different races or ethnicities. The mixed children of these unions then are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their presumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents. This presumption about the transformative capacity of mixed-race children privileges heteronormativity, and also promotes the myth, which is not at all new to our era or country, that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help societies evolve beyond race and racism.

It is also the case that powerful political and corporate entities can easily co-opt and redeploy multiracials in ways that both sustain conventional racial taxonomies and divert public attention away from blackness, white privilege, and the work of anti-racist scholars and activists. In other words, multiracials can be (and have been) used by powerful entities, often in conjunction with the mainstream media, to reinforce and propagate the popular sentiment that America is moving beyond the race problem and by extension beyond the need to educate the public about blackness and the history of white supremacy.

The above-mentioned criticisms of multiracials certainly cast doubt on the goals that Durrow sets for her work, and specifically on her oft-repeated statement that her work aims to complicate race and dismantle racism. Put differently, her belief in the transformative potential of individuals like her asserting mixed-race identities and telling their complex mixed-roots stories might seem unfounded, confused, or even disingenuous after taking into consideration past uses and abuses of mixed race. At best, then, these stories might help to educate the public about racism, blackness, white supremacy, and other social justice issues. At worst, rather than helping to heal racial divisions within the individual and American society as Durrow hopes, these stories reinscribe and exacerbate them; rather than complicating race and dismantling racism, these stories work in the service of power to divert public attention away from blackness and white privilege. At any rate, these are the main conclusions that McDonald, Riley, and others have reached about Durrow’s work.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it is fair and accurate to cast Durrow as a spokesperson for American multiracial identity politics, and to claim that her Afro-Viking identity is a facsimile of mainstream media and advocacy versions of mixed-race identity. Do the creative goals of her work mirror the political goals of Susan Graham and other multiracial advocates? Does her conception of Afro-Viking identity match the conception of mixed-race identity that journalist Susan Saulny foregrounds in her Race Remixed series in the New York Times? Is Durrow clinging to the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable? How wedded is she to her Afro-Viking identity?

Let’s delve deeper.

When it comes to asserting her Afro-Viking identity in public, Durrow has been consistently playful and mercurial. She usually qualifies her commentary about her Afro-Viking identity with the assertions that she is also a story, and that she is constantly learning and changing. In other words, she stipulates that her identity changes from day to day. Some days she likes to call herself African American and Danish; other days Afro-Viking, a story, or just Heidi. She sometimes also says that she is not trying to be glib about her identity, and then makes the caveat that to her knowledge there are only twelve other Afro-Vikings in existence. Altogether, these comments imply that Afro-Viking is one facet of a larger personal identity that is compound and shifting.

Her comments about her Afro-Viking identity also imply that, unlike many multiracial activists and journalists, she does not buy into the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable. Though she uses racial and ethnic categories in asserting her Afro-Viking identity and personal narrative, her use of the categories is creative, witty, and particular to her, and, if we take her word for it, twelve other individuals. Hence, her conception and deployment of mixed-race identity would not provide useful support for a politics of identity on behalf of the purported new multiracial group. Indeed, her Afro-Viking identity with its emphasis on variability, creativity, and individuality defies conventional racial and ethnic group identity politics that obligate individual members to show pride in and conform to the cultural histories, beliefs, and mores of their particular groups. That is to say, when Durrow states that she is a proud Afro-Viking or proud mixed chick she is also being tongue-in-cheek.

[…] To conclude, McDonald’s move to limit Durrow’s work to the black/white framework is a fair one. However, this move diverts attention away from the fact that Durrow seems to want her work to also be about trying to move beyond the black/white framework—to discover/discuss/and tell of common experiences and perceptions amongst mixed individuals of various hues, backgrounds, and ethnic-racial mixes. In other words, Durrow seems to be interested in creating and supporting work that pursues and develops the possibility of a common mixed-experience aesthetic—or to borrow a term from artist/critic Wei Ming Dariotis—a “kin-aesthetic” among people of mixed heritage. Regarding this possibility, Durrow needs to write and say so much more. Hence, the work that she produces (or fails to produce) in the next decade or two should be telling in regard to her artistic vision and its relationship to whiteness and white privilege.

 

 

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A Review of One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval

Gino Pellegrini

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.

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