Do I Have Any Right to Say I’m Black?

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Kersh received a very convoluted and emotional email from me all because of this line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “the quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand” (Whitman stanza 15, line 16). I had never heard or read the word “quadroon” before, but from the context of the quote, I figured it was some sort of label for one’s right to blackness – a label I’ve been searching for my whole life.

According to Google, the definition of “quadroon” is, “a person who is one-quarter black by descent,” and right next to its classification as a noun, it says, “offensive / dated.” In the moments before it hit me that this was just another way for white people in the era of slavery to reduce a human being’s worth by literally reducing their status as a person to only a percentage, I was ecstatic because I finally thought I had found a word that described me – a girl whose father is fully white, whose mother is half black, half white, and whose skin tone and hair texture provide no clues to curious strangers as to what race I actually am. My entire extended family is white because my mom didn’t know her dad too well, my education is white, taught to me by white, Catholic women in the context of white-washed American textbooks, my speech is white, my name is white, and even my little brother (who has the same parents as me) came out with blonde hair, blue eyes, and nearly translucent white skin. And yet my skin is just brown enough not to be white; it’s more of a beige color, like that of certain cardboards or toothpicks. Ultimately, what this means is that everything in my life is white… except my skin color, my mom’s skin color, and my mom’s kinky black hair that she still despises. My mother never taught me how to be black, she taught me how to explain to people, when I am asked because I’m always asked, that I’m not fully so.

“When I was a child I lived wrapped in secret words, words that no one spoke in ordinary conversation. These words terrified and thrilled me; I pulled them close to imagination… Whenever I found clues that others used these words I hid the clues under my bed, between my books. Those words must not escape, no one should know I even knew them, much less that I felt them, held them in my hands, cupped my hands over my ears until the forbidden words were all I could hear, pressed the words to my eyes until the images the words made were the only ones I could see” (Dykewomon, “Introduction to Belly Songs”).

If I were born only a few centuries before, I would not have had the privilege to explain away my blackness. I would’ve been labeled a quadroon, placed on that auction stand while Walt Whitman, who considers himself beyond human, observes from afar and makes me part of himself as if it’s an honor, to be sold away to some white man who is considered wholly human, while I am literally and metaphorically deemed less than. In a way, the word “quadroon” is what “fat” and “lesbian” are to Elana Dykewomon in the passage above.  But I’m not sure I want to reclaim this word just yet; I’m not convinced I have any real right to. For now, I am simply adding this forbidden word to the expanding mirage of images I have to understand my identity in the confines of my imagination.

8 thoughts on “Do I Have Any Right to Say I’m Black?”

  1. Wow, reading this brought tears to my eyes. As someone who has a parent who is non-white but was brought up in a very white-washed nature, I can relate to many things you mentioned. In addition, your writing reminded me of Audre Lorde’s Zami, when she discusses her continuous struggle with others interpreting who she was and judging her based on the color of her skin as opposed to anything else. As someone who has very light skin but has a father with dark skin, I related to what you shared about attempting to make sense of your identity in regards to how you appear to others. Lorde’s writing on the constant comments targeted at her skin tone provide an interesting opposition to experiences of light-presenting mixed-race individuals who, quite the oppositely, find a sense of uncertainty in where they stand in relation to a certain group identity. It would be interesting to explore the impact and experiences of individuals coming to terms with their racial identities in relation to how much they feel they are able to represent a specific culture or not.

    1. Hi there! Let me start off by saying that this comment really meant a lot to me. This was a very scary thing for me to post because I was genuinely concerned that my situation was too unique to be at all relatable to anyone, so it was beyond comforting to read a response that took what I was trying to express and reiterated a shared feeling so eloquently. I literally screamed “Yes! Exactly!” when I read that you related to, as you phrased it, “attempting to make sense of your identity in regards to how you appear to others.” Thank you for giving me these words that truly encapsulate exactly how I’ve existed thus far.

  2. Thanks for the post,
    It’s absolutely evocative, visceral, and personal. I admire your venture into this bewildering territory; and even such projection of your ancestors onto your contemporary body marks an act of rememebering and madenning. The title is a question that is never to be satisfactorily answered in the confines of the American (often dichotomous) reality. I don’t know what to say more of this because it must be you who can come to terms with yourself. Coming to terms here perhaps does not mean settling into a specific identity, but it can also be finding comfort and yourself within liminality of race, of body, etc. I think, whether they realize it or not, everyone are steeped in liminality and working/nagivating within what they think they are against. Perhaps I make no sense here. Good luck!

    1. You made perfect sense! This was such a beautiful collection of thoughts, and although, like you said, this is primarily a path I must take alone, it is definitely comforting to know that there is someone rooting for me and wishing me luck on my journey. I have always struggled with feeling like I didn’t belong to this nor that in so many aspects of my identity, especially race, and I’m just starting to understand that while the American reality is heavily built upon dichotomies, my identity doesn’t have to be.

  3. This was such an interesting read. I wonder how other mixed-race/bi-racial folks feel about the usage of a word like quadroon? I know mulatto is still kind of left in its negative existence, and I don’t see biracial folks going anywhere near it anytime soon.

    I’m also curious to know if you embrace the culture of Blackness since you were raised in a wholly or mostly White environment. Is there anything you’ve gravitated towards as you got older that made you rethink your identity and relation to race? I mostly approach this topic from a point of curiosity and some ignorance, so forgive me if I’m out of line, but I really hope you find some clarity and perspective because of how unique this experience is.

    1. I wonder how other mixed-race/biracial people feel about this word too! I also (selfishly) want to know how they feel about me – whether they think I’m black enough to embrace this culture. I feel like I need permission from somebody in order to immerse myself in it, but I don’t know from who. Since I grew up in such a white-washed environment, I have only recently begun to educate myself on the true history of black Americans and all the ways in which their past struggles have created community and art for today’s world. As I got older, I’ve gravitated towards this history as I’ve talked about my own life growing up as a seemingly racially ambiguous child who always had other deem what I was before asking me to my peers and some of my professors. Also, some of the material we’ve read in this class has sparked my interest further. Thank you for wanting to know more! It really means a lot to me!

  4. Thank you so much for this insightful blog post and sharing a glimpse of your life story. When relating it back to Susan Stinson’s poems, Belly Songs, I agree it is up to each individual’s choice to decide whether they would like to reclaim a potentially harmful term. I personally have never heard of the term “quadroon” and I am still not entirely sure if it is offensive for me to even write out. I believe in an attempt to push furthermore for the so what question you can talk about the implications the difficulty there is behind wanting to find a term to identify yourself with. The feelings that follow uncertainty when asked the question of one’s identity. In all, this was a beautiful blog post that was such an insightful reading.

    1. It’s relieving to know that I’m not the only person who’s never heard it before, honestly. I’ve been searching for the language to explain my identity for so long, and it was weird because before I had even looked up the definition, I felt a sense of belonging in the word “quadroon.” I really do wonder if I hadn’t been questioned about my identity for so much of my life if I would be struggling like this now, and if I would’ve subconsciously recognized the word in the same way. I appreciate your comment a lot, and I thank you for pushing me to consider things I had never done so before.

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