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.