In 1517, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things…”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell”
“But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”
—Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans
“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
There is a millennia-old philosophical experiment that has perplexed minds as fine and diverse as those of Socrates, Plutarch, and John Locke. It’s called Theseus’s Paradox (or the Ship of Theseus), and the premise is this: The mythical founding-king of Athens kept a thirty-oar ship docked in the Athenian harbor. The vessel was preserved in a sea-worthy state through the continual replacement of old timber planks with new ones, piecemeal, until the question inevitably arose: After all of the original planks have been replaced by new and different planks, is it still, in fact, the same ship?
For some time now, a recurring vision has put me in mind of Theseus and those shuffling pieces of wood. Only, it’s people I see and not boats: a lineage of people distending over time. At the end of the line, there is a teenage boy with fair skin and blond hair and probably light eyes, seated at a café table somewhere in Europe. It is fifty or sixty years into the future. And this boy, gathered with his friends, is glibly remarking—in the dispassionate tone of one of my old white Catholic-school classmates claiming to have Cherokee or Iroquois blood—that as improbable as it would seem to look at him, apparently he had black ancestors once upon a time in America. He says it all so matter-of-factly, with no visceral aspect to the telling. I imagine his friends’ vague surprise, perhaps a raised eyebrow or two or perhaps not even that—and if I want to torture myself, I can detect an ironic smirk or giggle. Then, to my horror, I see the conversation grow not ugly or embittered or anything like that but simply pass on, giving way to other lesser matters, plans for the weekend or questions about the menu perhaps. And then it’s over. Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a whole vibrant and populated world collapse without a trace. I see an entirely different ship.
I met my wife in a bar off of the Place de laBataille de Stalingrad, in Paris. That was almost five years ago. At the time, I was at the end of my twenties and in the middle of one of the only legitimate bachelor phases I’ve enjoyed as an adult. Otherwise, there had been a series of more or less monogamous relationships of varying lengths: a frivolous year surfing couches with a Gujarati girl from Toronto; a poignant stint in Buenos Aires with an elegant black girl from Virginia; eight perfect then imperfect and seemingly inexorable years with a Nigerian-Italian chef from uptown Manhattan (with an interlude of six intensely felt months in college with my French TA, an exchange student from Nancy); and four turbulent teenage years with my first love, someone LL Cool J could easily describe as an around-the-way girl, from Plainfield, New Jersey. But on that clear January night, in a warm bar overlooking the frigid canal, there was no one else, and I was accountable solely to myself.
Valentine came with a mutual friend, sat down catty-corner to me and—who knows how these things actually work—something in her bearing triggered a powerful response. I found her insouciant pout and mane of curls flowing over the old fur coat she was bundled in exotic. We hardly spoke, but before I left, I gave her my e-mail address on the chance she found herself in New York, where I was living at the time. Two months later, while there on a reporting assignment, Valentine wrote me, and we met a few days later for a drink. That was when I discovered that she was funny and not really insouciant at all, just shy about her English. It turned out we had a lot in common. I saw her a second time a month later in New York and then again on a work trip to Paris two months after that. Summer had just begun, and we fell in love extremely fast. When it was time to go home, she asked me to change my itinerary and join her in Corsica for a week. I did, and when it was really time to leave, she promised to visit me that August in New York. A few days after she landed, I proposed on a rooftop in Brooklyn, overlooking the Empire State Building and the orange Manhattan sky.
In retrospect, it had been a very long time by then since I’d thought of myself as having any kind of type. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was simply the more I’d studied at large universities, the more I’d traveled and lived in big cities, the more women I’d encountered at home and away—which is just to say the more I’d ventured from my own backyard and projected myself into the world—the more I found myself unwilling to preemptively cordon off any of it. And yet—however naïve this could seem now—I had somehow always also taken for granted that, when the time came to have them, my children would, like me, be black.
A year ago to the day that I write this, Valentine’s water broke after a late dinner. In a daze of elation, we did what we’d planned for weeks and woke our brother-in-law, who gamely drove us from our apartment in the northern ninth arrondissement to the maternité, all the way on Paris’s southern edge. At two in the morning, we had the streets practically to ourselves, and the route he took—down the hill from our apartment, beneath the greened copper and gold of the opera house and through the splendor of the Louvre’s courtyard, with its pyramids of glass and meticulous gardens, over the River Seine, with Notre Dame rising in the distance on one side and the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower shimmering on the other, and down the wide, leafy Boulevards Saint-Germain and Raspail, into Montparnasse, through that neon intersection of cafés from the pages of A Moveable Feast—was unspeakably gorgeous. I am not permanently awake to Paris’s beauty or even its strangeness, but that night, watching the city flit by my window, it did strike me that such a place—both glorious and fundamentally not mine—would be my daughter’s hometown.
Another twenty-four hours elapsed before Marlow arrived. When Valentine finally went into labor, even I was delirious with fatigue and not so much standing by her side as levitating there, sustained by raw emotion alone and thinking incoherently at best. On the fourth or fifth push, I caught a snippet of the doctor’s rapid-fire French: “something, something, something, tête dorée…” It took a minute before my sluggish mind registered and sorted the sounds; and then it hit me that she was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond. The rest is the usual blur. I caught sight of a tray of placenta, heard a brand-new scream, and nearly fainted. The nurses whisked away my daughter, the doctor saw to my wife, and I was left to wander the empty corridor until I found the men’s room, where I shut myself and wept, like all the other newborns on the floor—a saline cascade of joy and exhaustion, terror and awe mingling together and flooding out of me in unremitting sobs. When, finally, I’d washed my face and returned to meet my beautiful, healthy child, she squinted open a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown. For this precious little being grasping for milk and breath, I felt the first throb of what has been every minute since then the sincerest love I know. An hour or so after that, when Valentine and the baby were back in their room for the night, I fell into a taxi, my own eyes absentmindedly retracing that awfully pretty route. For the first time I can remember, I thought of Theseus’s ship.
I realize now that this vision of the boy from the future I’ve had in my head for the past year traces itself much further back into the past. It must necessarily stretch back at least to 1971, in San Diego, where my father, who was—having been born in 1937 in Jim Crow Texas—the grandson of a woman wed to a man born before the Emancipation Proclamation, met my mother, the native-Californian product of European immigrants from places as diverse as Austria-Hungary, Germany, England, and France. This unlikely courtship came all of four years after the Loving v. Virginia verdict repealed antimiscegenation laws throughout the country. In ways that are perhaps still impossible for me to fully appreciate, their romance amounted to a radical political act, though now, some four decades on, it seems a lot less like any form of defiance than like what all successful marriages fundamentally must be: the obvious and undeniable joining of two people who love and understand each other enormously.
But that’s not the beginning, either. This trajectory I now find myself on no more starts in San Diego than in Paris. Not since it is extremely safe to assume that my father, with his freckles, with his mother’s Irish maiden name, and with his skin a shade of brown between polished teak and red clay, did not arrive from African shores alone. As James Baldwin, perspicacious as ever, noted of his travels around precisely the kind of segregated Southern towns my father would instantly recognize as home, the line between “whites” and “coloreds” in America has always been traversed and logically imprecise: “the prohibition … of the social mingling [revealing] the extent of the sexual amalgamation.” There were (and still are): “Girls the color of honey, men nearly the color of chalk, hair like silk, hair like cotton, hair like wire, eyes blue, gray, green, hazel, black, like the gypsy’s, brown like the Arab’s, narrow nostrils, thin, wide lips, thin lips, every conceivable variation struck along incredible gamuts.…” Indeed, to be black (or white) for any significant amount of time in America is fundamentally to occupy a position on the mongrel spectrum—strict binaries have always failed spectacularly to contain this elementary truth.
And yet in spite of that, I’ve spent the past year trying to think my way through the wholly absurd question of what it means for a person to be or not to be black. It’s an existential Rubik’s Cube I thought I’d solved and put away in childhood. My parents were never less than adamant on the point that both my older brother and I are black. And the in many ways simpler New Jersey world we grew up in—him in the seventies and eighties, me in the eighties and nineties—tended to receive us that way without significant protest, especially when it came to other blacks. This is probably because, on a certain level, every black American knows what, again, Baldwin knew: “Whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe…his ancestors are both white and black.” Still, in the realm of lived experience, race is nothing if not an improvisational feat, and it would be in terribly bad faith to pretend there is not some fine, unspoken, and impossible-to-spell-out balance to all of this. And so I cannot help but wonder if indeed a threshold—the full consequences of which I may or may not even see in my own lifetime—has been crossed. (It’s not a wholly academic exercise, either, since my father was an only child and in the past year my brother married and had a daughter with a woman from West Siberia.)
“Aw, son,” Pappy chuckled warmly when he cradled Marlow in his arms the first time, “she’s just a palomino !” There was—indeed, there still is—something so comforting to me in his brand of assurance. It’s certainly true that in his day and in his fading Texas lexicon, black people could be utterly unflappable when presented with all kinds of improbable mélanges, employing a near infinitude of esoteric terms (not infrequently drawn from the world of horse breeding, which can sound jarring to the contemporary ear) to describe them. I myself had to whip out my iPhone and Google palomino (“a pale golden or tan-colored horse with a white mane and tail, originally bred in the southwestern US”), but I’d also grown up with other vocabulary, like “high-yellow” and “mulatto,” and in my father’s house if nowhere else, those now-anachronistic and loaded terms “quadroon” and “octoroon.”
What bizarre words these are. But what a perfectly simple reality they labor to conceal and contain. When you get all the way down to it, what all these elaborate, nebulous descriptors really signify is nothing more complicated than that, in the not-so-distant past, if she did not willfully break from her family and try her luck at passing for white (in the fashion of, say, the Creole author of Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard), Marlow, blue eyes and all, would have been disenfranchised and subjugated like all the rest of us—the wisdom, discipline, and brilliant style of American blackness would have been her birthright, as well. And so there was for a long time something that could be understood as a more or less genuinely unified experience—not without its terrible hardships but conversely rife with profound satisfactions—which had nothing, or very close to nothing, to do with genetics. Indeed, even though the absurdity of race is always most pellucid at the margins, my daughter’s case wouldn’t even have been considered marginal in the former slave states where theories about hypo-descent were most strictly observed and a person with as undetectable an amount as one thirty-second “black blood” could be “legally” designated “colored.” Which is only to say, despite all of the horrifically cruel implications of so-called one-drop laws, until relatively quite recently there was a space reserved for someone like Marlow fully within the idea of what used to be called the American Negro.
But it is not hard to notice that impulse toward unquestioning inclusiveness (as a fully justifiable and admirable reaction to exclusiveness) is going in an increasing number of precincts wherever it is terms like Negro go to retire. The reason has less to do with black people suddenly forgetting their paradoxical origins than with the idea of whiteness continually growing, however reluctantly, less exclusive. With greater than a third of the American population now reporting at least one family member of a different race and with, since the year 2000, the option to select any combination of races on the census form, the very idea of black Americans as a fundamentally mulatto population is fraying at the seams.
Perhaps, then, mine is the last American generation for which the logic—and illogic—of racial classifications could so easily contradict, or just gloss over, the physical protestations and nuances of the body and face. Which is one of the reasons it did initially take me by such surprise to find so many recessive traits flourishing in my daughter. I was being forced to confront a truth I had, if not forgotten, certainly lost sight of for some time: My daughter does not, as so many well-meaning strangers and friends tend to put it, just “get those big blue eyes” from her mother. But despite the length and narrowness of my own nose and the beige hue of my skin, I’ve always only been able to see in the mirror a black man meeting my gaze. One word I have never connected or been tempted to connect with myself is biracial. The same goes for its updated variant, multiracial. Growing up where and as I did, before the turn of the last century, it simply would not have occurred to me to refer to myself by either of those designations.
The first time I lived in France, some twelve years ago to teach English in a depressed and depressing industrial town along the northern border with Belgium, I often went to kebab shops late at night in which I would sometimes be greeted in Arabic. Once the young Algerian behind the counter simply demanded of me, “Parle arabe! Parle arabe!” and all I could do was stare at him blankly. “But why did your parents not teach you to speak Arabic!” he implored me, first in a French I hardly followed and then in an exasperated and broken English.
“Because I’m American,” I finally replied.
“Yes, but even in America,” he pressed on, “why did they not teach you your language?”
“Because I’m not an Arab,” I laughed uncomprehendingly, and for several beats he just looked at me.
“But your origins, what are your origins?”
“Black,” I shrugged, and I can still see the look of supreme disbelief unspool on that man’s face. “But you are not black,” he nearly screamed. “Michael Jordan is black!”
It was an astonishingly discomfiting experience, this failure of my identity to register and, once registered, to be accepted, but one I gradually grew used to and now, after half a decade living in France, for better or worse have come to scarcely notice at all. Though it isn’t just Arabs who mistake me for one of their own. Whites outside of the States are just as often oblivious to gradations of blackness. On my first trip to Paris as a student in a summer study-abroad program, some classmates and I bought ice cream behind Notre Dame. When we sat at a table on the river, a white American tourist who’d overheard us speaking confessed he was homesick and asked if he could join us. He was very friendly and younger than we were, and I can no longer recall the details of what he’d said, but very quickly he recounted an extremely off-color joke about blacks. When no one laughed and one of my friends explained his error to him, he blushed deeply, and said by way of excuse that he’d simply assumed I was Italian.
What these encounters and many others showed me in my early adulthood is something I should have known already but failed to fully grasp: Like the adage about politics, all race is local. This makes perfect sense, of course, given the basic biological reality that there is no such thing, on any measurable scientific level, as distinct races of the species homo sapiens. Rather, we all make, according to our own geographical and cultural orientations, inferences about people based on the loose interplay of physical traits, language, custom, and nationality, all of which necessarily lack any fixed or universal meaning (to be sure, this is not just a black thing—for most of American history it was widely held that northern and southern Europeans constituted entirely separate races). It is this fungible aspect of personal identity that bestows such a liberating (and at turns oppressive) quality to travel. In the case of coming to France in particular, this very failure to be seen and interpreted as one would be back home was, of course, a major selling point in the previous century for a not insignificant number of American blacks, primarily G.I.’s and artists but other types, too, who found an incredible degree of freedom from racialized stigma in Paris. For many of these expatriates, it was not that the color of their skin went unnoticed; it didn’t. It is instead that it carried a crucially different set of meanings and lacked others still. France long functioned as a haven for American black people—and has never been confused as such for African and Caribbean blacks—precisely because, unlike in the US, we’ve been understood here first and foremost as American and not as black.
In one of the more exceptional meditations on James Baldwin and his European years, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village,’” the Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole in the New Yorker retraces a 1951 trip the writer made to Leukerbad, Switzerland, a far-flung, then all-white locale in which that very same sense of dignity that Baldwin had discovered in Paris was not always extended to him. Specifically, Cole returns again and again to his essay’s true theme, which is an exploration of the various yokes, both visible and unseen, that act upon black-looking “bodies” and therefore an awful lot of black psyches:
Leukerbad gave Baldwin a way to think about white supremacy from its first principles. It was as though he found it in its simplest form there. The men who suggested that he learn to ski so that they might mock him, the villagers who accused him behind his back of being a firewood thief, the ones who wished to touch his hair and suggested that he grow it out and make himself a winter coat, and the children who “having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish” as he approached: Baldwin saw these as prototypes (preserved like coelacanths) of attitudes that had evolved into the more intimate, intricate, familiar, and obscene American forms of white supremacy that he already knew so well.
Even as he rejects what he interprets as Baldwin’s “self-abnegation” in the face of European high culture—“What he loves does not love him in return … This is where I part ways with Baldwin”—and as he evinces a seemingly fuller appreciation of the limitlessness of his own intellectual, artistic, and frankly human birthrights—“I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait”—Cole also repeatedly encases the entirety of the existential experience of blackness in the physical stigmas of an obviously black body. “To be black,” he writes, “is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.”
My father would certainly recognize this feeling of restricted being-in-the-world, and it is what he vigilantly reared me to brace myself for, though it has hardly ever been more than vicariously mine. To my knowledge, I’ve never been followed in a store, people don’t cross the street when I approach, and the sole instance I’ve ever been pulled over in a car, I was absolutely speeding. But then again there was that time, years ago in Munich, when I was inexplicably not allowed inside that same nightclub my Irish-American friend was made to feel more than welcome to enter. By orders of magnitude, I can grasp what it would mean to endure such slights daily and the doubt and sensitivity they would engender. And so although there has been some ambiguity attached to my own nonwhite body, what I am most certain about in all of this—and perhaps this is a source of paradoxical anxiety for me—is that there will not be any with regard to my daughter’s. She will not be turned away from that door or others just like it. And so as she grows and looks at me and smiles, all the while remaining innocent of all of this, I am left with some questions and they are urgent ones: What, exactly, remains of the American Negro in my daughter? Is it nothing but an expression playing around the eyes; the slightest hint of lemon in the epidermis? Is it possible to have black consciousness in a body that does not in any way look black?
On this point, not only Cole but also the preponderance of contemporary commentators on the subject, who cloak so much of the messiness and contradiction of lived experience in neat critical-race jargon and theories of the constructed body, do not have answers for me. I find myself looking instead to the unorthodox, self-styled Negro thinkers of the twentieth-century and today, whose insights into American life in so many ways remain prescient and unrivaled. I’m thinking specifically of Albert Murray, though I’m also thinking of Ralph Ellison and Stanley Crouch. I find myself returning over and over again, in particular, to Murray’s masterpiece, the ingenious and criminally neglected 1970 collection of essays and flat-out good sense, The Omni-Americans, and also to Crouch’s wonderful commentary on it in his own collection, Always in Pursuit. One of Murray’s signature issues, which even today too often goes de-emphasized or unsaid, is the simple fact that race—though not racism—is at its core a form of “social science fiction,” and that identity, above all, is a matter of culture. For Murray, crucially, what we are really talking about is not even race at all but ethnicity. To be black, then, could never be merely a matter of possessing one kind of body versus another (as any Dravidian or Melanesian would know). What Murray understood is “exactly what Ellison had made clear before him,” writes Crouch. “Polemical reductions, if believed and acted upon, were capable of draining away all of the human complexities and the cultural facts of American life, which were far different from the patters and policies of prejudice.” In other words, it would be insane to let one’s own sense of self and history be determined by a nightclub bouncer or a beat cop.
Nonetheless, it’s difficult to shake the sense that I have arrived at a certain bind, in many ways similar to the one familiar to secular Jews. The purpose of all these generations of struggle, I know, has always been the freedom to choose—and yet it is precisely this coveted autonomy that threatens now to annihilate the very identity that won it in the first place.
From time to time, feelings something like panic creep in. On the one hand, there is the acute and very specific panic of wondering if I have indeed permanently altered the culture or “race” or ethnicity or, yes, the very physiognomy of an entire line of people, like a freight train slowly but irrevocably switching tracks. On the other, there is the subtler, lower-decibel, gnawing panic, which manifests as a plain awareness of the unearned advantage. It is impossible not to feel that. At a time when, despite all of the tremendous societal progress, blackness—certainly not always but especially at that vexed intersection with poverty or the cultural signifiers of such—is still subject to all manner of violation and disrespect; at a time when blacks continue to be stopped, frisked, stalked, harassed, choked-out, and drilled with bullets in broad daylight and left in the street—what does it mean to have escaped a fate? Put baldly, what is proximity to whiteness worth and what does color cost? And the reverse?
These are questions I don’t yet know how to answer. What I do know is that I used to not just tolerate but submit to and even on some deep level need our society’s dangerous assumptions about race, even as I suspected them to be irredeemably flawed. It is so much easier to sink deeper into a lukewarm bath than to stand up and walk away. But for my daughter’s sake if not my own, I can’t afford to linger any longer. Now if I find liberation in moments of doubt, it comes with the one movement I always end up having to make, indeed the only movement I can make—away from the abstract, general, and hypothetical and back into the jagged grain of the here and now, into the specificity of my love for my father, mother, brother, wife, and daughter, and into my sheer delight in their existence as distinct and irreplaceable people, not bodies or avatars or sites of racial characteristics and traits. With them, I am left with myself as the same, as a man and a human being who is free to choose and who has made choices and is ultimately fulfilled.
Yet I know that is also not enough. If the point is for everyone to build ships, set sail, and be free, if we are collectively ever going to solve this infinitely trickier paradox of racism in the absence of races, we are, all of us—black, white, and everything in between—going to have to do considerably more than contemplate façades. An entirely new framework must be built. This one’s rotten to the core.
Thank you for this essay. I appreciate it so much. My daughter is both an American of African descent (Black) and European British. I'm Black and her date is white British. Explain race to her has been a conodrum because it's forced me to unravel my preconceived and learned perceptions of race, ethnicity and humanism. Thanks so much for sharing your journey. When the time comes, I am going to share this with my daughter.
I agree. The author has very little black DNA himself and his daughter has no black racial characteristics. She is white with "black blood" meaning her ancestors were not white. She's a white girl with a part black father to the white world. Hopefully her parents aren't so hung up on their social agenda as to torment this kid with "you're black!" foolishness.
Alex, what do you mean by black DNA? It is my understanding that, scientifically, there is no such thing. We are all biologically human beings, and there are no biologically distinct races with different DNA. Willaims states this in the articles when he quotes Murray: "race is at its core a form of “social science fiction,” and identity, above all, is a matter of culture."
What I took away from the article was not that Mr. Williams was planning to "torment" is daughter by imposing a particular racial identity on her, but that he was just being honest with us, the readers, about the difficulties and the freedoms of existing in a sort of in-between space, where his own racial identity is not so cut and dry.
I got the impression Mr. Williams, rather than telling his daughter that she is "white" or "black," is probably the type of guy who will just be honest with her about where she comes from and give her the tools and guidance to let her to form her own sense of racial identity.
Would love to hear more about your experience.
I didn't really get the sense that he wanted to impose any particular identity on his child. Seemed like he was just being honest about the complexities of his own experience. Was there a specific section or sentence that rubbed you the wrong way?