Snapshots in Black and White

My father died when I was 9 years old, the same year my three sisters and my mother moved with our mother’s parents to America, to Miami. He was mixed: African, Indian, European (from Scotland and England), Jewish and we don’t know what else. He had schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, a metaphor for multiple selves.

What I remember of my father are fragments. I see him with his guitar. I see him singing and strumming his guitar. I see myself next to him in the gully in his mother’s back yard with him playing and singing to me. I see him frozen on a busy street in Kingston: catatonic. I see him cursing and screaming and hitting my mother: paranoid, delusional. I see him crying at his reflection in the mirror.

My father was a Rastafarian for the last 10 years of his life, and my three sisters and I, born in Jamaica, were raised as Rastas, too. My mother tells me that, as a youth, my father went to England and later studied Buddhism before coming to Rastafari, in attempts to understand who he was. By the end of his life, though, he considered himself a black man, she says. “He had gone deep into himself to reach that point and make himself whole.” Whole. Schizophrenia. My father tried to commit suicide many times. He succeeded at 33. Schizophrenia is not a metaphor. Race is not a metaphor.

The first time I meet anyone who has known me before seeing me is always the most difficult and uncomfortable moment for each of us: editors who have published my work, someone who has seen my resumé without a picture. The usual blank stare for a moment. The stuttering “You are Shara McCallum.”

For many years, in part to avoid this sting, in part out of fear of going against the grain, of rocking the boat, I checked “Other” or wrote “mixed” and listed the four continents to which I can lay claim within the span of two generations. A mutt. Mulatta. High yella. Miscegenated. Mixed breed. A dog. A nectarine.

As a child in Jamaica, I was not oblivious to color. I knew I had white or bright or light skin while others had brown and yellow and beige and red and black—cool brown, doo-doo brown, light as light, cream with a dash of coffee, coffee with a dash of cream, reds, lick of the tar brush, coal black, black as night. But I did not understand the usual intersections of color and race. When we came to America, I didn’t know that I was black or white. I was 9 and trying to be like the other kids, trying to lose my accent and sound American, trying to catch up on TV shows I’d missed since we didn’t have a TV back home in Jamaica, trying to learn to play with Barbie dolls when before I had cooked and cleaned for my younger sisters, trying to learn to wear Chic jeans and feel chic after not having been allowed to wear pants up to that point in my life. I didn’t know I was black until my grandmother, my mother’s mother, told me, “No one would ever know you are. Only your hair might give you away.” Then it became a secret. Something to be mentioned only among us, if even that.

I have six sisters. Three are from my mother and father and are, like me, able to “pass.” Of those, one chooses not to acknowledge any ancestry other than European. One acknowledges her other blood but considers herself white. The last one identifies herself as black and Hispanic, our mother being Venezuelan-Jamaican. Of my other three sisters, one is from my father and another woman before I was born; two are the children of my mother and another man, after my father died. All three are visibly mixed, with anything from Indian to Venezuelan to Chinese to British and African ancestry, but all three are still visibly black. I have six sisters. We all share parts of the same genetic codes.

Breaking the silence is not easy. There is no good way to tell someone you are black when you look white. If they are black, the worst scenario is that they will think you are putting them on or condescending to them or crazy or lying. If they are white, they will think you are crazy.

My aunt is Hispanic or white by U.S. standards of race, but she identifies herself as “Other” when she has to check the boxes. She says she is Jamaican. She is also a lesbian. When I am in college, I ask her what it’s like to live as a lesbian, and she responds first that the word makes her uncomfortable. She prefers gay. It sounds less harsh. When she meets people for the first time who don’t know she is gay, she has to be careful, she says, and on guard for what they might say. Depending on the circumstances, she adds, she cannot be found out.

I have lived in East Meredith for almost a year when this happens. Steve and I have moved from Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., to a rural town in upstate New York. We live on a dirt road with cows half a mile away in any direction. I go to the post office two or three times a week, and John, the postmaster, knows me by name. Every time I come in, he chirps hello, smiles, and comments, “You’ve been busy.” Today I tell him that two letters to home—one to my aunt, the other to my sister—have never reached them. He says it’s not on this end but probably all those Hispanics and blacks in Miami who just take up space and don’t do their jobs. I have known him for 11 months. Faced with his remark, I cannot find my voice. I leave in shame and stunned silence. We are moving to another small town in a few weeks, but to avoid seeing him again, I drive half an hour to the post office in the next town.

I tell this story to a militant “sistuh” I barely know because she will see me as a coward and I need her censure. She does not disappoint, looks at me and sneers. “It is your responsibility to speak and fight every time, especially since you can pass.” I say nothing to her, either. I don’t tell her of the time in Conyers, Ga., in that place where it is supposed to happen, where you go expecting to hear it, that I went against my friend’s pleas, my friend who had taken me to her home town, and I stood up to a burly white man who said “nigger,” who looked as if he would strike me down when I spoke back. I don’t tell her that sometimes, it is also hard to admit, I am tired of it all.

My grandmother considers herself white but also West Indian and maybe even British, England being the “mother country” from which she was adopted and brought to Trinidad to be raised. Most of all, she says, “I am human.” My grandfather, by right if not biology, is her second husband, a Jamaican man who is also visibly mixed—his mother a light-skinned black woman, his father a Portuguese Jew. In Miami strangers automatically speak to him in Spanish, assuming he is Cuban. My grandmother delights in the looks on these strangers’ faces when she, a white-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman— who lived in Venezuela for 12 years—answers in perfect Spanish, “El no habla cspañol. Me ayuda?”

Passing is the ability to go between or the inability to take root. Race is the desire to take root or the forcing to take root that which could otherwise go between.

Like my aunt, her sister—my mother—does not like the “boxes.” She tells me that she checks whichever ones she is in the mood to check that day. Often, she says, she checks them all, “just to fuck with them.”

My mother has been a Rastafarian since she was 18 years old. She turned 46 this June. When I was growing up, I did not know it then, but I was learning that white meant Babylon, meant imperialism, economic privilege, racial and foreign domination, oppression. Whether she looks white or not, my mother says, she has fought against that type of whiteness her whole life. She has fought against and within her own skin.

Sometimes my skin feels as if it wants to burst into flames. Sometimes I wish it were a coat I could take off. Sometimes I look at it and see the proof of my life and my frequent, shameful desire to live outside of the body. Sometimes I look at it and see the proof of my life and my constant need to accept and live within this body. Sometimes I look at it and see one of my great-great-grandmothers, the mistress with whip in her hand. Sometimes through my aloe-colored eyes, I see another of my great-great-grandmothers, back arched against the curve of that lash.

About the Author

Shara McCallum

Born in Jamaica, Shara McCallum immigrated to the United States at the age of 9. Her book of poetry, “The Water Between Us,” won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize in 1998 and was published in 1999.

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