In writing my debut novel “Somm Killer,” I wanted to explore identity and how our sameness is formed. In this exploration, I decided to highlight characters of mixed ethnicity and how the characters navigate the world based on their individual beliefs about how society sees them. Then I threw in the grenade of gender identity to add contrast and a deeper look at how we are defined by society and the pitfalls of humanity being able to define us as individuals.
As a huge fan of works like The Ways of White Folks (1934), Passing included in the short stories by Langston Hughes & R. Baxter Miller, Passing by Nella Larsen, and Black No More by George S. Schuyler, I wanted to explore the theme of having a choice not to be something society has defined you as in a contemporary setting. If you are unfamiliar with the term “Passing,” it refers to an individual who identifies with a race. At the same time, society has relegated them to another based on appearance, not heritage or, in other words pretending to be from only one ethnicity and hiding their true heritage primarily associated with blacks passing for white but is not exclusive and can be found in many other races. The main reason for passing is Colorism, and the authors from the Harlem Renaissance picked up on colorism in America in interesting and unique ways. Colorism, or skin color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over darker complexion in areas such as beauty, income, education, housing, and marriage. Margret Hunter writes in her abstract on The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality. This experience is not just a black or white issue, with many ethnic groups experiencing the same treatment in their community and society.
Looking at the origins of colorism, some would point to slavery in America, but I think if you look deeper, the idea of complexion and class has been around even longer. There is an easy distinction between those who work the fields soaking in the richness of the sun and those who sit in clouded ivory towers, the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.” The structures of power take many forms, but I will concede in America when it comes to colorism, it is much more complicated, and slavery is the jumping-off point to discuss colorism for my purposes here. The preferential treatment given to the children born to white enslavers is the catalyst many points to when talking about how colorism is alive and well. At colorism’s foundation is the “One drop rule” that solidified the stratification of color in the United States for Black people by assigning black heritage to anyone who had any black ancestry. Thus also making “Passing” a necessity for any biracial person who wanted to escape the harsh realities of being black in America and had the means to do so solely based on the lack of color of their skin.
In my novel, I imagine how different characters with different mixes of ethnicity would handle the ability to be able to “Pass.” In Langston Hughes’s Story, the man is regretful but stays the course, Nella Larsen’s character dies rather than be discovered, and George S. Schuyler’s story develops a new class structure. So when looking for more contemporary, I considered some new dilemmas. What if “Passing” was a superpower allowing you to operate in many environments undetected? What would happen if you were “Passing” and someone outed you? And what if you decided to embrace your whole identity? This last question leads me to wonder, is there even such a thing as biracial?
Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses faux biracialism being propagated by media in the 1980s when you had artists like Prince and Michael Jackson presenting videos of the rainbow coalition of races performing together. Full disclosure my wife and I’s favorite karaoke song is “Ebony and Ivory.” Meanwhile, a crack epidemic was happening in the inner cities, and no one was coming to sing with them. Coates elaborates on how the music and entertainment industry favors people of light complexion, contrasting them with actual black people’s lives.
This notion of a “real” or “authentic” black person has polarized biracial people into believing they need to make a choice to be either black or white but in reality never truly fitting in to either group. On her blog STAEBOOM.com Shaunte Boom discusses the pearls of colorism and her own fragile relationship in the black community growing up in her post “Colorism – The Light-Skinned Opinion of One Woman.” People of mixed ethnicity live their lives both benefiting and being faulted for their heritage. The “One drop rule” has placed square peg into a round hole and taken away the subtleties of race in America. Discussing issues of race and privilege has been riddled down to binary choices leaving no room for the nuances needed in the discussion.
The good news is more and more people of mixed ethnicities are finding their voice. In a recent interview titled Loyle Carner: ‘There’s a whole other side to me that’s darker,’ Alex Mistlin sits down with UK Rap phenom Loyal Carner (video featured at the top of the blog entry) to discuss the new path in his latest album. In the article, Mistlin quotes Carner when he says, “I hadn’t really been able to do it before – to be mixed race,” he says. “It’s a weird thing because you’re between these two absolutes … up until very recently, it wasn’t really accepted to openly discuss feeling oppressed.” As many people of mixed race identify, there is an unspoken rule of what you are allowed to say. On onside you benefit from having a lighter complexion, but on the other hand, you still face racism, most likely from both sides of the spectrum. In the world of Hip Hop and real-world light skin is seen as something to be desired; hence all the tanning salons, tanning creams, and references to light-skinned honeys in rap lyrics, but at the same time, these same people’s life experiences are not seen as genuine or authentic.
The malleability of men of mixed race to be able to fit into different social dynamics is sometimes seen as soft or feminine. They are treated more like objects to be obtained rather than entities that bring their viewpoints to the table. An example from the Black community is darker black men are fetishized, while light skin men are portrayed as census builders or desired for qualities they can bring to a family environment like their skin color and hair. This stereotype flies in direct contrast to many historical figures and the militant mentality of many fair skin black people throughout history. On Legends Of The Swag, I highlight people who have had authentic swagger throughout history. In a recent post, I highlight a light-skinned brother named Malcolm X, who I don’t think anyone would consider soft. Many of the strongest leaders in black history are of mixed ethnicity. Toussaint L’ Ouverture lead one of the only successful slave revolts in history in Haiti, and yet, the stereotype persists of light skin men being subservient. In “Somm Killer,” I challenge the trope of who can be a Serial Killer, what makes someone kill, or what desires they must have to kill. Even more than that, I challenge this notion of the subservient “Masters Child” stereotype biracial people have been connected with by presenting a killer who uses his ability to blend into all walks of society as his modus operandi. My play on the invisible man.
My modus operandi for this blog is to highlight stories and current events from the viewpoint of someone with a mixed heritage and talk a little about wine. While I’ve always considered myself black, I do see the need to represent in my work characters who reflect this underrepresented group of unique individuals in what I hope to be fun and entertaining ways. As a writer, I explore the subtleties of life, and I ask, what if?
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