The first time I read Michelle Cliff’s 1987 book No Telephone to Heaven, I immediately forgot which character had said this line. Was it Harry/Harriet, the queer Jamaican character? Or was it Clare Savage, the cosmopolitan “bi-racial” protagonist? It could have been either/both really. And that was partially the point.
What I did remember, however—what I felt—was the resonances of feeling the impulse of having to choose identity. The backdrop, for Clare, and to some extent for Cliff too, is about negotiating an existence in between races, cultures, nationalities and an endless act of et cetera. In the book, Clare undergoes a process of becoming(s) through a series of transatlantic yearnings, which culminate in her realization that she must choose her identity. And then, well, dies for that choice. In an essay called “Clare Savage as a Crossroads Character,” Cliff writes that “in [Clare’s] death she has complete identification with her homeland; soon enough she will be indistinguishable from the ground. Her bones will turn to potash, as did her ancestors’ bones.”
All the same, Clare is never accepted and never accepts herself. I’m still not sure what’s worse. No Telephone to Heaven complicates the idea of wholeness and that in order to “be true to yourself” if you have one parent, say, of European ancestry and the other of African ancestry, you should, as a citizen of the West (or perhaps the global West, i.e., the world) acknowledge the ambiguity of your both/and state of being, as if everyone doesn’t exist in a similar mode of being. A multimodal existence— a similar vacillating position of entering, understanding and being in the world. Don’t we all exist between things—parents, cultures, lovers, yesses and nos, life and death?
What I remembered, then, was what I didn’t think I had to be aware of. What I remembered was that until then, until that very moment when I read No Telephone to Heaven, I had identified as “mixed,” which would refer to my White mom and my Black Jamaican dad, who got married and had sex and had miscarriages and then had me. But I mean, isn’t a child always a mixture? Aren’t we (and is the “we” here decidedly North American?) all products of mixings and jumbles and breaking of the law pre-Loving v. Virginia and also victims and perpetrators of rape before abolition, and, and, and…?
I won’t get into how I learned how not to identify as “mixed,” how I began to understand that “mixed-race” in my generation was predicated on racial essentialism, false notions of purity, historical inaccuracies and worst of all, a sense of superiority over those who were only Black. Soon, I understood “mixed” as an intermediary between Black and White, a cushion almost, between racism and progress.
For this series, I’m interested in the way we talk and don’t talk—about mixing, hybridity and amalgamation—and how crossings are represented and circulated. Sometimes, are they even mixtures at all? In light of the “post-racial” myth (a nightmare, really—a ghost that embodies dispossession and folly), visions of the future are often articulated in terms of a “new minority,” that is to say, on the basis of an exalting color-blindness. An all-Brown world! There’s a fever, an agitated delirium among all things amalgamated. Cosmopolitan. In 1998, in the midst of the so-called U.S.-based “Multiracial Movement” that rallied to allow for individuals to be able to mark one or more under the race category in the U.S. census, Danzy Senna pointed to the turn of the century as the “Mulatto Millennium” in 1998. “Strange to wake up and realize you’re in style,” she wrote. Yet, the dozing persists. And unlike Senna’s essay, it’s hardly funny. It’s easy to say that it’s tragic. (Maybe that’s funny.)