The Librarian Is In

BenBella Books

BenBella Books

By KATRINA SPENCER

Literatures and cultures librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic department, the French department, the Gender Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS Program), the Language Schools, Linguistics and the Spanish & Portuguese departments. These affiliations are reflected in her reading choices. 

“While I am a very slow reader, I’m a very critical reader,” she says.

 

“In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World”

by Rachel Dolezal

Pages: 270

Happy Black History Month!

The What

Back in 2015, a media firestorm erupted when “ethnically indeterminate” Rachel Dolezal, a woman who ran a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the Pacific Northwest, was caught in a strange conundrum: her biological parents were white but she claimed to be black. Dolezal’s memoir, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, covers more than 35 years of her life, highlighting many of her identities and roles as someone born into poverty in Montana, a mother of black children, a mixed media artist, a historically black university graduate, a cancer survivor, an activist, an academic, a teacher, and… a [questionably] “Black” woman. Her story is told in 30 chapters and details the progression of events, affinities and experiences in her life that led her to identify as a racial minority despite her familial history falling outside of more traditionally accepted narratives of blackness. This is her attempt to clarify her stances on racial identity and to respond to her numerous critics who, over the last two years, have ridiculed her on a national scale, suggesting that her racial presentation was a farce.

 

The Why

As a black woman, an identity I hold that is hardly ever called into question given my stereotypical physical features and comparatively more typical background, I approached Dolezal’s memoir with great skepticism, #allthesideeye. Many people in the “black community” decided a while ago that Dolezal was an impostor, concluding that she wasn’t black and was electively living a lie. However, as I had the time to read her story and attempt to understand her positions over winter break, I took the opportunity to do so. To be clear, while I have *not* been convinced that she’s a black woman, I found out that her story is not as simple as expected. Like many black women, Dolezal has black children and has shown herself to be committed to activism for the benefit of the black community. The contention, as I see it, lies in the fact that there is a difference between having lived experiences that are similar to a black woman’s and calling oneself a “black woman.” Her choice strikes me and her critics as cavalier and reductive. It is rare that I want to speak for the entire black community. Yet, in this scenario, I feel compelled to assert that while Dolezal’s work to pursue justice for black causes is welcome, she can do it as a white woman. Race, as Dolezal suggests, is a social construct. It’s weak in its very foundations and not supported by science. However, if we insist upon engaging it and the idea of blackness, as we do unquestionably in this nation and around the world, we need some meaningful and marginally delineated definitions. I doubt “blackness” means “born of European descendants and having acquired a degree from an historically black college.” Stretching race and blackness beyond recognition has the potential to invalidate a marker of identity about which millions of people organize their fealty and families. And while policing blackness is hardly my favorite pastime, willfully abusing an inherently faulty label does not work either.

One of the features that’s difficult about this work is its strong appeals to pathos that paint Dolezal as a perpetual victim. Her recounting of her life suggests that she has suffered many injustices in multiple scenarios. It is troubling, though, to see her heavy-handedly massage the “truth” in terms of race. This misstep ushers others towards questioning other accountings in her life. Is she a reliable narrator? I wrestled with this work more than any other in the short history of this column. It is well written, but overall I do not feel it advances the conversation on race. If there is one conclusion it has gestured towards, it is that race is a conversation, not a box that you check or a binary choice between two poles. For more on ethnic and racial identity, listen to the stories at go.middlebury.edu/inyourownwords. For black, women writers fitting a more traditional bill, try out the collection of poems, salt, by Nayyirah Waheed; tales of travel to Spain in the memoir Kinky Gazpacho by Lori L. Tharps; Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Tastebuds by Yemisi Aribisala; We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo; the historical fiction novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; or the short story collection Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires which will be out April 10th. For more on the phenomenon of racial passing, see Almost Black: The True Story of How I Got Into Medical School by Pretending to Be Black by Vijay Chokal-Ingam or the 1929 novel Passing by Harlem Renaissance writer and former librarian Nella Larsen.

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