“What are you?”
Been looking all over for the Natasha Raymond poem by that title. Natasha and I performed it with my friend Elise (menshed in “My Favorite Beatle” below) in venues around Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Natasha, like most mixed race people, got that question a lot, and as a light-skinned black woman I could and can relate. “What are you?” these inquiring minds always asked her. The poem runs through her various possible responses: human; a woman; various fractions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Kim Jong-il. It ends with her fantasy of turning the tables, questioning her questioner, then deciding there’s no need for that, “because I already know what you are.”
I get that question from white people and from blacks. Bus riders, online daters, anybody and everybody sees me as fair game for it. Whites are a little more circumspect in recent years about voicing the question, but it still hangs on the hedges of their teeth, behind the roses of their mouths, wishing it could utter itself.
What am I? I identify as African American, black for short. That’s one answer. If you look at me you can see some European heritage, pretty obviously, but no whites in my families’ woodpiles for five generations back. Unless you count the ones that passed, like my paternal grandfather Vandeleur Rickman.
But that’s another story.
What am I? If I want to get technical with my answer, I use the term “high yella.” Then I’ll talk a bit about the history of color consciousness. My father’s family and most of my mother’s belonged to the “paper bag club.” That is, their skins were no darker than your typical grocery bag. How relieved June’s and Denny’s folks must have been when they found each other, two properly pale people. Yes, they loved one another, but the main thing was that they’d have paper bag babies. But my middle sister, Julie, was born darker than either of them, darker than me; she was saved from ostracism only by her “good” hair. Then, when I was six years old and she was four, I cut it all off her head.
That’s also another story. I’ve already written and sold it. It’s called “Cruel Sistah,” and they reprinted it in the Year’s Best Fantasy #19.
What am I. When the dreadlocky man on the sidewalk outside Ross Dress for Less asked me that I igged him. He didn’t want an answer anyways, I could tell that from how he kept on saying the same thing over and over again without waiting for me to reply.
To riff off what I wrote in my first post here, maybe you’ve never wanted to ask that question, because you thought you already knew me? Or maybe not. Could be you’re unsure now and always have been. Could be that unsureness is quite all right with you.
What am I? I am beyond what, and way, way into who.
And this is my last post. If you don’t know me by now, you will never, never, never know me. Woo-oo-oo.
Thank you, Tempest, and thank you everyone who has commented me.