April 17, 2006

Confessions of a Recovering Hyphenated Man

My name is Geoffrey and I am an ex-hyphenated man.

In my life, I have been called a mulatto (white-black), brown man (white-black-mus have money), a Jamaican-American, and a Caribbean-American. And while these are useful terms when applying for scholarships or selling books, I refuse to accept them on a personal level because they carry with them a sense of alienation based on race, class and a set of arbitrary rules that determine one’s quality of life. In the Americas, access to power and to be considered one of the Beautiful People are as follows: White, blonde, blue-eyed, male, heterosexual with family originating from England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Exceptions get an “honorary White” status.

Over the past fifty years there has been a questioning of these categories and some people from some other categories have made it into the realm of the beautiful by downplaying the so-called undesirable parts of themselves (like Zaphod Beeblebrox?). So, the mulattoes play down their African-ness, the brunettes dye their hair, the brown-eyed wish for blue eyes (Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye), the gay men stay in the closet and pretend to be straight, and all of us engage in a kind of “passing” (Phillip Roth’s, The Human Stain) in order to survive. But there is another way.


I like to think of myself as living in the Borderlands, as defined by Ross McDonald : a figurative place where issues of who one is (identity) and the principles to which one aspires (integrity) are made complex by the simultaneous and disadvantageous influence of social power and other ways of being and knowing (culture).

Or to put it another way,


To live in the borderlands means
you are neither hispana india negra
española ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata,
half-breed caught in the crossfire
between camps while carrying all five races
on your back not knowing
which side to turn to, run from;
To survive in the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads

Gloria Anzaldua

I prefer the paradigm of the Borderlands because it shifts the issue of identity and the conflict between being and becoming from race and class (patinas of identity) to the values and principles that guide our lives.

We have been living in the Borderlands for all our lives without recognizing the complexity of the outlying regions and by reducing the variables of our landscape to three determinants: race, class, and gender. This Procrustean bed sacrifices some of our best talent and as Francis Wade has recently pointed out it has meant a flight of the “creative class.” 

In sacrificing our tolerance, we shut ourselves off from solutions that are sometimes only apparent to those “who think outside the box.” For example, in our desire to rid ourselves of our African-ness we have sacrificed our understanding of key archetypal figures in West African life Oshun, Xango and Anancy (as we know it in the Caribbean), and we unconsciously act-out the characteristics of these archetypes.

 As Carl Jung once said, “The unconscious really is unconscious.” For example, Anancy represents archetypal Trickster. Anancy is known in Haiti as Papa Legba, Cuba as Eleggua, and on American TV as Bugs Bunny (another name for the African Brer Rabbit). Anancy/Papa Legba lives at the crossroads and represents that ever becoming principle that disrupts equilibrium every time it is achieved.

We used our Anancyism throughout slavery to fool Massa and some of us use it everyday at work, “Boss, I can’t understand this. Show me how to do it again, nuh?” In our haste to distance ourselves from all things African, some have called for an abandonment of all Anancyism. Such calls are based on ignorance of creativity. Sloth and irresponsibility are lower levels of the Trickster principle used for selfish purposes. However, when educated and transformed for useful social purposes, the creative principle embedded in Anancy can bring about incredible changes in a society. But the hybridity that is involved means that the rest of us will have to be tolerant because the flip side of the creative principle sometimes involves self-indulgence. You win some, you lose some.

This is where navigating the Borderlands becomes important because it involves three distinct phases:

Singularity: characterized by internal conflicts between the presence of multiple identities where the self seeks certainty by submerging in a single, consistent identity believed to be the same in all contexts and a tendency to think in certainties: fundamentalism

Plurality: a state in which the self is perceived as having multiple identities characterized by an ongoing tension between a desire to maintain discrete boundaries among identities and the unavoidable boundary burring experience of moving across them. Thinking is characterized by struggles with an acceptance of simultaneous competing realities.

Hybridity: a state in which multiple identities are creatively organized in a dynamic self both unified and fluid and is characterized by the expansion and transcendence of boundaries. Ambiguities represent complexity that one needs to understand, but not necessarily resolve.

Anancyism, a state of hybridity, involves relentless self-inquiry, the capacity to change, and a willingness to live without boundaries—a state in which few of us are comfortable (Who Moved my Cheese?), so we retreat to our “comfort zone” of fundamentalism where these is only ONE answer, “Jus’ tell me, nuh, boss?”

We have to create a climate where tolerance can survive, and it will be difficult. It’s like the movie, The Planet of the Apes. The gorillas have all the power, so they are always right while the more subtle chimpanzees have to be cunning and Anancy-like to survive because they know it could end at any time. The gorillas have the guns.

Our artists and intellectuals have been articulating our struggle in our Borderlands for many years now: “A Far Cry from Africa” by Derek Walcott, The Black Jacobins by CLR James, and Dog by Dennis Scott. In my own work (particulary xango music), I have chronicled some of the movement in my thought from singularity to hybridity without sacrificing some of the things that I consider important (family and relationships), and moving from hyphenation (judgment from the outside based on appearances) to a greater acceptance of my time and space. It has meant abandoning some forms of fundamentalism and I will admit there are times when it’s scary living without boundaries. But then, I remember I was born on an island. I could have allowed the water that surrounded me to transform me into becoming insular or I could live sin fronteras with a sense of infinite possibility that Derek Walcott captures in The Schooner 'Flight'”:

You ever look up from some lonely beach
and see a far schooner?

At our best, Caribbean writers such as Walcott, Brathwaite and Scott, have joyously engaged some of the questions similar to those that Albert Camus raised in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, especially his passages that take place in Algeria with the sun, wind, and the sea that remind me so much of the Caribbean The questions of humanity remain the same. It’s how we have asked the questions that makes the difference.

Anyway, we all know the answer—it’s 42.

The more we try to grapple with the complexities of our time and space, our sense of self, agency, and a Caribbean epistemology (we are firmly rooted in empiricism) can evolve that can, perhaps, teach the rest of the world a thing or two about diversity and we can move from hyphenation to wholeness.

1 comment:

FSJL said...

Anzáldua's concept of the borderland, it is worth noting, is about Mexicans who have connections on each side of the border. I see it as more about transgression than in-betweenness.