Passing: The Writer’s Skin and the Authentic Self
July 2009 WLT
When I Google my name online and click on result seventy-two, say—way down past the sites featuring remaindered copies of my books for as little as one penny plus shipping and handling, but a bit before the cemetery lists including dead people bearing my first or last name—I find “Rilla Askew” on a variety of Fiction Diversity Lists. I’m on a North American Native Authors list, an American Indian Authors list. In some places after my name in parentheses it’ll say (Cherokee?). In others, quite declaratively: (Choctaw). Elsewhere I’m listed as a contemporary African American author. The first two are, so far as I know, true. The latter is, presumably, not. Although who’s to say? America is a mestizo nation. A miscegenation nation. The mixing of blood has always been our story, although not one we’ve often told ourselves—at least not much before now.
But the fact is, I grew up white in America, with all the privileges and presumptions of whiteness. My slow awakening to what it means to grow up white in the U.S., with its tortured race history, in the era I did, the 1960s, and the place I did, Oklahoma, has, more than any other single factor, shaped my understanding of myself as an American writer. Still, when it comes to those lists I’m on, I haven’t tried to correct or clarify my heritage. Let me do my work, I’ve thought. Let others believe what they will. My silence tells a story.
Most often when we speak of “passing,” we’re talking about race—about crossing the color line for political, social, economic reasons. Generally we’re talking about someone passing for what that person truly is, a literal part of one’s heritage. It’s true that people do sometimes pass for what they’ve never been—a different economic class, a more-accepted sexual orientation—but usually our physicality determines what we’re able to pass for, which means that most often we’re passing for a portion of an authentic self, and most often we’re passing toward cultural dominance. When it comes to racial passing this has been especially true. In person our bodies go before us. We’re wrapped in the integument of America’s race history, whether we’re aware of it or not. Whether we care about it or not. In person we’re defined by our skin color, the shape of our eyes, the texture of our hair. Assumptions are made.
I had dinner with some folks in Chicago not long ago. Nice people. Nice white people. One of the women made a remark about American Indians, repeating something she had heard from a white friend in Arizona. She wasn’t repeating her own observations, merely telling us something she’d heard, offering it, in this small gathering of white people, as a perceived truth. “Solipsistic” is one of the words she used. Another woman at the table made an observation about African American young people she’d once worked with in Detroit, saying essentially—although this is not what she thought she was saying—that they need to act white, speak white, dress white, if they want to “get ahead” in America. And because my skin is white, these women made assumptions about how I would hear what they were saying. Always, in such situations, there is a shadow me listening, a shadow me whispering, If I remain silent here, I’m passing—I’m letting them think that I’m like them. “Hey, you know what?” I said, as if the thought had just occurred to me. “The conditions you’re talking about? It’s the same with the poor white folks I come from.”
Recently I met author Michelle Duster, a descendant of black activist Ida B. Wells. Michelle’s book, Ida Wells in Her Own Words, features some of her forebear’s writings on class legislation and lynchings—subjects I’m deeply interested in—and I wanted to talk with her about that terrible part of American history, but, because of assumptions I made, I found myself working too hard to explain who I am. I’d back up, start over, say the same things in different words, trying to make clear where my heart is. I mentioned my black godchildren like the most blatant of name-droppers, all because of suppositions I made about assumptions I assumed that she made, because my skin is white. In the end we had a good talk, but it took an awkward dance on my part before we got there.
But it’s among Indian people that I feel most conflicted. When I go to powwows, I don’t dance. I stand back as an observer, an outsider, no matter how fiercely the drumming and the singing work on me. When I’m hanging with Indian writer friends, though, I feel a part of, not apart from, and I say ennit, laugh as they laugh. Mostly, though, among Indian people, I remain silent. When whites ask me if I’m part Indian, they always mention my cheekbones—a peculiarly white construct. Indians don’t talk about cheekbones. If Indian people think of me as Indian, it’s not because of how I look.
Well, that’s the in-person presentation. What about the writer’s skin? The notion of writing across race and culture makes for lively forums in the literary world, lots of passionate opinion and controversy. When I write in the voice of an eighty-one-year-old dead white man narrating his own funeral, no one’s bothered, and I’m not scared, although I’ve surely never been an eighty-one-year-old white man, dead or alive. But when I write in the voice of a Creek Freedwoman speaking directly to the reader in the early 1900s, or a Cherokee mother whose son has been killed in a car crash, or even when I’m using close third-person point of view, creating the internal monologue of a young black woman who has just been raped by a white man, well, yeah, I go there in fear and trembling—because race is America’s perpetual hidden wound, and it can tear open at the slightest pressure.
Still, I’m always writing about race, because I’m always writing about place. Nowhere has the American race story played out more dramatically than Oklahoma. From the brutal ethnic cleansing of Native peoples known as the Trail of Tears to the frenzy of the white land runs to the largest, deadliest assault by white citizens on black citizens in the nation’s history—the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot—the complex, often violent convergence of America’s three founding races has dominated our history. These are the voices I write in, and quite naturally readers want to know, Is the author black? Is she Indian? Even when readers check my photo on the back of a book, the questions linger.
In Oklahoma, my uncertain heritage is a common story: the mysterious “Cherokee” great-great-grandmother on my father’s side, my mother’s probably-part-Choctaw mother who called herself Black Dutch to explain her dark hair and eyes and skin. All these purportedly Indian forebears are women, of course—females who passed into the white world so effectively that we can’t trace their bloodlines for certain. But here’s the thing: my sisters grew up with these same stories, and they don’t think of themselves as part Indian. I do. It’s a peculiar phenomenon that streaks through the whole family—some of us think or feel or believe we’re part Indian, and some don’t. As an individual I probably could have lived with this amorphous identity indefinitely, but as a writer, I had to make a decision.
My first published story was a Cherokee story, “The Gift,” in Nimrod’s 1989 Oklahoma Indian Markings issue. The story was later collected in Ani-yun-wiya / Real Human Beings: An Anthology of Contemporary Cherokee Prose. I spoke with the anthology’s editor, Joe Bruchac, a mixed-blood Abenaki, who’d selected the story. I wound out a long explanation about my Indian heritage being unproven, saying that I don’t have a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood card, but Joe said that in making their determination about who’s Indian and who’s not, they weren’t looking at blood quantum but at whether the writer’s primary identification is with the tribe. I didn’t know where my primary identification lay—I didn’t feel any more a part of the poor white sharecroppers I come from than the Cherokee people I’d lived with in Tahlequah or my close Indian artist friends. But I knew I grew up white. And I knew that I did not want to be a wannabe.
Like the character in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried who ends up going to the war because he’s too much of a coward to be thought a coward, I chose not to claim to be an Indian writer because I did not want to be like all the other white girls with their Cherokee princess great-grandmothers who so very much wannabe Indian. Anyway, how was I going to claim to be a writer of Indian descent when my fair, freckled sisters don’t “feel” Indian? Even if I don’t put Cherokee or Choctaw after my name, to join with Indian writers would be a silent declaration—a type of passing. And so I quit submitting stories for collections of Indian writings. But I didn’t stop writing about Indians.
My friend Tim Tingle, a wonderful Choctaw storyteller and writer who is also mixed-blood, like so many Indian writers and artists, has said to me, “Let us claim you!” And a Mohawk friend, Sandy Cook, who traveled with me from upstate New York to Oklahoma at a time when I was really struggling with this stuff, said, “Ah come on, Rilla, you know you’re an Indian woman.”
Actually, no. I don’t. I do, and I don’t. Both conditions are simultaneously true, a paradox that is like the essential paradox of America, this melting pot where race is our greatest divider. Regardless which complicated or uncomplicated heritage I claim, I’m always passing. When I go among my white relatives, I’m passing there too: I drop the g’s from the backs of my words, talk about snakes and ticks and the weather. I’m as much an observer and outsider at a family reunion as I am when I attend a black church or go to a stomp dance or eat curried goat at a Jamaican birthday party in Brooklyn. But I’m completely at home in all these places, too.
As a writer I’ve never had to pass toward cultural dominance to find acceptance. In America that cultural dominance is rapidly changing anyway—a fact that’s got a lot of white people worried. But as a novelist I do have to write from an authentic self, no matter what kind of writer’s skin I wear. That writer’s skin is, in fact, my own skin, constructed not of blood quantum and genealogical tracings but layers of experience and choice—the homeland I’ve chosen to claim, the people I’ve chosen to love. This is where the stories come from.
Still, there are voices in my head, haunting me the way Virginia Woolf said her Angel in the House whispered that she dare not write what her soul told her to write because she was a woman. In my case it’s the voice of an Indian writer crying out at a reading, “Let us tell our own stories!” or a black woman talking about my novel on the Tulsa Race Riot: “Oh, she gets a lot of things right, but there’s a lot she doesn’t know. You can’t know it unless you’ve lived it.” And I know this is true. I’ve witnessed only an inkling of the reality behind the words from an art poster I keep on my wall: “Native Is Pain—and You’re Part?” I haven’t lived that pain, and no amount of family stories about a Black Dutch-stands-for-Choctaw grandmother can change that.
When the doubting voices start, I feel compelled to explain my complicated, contradictory sense of self, but to whom? And where? And how? No, I think. I’ll just keep to my work, let others make their assumptions. And so I hold my silence—even knowing that silence is a type of passing.
Kauneonga Lake, New York