Donna Bailey Nurse: Addressing mixed race in literature

Throughout February and March, literary journalist, teacher and author Donna Bailey Nurse will be blogging for CBC Books about black Canadian writers and their important works. In her third post, she explores the complex subject of mixed race and how different authors address have addressed it.

donna-bailey-headshot.jpgI read a lot about race, and I write a lot about race. I also talk a lot about race -- too much -- as most of my friends, white and black, will tell you. But I can't help it. The topic rivets me; I'm especially fascinated by contemporary issues of race; by how race plays out in our modern, everyday lives.

However, the historical angle preoccupies me as well: the eras of civil rights and of Jim Crow and slavery. In fact, I am just heading out to buy a copy of Rosemary Sadlier's biography of Harriet Tubman. Tubman, an escaped slave, led more than 300 African American slaves to freedom. I've been thinking about her since I was a child. I still can't figure out how she found the courage.

Every time I read about slavery I learn something new. Lately I've been obsessing over information in a book by Randall Kennedy. Most of us know that during slavery many white masters -- often married men -- fathered children with their female slaves. As a rule, the disparity of power between masters and slaves defines their sexual encounters as rape. But Kennedy explains how, on occasion, affectionate, enduring relationships developed. Some white men would send the children from these unions north to be educated; and some left wills that provided for the welfare of their black families. Naturally, their white wives were enraged and humiliated. They often contested these wills and in time legislation was enacted that made it illegal for a white man to leave property to his black mistress. However, just think: There was a historical moment when a handful of white masters were prepared to publicly acknowledge their black children -- a fleeting opportunity for redemption.

grandma.jpgSlavery feels close to me. My father's family home is in St. Catherines, Jamaica. It sits on the property given to us by the slave master. My father's brother, my Uncle Harold, still lives on the land, and his mother, my paternal grandmother, Queen Anne Elizabeth Shattock (seen in the photo on the right), is buried there.

What interests me most about slavery times -- even more than the horror and the hardship -- is the relations between the races: that bizarre combination of intimacy and alienation. And that is what continues to interest me most about contemporary race relations in Canada: the sometimes bizarre combination of intimacy and alienation. My life holds plenty of examples. The vast majority of my friends are women I grew up with. Many I have known for 40 years; some I have known even longer. They are white women I don't remember not knowing and yet when it comes to the experience of race we are mostly strangers.

Here is a miniscule sample of the challenges we have faced: My best friend since the age of four, a fixture of my household and a member of my wedding, marries a man who I find patently racist; another friend's parents, who treat me like a daughter, spout racial epithets when she starts dating a black man; yet another friend begins dating a black man, but stops seeing me, fearing that I and her new boyfriend will find one another attractive. A friend invites me to a dinner in her all-white town; people stare at me so hard I am unable to finish my meal.

Black Canadian writers excel at capturing the nuance and awkward subtleties of contemporary race relations. In Kim Brunhuber's Kameleon Man, for instance, a male model named Stacey dreams of big time success. Stacey, who is mixed race, lives in small-town Ontario. He is in love with a white girl, but the romance has its challenges. Stacey continually studies the way race impacts the relationship. Brunhuber sensitively examines our contemporary anxiety about the place of race.

The protagonist in Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues is also mixed race. Indeed,all the main characters in the novel possess various degrees of blackness. Edugyan demonstrates how grades of shades influence the treatment of black people wherever they go.

Lawrence Hill's Any Known Blood features a Canadian speech writer named Langston Cane. Langston is as light-skinned as his namesake, the poet Langston Hughes -- and as eager to assert his blackness. African Americans can identify his race with ease. White people, on the other hand, make a game of guessing. Any Known Blood, Half-Blood Blues and Kameleon Man illustrate our continued obsession with race in a world that claims race doesn't matter.

See you next week.

Donna's most recent book is What's a Black Critic To Do II. She teaches arts journalism at Toronto's George Brown School of Continuing Studies.

For more of Donna's posts, visit this page.