BloodLines: "Black Blood" by Afua Cooper
We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards. We're also asking you to share a story from your bloodline for a chance to win $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts.
In Afua Cooper’s BloodLines piece, a perplexing event and a shocking revelation uncover many shades of Black.
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“Black Blood” by Afua Cooper
I waited outside the agency for a full hour. I had shown up at the agreed-upon time, but the agent’s office door was firmly locked. My two daughters and I waited in the outer office until one of them fell asleep. I called the agent several times, but my calls went straight to her answering machine.
We had known each other for years, this agent and I. She was a children’s agent in the movie business. As my daughters grew into their pre-teens, this woman would constantly tell me how “stunning” they looked, urging me to sign them up for film and television work. Flattered by her praise, I agreed to an appointment. Now, here I was at her office but she was nowhere in sight.
We left. That evening she called me, breathless. She apologized, she got caught in traffic, I must have left just before she got to her office, she said. She asked if I could come back another time. We set up another date.
On the appointed day, she was another no-show.
A few weeks later, I saw the agent at Toronto’s Eaton Centre and approached her. Her face went beet red upon seeing me.
“I have a confession to make,” she said. “I deliberately did not show up to the appointment.” Now it was my turn to blush red—or rather darker!
“Your girls really are stunning. But I had a change of heart. I thought that once the movie people saw them, they would choose them over my own children for Black roles. You see, your daughters are real Black, and my kids aren’t.”
I was speechless. She continued: “Blacks and other ethnic people have a hard time being casted, unless the casting people ask specifically for Blacks, or if it is a Black movie. My kids have done very well in Black roles, even though they are mixed race and they have more White blood than Black blood. I ended up thinking that if I signed up your daughters, they would take all the real Black roles, and my kids would be left out.”
In my mind, a silent admiration for this woman’s honesty began to grow. But at the same time, I was embarrassed for her, and also outraged. “Well, you wasted my time royally,” I said and walked away.
It was such a surreal interaction that I felt disoriented. I went into a nearby café and ordered tea—which I did not want—and sat staring into the mug and watching my tears splash into the Earl Grey. “Racism is a bitch. That White bitch is a bitch,” I said, trying to console myself.
I was mad and sad, but not because my kids were not signed. What bothered me was how my children—and hers, for that matter—were being perceived. I knew this agent was married to a “Black” man, who in reality was biracial.
I also knew their children, and though they had more White than Black blood, there’s no way they could pass for White. Their only option in the movie world, which subscribed to the one-drop theory, was to act as Black characters. I also knew this woman, her husband and her family did not socialize with “real” Black people, and were not part of any identifiable Black community. But as she said, her kids, whom she represented, were getting a lot of the Black roles when casting directors came to Toronto.
And despite all this, here she was, filled with insecurity because she thought my dark-skinned daughters would steal roles from her children. Sitting there stewing over my tea, I didn’t think she had anything to worry about. After all, her light-skinned children are what society feels more comfortable with. And Hollywood, as far as Black people are concerned, is run like a slave plantation—Whites at the top, Mulattoes in the middle, and Blacks at the bottom.
This woman, who backed away the moment she was about to sign my daughters, must have known this. She certainly knew that her children were privileged in the world of Black.
Did the irony of it all escape her? At the last minute, this White woman, with her prejudices intact—even though she was married to a biracial man—feared the power of Black blood.
Afua Cooper is a poet, novelist,a trained historian, and cultural commentator. Her book The Hanging of Angelique was a national bestseller and was nominated for the Governor General's Award. She is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Studies at Dalhousie University.
Read the other works in our BloodLines series: