Early in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, Clare Kendry speaks nervously of her daughter Margery’s birth. “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born,” she confesses. She is, for all intents and purposes, a white woman married to a wealthy white man. Yet she finds herself fearing that her child’s birth will reveal her for what she is: a black woman who passes for white. If a child of Clare’s came out dark, it would be evidence of her passing. Luckily, Margery was born fair skinned. “Thank goodness, she turned out all right.”
A similar scene unfolds at the beginning of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. In 2013, Williams—the son of a white woman and a black man—and his white French wife are living in Paris when she gives birth to their daughter, Marlow. Like Margery, Marlow arrives with fair skin. But this is not a comfort to Williams; instead, it comes as a shock. “It took my sluggish mind a moment to register and sort the sounds; and then it hit me that [the doctor] was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond,” he recalls.
Unlike Clare’s child, Williams’s blond baby is not the cause of relief but of psychic agitation. For Williams, she’s a portal into a new conception of his own racial identity. “I was aware…however vaguely, that whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different,” he writes. While Williams had long considered himself black, Marlow’s arrival unsettled his assumptions about how real race is to begin with. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he writes. How can the world consider this child black, and what does it say about his racial identity that he has fathered her? Even more important, his daughter’s birth raises a set of deeper existential and political questions. What does it say about race that some of the key assumptions that buttress Western conceptions of racial identity—that one’s skin color can tell us one’s race, for instance—dissolve in the face of reality’s manifold intricacies?
Marlow’s arrival leads Williams toward introspection and from there to a full-throated denunciation of racial identity as a mere abstraction. He announces, fervently and often, that race is nothing but an oppressive fiction that enables precisely those evils that anti-racist critics condemn. “I want to say that I will no longer enter into the all-American skin game that demands you select a box and define yourself by it.” It is, he adds, “a mistake for any of us to reify something that is as demonstrably harmful as it is fictitious.” Williams is just one man, but he, at least, has elected to “walk away” from what he views as a confidence game.
Self-Portrait wants to be two things at once: a call to arms against the constricting power of race as an identity, which Williams calls a “philosophical and imaginative disaster,” as well as a follow-up to his 2010 memoir, Losing My Cool. As such, the new book discusses his incredibly specific cultural background and intellectual development and attempts to sort through the questions that his biography raises, questions that cannot be easily generalized to fit other people’s experiences. This necessarily means that Williams extrapolates from his personal story to make categorical proclamations about the nature of racial identity. Yet while Self-Portrait can be deeply felt and full of introspective insight, it is also a myopic self-involved affair that often ignores important past and present discussions around race, including the genre of the passing narrative, which also interrogated the soundness of racial identification but resisted generalizing any conclusions into a politics and a worldview. With Williams, the result is a book that engages the question of race head-on but often only in the most superficial fashion, one that confuses personal biography with sociology and history. As a result, it lacks the imaginative capacity to see that no matter how socially constructed racial identities are, our lived experience of those identities—the cultures, communities, values, prejudices, policies, and socioeconomic obstacles that follow from inhabiting social constructs—is anything but fictitious and cannot simply be willed out of existence. Perhaps even more important, by examining the experience of race from his vantage point alone, Williams fails to see how racial identification, while often deployed as a mechanism to create stratification, can also be an empowering act. For many, identifying as black is not merely an imposition but also an opportunity to interrogate the underpinnings of race.
As in Losing My Cool, Williams in Self-Portrait traces his idiosyncratic stance on race and identity back to his childhood. Born in New Jersey in 1981, he grew up in an eclectic home. His father was a black academic from the segregated South, his mother a white woman from a conservative Southern California family. The two got married and migrated east to a white neighborhood in New Jersey, where they raised Williams and his brother. Though his father thought of his children as unquestionably black, the family was isolated from much of New Jersey’s African American community, and as a result, Williams grew up with the sense that he lacked a larger group identity. “As a child I often wondered why I had no greater clan to claim for myself, though…I’ve come to further appreciate other, subtler advantages of being cut off from any substantial we,” he reflects. This is the firmament in which he began to conceive of himself, above all, as a sovereign individual unshackled by the claims of a collective.
The young Williams soon discovered that such willed estrangement did not apply to matters of race, even if he acted as though they did. To his white classmates, he was still a black boy. After seeing him swinging from a bar in the school bathroom, one named Evan blocked Williams from leaving the room and called him a “little fucking monkey.” “I could hear his laughter behind me as I made my way back to the cafeteria,” Williams recalls, “my heart pumping staccato, my face singed with the heat of self-awareness, my inexperienced mind fumbling for the meaning behind what had just transpired.”
This and other experiences of racialization were painful for Williams, but they also helped give him a sense of belonging. He now realized that he was black, even if he was living in a neighborhood and attending a school that were largely white. For him, the embrace of this identity meant cultivating a specific vision of blackness rooted in hip-hop, basketball, and thuggish behavior that bordered on caricature. By frequenting basketball courts and inhaling BET, by learning to tilt his caps at the ideal angle and say “nigga” the right way, he writes, he acquired a certain form of blackness and gradually began to see himself as “an inherently black man, and one who could only ever be complete alongside a woman who was ‘black.’” (Williams insists on placing signifiers of racial identity in scare quotes, a tic ostensibly meant to unsettle our assumption that such signifiers are natural.)
It was only after two sojourns in France—one summer spent studying there and a year spent teaching English in the northern part of the country after he graduated from college—that he began to question his racial identity. For one thing, he found that in France his identity became a Rorschach test for other people’s assumptions. On one occasion he met a French Algerian man who assumed Williams was an Arab and told him that he couldn’t possibly be black; on another, he listened as a white tourist cracked a racist joke in front of him, not realizing that he was black. (Upon being informed, the tourist confessed that he thought Williams was “Mediterranean.”) The accumulated effect of these experiences is to impress on him that “our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite.” For Williams, it becomes clear that identity is always subject to change.
It is difficult to disagree with parts of Williams’s argument. He is right that identity is ultimately an amorphous concept, a cultural buoy to which we cling in the turbulent waters of experience, and there is a good reason this notion is a central theme in so much of 20th and 21st century writing on race. Writers of the African diaspora, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison to Zadie Smith, have tilled this ground fruitfully, leaning on a philosophically pragmatist conception of identity shaped by experience instead of essence, one that insists the textures of lived experience will always exceed racial categories without fully abolishing them. As far back as 1903, Du Bois made this pragmatist case for cultural diffusion: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” he proclaimed in a famous line from “Of the Training of Black Men,” an essay from The Souls of Black Folk. “Across the color line, I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.”
Williams draws from this rich intellectual and political tradition. But to make his point, he lurches between reflections on his life in a multiracial marriage and ideas drawn from the likes of George Packer, Adrian Piper, Glenn Loury, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Albert Murray, alternating between memoir and argument in a haphazard fashion and without adequately discussing sociopolitical structures. At one point, the proceedings dissolve into a defensive point-by-point rebuttal of a colleague’s critique that his analysis relies too much on his experience as a fair-skinned black person and refuses to engage with race’s sociopolitical aspects, namely those that render personal agency meaningless in matters of structural inequality. While it is admirable that Williams includes her challenge, his response is far less compelling. Addressing a question about how her dark-skinned brother would unlearn race, Williams answers that a dark-skinned black man’s exit from race “would amount to an achieved perspective that would require some real time and effort on his part to research and learn to articulate.” That dark-skinned brother must exercise his individual sovereignty, systemic policy-based racism (and the institutions and cultures it produces) be damned.
Again, Williams is not entirely wrong. There are ways in which each of us can will ourselves out of racialization and racism’s most pernicious dynamics by questioning the intellectual and cultural premises that white supremacist ideology has handed down to us. But the structures and prejudices that racialization has created are not ideas and culture alone; they are also embodied in institutions of politics, law, and economics. They are manifest in the ways we interact with one another every day, and they are also present in how we work and exchange goods and in how our government operates and our legal system is organized. Race is not just an identity you can shrug off. It’s a power structure that people navigate day in and day out, one that is imposed from without and shaped from within. Self-Portrait’s frequently personal frame doesn’t allow Williams to fully acknowledge this reality, even as he proceeds to universalize his experiences as representative of contemporary black life.
The story of Williams’s adolescence will be familiar to anyone who has read Losing My Cool, in which he discusses what he sees as the irreconcilable conflict between hip-hop culture and literature. Ultimately, he chooses the latter and escapes from what he believes is the doomed world of urban blackness. If it’s not already apparent from my summary, Losing My Cool indulges in a conservative perspective on contemporary black culture that diagnoses many of its artifacts and expressions as fundamentally pathological.
In language that feels inspired more by the Moynihan Report than the black autobiographical tradition, Williams repeatedly condemns urban black culture as toxic. In one passage, he mocks his black classmates’ decision to mourn the rapper Notorious B.I.G. on the anniversary of his death. “[Like] our parents’ generation with Dr. King, we knew exactly where we were the moment we learned the rapper had died…. I was just as besotted with Biggie as my classmates were.” And yet, he adds, “I was also torn between allegiance to the fallen drug dealer and something…coming from deep in the back of my head or conscience. I knew for an irrefutable fact that none of the other kids I was looking at had ever managed to crease the spine of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Souls of Black Folk.”
Never mind that few white teenagers manage to read either of those books. The shocking thing here is that Williams views hip-hop not as art or an internally coherent body of knowledge that we might learn from but as an impediment in his peers’ path to another, more enlightened form of culture. Biggie is not a master of the English language but a mere “drug dealer”; his classmates are not art enthusiasts but hoodwinked idiots.
Self-Portrait is laced with similar conservative caricatures of black culture that can be grating to encounter. When Williams recounts his adolescent use of the word “nigga,” it doesn’t trigger memories of a consistent and self-contained urban culture but instead a tendency toward reflexive thought. “[This] is…what my classmates and I called ourselves, the defensive embrace of the way the Evans of the world already lazily viewed us—the superlative, in many ways, of what so many of us really did aspire or resign ourselves to be.” For him, the 1990s hip-hop he once embraced is devoid of content, a set of empty gestures rather than a culture. This is a familiar and pernicious strain of black conservatism, one that rejects urban black culture in favor of middle-class refinement.
So while Williams offers a disclaimer near the start of the memoir that he is not rejecting blackness so much as rejecting “the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole,” I find it difficult to accept that statement at face value. Like his previous book, Self-Portrait drips with disdain for most forms of black culture that don’t exhibit the erudite, bourgeois self-possession that his father modeled for him, and this disregard hinders his larger argument as well. Williams cannot see blackness as anything other than a thicket of pathologies and disorders, one self-defeating side of a Manichaean dyad, always engaged in a fatal dance with whiteness. To get at what he desires most, unadulterated sovereignty, Williams must let go of his blackness. His marriage to his French wife, Valentine, and the birth of their daughter help enable such a release, in his view. Marlow’s birth serves as a confirmation of the fictitious qualities of race and thus becomes, as Williams observes in an earlier context, “a kind of freedom—a sovereign liberty to improvise and create the self without external constraints.”
One can look askance at Williams’s insistence on “sovereign liberty,” which smacks of a retrograde and dangerous version of liberal politics that imagines each and every one of us can be, under the right circumstances, autonomous individuals, even if so much of what gives this autonomy meaning is the product of collective life. Far more frustrating than the ways in which Williams strips human freedom of its social context is that he seems to lack any sense of nuance when it comes to contemporary discourse around the question of blackness and racial identity. He repeatedly conflates racist and anti-racist thought, charging them both with the sin of reducing people to essentialist racial identities. That is a disingenuously broad caricature: While white supremacist thought constructs racial essences as a way to engender and protect racialized power, anti-racist thought views race as an analytic through which we might understand and destroy the racial order. In close readings that aim to demonstrate the anti-racist critique’s complicity in perpetuating racism, Williams’s refusal to reckon with this difference becomes clear.
In a reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (a critical hobbyhorse that Williams continues to ride even though Coates has moved past it), Williams uses Coates’s heated confrontation with a white woman who has just shoved his son out of her way as they were leaving a movie theater in Manhattan to portray him as a thinker whose rigid racial ideology thwarts his ability to understand individual agency:
As Coates represents her, this woman is not a morally fallible, autonomous subject with her own biography and neuroses, but a representative of larger, impersonal social forces…. He doesn’t appreciate that his disproportionate reaction—“my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history”—is an unqualified overreaction…. It doesn’t seem to strike him that as long as black people can be so easily triggered and provoked…we’ll never be free or equal.
Williams’s reading of this scene seems to be in bad faith. Bending Coates’s passage to his ends, he ignores the subtlety of what Coates is trying to say in that anecdote and in the rest of the book. In that particular passage, Coates is not diminishing individual agency but trying to understand how the woman’s reaction is driven by learned behaviors that should give all of us pause. This is one of many moments in which, in an attempt to reconcile history and agency, Coates encourages his readers to consider how the scripts imparted to us by racialized experience sometimes do not suffice. Taken in context, it’s a moment when the anti-racist criticism that Williams rails against demonstrates more suppleness of thought than he wants to admit.
Rather than caricature anti-racist thought, Williams would have done well to turn to writers like Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Fred Moten, and many other thinkers past and present whose investigations into racial identity have explored the strange dynamic that renders race—particularly blackness—both a transparently constructed and a desirable expression of individual and group humanity. As Moten insists, to understand blackness, we must “consider…the specific interiority of [it]…not to challenge claims of the constructedness of the category but to initiate an investigation into the essence of the constructed in this case and in general.” We must, in other words, persist in an anti-racist investigation of blackness, recognizing its constructedness not so we can escape racial identity altogether but rather view it as a phenomenon that offers tools for collective expression and shared struggle against the social order. Race can be of service to those seeking to exploit, suppress, and dehumanize others; it can also be a means for rehumanization and power. We can begin to recognize this if we take seriously the desire for blackness that Williams dismisses out of hand as worthless. Why do we persist in embracing blackness, and what do we gain from it?
I don’t know that anyone can offer a pat answer to that question, but there are many examples of a far more productive line of inquiry than Williams’s. Larsen’s Passing comes most readily to mind, in which the protagonist, Irene Redfield, reels from the sudden appearance of her childhood friend Clare, who has been passing for white and has reappeared in Harlem to rekindle old friendships. Talking with her husband, Brian, Irene wonders why Clare would return and risk revealing that she’s been passing. “It’s always that way,” Brian responds. “Never known it to fail. They always come back. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.” “But why?” Irene demands. All Brian can offer is a provocation, both to her and the reader: “If I knew that, I’d know what race is.”
Larsen’s novel offers us a compelling study in the power and appeal of racial identity, and it forces us to call into question what many Americans have come to think of as race in a country where black people like Clare pass as white. The existence of black people who do not look black is evidence of American racial ideology’s inchoate nature. Brian’s provocation suggests that race is less a biological than a social fact. It can also be a zone for Williams’s unadulterated sovereignty.
That provocation also reminds us that just because racial identity is a social phenomenon, it does not mean that we would want to—or necessarily can—banish race to the realm of pure fiction. Instead the novel offers us a far more complex conception of identity, one in which passing simultaneously underlines race’s status as a social construction and reinscribes it as a very real structure of desire. When Clare becomes black again, it’s because she wants something that only blackness can give her and is dissatisfied with what whiteness has to offer. Passing suggests that probing racial identity necessitates a probing of this desire, which is also to insist that we cannot dismiss it as false consciousness. Williams would do well to learn from Larsen.