Homing: Race, Sexuality, & the Migratory Imagination

In this forthcoming hybrid collection of essays, myth, & poetry, Klonaris, a queer white Bahamian woman living in northern California, seeks to understand and critique the dynamics of white supremacy and its effects on the white imagination. By the weaving of myth -a re-telling of the Afro-Bahamian folktale “The Gaulin Wife”- through essays that move between ‘home’ in the Caribbean and ‘home’ in the US, she seeks to redefine her own whiteness and meditates on how this redefining, intersecting with the troubling of her sexuality, necessarily transfigures ‘home’.

Here is a sample essay from the collection:

 

The Racial ImaginaryIf I Tell These Stories

A Letter to Claudia Rankine for the Open Letters Project

(Published in The Racial Imaginary: Writers and the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, Fence Books)

 

Dear Claudia,

I am grateful for your invitation. And for this gathering of poets and storytellers and scholars, thinking out loud about race and the creative imagination.

Do I think about race as a writer? All the time. I grew up in a Greek immigrant community, in a postcolonial island country where statues of Christopher Columbus loom large over the capital; where Queen Victoria still sits enthroned in the city square. Where lawmakers convene wearing the white wigs of English colonial rule. Where laws have been handed down from England and even though the country is now in the hands, more or less, of the majority, who are of African descent, old laws still work their ways into our collective dreaming, being, doing.

I grew up and spent the majority of my adult years on an island in the heartland of colonial myths of paradise: the Caribbean. I am the child of sun, sand, and sea. Of Bahama Mamas and miniature cocktail umbrellas and the ubiquitous silhouette of coconut trees at sunset. Of an island split into coastal beaches, hotels, white merchants and tourists on the north side, and on the south side, Over-the-Hill, working class blacks whose jobs–serving customers, waiting tables, cooking, cleaning–were located on the north side. East and west were reserved for moneyed whites (and brown and black exceptions) – old money from slavery and rum running in the east, new money from investments in what the old money had built in the west. More or less. In the center were public schools populated mostly by black students, and fanning out from that center, east and west, private schools populated mostly by white students and fewer brown and black. I’m a child of an English school system, and a school–12 years from kindergarten to O-Levels–that came into existence as a response to integration in the late 1940s: St. Andrew’s was established by white parents who didn’t want their white children going to school with brown and black kids.

My imagination is riddled with the stories racism built. My imagination is not a gentle place in which to play, to run and jump; it is not separate from the landscape I was schooled in. I am aware of how the island shows up there; all cut up into pieces, north, south, east, west. How plantation walls have morphed into the walls of high-end hotels and gated communities. How geography designates value. How, even while I was embarrassed by my association with a school of mostly white kids on a mostly black island, I also grew up believing in my specialness. The landscape of my youth pulses in my imaginary. That liminal place where streams of images and thoughts flow from unconscious and conscious places and co-mingle. A wetland where new stories are spawned. Stories which, if I am not careful, just repeat themselves. Repeat the bone structure and facial characteristics and speech patterns of the stories they come from.

I became an activist at a young age, aware and not aware that I was talking back to stories. Talking back to Bible passages and church edicts and what my family had to say about girls and women, boys and men; these were easiest to see and resist. Hidden only slightly deeper inside silences and gestures, glances, and half Greek, half English phrases was the story of race; what I heard white people say and not say about ourselves; and what we said and didn’t about the black people we lived next door to, the black women who came to the house to care for us, the black women and men who worked for us in our hotels and factories and retail stores all along Bay Street, and the black people who ran the country.

These are stories I am not supposed to tell. They still live in my body. I heard them spoken at dinner tables, in family talk about work, about the government, about the country. In bars, white expats drank beer and took turns calling the government backward, and in the gaps between words and underneath them was the unspoken belief that ‘if we still ran the country, things would be better.’ And in the gaps between those words and underneath them was another belief: white people are natural leaders. I learned from what was said, and what wasn’t.

Memory: one Sunday in church, a brown skin woman walks in out of the sunshine, sits in a pew on the wrong side, with the men instead of the women. She wears a simple cotton dress. Her hair is short, natural. She is in her forties, maybe. Everybody can see she is there. After the service, nobody speaks to her. Everyone pretends we don’t notice each other pretending and not speaking. I do not know why we do this. Maybe by pretending she is not there we do not have to see or hear our own thoughts about her. We do not have to acknowledge the difficulty of what it would mean to open our church doors to the black women who take care of our children. We do not have to acknowledge the ways we olive skinned immigrants are benefiting from whiteness in a black country. Or notice the guilt we may or may not have about the visible inequities of our everyday lives. The ways light and white skin add up to better land, better schools, better food, business loans, financial progress. I learn that silence is a way of refusing to see. Of willful ignorance.

If I tell you these stories, I break the silence that protects a bond of whiteness.

What I know about you is complicated. We are friends at school, we are co-workers at work, we are even lovers at home. I am not supposed to tell you how I was also taught to fear you. O mavros erhete! The black man is coming! The clenching around words, the nervousness, the high-pitched voices. A black man walking down the street – our street – is reason for fear. My mother snatching me inside. I was six years old. The neighborhood by then was not whites only, but the story I understood in my belly and bones was that we were meant to be there; black people ‘coming in’ were new, were exceptions to the way things were supposed to be. Never mind that people of African descent made up the majority of the population, or that we were newly independent of colonial rule; the color of ownership in our imaginations was still white.

I am not supposed to tell you this. But it is here anyway, when I laugh with friends at lunch, say good morning when I get on the bus, or caress my lover’s cheek when she comes home after a long day, the stories breathe along with us. The stories are blinking their eyes, watching me watching you. How I heard grownups complaining about the workers, the finality in their voices when they said, you know, they all steal, that’s just how they are. (Never mind it was my grandfather’s brother who stole a house from under him. Never mind the ways we kept our silence about the uncle who ‘fondled’ little boys, and little girls, including my mother. The violences we were most familiar with went untold, or were quickly, aggressively shut down when they did leak out, and so our fantasies of (white) respectability, honor, goodness could remain intact…) Stories. In tones of voice not meant to be heard by our neighbors. Secrets. The way I never said the word black because I didn’t know it was ever said to mean beautiful, to mean love, to mean life. I had never heard it to mean honor, power, a person or creation of value. Of goodness. And as long as we could see blackness (the way we defined it), know where it was in relation to us, we could be comfortable in our whiteness. We could be beautiful, honorable, have the right to power, see ourselves as good. It was important to see blackness, but only in relation to our whiteness. What I mean is, we did not want to see the culture of African people, be curious about it, understand or appreciate it in its complexity, its fullness; we needed an essentialized blackness as a reminder of what we did not want to be, who we were not. What I mean is, we need you to be ‘black’ so we can be ‘white’. This is what I am not supposed to tell you, and probably what you already know.

Now I am thinking about what those secrets do in unconscious places. And how they inform my imagination. And how my imagination informs what I write and the way I speak and act with other white people and how it enables, and disables me from loving my black lover…

The secrets are heavy, heaped like leather-bound storybooks one atop the other, reaching up to the sky. Teetering wildly, precariously. It is the accumulation of secrets I feel in the thick of a moment when I could speak up but don’t. There is a terror, old, of the teetering tower of secrets falling down. What will happen if I open my mouth to say no? Two things are true: there is the fear of the consequences of speaking, and the privilege of knowing I will not suffer if I don’t. Here in my body I know the felt sense of how racism continues: the looking away (from myself), the closing of my eyes, the clenching inside my throat. The shutting down of self awareness, and of my voice. And with these, the shutting down of emotional intelligence, compassion, the ability to empathize and to love. It is a lie that racism does not hurt me. And if I want to heal myself of racism, the way it inhabits me, uses me, keeps me obedient to it, I have to let the secrets fall where they may. A mess of old storybooks, splayed wide open for all to see. This is where I begin: first, dare to see what I see; second, dare to open my mouth and tell what I am not supposed to tell. Speak it, so that it isn’t mis-leading me from the inside.

I had been an activist for over fourteen years when I returned to the writing of stories. I say ‘returned’ because I had been a writer of stories in my early teenage years, but had abandoned them to essays as my activism took up more space in my life. (I remembered, though, the feeling of losing myself in a story, the way I could put myself in a character’s body easily, shapeshifting, as it were, and see the world from their perspective.) I had been active in grassroots feminist movements, LGBT rights movements, and had written passionate letters against neocolonialist racist actions, but I began to feel that the activism I was part of was limited. Our arguments seemed circular, created binaries of us vs. them, and the old, dominant narratives of patriarchy and colonialism persisted. Then in 2005 I traveled to the Queer Islands Conference at the University of Chicago and heard writers like Thomas Glave and Colin Robinson and others lament the failure of the imagination to create successful queer movements in Caribbean countries. And though at first I was defensive, I had to agree that some vital element was missing.

Fearful for the imagination, I left home to study fiction in San Francisco at a little known activist college on Valencia Street. I left home looking for a place to practice imagining. But what I found here in the Bay Area, in spite of its reputation as a progressive American community, was a more pronounced separation of people and space along color lines than had existed even in the Bahamas. And though I was an immigrant from a small place, whose identity culturally was certainly not singular, I could easily pass (if I held my tongue) into a cultural majority whose values and language and stories mattered; whose gaze mattered above all others.

When I look back now, here is what I understand: I get off the plane and walk out into the shimmering energy field of a very large story. A story that is three-dimensional. That moves when I move. A story of white supremacy that imbues everything from streets and freeways to road signs to whole neighborhoods, towns, and cities, with itself. As I walk into the streets of the US, I am approached by this story. It offers me things. Passports. Safe neighborhoods. Physical and mental distance from the everyday traumas of ghettos reserved for poor people of African and Indigenous and Latino descent. It has the power of a black hole, to warp the structure of who I think I am.

Whatever Greekness and Africanness I brought with me, in my speech, in the movements of my lips and hands and hips when I speak; my tastes and preferences; the ways of knowing both cultures imbued me with, when I step off that plane, into these streets, all that gets rearranged and pressed quiet, and sucked out and disappeared inside this story. I will, if I am not careful, move right along with the story, and when I move along with it, because of my color and who I imagine myself to be, and who others imagine me to be, I feel no resistance. The world of shopkeepers, bank tellers, employers, my students, strangers on buses and in lines at the cinema, smile at me. I might believe, as a young woman waves at me from her bike as I cross the road in downtown Santa Fe, Boston, Berkeley, that this is a friendly place. An easy to get along with place. Inside this story I fear no resistance. I do not even expect it. I don’t expect to be followed around in clothing stores, or watched by policemen in police cars when I drive my green Honda through town, or feared and avoided as I take a walk through my neighborhood. I can take graduate critical theory classes and have it confirmed that my people – Aristotle and Socrates and Plato, for example – are where thought and philosophy and literature all started, and the thinking and literatures of non-European cultures, are somehow latecomers to the conversation. I can assume I am at the center, or should be, of movements and histories, and that the human story is naturally seen best through the lives of people and characters who look and sound like me.

Except that I can’t. Maybe we only begin to question a story (or a system) when it fails us. My mother questioning the church she grew up in when at 40 she finally acknowledged the priest in whom she had confided her uncle’s sexual abuse had called her the liar.

As a first generation Greek Bahamian woman who is also queer, I don’t inherit the benefits of whiteness in as substantial a measure as straight white women or men. My differences, however subtle, have provided enough friction and energy to have made walking around in the story of white supremacy complicated and uncomfortable.

Enter fiction, where what is complicated and uncomfortable in the world outside becomes a way into the unconscious stories we most need to tell.

My words, at first, were clumsy and hard to retrieve. As an activist writing nonfiction, I knew what I thought. I could use anger to fuel my words. There was clarity and conviction. And, I could draw the lines where I believed them to be. But fiction was unruly, hard to control. What I thought had little to do with what the stories wanted to say. Robert Owen Butler says we write stories from the place where we dream. There, at the threshold of my unconscious, waiting for me to notice, was a backlog of every stereotype I had ever pushed away, resisted, suppressed. My stories were childlike, crude. Or they were long reams of lyricism with no plot in sight. Or they were sermons disguised as stories. And there, under the skin of each of them, hot and dangerous to the touch, was the story of race I had grown up with and had had little practice at revealing.

It was my return to fiction that brought me face to face with the racism of my imagination. And too, with the power to transform it.

Memory and Fiction: I am a girl sitting at the dinner table. I am in love with the girl in my class who writes stories like I want to write stories. She is beautiful and runs like the wind. Her eyes laugh with mine. She has a dimple in her chin that I want to touch with my fingers. And when she reads her stories in class, I stare at her with my whole self. I can feel the cold marble floor, the crunch of gravel under her bare feet like it was me walking. I am in love with what she can do with words. I hear the grownups talking. One man says, My daughter came home the other day, says she has a boyfriend. She’s ten, you know, so I say, what does this boyfriend look like? She says, he’s handsome, daddy, and his hair is curly-curly. Like mine, I say. No, she says, like John’s. Everyone at the table is laughing. I think it is because John is the gardener. And John is black. So the girl’s boyfriend must be a black boy. My hands are sweating under the table. The girl I love is black too. She writes stories like I want to write stories. I am writing a story now. My hands are itchy under the table. Everybody’s face is pale, some pink, some pastry colored, some, like my father’s, the color of white bread just out of the oven. When they laugh, I hear what is behind the laughter, how they are afraid when they turn out the lights at night, how they never feel safe. I see the white iron bars wrapping their windows so no one can get in, and no one can get out. They have rifles under their beds. I wonder if Columbus and his men slept with rifles under their cots, their ships rocking, rocking underneath them, underneath them the whole of Europe, like the ocean, holding them up. I hear gunfire and the thud of feet against sand, dirt, the slapping of water, bloodied, against the sides of ships, and then silence. I feel nauseous. The men with the rifles come back, build big houses. Sleep with the rifles under their beds, because outside, they have people working for them without pay; they have people working for them who they barely feed, who they hurt with whips and guns if they try to escape. It’s these people that build the houses we’re sleeping in now. Who know they built us a world for free. I can see all this behind the laughter, behind their gleaming foreheads, in the slight twitch of eyelids in between laughs. That is when I know, in the gap between laughs, that I am not going to believe them when they will tell me do not love that girl who writes like you want to write. That is how I know to steal the gun from under my father’s bed one Saturday morning and shoot the bars off the windows till my shoulder is bruised and the bars buckle and sag against peach concrete walls, useless. The windows open wide. I am not going to believe them when they come after me, when they tell me I am crazy, when they take me to a doctor who says he can make me better. I don’t want to be better. And I will not believe them when they tell me it is safe to come home.

In the beginning I wrote white characters who sat around talking anxiously about identity crises, and disappearing out of their skin into thin air. I was uncomfortable with these stories, with the shame they seemed to be steeped in. Besides, as is the way of stories and dreams, I knew that whatever I was trying to kill, to disappear, would just come back to haunt me. I kept writing, through the shame, through the disappearances, the hauntings, till I came to a still place, a matter-of-fact place, where the character no longer tried to escape herself, to be ‘good’, but instead showed me the uncomfortable realities she was implicated in, and in which she had agency to, at the very least, know she was implicated. In the beginning, I realized I had to write through the muck of the unconscious till I could get to something dynamic and uncluttered by shame, or fear of being seen as a racist. And something interesting began to happen. Once I could write about being implicated, I could see the story of white supremacy – of whiteness as a structure, inside the story and in my life, more clearly. Which meant, I had the power to write to interrupt that structure, dismantle it, and even begin to imagine something else. I am reminded of something a white theology professor of mine said long ago: you cannot move from a place you deny you are in. And, the writing showed me you cannot dismantle a system you choose not to see.

I don’t believe the imagination is a free zone, an empty space where we are free from the stories we live out here in the world. But I do think it is a place of radical possibility. Once I found my way to that still place, to a place of seeing even when I was afraid to look, I found the imagination became a place where surprising alchemy ensued. The flow of new ideas into old ideas caused a third thing to emerge. It is that third thing I am trying to get to, the possibility of transformation in the imaginal realm, on the page, and in my body where stories live, speak, and act out here in the world.

Helen Klonaris

February 18, 2014

Kensington, California