“Listen, I’m not here to tell you how science has concluded that genetically we’re all mixed in, race in the human species doesn’t exist, or how every historian knows that race was invented in the fifteenth century to divide people from each other and it has worked perfectly—no. I’m not here to lecture. I just want to ask one question. Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?”
My own relationship with race is confused at best. My mother, who raised me, is white, while my father is Filipino and Mexican. I was darker growing up, and it wasn’t until my teens that I began to ‘pass’ for white. I can’t say I wholeheartedly identify with any race, while others have immediately identified me as Mexican, Filipino, ‘white’ with something extra…which, I’m sure, is why I relate to this poem. The only experience I have with my race is how other people have interpreted my skin color.
And that seems to be, at least for me, one of the most interesting, and complicated aspects of race—that is how one’s relations with other people help construct one’s own relationship to race/identity. In his essay “Toward a Politics of Mere Being”, Carl Phillips, a poet associated with black and queer poetry, addresses the impact others interpretations had on his own identity:
When my first book of poems came out in 1992, I learned what it could mean to be seen as a political poet for no other reason than because of who or what one is. Rachel Hadas, who selected the book for publication, wrote a wonderful and uncannily accurate introduction, from which the publisher excerpted the following for the back cover:
Internal evidence would seem to indicate that [this] is a poet of color who is erotically drawn to other men. The reductiveness of such terms is one lesson of In the Blood, with its … constant dissolving of one world into another.
I say uncannily accurate because I had yet to acknowledge to myself, let alone others, my being gay; about the color part, I’d been pretty aware of, of course, all my life. Sexuality would end up being the primary lens through which my early work got read; and given how relatively new it still was to speak of queerness openly, and given the relative newness—and unknown-ness—about HIV and AIDS, the poems were seen as particularly relevant: political, let’s say.
Carl Philips is immediately identifiably black, while his poems lead others to the conclusion that he “is erotically drawn to other men”, even though Phillips had “yet to acknowledge to [him]self, let alone others, [his] being gay”. Phillips continues:
But at no point did I think of myself as having an agenda that could be called political. Rather, my agenda, to the extent that it can even be called that, has always been to speak as honestly as possible to my own experience of negotiating and navigating a life as myself , as a self—multifarious, restless, necessarily ever-changing as the many factors of merely being also change—in a world of selves. Which is to say, I was simply being myself in those first poems—what other choice is there? But I became a poet who, according to reviews, spoke unabashedly—daringly, even—of what many wouldn’t, in terms of sex; as for race, I’d unknowingly thrown a gauntlet down to a long tradition of assumptions as to what blackness meant and especially as to how a poet of color should speak, and about what.
Automatically becoming associated with a certain movement created a type of restriction within Phillips’s pool of material. Phillips found with later poems, that his initial label as a political poet demanded he write about certain things, a certain way. Phillips writes:
But, as with the Black Arts Movement, a black collective that arbitrates what blackness must be—excluding, for example, a Robert Hayden—is not so different from an exclusionary white establishment. Same game in the hands of new players.
Attempting to be political is exhausting. Attempting to balance the demands of others while remaining honest to one’s own experience is overwhelming. But, Phillips’s interpretation of political injects the most zen and compassion into the idea of occupying an automatically political space, just by being.
How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act—if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus? I write from a self for whom race, gender, and sexual orientation are never outside of consciousness—that would be impossible—but they aren’t always at the forefront of consciousness. Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should—as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.
So my hippie might be showing when I say this, but this paragraph is specifically beautiful because of the connection it’s calling for. The call for acceptance of all experience, no matter our personal opinion of what’s being shared. “If the political must be found in the differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus?”