Friday, November 18, 2011




By Kalamu ya Salaam

Here is my initial reaction:

"it is difficult, if not impossible, for me to respond to this play, mainly because i am not interested in responding to racist fantasy. of course, that statement raises the question, what do i mean by "racist!"?

"from my perspective, this is a play repeating and reinforcing the notion "it's in the blood" and the white supremacist thesis that there is a major bio/psychological species-difference between black and white. this is a play that ignores history to present fantasy. it is a play that offers decontextualized research masquerading as historical fact. it is a play glorifying the white male penis and its desire for the "color struck" mulatto female vagina. it is a play about the "tragic mulatto" who was historically a person created in the main by white male rape and extra-legal liaisons. it is a play about fantasy and sublimated desire, a dangerously well-crafted artwork that is attractive in its production values but repulsive in its meaning. it is ultimately a play about celebrating racist patriarchal power relationships, rather than human relationships."

towards art for life,

kalamu ya salaam

the above response is pretty standard political rhetoric, standard in that, like all political rhetoric, what i say is absolute and not relative, is abstract and not concrete, is general and not specific, and, ultimately, addresses what i “think” while avoiding how i feel.

but i decided not to stop with a rigid position, i decided to enter into conversation with myself, to engage, at an emotional level, an issue which is difficult to definitively grasp. i have decided to talk a bit about this: “as a black person who is a heterosexual male, what is my relationship to black women and to white women,” and see where that takes me.

but first a definition. mulatto can specifically mean the child of bi-racial parents (one of whom is black and one of whom is white), or mulatto can generally mean anyone of a mixed racial (again, the emphasis is on black and white) background. i use mulatto in the general sense. mulatto also connotes a person who appears to be closer to “pure” white than to “pure” black. moreover, in america, mulatto is not about whites mixing with other ethnicities, e.g. native american or asian. in the final analysis, when we say mulatto, we are talking about a white-determined, american preoccupation with the intersection of race and sexual desire.

once, when i was in my twenties, an elder woman said to me: i don't know why a man would need to go outside our race to find a woman because we have any kind of woman he might want among us. we were passing a bus stop. we were in new orleans.

the physical variety of skin tones, body types, hair textures, even eye colors among "black" women in the crescent city requires at least a computer monitor that can display 256 colors to even come close to the physical spectrum they represent including blond hair, blue eyes and thin frames. (i know, somebody is about to ask “but if she has blond hair and blue eyes, how can she be black?” well, you see, blackness is color, culture and consciousness; in very important ways, blackness is not simply nor solely a biological absolute but is also and more importantly a collective experience as well as a personal choice.)

my first wife was reared as what some would call a “creole” because of her light skin and the catholic/french-speaking heritage of her family. we had five children whose skin tones range from cinnamon to nutmeg, all of them have thick curly "naps." and they were reared to consider themselves and all of their friends, family members, and acquaintances as black regardless of the shade of skin.

however, unavoidably there have been bumps on that road of intra-racial equality. one daughter remembers her shock when she heard her mother say she wished her children had been darker. the shock was because my daughter never thought of herself as light-skinned and was taken aback that a lighter-skinned mother thought her darker-skinned daughter was "light" or at least "lighter" than the mother had wanted the daughter to be. later in brasil that same daughter is told that she is a “mulatto” and there is a double shock.

i have fought against reducing the human spectrum to absolute biological colors and defining individuals by their biology but, just like my daughter, i too have been affected by the race-based ideologies of this society. only as i have grown older have i realized that much of what i thought was just my personal taste as a young man was in fact an unconscious adoption of prescribed notions; race-based notions that “black is beautiful” inverted but did not deeply and thoroughly address, for beauty like biology tends toward diversity rather than absolutes.

although i have had dark-skinned lovers, the truth is that the majority of my lovers have been my skin color (which is dark brown) or lighter. this fact forces me to ask, is the female mulatto intrinsically more attractive than either the white woman or the black woman?

based on what i have witnessed in my life i say, yes, “mulatto” women have proven to be more attractive to men than have been dark-skinned women; moreover, judging mulattos more attractive than dark-skinned blacks is generally the rule for both black men and white men (even a casual perusal of rap and pop videos will support this conclusion—ironically, you will probably find more dark skinned women in pop videos than in rap videos). this preference is a socially induced preference, the result of being reared in a racist society that unceasingly prioritizes the male consumption of both a euro-centric definition of physical beauty and a male-dominant definition of female sexuality.

within a racist society, the female mulatto represents the highest taboo. she is usually envisioned, to one degree or another, as having the looks of the white woman and the sexuality of the black woman. but racism also splits sexuality into the too often mutually exclusive duality of procreation and pleasure. it is easy to see how a racist dichotomy could lead to white procreation and black pleasure.

the assumption of the play is that the mulatto woman is the object of desire, but the american truth is that the mulatto woman exists because of white male attraction to black women, not to mulatto women, not to women who look white, but to black women. black women. black. women.

as to the inverse, i.e. are black women fixated on white men? i don't think that is true in america. indeed my experience has been that while a brother might be proudly defiant or defiantly proud of his “snaring” a white woman, black women who are with white men tend to pursue their lives quietly, almost apologetically. part of the reason is that in this society women have been reared to please others, not to offend others, especially family and friends. part of it is that both the reality and the mythology of white male rape of black women is so painful, so long standing, and yes so real, that a black woman who chooses to be with a white man seems (at least at first glance on the sociological surface) to be a traitor to her own history and to her people's history.

so while we might have the same result, i.e. an interracial union, the dynamics are very, very different depending on the "color" of the male and the "color" of the female in such a union. i don't believe the play addressed any of those dynamics even though ostensibly the psychology of the creole is a major plot element.

while color continues to be a major divide between the races and a major psychological issue within the psyches of many black people, inter-racial sexual relations is all a very tiresome and ultimately wasteful concern, especially when divorced from class and gender issues.

interestingly enough, even though i am speaking as a black man, as far as the play was concerned, i did not exist. the non-creole black man literally plays no role in this production while the creole male was merely a foil to be ignored or, when he got in the way, eliminated. for as long as i, the black male, am not thwarting the actions of white men, and as long as i am not running around raping and killing white women (à la o.j.) i am acceptable (à la the o.j. of the glory days). there is a reason that othello remains relevant to this society.

although “marie christine” is male-centered, this play is not about black men and the views of black men, whether well balance or deranged. regardless of it’s other themes, this play is specifically about the color fetish of white male sexual desire. one would think that by now, this concern would have been worked through, but not so. even after close to five hundred years of white male-dominant contact, their mulatto fetish does not seem to be diminishing. so what's up with this need to consume women of color (check the liquor, cigarette and fashion advertisements, not to mention tanning and lip enlargements)?

to be clear, i am not saying every white male wants a black woman. i am saying that a major fetish in the arsenal of american sexual desire/fantasy is the sexual consumption and/or domination of a black woman. that is a norm that may be completely absent in some white men and totally present in others, but to one degree or another is a part of most men’s sexual fantasies.

moreover, the dominant influence of male sexuality in determining and/or shaping mores and behavior in this society is much larger than most of us are generally willing to admit. for example, white women are constantly dealing with questions of sexual adequacy vis-à-vis black women, hence the seldom discussed rift between heterosexual black women and white women on gender issues, a rift acknowledged but not explored in the play.
suffice it to point out that, unavoidably, there is a major tension around physical attractiveness whenever white women perceive themselves to be competing with black women. although color complicates the attractiveness issue, ultimately, in this patriarchal society, the question of women making themselves sexually attractive is driven by a socially perceived need for male protection and support even when there is no actual need for that protection or support, in other words, the female is “encouraged” to feign a submissive posture in order to attract the desired male.

thus, the bedroom becomes the most complicated room in the house. the social emphasis on sex is complicated by the moral emphasis on monogamy and the racial emphasis on purity. given that this is a male-dominated society, sorting through all of this is both complicated and easy. complicated if one chooses to avoid discussing the intricacies and intersections of color, class and gender, easy if one acknowledges the brutal fact driving and dominating american social interactions: the white male’s insistence on sexual conquest.

i'm simply saying men like to copulate (i would say "fuck" but given mainstream tastes, the use of an euphemism is preferred if not outright required in public discourse. moreover, the need for euphemisms reflects the american inability to admit sociological realities, but that's another discussion for another time. why else would viagra... need i say more?).

but let's get back to the issue at hand: racist obsession with black female flesh. i think white men want it both ways. they want to have the bread of propagating the white race, hence a "white wife," and they want to feast on the cake of black sensuality, hence a black or "mulatto" concubine, kept woman, or prostitute.

on the other hand, without “white wives,” the white race would, in a matter of a few generations, blend into the general colored populations of the world. from a racist position, that would amount to racial suicide. or, to flip the script: as i joke with fellow blacks whenever someone expresses a deep distaste for interracial unions, i ask, what would you rather see, white babies or mulatto babies?

i'm sure to most whites that is a shocking statement, but it's a factual statement. white people can not spread out all around the world, have human interaction with all the peoples of the world, and remain "pure white" unless they enforce a racist system that values white purity over racial diversity. my position is that i support racial diversity over the essentialism of so-called purity whether white or black, indeed, realistically what other position could i hold given that the overwhelming majority of african americans are of mixed heritage?

the natural result of human intercourse unfettered by racist ideology is diversity. indeed, race mixing has been and will continue to be the inevitable result of multi-racial societies in modern times, racially supremacist ideologies notwithstanding. yes, even under the most racist system, if the system is also patriarchal, you can bet that there will also be race mixing, because by definition, within a patriarchal system to be a man is to be able to consume any and all women.

if american history proves nothing else, it proves that white men are going to be white men and that there will continue to be a fascination among them about black women, and this sexual fetish will manifest itself, consciously or subconsciously, in the artwork of this country, especially that artwork which reflects the dominant ideologies regardless of the particular ideology, gender or race of the artist unless that artist consciously, honestly, and fearlessly decides to confront just what it means to write yet another play about a tragic mulatto.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a 1999 literature senior fellow at the fine arts work center in provincetown (massachusetts) and founder/director of nommo literary society, a black writers workshop in new orleans. salaam can be reached at


the essay above was commissioned by the lincoln center to appear in their theatre program guide. it did not appear.

when i was first asked about writing the essay, i asked: are you sure you want me to write for you? the editor assured me that she knew my work and did indeed want my participation. true to her word, once i turned in the essay, the early stages went remarkably well. the editing process was straightforward and helpful. everything seemed to be everything.

then, while i was in residence at the fine arts work center, less than two weeks before the issue was to go to press, i received a call from the editor's boss. seems the galley copy was circulated to the cast of the play, and… well, here's the relevant text from the formal letter i received about the decision not to print the essay:

Dear Kalamu,

Josselyn indicated that you'd like us to write to you as a follow up to our phone conversation of two weeks ago. I'm happy to do so.

We decided not to run your article "A Rambling Response to the Play "Marie Christine"" because the artists of the play felt your preface to the article would hurt the perception of the show. As you know, we inquired whether we could run the main body of your article alone, and when you declined, we decided not to run the piece at all.

I'm sorry this worked out this way, since we all liked the body of the article very much.


Anne Cattaneo,

Executive Editor

She's right, it was my call to say run the whole thing or don't run it at all. publication in new york never hurts, especially if the publication is from lincoln center. moreover, offending editors is a risky proposition; as huge as new york may be, the publishing circles are really not that large. it didn't take me long to reach the decision i did, and so here we are, another failed attempt to bridge the gap.

On the one hand i fully understand that publishing the above essay in the official program would have been daff—if i were them, i certainly would not have done it, but then again, i certainly would not have been producing that play either!

I know there are many other black writers who would have been tickled to write a non-offensive essay for lincoln center. however, my position is simple: i'm not the one.

To me, the play was offensive, and to respond politely and inoffensively to such a play just is not an option. ultimately, what liberal america wants is to be integrated and at the same time continue perpetuating their fantasies. i don't know who called the final shots. i don't know who strongly objected to my article, but i do know, i sleep well at night. i do know they are clear that there is at least one intelligent black person who finds their play offensive and is willing to tell them so in a forthright and unambiguous manner.

None of this is life or death serious, and in the grand scheme of my career and the careers of the cast, crew and creators of the play, this little incident is but a minor skirmish. nonetheless, this was, in my opinion, a battle that had to be fought.

Some of us are not glad just to be accepted into the mainstream. some of us are not for sale. and we will speak up, even if the "we" is just one writer refusing to co-sign patriarchal fantasies about mulatto sex.

In the final analysis, it is these quiet battles, the ones outside of the limelight, the ones that others may never even know happen, it is these principled engagements that will determine how far we have come and how far we have yet to go before we can honestly dialogue across the racial divide without biting our tongues or censoring our thoughts.

a luta continua (the struggle continues)…

The Play, Marie Christine at:

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails