It is a rarity to find art that speaks to you so much you have nothing to say. Despite being one of the more active participants in my African-American drama class, I was silent for nearly the whole class this Monday. It was all too familiar to analyze.
For this class, our reading assignment was Adrienne Kennedy's "Funnyhouse Of A Negro" (you can read up to page 17 here). The play is absurd, meaning the characters scramble for meaning in what's perceived as a meaningless human existence. It was an absurd play about such an absurd experience that our class opened unusually with ways the play confounded us.
The one-act play follows the story of Sarah, a young woman with a white mother and a black father who is scarred by his supposed suicide. She idealizes the upper class white lifestyle, showing disdain and distress for having a black father. Different historical personas, including Queen Elizabeth and Jesus, echo Sarah's sentiments of white superiority and racism against black people. Kennedy plays not only with race but gender, channeling Sarah through Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. In the end, she kills herself, leaving the reader to question whether her father was really dead at all.
The idea of the tragic mulatto is merely literary-- the biracial identity crisis does not predicate certain suicide. Yet there is something to be said for not having a place in your mother's society nor your father's.
When I visited India as a young woman, I hoped that I would finally find the home I'd desired since childhood. I reasoned if being Indian was what set me apart, then it was India where I would belong. My hope diminished with every foreign interaction and Hindi word. From glares to lustful gazes, I realized I resembled any other American countering Indian heat with khaki shorts.
Seeing "Hagherty" on signs in Limerick, Ireland, made me ecstatic with familiarity. "Haggerty" is my mother's maiden name, yet I knew I could never return and attempt to reclaim my culture. The Irish in my blood is carried out by name alone, and even that has been sufficiently trumped with my olive complexion.
Here in the so-called "melting pot" of America, I've never truly fit in because of my biracial identity. I was content to be distanced from my Indian heritage in southern Louisiana until I realized there was effectually nothing Indian about me. I regretted my detachment as soon as Indian friends discussed unfamiliar holidays and traditions. My parents' divorce certainly did not aid in creating a cohesive identity.
A student in our class mentioned a notion he'd come across in reading a literary analysis: Kennedy makes the idea of racial binaries seem ridiculous. Within a racial binary, one is faced with a choice between two races, which drives Sarah into hatred for her blackness and a longing for her whiteness. It does seem ridiculous, and it's easily not that definitive, but the guilt and shame in being a multi-cultural pariah fluctuates from one side to another throughout one's lifetime. Now, I try to use both races to increase my understanding of the world, but I continue to be misunderstood by both.
One of the few interpretations I offered during class was this: The Funnyman and the Landlady repeat what Sarah says, but they do so in a way that makes her seem insane.
But Sarah doesn't seem insane. In fact, I understand her perfectly. I grew up in a society that seemed to prefer whiteness, begging the question why any white person would have children with someone of another race. I've not only had to ask myself why my parents married one another, but why they each married someone of a different race.
Rather than mull over what the author meant, her insanity made sense of my existence. Somehow, in twenty-five pages of madness, she expressed something I struggled to articulate my entire life.
Another classmate offered that the Funnyman and the Landlady are portrayed as the only "sane" characters, and they have no idea what Sarah is struggling to convey. The Funnyman laughs and calls her cruel in how she treats her father, and the Landlady argues Sarah need not commit suicide.
I've been surrounded by these characters since my youth. In my hometown, identity is literally black and white--the two races are largely kept separate, and I saw few examples of those who successfully straddled both worlds.
Each individual attempts to define him or herself, but the adversity is compounded when you aren't blanketed in the comfort of your own ancestry. Without a cultural security blanket, I've dreamed of places I could fit in, finally recognizing I will never feel completely at home in any particular place.
All biracials struggle with their identities differently, but I assure you there is definitely a struggle beneath our pallid skin. In a world of black and white, we feel forced to choose. It's choosing between your father and mother; one world over another.
From my experience, I would argue that Kennedy doesn't actually see things this way. She is mocking how society divides races, tormenting biracial children unnecessarily. This is the first work I've ever read addressing the biracial experience--and its murky absurdism only solidifies how difficult the experience is to convey. I could say nothing at all because my own life breathed her words. Fifty years later, her words are echoed by another biracial.
Piercing my nose or vacationing in Cape Cod does not make me Indian or Irish. I am both and neither, an absurdity I will struggle to make sense of for the rest of my life. For now, reading about the pain and ridiculousness of our racial binary conundrum is all the cultural security blanket I need.