I spoke at the Art Institute in Chicago this past weekend about Josephine Baker and her adoptive family, and one of the audience members asked me how I came to my particular reading of her “Rainbow Tribe.” The answer I gave wasn’t what she expected. I didn’t trace it to academic faddishness, or the current vogue for things transnational. Instead, I told her, in brief, about the world from whence I came.
Growing up in a larger adopted family taught me a lot about race. I learned comparatively little about the bloody grit of residential segregation, violence and crime, and the political economy of oppression – except through the past lives of my brothers and sisters – and a lot about the abstractions of visual sightlines, official and unofficial surveillance, and schemes of classification.
An example: I am in the hallway of my middle school. My teacher has asked me to wheel an overloaded cart – a mobile teaching lab, basically – to another room. And when I enter, someone in the back of the room calls out, “Hey, it’s nigger lips!” A knowing laugh crackles the end of his words. The room responds with a low, collective giggle. And I duck out, shamefacedly.
At five years old, people began to ask questions about my two “white” parents, about my family, about my adopted brother, who was understood as “black.” There were complementary concerns about other, newly arrived adopted sisters and brothers, brought from far away places to our little town. And then, perhaps inevitably, there were questions about me – the “natural born” son – and about what my supposed whiteness meant in a house filled with many different kinds of bodies. As our little town tried to figure us out, concerns and questions bubbled up, becoming stares and jokes and hushed asides.
Though my storytelling here might suggest otherwise, there wasn’t a sequence to these events. The public attention didn’t slowly slide over the colors of the rainbow until it arrived at my white face. This interest seemed, instead, to arrive slowly, or to intensify with each adoption, as if our collective and growing assemblage had crossed a line, and been suddenly recognized as a determined, comprehensive provocation, aimed very much at the natural order of things. Generally, the focus was on the family as a whole.
All large adoptive families are public properties, of course. That is their raison d’être.
According to the engineered logic of such things, our bodies – and the other indicators of the varied weirdness of “us” – became mysterious objects of concerned speculation.
Those mysteries were surely plentiful. My parents adopted my four siblings from the warzones of the American Century – Korea, Vietnam, and the South Bronx. In the midst of this adoption, they had another child of their own. They labored to create a utopian family representing, as my father would put it, “the three great racial divisions of mankind.” And as a polyglot, multiracial unit in post Civil Rights era America, we were objects of intense display and performance, delegating domestic normalcy and foreign diaspora to challenge stock racial imaginaries. At Christmas mass, the three of us closest in age (together, color-coded as white, black, and yellow) were invariably featured as “the wise men,” heralds of the Messiah, and bringers of the gifts. Some of that magic rubbed off onto all of us, soaked into our skin, and stayed with us in our day-to-day lives.
And we were not alone in what my father – our Royal Tenenbaum – imagined as a vanguard. I was acutely conscious of the presence of other such families. At night, we would watch the DeBolts on television. In the summers, we would attend Welcome House picnics, and witness other parallel orchestrations. In private and much less frequently, we would hear about Jim Jones, Josephine Baker, and the rainbow tribes that had “failed.”
“I never understood us,” Royal Tenenbaum says, speaking of his family. I sometimes – or maybe often, or even always – feel the same.
My earliest memories are of a troubling public surveillance. As a boy, I sat on my front porch, watching the cars drive by slowly, and saw how quickly the heads would turn to see the wide world of rainbow-play in my picket-fenced front yard. Our false and performed comity was presumed to be an indicator of the nation’s fate, and our private life was the race problem in microcosm. We were studied and data-mined. We were objects, not subjects.
As a consequence of this strange local celebrity, the children became compulsory students of the American racial dynamic. Each in our own way, we learned together to play with stereotype, to embody or transgress the essence of difference, to study those who watched us, catching the moment when they assessed our bodies, scrutinized our features, and defined us for their own purposes. We learned where to play so that no one could watch us, and learned how to play when we were, in turn, being admired (or condemned) by our publics. The backyard – hemmed in by shrubs and trees – was private; the sunny front yard, across from the general store, was not.
Our assemblage was well removed from urban complexities. Our town was a white racial preserve – a homeland for deeply conservative folks, for farmers who spoke of Values, Family, and Truth, and for exiles from the troubled concrete-and-glass core of America. There were no major highways. No railway lines, except for the slow commercial trains that crept through at night. The city, my father would explain, was no place for a child to grow up, and it was certainly no place for a family like ours, fashioned as a response to the problems of racism, colonialism, and overpopulation. “I wanted two of every race,” he noted, as if he were Noah preparing for the biblical flood, and as if we were the chosen stock from which the world would be reconstituted. Cities were dirty, dying, demographically dense, dystopian spaces, fractured by race and class.
The brutality of my nickname – a very little thing, in a world of real-time uprisings and minority punishments – was a reminder of the naiveté of this progressive narrative.
At night, by the flicker of the television, I privately concluded that my classmates looked at me, looked at my adopted brother, looked at Jimmy Walker on What’s Happening?, looked at whatever was presented to them in the national popular, and saw a physical resemblance. And, being a little kid, I agreed with them, not knowing, really, what that meant. For the rest of my young adulthood, I was greeted with that perverse nickname at every doorway, in every hallway, on every playing field, and at every party or social event. I expected it.
And I thought that it was accurate. I would stare at myself in the mirror for hours. I would hold up two mirrors so that I could see my profile, and assess for myself what blackness looked like, or to see how it could be measured. I would hold a pencil or a ruler from the tip of my nose to my chin, and tighten my lips to make them smaller, so that they wouldn’t protrude so far, and wouldn’t interrupt that precious line. I would stare, with painful envy, at the “white” children, with their perfect profiles, their diminished lips, and their constrained, civilized mouths. I learned to cover my mouth with my hand while listening, or laughing. When it came time to talk in class, I would get quiet. The nickname was accurate, I thought; I had African lips, like the Mursi women in National Geographic – protruding, vulgar, and even savage lips, as the available literature defined them.
It wasn’t so much the newly prescribed blackness of my face that left me twisted on the inside, but my strange mixed-up racial location. The rest of me, it seemed, was unadulterated, pristine, white. But my lips – the very instruments of verbal expression, of intimacy – were apparently otherwise. There was, back then, no language to capture the experience of racial liminality, no sense that race was a mutable, flexible thing, that identities were contingent, or social and politically determined. The premise of “us” was that race was real and fixed and there to be seen. No logic, in other words, to explain what I saw as a disconnect between my detailed physiognomy and my generic whiteness. Except for the notion that my racial character was flawed.
So, at eleven, I broke down and told my parents about my now commonly-known nickname. Sometime soon after that, I was brought to a plastic surgeon, who promised to give me the racial clarity I so desperately wanted. This was a weird sort of racial effacement, a reversal of the so-called Asian eye-lid surgery, or skin-lightening creams. And it was a tactic in my effort to sharply clarify for our public (and for me) the color line in my household, to firmly and permanently mark myself as something other than my brothers and my sisters.
But when I arrived at school in the fall, and proudly offered what I thought was my newer, whiter, European face to this discerning public, they cared not a bit, and shouted, “nigger lips is back!”
I don’t think about this often. It came to my mind as I was shuttled into Chicago, because my taxi driver was listening to the amazing “This American Life” piece on middle school. But it is never buried too deeply, or truly forgotten. And I always think about it – and a lifetime’s worth of weird, strange encounters with race growing up in our own carnivalesque Rainbow Tribe – every time I write about Josephine Baker’s ensemble.