Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#BookReview: black and (A)broad: traveling beyond the limitations of identity - Carolyn Vines

I stumbled upon the author's blog back in December and thought the premise was absolutely fascinating.  I don't necessarily have a desire to live abroad, but traveling abroad is definitely on the must do list.  It's too bad that this book is less about Vine's experience living abroad while identifying as a black woman and more about her self-hate.

The author spends time as a college student in Spain, which was of great interest since it's on my bucket list of places to visit.  Unfortunately, she glosses over the experience.  Instead, she chooses to dwell on meeting her Dutch boyfriend in Washington, DC; moving to New Orleans to live with him; and eventually following him back to the Netherlands.

So I'm thinking, okay, show me what the Netherlands has to offer a brown woman.  But other than a few passages here and there, I didn't get that either.  What I got was a book about a woman who was taught to distrust other black women and to marry a white man talking about how difficult it was to raise a child while working.  That happens to women all over the world daily, right? Is it book worthy? I suppose.  But it wasn't what I was looking for.

Circling back to my comment about the author's self-hate, there is no doubt based on her comments that the seeds of hatred were planted by her mother.  It lives on in the author's belief as a college student that if she were light with long hair by Lisa Bonet that she'd be more readily accepted by her peers.

I'd already heard that a girl from my high school had commented that “Carolyn isn’t black anymore; she hangs out with white people.” I kept my mouth shut and went into a self-imposed exile from the black community and took refuge in the white, where androgyny was acceptable and sexuality forbidden (so I believed), the only safe place for a black girl like me who needed to get away from the expectations of black people regarding the way I spoke, who I had sex with, the grades I got, who my friends should be, which sports I could play, what music I could listen to, and the list goes on.

I was disheartened by her view of the black community as bad overall, while the white community represented safety.  In fact, it seems that at some point she starts to see herself as "other" as if being black was less than any other race.

I couldn’t articulate my most terrifying fear of not working: I’d become a white woman, and I couldn’t have that. As a child trying to visualize what I wanted to be when I grew up, a white housewife never even made the shortlist. On the contrary, I imagined myself single and supporting my kids on my executive’s salary. In a few words – a strong, independent, black woman who didn’t need anybody, not even the father of my children. After all, it was my birthright, handed down to me from my mother who’d inherited it from her mother and so on for generations.

I would love to have a conversation with her and ask at what point did being a housewife become synonymous with being a white woman, while struggling to survive became synonymous with being a black woman. And yes, we're all aware of what TV and the media show us, but we know that women of all races are housewives and women of all races struggle.  And if you see that your mother struggled, why would you readily accept that that's your fate?

The author also seems to have a romanticized view of her current homeland.  Though a Dutch magazine did a spread in December 2011 about Rihanna with a headline calling her a "Niggerbitch," Vines would have us believe that the Netherlands are post-racial.  In fact, in her mind they don't see race at all.  However, she contradicts herself.

For example, Dutch television broadcast positive images of blacks that I’d never seen in America... Blacks were not depicted as stereotypes but as part of the Dutch community, participating in healthy relationships. They were not shown leading “black” lives, they were leading Dutch lives.

The America I grew up in disparaged black culture, relegating it to the margins of mainstream culture.Black Americans, including myself, internalized the message that we were of no consequence, mere outcasts trespassing on the American Dream. Dutch people, on the other hand, were curious about my black culture, taking a genuine interest in its particularities.

Many Dutch people were quick to deny their ancestors’ role as the oppressor, which I’d found unsettling, at the very least. Rationalizations abounded, such as Dutch slave owners not being as cruel as the Spanish or their not being involved with the slave trade as long as the French or that Dutch slavers hadn’t shipped as many Africans as the English. Dutch people themselves had admitted that their educational system, formal and informal, had glossed over Dutch colonial history.

However, the gravest problem I could see was that the Dutch didn’t question their country’s involvement in the colonization of Asia and America and the enslavement of Africans, just as they did not question Black Pete, even amidst the reproach he inspired. In my opinion Black Pete would be an ideal starting point for the Dutch to engage their racial politics.

Also disturbing to me was the author's need to talk about her sister's alcoholism in a way that almost seemed to belittle her.  It was almost if she was using that particular chapter to show that she had "made" it while her sister fell prey to the exact men and life that her mother had always predicted for her. So the author is winning at life by playing by the rules her mother laid out.

So what did I take away from this book?  The author is proud of her marriage to a Dutchman (which her mother surely approved of, though she didn't bother attending the wedding) and her biracial daughters. She finally found a group of women of color, mostly married to Dutchmen, that she can relate to, thereby disproving her mother's notion that other black women can't be trusted. Meh.

Published: October 2010


Theme: Leaving on a Jet Plane by Mos Def

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