Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity
Baseball. Apple pie. Buying items in bulk. Buffets. All help create Americana, that itchy, dry-clean only fabric that bonds even the most disparate of us. As fixated as Americans are with the aforementioned, perhaps no pastime has been more consistent than toeing, monitoring, and often crossing the color line. Heidi W. Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010), a national bestseller and winner of the Bellwether Prize, explores the American obsession with racial categorization and identity through the (blue) eyes of Rachel Morse, a biracial girl forced to go live with her black grandmother in Portland, Oregon, after surviving a terrible tragedy.
With a black-identified biracial president in the White House, the timeliness of Durrow’s debut cannot be overstated. And perhaps Durrow owes a word of thanks to the POTUS for helping breathe new life into a conversation older than this hardly perfect Union we call home, for her work centers on bringing the mixed-race experience to the fore. With the tragic fall of Tiger Woods and Mariah Carey marrying Nick Cannon (still having a hard time grasping that), no other public figure but the POTUS–with help from blackcelebritykids.com–could help us keep our eye on the multiracial ball. Durrow does her best to keep us focused on the “beiging” of America through a Youtube channel, a film and literature festival, as well as a website. TGWFFTS is merely the fictional rendering of Durrow’s real life politics.
Or so it seems. Having no knowledge of Durrow’s other exploits might make gauging the larger theme of the novel slightly more difficult. Despite an interesting mystery at the core of the work, the narrative feels disjointed, incomplete, and contrived to the point of an awkward and unbelievable “happy” ending. In a very basic sense, Durrow tells way more often than she shows, rushing the stories of some of the more interesting, ancillary characters (Brick or Rachel’s father, Roger, for example), preventing the organic development of fuller, richer characters–and therefore a more compelling story– for readers to empathetically engage. What’s left, then, is Rachel’s underwhelming coming-of-age story slash devolution (the impression the novel leaves, not my opinion) into blackness.
The title supports my claim. Despite TGWFFTS’s seemingly happy ending, there is no felix culpa here. Black literature, particularly that of the early 20th century is full of racially ambiguous characters falling into racial knowledge, or more specifically, the muck of blackness. One may recall the humiliation in the voice James Weldon Johnson’s Ex-Coloured Man as the young school boy confronted his mother–who never bothered to tell him–after being informed of his blackness at school. Or maybe we remember young Janie’s tears when a photograph of her and white children revealed what the mirror never could. Perhaps Durrow’s inspiration came from Nella Larsen’s Passing. (Rachel’s mother is named Nella, after all. But more about that in a bit.) Tellingly, Rachel experienced a quite literal fall from a Chicago rooftop. Larsen’s text begins atop the Drayton Hotel (in real-life Chicago’s Drake Hotel) with a reunion between two racially ambiguous women with skin light enough to pass for white. This rooftop meeting, of course, foreshadows Clare Kendry, who had been passing as white, “falling” to her death at the end of the novel.
Rachel’s experience growing up in a black community with her paternal grandmother seems to somewhat mirror that of Clare Kendry, although the latter character has a much more lovingly curious fascination with the community she chose to leave when she crossed the aforementioned color line. Both Clare and Rachel express a kind of anthropological distance from their black subjects. Rachel expresses blackness as a kind of learned behavior that she just can’t get the hang of: She has to learn what nappy hair is, just can’t seem to sing gospel properly, and basically has to sporadically remind herself that she is black–or at least will be. Rachel’s reluctance to identify as black is connected to the implied idea that accepting a black identity–and since Rachel is so light she can, in fact, choose–would somehow erase or deny the memory (read: existence) of her Danish mother–an all too familiar refrain heard in discussions of what it means to identify as mixed- or multi-raced.
“I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m both.” Seems harmless and simple enough. And it’s a message Durrow, given her other work, might want her readers to have received by the end of TGWFFTS. But the idea of both, the idea of being a mixed- or multi-raced person, although a seemingly refreshing and timely one, especially since our country “came together” and elected a biracial president and everything, is inherently problematic, and for me, troubling. Mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness.
The multiracial movement, as it is currently understood, generally begins its history with Loving v. Virginia. The 1967 Supreme Court decision legally dismantled remaining state anti-miscegenation laws, ushering in what Maria P.P. Root (who received The Loving Prize at Durrow’s film festival) called a “biracial baby boom”—or a summer of love two years before the hippies—when it ruled that Mildred and Richard Perry Loving, a couple comprised of a black woman and white man, could return to their home state of Virginia. When the Supreme Court ruled in the Lovings’ favor, it ensured that Virginia—and the other sixteen states still outlawing marriage between whites and non-whites—was truly for lovers, inevitably allowing for the christening of the Lovings as the progenitors of the modern-day multiracial movement, and the likely inspirations for a Lifetime movie.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, interracial couples and (their) mixed-race children slowly became more visible on the landscape of an apparently racially stratified society. By the 1990s, mixed-race citizens, parents of multiracial children, and heads of interracial families were lobbying the federal government for a multiracial category on the United States Census, a move they thought would legitimize the interracial family and mixed-race children. Although the effort failed, arguing for a multiracial category on the US census form garnered the movement national attention.
Though the discourse on multiracialism addresses all the possible combinations and hues of God’s racial rainbow, blackness is uniquely affected by the idea of mixed-race identity. First, the significance of the Lovings to the formation of mixed-race identity placed particular significance to black-white pairings. Second, identifying as mixed-race relies on essentialist, de-politicized, nuclear-family-oriented notions of race: (mono)racial parent + (mono)racial parent = biracial child, thereby implicitly arguing for a kind of respectability predicated upon sexual practices and behaviors acceptable to larger (read: white) society–a space blacks have been perpetually excluded from. Such manuevers inevitably silence the fetishistic aspects of discourses concerning interracial relationships in exchange for language that could be summarized by the colloquial, Lov[ing] conquers all.
Third, mixed-race advocates will often argue that they are working against the one-drop rule, or hypodescent, a statute established precisely to monitor blacks and keep them for commingling with whites. Although the one-drop rule excluded blacks, it also worked as an umbrella identity, a force which was employed as a galvanizing mechanism to gain equal rights during the Jim Crow and civil rights periods. Blackness, then, became both an inherently multiracial and sociopolitical identity that people rallied around to fight oppression. Multiracial advocates make a similar claim about the breadth of mixed race identity, and further suggest that being bi- or multiracial is a new, post-1967 phenomenon that thusly allows one to appreciate more than one culture or racial heritage. Belief in this description of multiracial identity as a novelty requires a limited, monolithic understanding of blackness that denies the racial mixture inherent to it. This not only constricts the meaning of blackness and black identity, but also takes those varying tenets of blackness and recasts them as constitutive of multiracial identity. This process leads to misreading and ahistorical cherry-picking of black culture in order to create a multiracial history that otherwise would not exist.
Consider Durrow’s work on Youtube where she anachronistically re-casts black historical figures as mixed-race. Or The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. The novel not only borrows from Nella Larsen, a black writer, but makes several gestures to Toni Morrison’s ouevre. The mention of Rachel’s blue eyes (Durrow’s eyes are also blue) on the first page along with one of Rachel’s teachers being named Mrs. Breedlove are blatant shout outs to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The motif of people flying has a long history in black letters, including Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, a line towards the end of TGWFFTS, “surrender to the air,” is strikingly reminiscent of a line from the last page of SOS, “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” Durrow’s black inspiration goes far beyond the literary. The mystery at the the core of the novel is more than likely drawn from the real-life trauma of a black woman and her children, a news story that Durrow has been reluctant to discuss in detail.
Thank white Jesus for Google. After hearing Durrow speak about the book at a reading several months ago, my friend, Maegen became curious about the news story that inspired TGWFFTS, a story Durrow was hesitant to speak about at the time. Having read the book myself and being somewhat familiar with Durrow’s other work, I casually bet my friend that this story involved a black woman. I was right. My sleuth of a homegirl uncovered what is more than likely the story that partially inspired TGWFFTS: In 1996, 23-year-old Chicqua Roveal led her three children to the roof of her 14-story Bronx apartment building and threw each of them off before jumping herself. Her daughter survived. Change the black woman to a Danish woman, the Bronx to Chicago and you have the mystery at the heart of TGWFFTS.
Now, all writing on some level stems from actual events. But what is so deeply unsettling to me is that at the core of this novel specifically, and mixed-race identity in general, is an attempt to both use and distance one’s self from blackness, in exchange for the reification of an inherently anti-black and depoliticized identity higher up the racial hierarchy. And I don’t feel this way because I’ve recently seen too many trailers of The Help.
The increasing, uncritical media attention that both Durrow’s work and mixed-race identity have received lately gives me pause. Accepting and embracing a mixed-race identity hardly reveals racial progress. As it is currently constructed, mixed-race identity does not dismantle racial hierarchies. Rather, it reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness–which it knows it can never access–and definitely above blackness. Even claiming a mixed-race identity requires enough skin privilege to compel the (unscrupulous) gazer to ask, “What are you?”
As we usher in the flurry of work from this ostensibly new literary subgenre, it would behoove us to ask what, exactly, it juxtaposes itself against in order to establish relevance. I, for one, am more than happy to welcome Uncle Jean’s children into the family if mixed-race literature can somehow accomplish the seemingly impossible task of orienting itself without simultaneously using and distancing itself from the work of blacks. But if mixed-race literature’s latest best-seller, which poorly pushes an agenda by exploiting the life of an ostensibly depressed, if not mentally ill, black woman without even acknowledging that life is any indication of what may come, then I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.