by Guest Contributor Ken Mitchell
“Yet do I marvel at this curious thing; / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
—Countee Cullen, “Yet Do I Marvel”
We all marvel at life circumstances, and I certainly am no different. And because of my upbringing, experiences, and education, I am constantly curious and marveling about the intersections of language and culture, as well as ancillary topics (travel, history, literature, art, philosophy) in my life.
My mother realized before I did that I would have a penchant for dating outside my race. I began studying foreign languages seriously at age 11, and I couldn’t put them down. “It was then I knew,” she said later, “that you would be with someone who wasn’t black.” -That- prospect was okay with her, but as she is from small-town South Carolina, she drew her line in the sand effortlessly and in all seriousness: “Just don’t bring a white girl into this house.” She needn’t have worried about the terrifying prospect of Cindy (one of my mom’s default white girl names) invading her home, because I came out to her as gay a couple of years after her pronouncement.
And in my entire dating history, every single potential partner has been of another race.
I’m currently in a serious relationship with a wonderful man who fits my mother’s prediction, gender aside. We’re a considerable mix of ethnicities and cultures; he’s a Spaniard with dark Mediterranean features, and I’m a 4-to-1 mix of being Afr-Am and Native American (from two North Carolina tribes). We both have Christian upbringings, though I am now a practicing Jew (that’s right, I’m a gay black Jew). We were both bilingual Spanish-English before meeting each other. Spanish is our communicative medium of choice, though the dialects are slightly different (his – Castilian, mine – Costa Rican/Argentine/Castilian, the last part of which being his influence).
Perhaps interestingly, I have told my boyfriend a number of times that it’s difficult for me to see him as white. Considering the Mediterranean countries and regions, I view Portuguese, French, Italian, all southern Slavs, and Greeks as being white. But though I have seen plenty of other Spaniard guys who look white to me, his dark features (along with language) make me see him as Spaniard above all else, then Mediterranean, then European, and then white. He self-identifies as European above all else; as whiteness in the US typically (but certainly not exclusively) carries an Anglo-Saxon connotation, he doesn’t feel comfortable labelling himself as such, though he does so in his native country.
There are certain stereotypes that I think people could easily employ when examining our relationship.
(a) He fetishizes me according to the notion of the hypersexual and hypersexually endowed black male;
(b) I fetishize him as a tall, dark, Latin lover whose sex appeal and mystique increases with the swivel in his hips.
(c) My being with him establishes upward mobility – I’ve ‘moved up’ to orbit in the ‘superior’ world of co-mingling with someone who is lighter-skinned and straighter-haired;
(d) I’m ultimately self-hating because I’m not with someone of my own phenotypical characteristics. I should point out, however, that I have never been confronted with any of these by anyone.
In discussing how others might perceive us, I would imagine that, when outside of gay or gay-tolerant circles, the fact that we’re a gay couple of any ilk far trumps our respective intra-couple diversity as being the issue of note. Within gay-tolerant environments, however, the previously mentioned stereotypes are of greater potential gravity, and I’d like to address them here. Regarding (a) and (b), he and I are both internationally minded and love travel, language, literature, art, and exploring other cultures. We’ve had these inclinations since before meeting each other. Each of us is the first person that we’ve dated outside of our own nationality and language. I think that because of the sum total of our life experiences, we both realize that we appreciate diversity and we have been open to potential partners who are not exactly like us in every way. Similarly, we weren’t romanticizing whom we might have encountered. He doesn’t place me on a racialized pedestal, à la Hughes’ Slave on the Block’; in the same vein I don’t romanticize him along the lines of being exotic, mysterious, and dangerous, all of which form part of the portrayal of Latin and Hispanic males in American popular culture (see Dr. Diane Klein’s presentation on “Latino Masculinities under the Microscope”). I’m not solely a mobile penis; neither is he a disembodied swiveling torso.
Regarding (c) – Interestingly, my boyfriend is not exactly who I envisioned being with, in a way. When I previously thought of being with a Spanish speaker, I envisioned being with a darker-skinned, curly-haired Latino from a region roughly extending from Cuba and Puerto Rico in the north, through Honduras and Panama southward to Colombia and Venezuela (I should note, however, that I have always been open to the possibility of people from other locations as well). I love my boyfriend for a myriad of reasons, among which being that we have similar life goals and aspirations. We’re both in the same profession. We’re close in age. We have similar pursuits and pastimes. We have similar ideas about travel, living abroad, and raising children. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that just being with him doesn’t accord either one of us any status in each other’s mind (nor anyone else’s, as far as we’ve been told), nor has it given us any perceived ‘culture cred.’ In the circles that we inhabit, it’s a complete non-issue that we are of different races, cultures, and colors. And as the ‘skin/hair’ reference is employed most frequently in the context of perceived offspring, this is at current a non-issue for us as well — we haven’t even begun to consider what the mother of our children will look like.
And with stereotype (d), I already mentioned that I’m with my partner because of personality, attractiveness and life goals, not specifically because of his race or ethnicity. I do gravitate toward those with some similar characteristics as I have – light tan to medium brown skin, dark features, a strong eye-hair color contrast, full lips. The places on earth where I’ve embraced my phenotypical characteristics the most have been Cuba and Panama, and the poetry of black Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén has been formative in my self-determination and self-esteem building (see his poems “Negro Bembón” and “Mulata”). But I don’t exclusively seek someone of those characteristics, nor do I exclude anyone automatically because of their lack of those physical attributes.
To revisit Cullen’s poem, “Yet Do I Marvel,” there exists an apparent paradox. The poet bemuses the fate of being a black poet and expected to sing. Though it seems like on the surface it may be cruel to expect a black poet to sing merrily in his verse when his reality is fraught with despair, Cullen’s point is that the seeming paradox, along with the others mentioned in the poem, has a built-in appropriate resolution. Though the circumstance of a black poet ‘singing’ and expressing himself artistically is peculiar, it is not impossible. I feel similarly about dating beyond my race — it isn’t because of some deficiency in my own state of being, nor is it cruel because I am consigned to adhering to prevalent stereotypes on the subject.
It’s simply because I love.
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