Few young creative writers in our world write so curiously and honestly out of our varied black American literary tradition as Andrew Elias Colarusso. The biracial son of an Afro-Puerto Rican mother and an Italian American father; Andrew writes, "Because I did and do have a loving relationship with my (white) biological father I cannot dismiss the whiteness he has come to represent without dismissing a part of who I am."
Andrew, who is equally adept at poetry, speculative fiction, and literary nonfiction founded The Broome Street Review, an independently published literary journal founded in 2009. When I heard he was interested in being a part of the Times Six series, I knew Andrew would give us wonderfully odd-shaped shards of memory, incisive critique, and an ability to imagine a future for our country that most of us had yet to consider.
Two of the questions in this series focus on memory, love, misogyny, and blackness. Two of the questions place us at 12 years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when he was gunned down by police in Cleveland Ohio; and the same age Davia Garth was, who was killed by her stepfather in the same city. One of the questions asks us imagine two incredibly needed national policy proposals. The final question ponders how black lives can actually matter in 2015.
Laymon: Tell me about the first time you remember your love for black folks being threatened?
Colarusso: This is an especially difficult question for me as a biracial man. The answer invariably implicates (and estranges) my family and my self as one with filial ties to both blackness and its inverse. As a child coming of age, as a superhero in training, I needed to understand my origin. I needed to know why my black mother and white father (if you'll pardon my reductionism of both identities) never married. Certain truths were made clear to me, truths that even today I am glad to parse through. It was strange to know that cultural customs allowed in my mother's house were shunned in my father's house. Wearing a du-rag, for example. This was something that my father was ashamed to see on my head one morning after picking me up in Flatbush, Brooklyn and driving me over to his house in New Springville, Staten Island. It should be mentioned that nearly every person in my nuclear family (except my step-mother) has worked for the New York City Department of Corrections. What my father saw on my head that morning was, for him, a criminal garment—racialized contraband.
Let me further delve into the complexities of a liminal subjectivity. Because I am, and have been, allowed so intimately into both white and black spaces I have felt the estranging sting of race so many times I've lost count. In fact, I have difficulty pin-pointing one situation—as Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said, "I can't remember a time when my love for black folks wasn't being threatened." It is a profound reality of black life that we are constantly threatened. But because I did and do have a loving relationship with my (white) biological father, because I have come to understand him as a man who loved, but loved incompletely, my mother, because I recognize myself in him and am proud to say so—I cannot dismiss the whiteness he has come to represent without dismissing a part of who I am.
And perhaps we all know this feeling in some way—that a love for black people, our people, is always radical in the face of a patriarchal authority that, whether conscious of it or not, seeks to suppress the imaginative impossibilities made possible by acts of black love and life.
I should say finally that some of the best memories I have of Dad are in the car, driving from Brooklyn to Staten Island singing along to Sam Cooke's Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964. Something I might never have lived without.
When you were twelve years old, can you describe for me what a perfect day would look like?
At twelve I was a consummate dreamer with a rich (see: perverse) fantasy life. I suppose this hasn't changed. The year was 2001. Everything changed after I turned twelve. Especially as a New Yorker. It was also the year following the release of Pokemon Gold and Silver. The perfect day for me would have been succeeding in class, coming home to my grandmother's carne empanada (which I shamelessly drenched in hot sauce and ketchup), playing ball with my cousin, resting my head before sleep to fantasize about everything.
If twelve-year-old you could describe the most exciting thing you did last night, what would he say?
The most exciting thing I did last night either involved the Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue or evolving my Eevee into an Umbreon. #SoftcoreNerd. Frederick's of Hollywood is still racy. Lord.
Can you describe your first memory of misogyny and anti-blackness colliding?
Because I am literal minded, the first instance that comes to mind is in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. The vitriol in a term like "nigger bitch."
"White man's bones," Macon said. He stood up and yawned. The dark of the sky was softened now. "Nigger bitch roaming around with a white man's bones." He yawned again. "I'll never understand that woman. I'm seventy-two years old and I'm going to die not understanding one thing about her."
This was said by Macon Jr. regarding Pilate. That has stayed with me for a long time as I've come to see the myriad ways we subjugate and suppress the subjectivities of black womanhood.
If you could concretely propose any two new national policies, what would they be?
One: National and international policy is important to me as a Puerto Rican. Puerto Rico is arguably (one of) the last colonial entities in the modern world. Despite being taxed without representation—the same thing American colonists rebelled against—a sense of cultural pride and integrity has not been extinguished. Is it fundamentally a culture which has come to phagocytically incorporate and exorcise the influence of its successive occupations? I think this is a fascinating measure of Puerto Rican resistance and resilience.
Puerto Rico has voted for Statehood in the most recent (2012) referendum, but the U.S. has failed to acknowledge this. The decision rests entirely on U.S. mainland government. We have to recognize the effects of this liminal/invisible state on those of us who live in the diaspora. Our relative freedom as citizens of the U.S. has allowed us to travel to the states (and back) since the turn of the American century. In the states we frequently occupy the lowest rungs of economic well-being and labor tirelessly in pursuit of the American dream. But we are statistically worse off on the island. I would like to see decisive political action regarding Puerto Rico. I would like to see America honor my island nation's desire to reap the full benefits of their labor and citizenship. But, more than that, I would like to see grassroots political movement spring from my people. I believe that Puerto Rico can exercise decisive political action that would allow for its sovereignty and, moreover, its success as an independent nation.
Two: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." —Muriel Rukeyser. I believe that a history of suffrage is also a history of visibility. This nation operates on both a democratic ideal and a republican ideal. If individuals were polled on which ideal they most identified with, we'd all be a little surprised. I say this only because what has stopped us from implementing pro-choice policy is the pseudo-religious morality of a democratic ideal, and the exclusivity of a white/male republican elect. Justice for women means allowing women the right to choose what is done to their bodies—but the idea appeals to and feeds a masculine (emasculated) fear. I am a born-again Christian, but I believe in justice. I believe that a mother is the primary executor of the life of her unborn child, not the state. I would implement pro-choice policy—with the caveat that we radically reimagine sexual education and our framing of sexual paradigms.
How can black lives really matter in these United States of America?
Black life, as Fred Moten would elegantly suggest over black lives, is invaluable. Black life constitutes the horizon of possibility in this country. The fact that we have to say "Black lives matter" is evidence of a (national) structural flaw and a valuation that enters black life into a precarious (fluctuating) economy. My reaction to this expression is one of awakening, then re-awakening, to the reality that this country has failed its own imagination and has succumbed, again, to the perverseness of its fantasies. Still, I believe in progress. To believe otherwise is to spit in the face of my ancestors, who've sacrificed their lives for my present. This is exactly why the expression "Black lives matter" as a sign of democratic agency is invaluable. The expression itself is evidence of political awakening. Our agency in this country is always threatened, over and above the individual—who can be handsomely and forgetfully incorporated into the system. Value can be placed on an individual within a system, but how does the system account for individuals whose collective awareness and agency threatens the fundamental machinations of its governance. I support the efforts of thinkers and leaders like Jesse A. Meyerson and Mychal Denzel Smith who are engaged with constructive political change. We need leadership, significant vision, and sacrificial courage to galvanize the forward movement of our various agencies because, at the end of the day, we have taken for granted the reality of black life in these United States of America.
Andrew Elias Colarusso received a B.A. in comparative literature from NYU and an MFA from Brown University in literary arts. This year, he completed a novel, The Sovereign, and a collection of poems titled, Gentile; or, Bellwether for the Goliard.
Previously for Times Six:
- Reckoning With America's Legacy of Anti-Black Love
- Finding a Language for Borders, Theft, and History
- Why True Justice Won't Come Without Sacrifice
[Photo via AP]