Lately, a couple of cousins and I have been trying to answer “what exactly are we?” We heard a lot of stories growing up. On my mom’s side, somehow we’re Black but not really because we’re not Americans. We’re Mexican technically (Afro-Mexican to be specific) but not really because we don’t culturally identify as that. We’re also British and Guyanese but not really. We’re also a bit Honduran? We’re Belizean. But what does that mean in the US?
Then there’s my dad side which is even more confusing. We’re Black for sure. But also creole? Kind of? And there’s talk about my father’s father side being French…so there’s that. And thanks to the slave trade, there’s really no way to find out about our African heritage.
To be honest, I’m still figuring how I want to identify so it’s really interesting hearing how other people describe me and my work. Personally, I identify as Black and Afro-Latine but I’m not great about always putting both. Afro-Latine seems a lot simpler most days.
Though I don’t always have the right words for it, I know who I am, culturally. I know I grew up listening to reggae and rancheros. I know I grew up going to parties in my uncle’s backyard listening to music that ranged from ratchet to salsa and we all danced together. I grew up eating black soup and powder bun and johnny cakes and ceviche and pupusas. And my grandmother taught me Spanish.
For most people on the African diaspora, narrowing down specifically “what” we are in an American understanding of race and ethnicity (which is completely f*cked by the way) just isn’t that simple. You know, thanks to slavery.
Aside, it’s WILD to me that people think we should be “over” slavery because it “happened so long ago” when my white friends can literally be like “I’m Irish and German and Russian and here’s my coat of arms from the 1800s tattooed on my forearm” MEANWHILE most of the Black people I know are like “Listen I think I’m some sort of West African. I dunno.” And then white people have the AUDACITY to be like “well why don’t you take a DNA test?” Because they aren’t specific to African countries! Because racism! Because slavery!
That aside, well, aside, it’s interesting to me that as I navigate my identity, I am often reviewed by white (male) critics. Who have never really had to navigate their identity in the same way. It’s interesting to me that I have to explain my culture constantly to artistic directors who really never had to navigate their identity in the same way. And it’s frustrating because they’re like “well can’t you explain it?” No, actually I can’t. I can’t explain 31 years of living in this very specific culture to you in 3 sentences or less.
An instance of this that sticks out to me recently was when an AD asked me why I was suddenly so interested in writing about the Afro-Latine experience. WHAT THE F*CK. If anyone had been paying attention to my work, I have always been writing about it. I challenge you to find a play of mine where I specify race and one of the character isn’t Afro-Latine. Every time I specify it, at least one of my characters, usually the main one, is from the Caribbean.
Cass is Haitian/Dominican (Well-Intentioned White People). Dani is Afro-Latine; it’s not specific behind that though in my mind she’s Puerto Rican and Jamaican (Rich B*tch). Alison is Afro-Caribbean and since that’s a very closely autobiographical play, I’d say she’s Belizean though in the play it isn’t specified (black kitchen sink). The one outlier is Good Bad People but in earlier drafts it outrighted stated they were Afro-Caribbean and an artistic director asked me to take it out because it was “irrelevant” and “isolating.” And because I thought I had to, I did. (I intend to put it back in.)
What I’ve been writing about more is the nuance in that identity. But that’s a different question.
Another WTF instance was when a reader said my work cared more about identity than plot. I’m going to type that again. A reader said my work cared more about identity than plot.
Another artistic director told me it would be smarter for me to choose if I wanted to be Latine/x or Black because it was too confusing if I tried to be both.
Something I’ve realized (and continue to realize) is I’m not a playwright “to watch.” I’m going to be “emerging” probably until I ultimately walk away. So why do I keep letting people ruin my art when they don’t understand my culture? When they don’t understand…….me? For what? Lukewarm national recognition?
Here’s who I am. I deeply connected to my Caribbean Afro-Latine identity. I am studying Santería and believe in witchcraft. Bruja isn’t an insult to me. I believe there’s more to the afterlife than heaven and hell. I believe in honoring my ancestors and calling on them when I need guidance. I believe shredded cheese has no place in tacos and though I’m not fluent in speaking Spanish anymore, I can definitely understand you if try to come for me. I feel a strong connection to water and fire and have an alter in my home to Ọya. On my walls are pictures of my family (alive and passed on) because I believe they guide me and I carry my ancestors with me wherever I go. But I also love tea (although unlike my family I still can’t get into putting milk into my tea) and I’ve called my mom “mum” since I stopped calling her “mummí.” I also love Taylor Swift and bad TV. I am forever, always many cultures all at once.
How can a (white) critic ever understand that?
I made the decision moving forward that the only theatre companies who can do Good Bad People need to have a staff that is 80% Black. Otherwise, I’m tabling it. I felt the same about my plays, Of Mice and Outrageous, which is why they’re really the only two plays of mine that impossible to find. I was called an “idiot” for pulling Good Bad People. Another artistic director asked me “Don’t you need the money?”
What I need is for PWIs to realize that there are stories out there they cannot understand and the feedback only makes the play worse. If you’re at a PWI and you want to work with a playwright who is writing blackity black sh*t, you really need to ask yourself why. And how will you benefit this play and how will you harm the play?
OH! ALSO! Someone who recently interviewed me said my blog was “angry.” It’s interesting to me that whenever people of color, especially Black women, speak up for themselves, they’re described as angry. I’m not angry. I’m literally dancing to Yonce right now.
“LET THE GHOSTS CHIT-CHAT.”