Black, White, Other Sneak Peek: Novelist Mat Johnson’s New Foreword for the 20th Anniversary eBook edition

Novelist Mat Johnson

For the new Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity eBook (just out this month), novelist Mat Johnson was kind enough to write a frank and beautiful foreword. Mat is the author of Pym and Incognegro, and you can read about more of his work here. He’s also a Philly native even though he and his family now live in Texas, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. We still claim him.

Here’s the opening section of Mat’s foreword.

“I grew up a black boy who looked white. This was in a black neighborhood, during the height of the Black Power Movement. Even though I didn’t ‘look black,’ even though my father was white (and a pasty Irish white at that), I was definitely black. Because my mother was black. I was black and yet lacking apparent blackness, and as a result I failed my own definition, but never so much that the definition would be suspended. That’s what it felt like racially for me growing up 1970s and ’80s Philadelphia: You were black or you were white. There was a Racial Cold War, a delicate ceasefire called at the end of the Civil Rights Movement, and you had to know which side you stood on.

“Although I often felt alone in my racial contradiction, I grew up around many other children in similar situations, also the products of interracial relationships. From watching them, I felt like I understood my choices. I could try to integrate fully into the white world, which for most mixed people was visually impossible, but even for me it seemed little easier. Integration demanded a rejection of the black half of my culture, a willful selling out of half my ancestry for the personal gain of joining the ruling caste. The other choice was to fight for ownership of my blackness despite my appearance, to prove that I owned it as much as any person with two black parents. This too meant a pressure to hide or obscure any parts of myself that seemed to weaken that claim. Any parts that excluded me from the fraternity of my caste. But I could still be more “me,” I felt, so I chose the latter. Or if not “chose,” then accepted that of the two choices, blackness was a better fit. African American ethnicity is a mix of predominantly African, as well as European, and Native American ancestry—by definition, there was room for me.

“So I negotiated race the way one would negotiate having an exploded pen in the breast pocket. Even if that pen exploded hours, days, months ago, everyone who sees it for the first time makes note and says, “Hey, you have an ink stain on your shirt,” and an explanation or excuse is in order. I felt as if, in every social situation I entered, my race was questioned and a response demanded. More than a response: proof. Being as pale as I was and defining myself as black, I felt pressure to overcompensate and overcome the doubts of others, black and white. To put them at ease with their discomfort with my ambiguity. There was an archetype, and I didn’t fit it, so my identity became an increasingly complicated performance orchestrated to squirm into an ill-fitting mold. My haircut: short on the sides to mimic the afro high top fade of my friends. My clothes: chosen to show I was not just in the loop but of it. My politics: my Afrocentric street cred was so thick they called me “Malcolm Z.” President of the Black Student Association. African American Studies major. Being black enough was a full-time job.”

To read the rest of the foreword (and the rest of the book), click on a retailer on the right side of this page to purchase a copy.