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Significant Others. – book reviews

by Meta G. Carstarphen

By Sandra Kitt

Penguin Books, USA
New york
Paperback: $5.99
When W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the “challenge of the color
line” in his historic 1903 collection of essays, The Souls of Black
Folks, the scholar meditated on the schism between communities
of color and the Anglo power structure. Today, near the start of
another millennium, we seem just as obsessed by racial issues,
although today’s concerns are in some ways more ambiguous than
what DuBois and his contemporaries faced in segregated
America.

In recent years, numerous nonfiction titles have tackled
racial issues from a variety of perspectives and themes,
including those written by African American.
Such intellectually challenging and often controversial
writings reflect not only the myriad views that
abound on the subject of race, they also measure
the deep intensity such issues continue to hold for
us.

One fiction writer who relishes tackling social issues in her
highly stylized writing is Sandra Kitt. A genre writer, Kitt has
established a niche in the very competitive field of romance
novels. One generation ago, such stories featuring African
American heroines and heroes were virtually unheard of. Now
Kitt is part of a thriving legion of writers of color who have
found readers — and more importantly, publishers — willing to
look at love in parameters other than blond hair and blue eyes.
However, once she mastered the essentials of this genre — pacing,
conflict, resolution — Kitt says she looked for more
challenge as a writer. Her next book, which was just submitted
to the publisher in January, is called Between Friends.

Her
eighteenth novel, this upcoming book is one she describes as, “a
very layered look at the experiences of a biracial adult.” Previous
titles include: Suddenly, a novel touching on the impact of
pediatric AIDS in the African American community; and The
Color of Love, the story of the interracial attraction between a
white male cop and a Black female book designer. In her
current novel, Significant Others, she sketches perceptions of
love, identity and color in a provocative way.

“I’ve always been intrigued on a subconscious level about
people in my own family or among my friends who could pass
as white yet who clearly identified as African American,” Kitt
said. “So I wanted to bring this issue out of the closet while
trying to be fair to all perspectives.”

In her fictionalized account, Kitt has been true to the
subtle, and often contradictory, identity questions raised
within a community when a person of ambiguous identity enters
it. Her heroine, Patricia Gilbert, is a high school counselor in an
integrated setting. Patricia, with her full red hair and fair skin, is
an African American woman proud of her identity but often
forced to account for it. She encounters a newly relocated
biracial student, Kent Baxter, whose move from his mother’s
home in Colorado to his father’s fast-paced lifestyle in New
York is impelled by the boy’s desire to be closer to his African
American father.

The boy’s father, Morgan Baxter, is a successful CEO who
becomes the perfect romantic foil for Patricia. The drama
surrounding their smoldering resentment, then attraction, and
finally, love for each other is deftly handled.

Patricia Gilbert is an unlikely heroine in many respects.
Attractive but not devastatingly beautiful, she describes herself as
she thinks others see her — with a pale thin face, beige glasses,
and a lot of red hair. As a counselor at a high school with a
diverse student body, Patricia has the perfect setting in which to
reflect upon her own racial ambiguities. Culturally African
American, with the physical appearance of an Anglo woman, she
must frequently negotiate the terms of her identity with both
white and Black communities.

Morgan Baxter has an air about him that is first described as
chiseled, precise, and masculine. Yet despite his very defined
ethnic looks, Morgan has ambiguities of his own. The divorced
father of a biracial teen, lie struggles with single parenthood and
the impact of his mixed marriage on current relationships.
Precisely because Kitt has built in so many complexities for
her characters around issues of race and love, she skillfully
exposes her readers to varied perspectives that they might not
otherwise consider. Political and social nuances are woven into
the story without strident polemics. As Morgan and Patricia
move from personal conflict to sexual nirvana, all issues fall
away, subdued by their romantic encounters in powerfully written
passages.

In 1995 Dr. Naomi Zack edited a book titled American
Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, which spurred a
multifaceted discourse about the true meaning of race and
ethnicity within societies which are increasingly less able to
define these distinctions by sight or family history alone. In fact,
Zack particularly takes issue with “mixed race” labels because, for
her, the naming alone reinforces troublesome and inaccurate
perceptions about identity.

“The term `mixed race’ seems self-contradictory once it
becomes clear that the term `race’ always con
notes purity,” she wrote in her book. “Not
only do racial populations need to have
common traits to qualify as racial but when
race is taken seriously, racial mixture is
viewed as a problem. And that problem of
mixed race which is a contradiction in terms
and a contradiction in the facts of racial
identity, leads to unavoidable trouble.”

Many facets of this kind of “trouble”
have been quite eloquently rendered in a
number of personal memoirs appearing in
recent years, lending quite a bit of humanity
to the lives of people perched precariously
on the cutting edge of the color line. For
example, James McBride’s The Color of Water
chronicles his Jewish mother’s silent travails — including
a punishing silence from her rabbi
father after her decision to marry an African
American and have his children.

Earlier works also investigate the
particular brand of loss, pain, and ostracism
that children who are the result of such
unions sometimes endure. Shirlee Taylor
Haizlip’s family memoir. The Sweeter the juice,
examines the way her family splintered along
pigmentation lines. The book revealed a family
of many hues in which some members
separated from their African American selves
by deciding to “pass” into the Anglo world.
in a particularly moving coda, Haizlip
describes the reunion of her mother,
Margaret, with her long-lost sister (Haizlip’s
aunt), Grace, who “passed” into the white
world decades earlier. Their bittersweet
encounters celebrate family yet reveal a
father insurmountable chasm between the
two women ingrained with social custom
and political expediency.

In his memoir, Life on the Color Line,
author Dr. Gregory Howard Williams, in an
odd reversal of the “passing” paradigm, grew
up believing that he was white only to later
discover his African American parentage.
Williams’s poignant accounts of the
confusion and ostracism he encountered on
both sides of the color question also illustrate
the general ambivalence society experiences
about these issues.

So although recent nonfiction works have
begun to probe the sexual politics of race,
fiction writers have largely ignored the
subject. Kitt deserves high marks for creating
a novel that treats with authenticity and
evenhandedness from the inside out about
how African Americans can sometimes react
to the many colors of their identity.
Dr. Meta G. Carstarphen is at
the Department Of Journalism
at the University of North
Texas.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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