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  • Black and Blue and BlondWhere does race fit in the construction of modern identity?
  • Thomas Chatterton Williams (bio)

In 1517, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things…”

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell”

“But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”

—Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans

“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

There is a millennia-old philosophical experiment that has perplexed minds as fine and diverse as those of Socrates, Plutarch, and John Locke. It’s called Theseus’s Paradox (or the Ship of Theseus), and the premise is this: The mythical founding-king of Athens kept a thirty-oar ship docked in the Athenian harbor. The vessel was preserved in a sea-worthy state through the continual replacement of old timber planks with new ones, piecemeal, until the question inevitably arose: After all of the original planks have been replaced by new and different planks, is it still, in fact, the same ship?

For some time now, a recurring vision has put me in mind of Theseus and those shuffling pieces of wood. Only, it’s people I see and not boats: a lineage of people distending over time. At the end of the line, there is a teenage boy with fair skin and blond hair and probably light eyes, seated at a café table somewhere in Europe. It is fifty or sixty years into the future. And this boy, gathered with his friends, is glibly remarking—in the dispassionate tone of one of my old white Catholic-school classmates claiming to have Cherokee or Iroquois blood—that as improbable as it would seem to look at him, apparently he had black ancestors once upon a time in America. He says it all so matter-of-factly, with no visceral aspect to the telling. I imagine his friends’ vague surprise, perhaps a raised eyebrow or two or perhaps not even that—and if I want to torture myself, I can detect an ironic smirk or giggle. Then, to my horror, I see the conversation grow not ugly or embittered or anything like that but simply pass on, giving way to other lesser matters, plans for the weekend or questions about the menu perhaps. And then it’s [End Page 80] over. Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a whole vibrant and populated world collapse without a trace. I see an entirely different ship.

I met my wife in a bar off of the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad, in Paris. That was almost five years ago. At the time, I was at the end of my twenties and in the middle of one of the only legitimate bachelor phases I’ve enjoyed as an adult. Otherwise, there had been a series of more or less monogamous relationships of varying lengths: a frivolous year surfing couches with a Gujarati girl from Toronto; a poignant stint in Buenos Aires with an elegant black girl from Virginia; eight perfect then imperfect and seemingly inexorable years with a Nigerian-Italian chef from uptown Manhattan (with an interlude of six intensely felt months in college with my French TA, an exchange student from Nancy); and four turbulent teenage years with my first love, someone LL Cool J could easily describe as an around-the-way girl, from Plainfield, New Jersey. But on that clear January night, in a warm bar overlooking the frigid canal, there was no one else, and I was accountable solely to myself.

Valentine came with a mutual friend, sat down catty...


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