The year 2020, as awful as it was, did have a few silver linings. Growth was a big one, especially because I finally acknowledged my own racism. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life as I learn something every day, but in the past year, I’ve done a lot of listening and learning to become a true ally. Of the many things I’ve learned, one thing sticks out in particular, mainly because I’m ashamed I’d never heard of this and never thought about its impact before: the concept of passing, where a Black person with light skin tones consciously passes as a white person.
I first learned about this in the novel Three-Fifths written by John Vercher, and when I interviewed him, he spoke about the topic as his main character — passing as white — struggles with his mixed identity. Passing is also a core theme in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett‘s second novel, which took the literary community by storm last year and was one of my favorite books in 2020.
In reading and researching both of these books and in speaking with Vercher, there was one book that continuously came up: Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s the original book about the passing literary canon, and it allowed this topic to be pursued in scholarly settings, as well as pop culture. To say it’s had an impact is an understatement. So I finally did my due diligence and bought this classic novella. With its themes and its setting among the Harlem Renaissance, Passing provides an extraordinary look into a life so few understand — including the main character herself.
When I first moved from Missouri to the northeast, I lived “right on the edge of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights” in Brooklyn, as I would tell people. If you look at a map, my first apartment lies not even a half a block from the imaginary line separating the two neighborhoods, so it makes sense that I would describe my apartment’s location that way, but if I’m honest, there was another reason why I felt the need to define my address.
I knew very little about Brooklyn when I moved here, so I didn’t know which neighborhoods were “bad” versus “good.” It didn’t take long, though, to figure out what those two adjectives actually meant. I also learned quickly that Crown Heights had a reputation for getting “worse” the further into the neighborhood you went — i.e., the further away from Prospect Heights, which was a very wealthy and a very white neighborhood. So even though geography was on my side, so was my racism when I told people I lived on the edge of those two neighborhoods. I’m ashamed to say it, and books like When No One is Watching reflect that attitude directly in my face.
This thriller written by a Black woman, who we do not see promoted enough in this genre, may seem like an extreme version of gentrification, but with the rate Black people get displaced in the cities white people originally fled, it’s not far off. Gentrification benefitted me by giving me a sense of safety — which was of course steeped in the racist lies others told me and that I told myself. So I did a lot of self-reflection while reading this one — as well as trying to calm my nerves, which were extremely frayed by the end.
Immigration is a political and social issue whose solutions have always seemed nebulous to me. It’s immensely complex, and I admit I’ve done little research to understand its intricacies. But from the surface and from a few immigrant friends, I know a few, very general things. First, it’s very hard to obtain citizenship in the U.S. Second, and contradictory to my first point, it’s just as hard to maintain any type of visa. Lastly, and most importantly, the way we treat immigrants — be that through policy or social interaction — is incredibly inhumane, leading to the “othering” effect with unhealthy stereotypes.
The odd thing is that people who set and maintain devastating policies or who speak such harmful words about immigrants likely have never talked to an immigrant — documented or undocumented — to understand their struggle and the heartbreak that led them to pursue the illusive American Dream. This point illustrates how storytelling — or qualitative data if you will — is just as or even more important than statistics and how storytelling can shape our morals and beliefs. Stories like Patsy are integral for our society to progress and for us becoming a little more compassionate.
Patsy tells a story that few of us probably know but one that exists all too frequently, that of the undocumented immigrant. The eponymous main character gives up her heartbreaking and unfair life in Jamaica for love and freedom in the States only to be deceived by those who promised her so much — including Americans and their precious ideals.
If you’re not a Lady Who Lunches, I highly recommend giving it a shot; my own LWL girlfriends have been saviors over the years. I’ve been close friends with Dana, Hilary, Katie, and Kelliann since I moved to New York. We’ve all worked for the same finance company at different points and have enjoyed many lunches, happy hours, and dinners in the Financial District. We are definitely “well-off, well-dressed women who meet for social luncheons, usually during the working week,” though we do still work … even if we spend the majority of our work days chatting one another. A year ago, we started Friday virtual lunches together so we could still see each other and to ease our anxiety about the pandemic. These weekly gatherings were often weekly highlights.
While I read Gabrielle Union’s book, I couldn’t help but think she was gathering with my LWL gang over bottles of wine and numerous cheese plates. That companionship usually didn’t stem from the stories themselves because she’s had such different experiences than any of us have had, especially because she’s a Black woman who’s dealt with so many degrees of racism. It was her writing, which felt so honest, blunt, relatable, and humorous.
Union likely intended for her readers to feel like she was their newest BFF waiting with a drink in hand; the title itself alludes to those long-gone happy hours where the drinks keep pouring. *Oh memories.* The writing certainly lives up to the title’s promises.
Nobody will ever forget 2020; it’s one for the history books unfortunately. Yes, things have been a garbage fire, but — with everything — there’s always a silver lining. For example, in 2020, I finally decided to go to therapy and invest in my mental health; being quarantined together has been the ultimate validation that Kyle and I are true partners and can get through anything together; and the world has even given the environment a break — albeit a small one.
With so much self-reflection, it’s impossible to not reflect on all of the positives in 2020. One bright spot is that all this time at home has given me a new appreciation for books and allowed me to see new literary themes that bibliophiles and the world over need. With Thanksgiving coming up, I wanted to express my literary gratitude to the books, the authors, and the readers who made a difference this year.
Let me start by saying diversity and literature go hand in hand.
Diversity is the foundation to learn new perspectives from literature.
Literature proves the value and necessity of diversity.
We are coming full circle here, people.
Diversity wasn’t really part of my upbringing, though. I grew up in a mostly white community and knew very few people who looked or lived differently than I did. I don’t even remember talking to a person of color until high school. Even then, my school was mostly white kids. On top of that, I barely knew any non-Christians or non-straight people. I definitely didn’t know anyone from the trans community.
That changed a bit when I went to college. I was definitely one of those people, though, who had one or two black friends and thought that made me an ally and not racist. I would even say that out loud. “Oh she’s my black friend.” And I shamefully remember commenting once that one of these women didn’t “act black.” I’m embarrassed now to write that and of my 20-year-old self, and I feel immense guilt.
Thank God for growth, for New York, and for literature.