Black and Blue and Blond

Byron Kim, Synecdoche, 1991. Oil and wax on luan, birch plywood, and plywood, 120 1/4’’ x 350 1/4’’ (© Byron Kim. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/Richard S. Zeisler Fund)

Where does race fit in the construction of modern identity?

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

The first time I lived in France, some twelve years ago to teach English in a depressed and depressing industrial town along the northern border with Belgium, I often went to kebab shops late at night in which I would sometimes be greeted in Arabic. Once the young Algerian behind the counter simply demanded of me, “Parle arabe! Parle arabe!” and all I could do was stare at him blankly. “But why did your parents not teach you to speak Arabic!” he implored me, first in a French I hardly followed and then in an exasperated and broken English.

“Because I’m American,” I finally replied.

“Yes, but even in America,” he pressed on, “why did they not teach you your language?”

“Because I’m not an Arab,” I laughed uncomprehendingly, and for several beats he just looked at me.

“But your origins, what are your origins?”

“Black,” I shrugged, and I can still see the look of supreme disbelief unspool on that man’s face. “But you are not black,” he nearly screamed. “Michael Jordan is black!

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