For African Americans, Identity Comes in Many Colors

By Carstarphen, Meta G. | Black Issues in Higher Education, May 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

For African Americans, Identity Comes in Many Colors


Carstarphen, Meta G., Black Issues in Higher Education


For African Americans, Identity Comes in Many Colors

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 writers. 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 interfacial 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. …

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