A Cave Canem graduate and recipient of the 1999 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award, Betts is a native of the Chicago black poetry slam scene. She has appeared on Def Poetry Jam and other televised performances, and has published multiple chapbooks and full-length poetry collections. Betts hails from Kankakee, Illinois. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from New England College, and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University.
I met with Betts at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles, after she read from The Beiging of America as a featured writer. She sits across from me at the table at which she was a panelist. Her proudly displayed tattoo of famous lines from her mentor Lucille Clifton beautifully sum up Betts’s own spirit:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did I see to be except myself?
I made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
SHANNON LUDERS-MANUEL: What led you, Cathy, and Sean to first want to create this anthology?
TARA BETTS: I’ve had a working relationship with Gabrielle David, the founder and publisher of 2Leaf Press. I helped work on an anthology about whiteness in America. Basically, all the contributors to that anthology were white writers who identify as white. In the afterword, I talked about, what does it mean for me as a person of color who is sometimes mistaken for white, and what does that mean when I tell them, unequivocally, I am not. Then I went back to addressing stuff that was directly in that book. After that, Sean and Gabrielle pulled me into this process with Cathy Schlund-Vials who has done a lot of stuff in terms of looking at mixed race identity, particularly in Asian-American communities and looking at Asian-American studies. I think they tried to get a broad cross-section of people who represent that racial experience — that cultural identity that has identities within it.
How did your varying histories, ethnicities, and professional walks help make the anthology well rounded?
We all have academic credentials in the same respect, but I think in terms of everything else, our lives are so very different. I think none of us has the same ethnic background — racial background. But then there’s also this thing of different countries that comes into play. Different parts of the country where we spent time in the United States or grew up in the United States. And you see that really reflected in the introduction. Cathy has this beautiful thing where she talks about being a kid who’s in the South. I’m in the Midwest talking about how we experienced race, not just as seeing it through the lens of blackness, but also through class. And then Sean is talking a lot about, what does it mean to be of Caribbean descent and then also having different lineages that aren’t just strictly defined as the black/white dichotomy. And then too, how does gender play into that? If you’re a woman, if you’re queer, if you’re male, or if you’re along the gender spectrum. You see some of the generational stuff. I think I’m the youngest one out of the three.
What did you learn from the stories you selected for the anthology? Was there any story that challenged you or broadened your understanding of the mixed experience even further?
I think it’s been really interesting to read some of these narratives. There are people who were born before Loving v. Virginia, the US Supreme Court case, and also people who are a little bit younger than that, or younger than me. I was born seven years after that decision. That makes a big difference in terms of how you look at the book, not just the composition of each person, but the geography and the time in which they grew up.
I really like how some of these stories give you intergenerational context. I’m thinking about F. Douglas Brown’s piece, and he’s talking about: What does it mean to be a father? I think about some of these pieces where there are older contributors, like I mentioned earlier, and they’re writing about these times where I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be the person I am now, 20 or 30 years earlier. I mentioned in the book that my parents said there were race riots in Kankakee, Illinois — this tiny Midwestern town. That’s the early 1970s. It’s really problematic to kind of consider, how do we construct that? I think we’re starting to see that a little more in television, and in contemporary fiction. Especially if you think of Mat Johnson, or Emily Raboteau, or think about poets like Natasha Trethewey or Charif Shanahan, they’re doing really interesting things.
The New York Times recently published an essay called “How Interracial Love Is Saving America.” You touch briefly on your feelings about that in your introduction to the anthology, citing Lauren Michele Jackson’s Buzzfeed article, “Why a New Mixed Race Generation Will Not Solve Racism.” Can you expand on why this utopian notion is problematic?
I think it’s problematic because if you are a mixed-race person or it’s clear that people can’t put you in a neat little box, you are going to experience racism and discrimination — or people stereotype you in really disrespectful and rude ways still, even in 2017. I mean, look at what happened to the president of the United States. When Juliet was reading through her piece earlier [on the panel], talking about “Ain’t I American,” there is still this equation where America equals whiteness. Until we start to acknowledge that “American” can look like many different things, that’s not going to change. I really appreciate that there is at least one book that I think tackles that. Now, have there been earlier books? Have there been books that necessarily haven’t gotten the press that they should have? Yes. And hopefully this is just another book that maybe will end up on a library shelf, will end up on somebody’s coffee table, will end up somewhere — and the person who needs to read it will see it. And that’s kind of my hope is for what will happen with this book — that these are some narratives that make people feel like they have a raft, or something that they can connect to.
What’s the first book that really resonated with you in terms of your mixed-race identity?
I loved reading Nella Larsen [author of Quicksand], but I did not relate to [protagonist] Helga Crane. I did not relate to how tragic these women were and how horrible their lives were. But I think it was important to document that in the ways that she did it. Those are still canonical works to me. But in terms of a story that really felt like something I could see myself in, Caucasia by Danzy Senna was definitely one of them. Mostly because she had a scene in the book that reminded me of something that really happened to me and my grandmother when I was a kid.
My grandmother, who basically presents as black — brown skin, broad features — took me home in the car with her. It was late at night. I was five years old. [The police] see me in the car with her and pulled us over, thinking she had abducted me. When the policeman flashed the light in her face, I jumped up in the car seat and said, “Why do you have that light in my grandmother’s face? You need to get out of the car.” I’m a little kid yelling at the police officer. The coda of that story was he eventually left us alone, but he followed us home and watched us get out of the car, at her house. I thought it was funny, but then that idea of the police officer following us home, as an adult, really made me feel like, wait, this was really scary.
There was this scene in Caucasia where [Birdie] is in the park with her father and they think he took her from somebody. Do we necessarily have to match our parents? Even if we’re the same color, you don’t match your parents all the time. It just points again to this idea of, who do we criminalize and who do we not criminalize. If light-skinned privilege does exist, do you leverage that as a moment to advocate for the people you care about? When I’m in the classroom, I know there are certain things I can talk about to the students about race, because they don’t get as nervous or they don’t act like, “Oh, you’re going to be super militant.” So if I’m going to have that moment of privilege, please let’s understand that you will probably take it a lot better from me than you would from somebody else, and why is that? Because that’s problematic too. You’re constantly anticipating these moments, I think, if you’re really aware of your position racially in the United States.
In your introduction, you describe the way others saw you based on demographics and who you were with. Aside from the definitions imposed upon you, how did you see yourself? Did you always embrace a mixed identity, or did that come later?
I think there are painful moments in your childhood if you grow up with parents of different races, or there are moments when you become acutely aware of your existence surprising other people. But I think in a lot of ways, my parents affirmed that I was supposed to be here, that they loved me. And not like, “You were made out of love!,” in that stereotypical way. They were like, “You are our child, there is nothing wrong with you. You are perfectly valid as a human being on this earth — don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.” I think if you’re a marginalized person at all, we don’t always get that message. We get all these other messages, like we’re supposed to be quiet, we’re supposed to sit down, we’re supposed to be passive, we’re supposed to assimilate, and I think in a lot of ways my parents didn’t give me that training. They trained me in other ways, like you better do good in school.
I remember one time I got teased by a bunch of kids in my neighborhood, and my dad saw me just run into the house with tears streaming down my face, because I got teased so bad. He stopped me and he hugged me. I think they had called me a mutt or something. And he says, “You’re not a mutt, you’re beautiful. You understand you’re beautiful, right?” Those moments like that really made me say, people say things to hurt you, to make you weak, but that’s not you. My heart goes out to other people when I hear they don’t have that. But I think other people need to know that this isn’t just you that this happens to, and it shows you how internalized racism tries to damage us. And you can recover from that. You can recover from people verbally abusing you. You can recover from feeling like you aren’t these things, or feeling like people want to define you as those things.
What do you hope monoracial readers will glean from the anthology?
I hope that it kind of dismisses this idea of the “tragic mulatto” that I think is far too deeply entrenched, in most stories where people think you don’t fit in. Sometimes I think you have multiple places to seek solace because of that. You don’t feel as trapped being in one place. But I also hope that it’s one of those things that shows that American stories are very complex — that they’re nuanced. Even if you just identify as monoracial, you may have those parents or those great-grandparents, or grandparents, or the cousin … There’s somebody in your family who is probably going to resonate with some of the elements in these stories. And they’re human stories. You’re talking about, what does it mean to relate to your family, what does it mean to feel alienated from your family, how do you experience traumatic events. Everyone goes through that. I hope that however people identify, whether it’s monoracial or multiracial, or whatever category or label they use, that they think about that. Do you come to a book because it tells you compelling stories that you relate to? I think this book does do that in many ways.
What does it mean to you to have Mixed Remixed founder Heidi Durrow write the afterword for the anthology? How has Heidi become an important mouthpiece for the mixed experience?
I think Heidi is doing a really great job, not just in terms of having a really compelling novel like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, which I love. It was one of the reasons why I initially got involved with the Mixed Remixed Festival in 2010 [then called the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival], because I just hadn’t seen anything like that when I was growing up. I think Heidi has been given a lot of legitimacy because she’s on such a great press, she’s really visible, she’s really friendly, she’s really outgoing, and she does have really interesting things to say. Because of her, I heard about Michele Elam’s work and some other writers that I might not have heard about if it hadn’t been [for] her. So in a lot of ways I kind of envision her as a connector who’s bringing a lot of people together to talk about some of these issues and make it a little bit more of a visible presence in terms of talking about it on a larger front.
Did you plan for the release of the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia? Why do you think the anthology is especially important in this era?
Definitely we wanted it to coincide with the anniversary. In particular because I think there’s a certain obscuring of racial history in the United States that’s happening right now, especially as our former President Obama has exited the White House, and we’ve never had that discussion before, about what does it mean to have a person of color in the White House. I think there’s been a backlash against that. I think there has also been this idea that, well, you know, Loving v. Virginia, that happened such a long time ago. And now we’re done with that. I think no, we’re not necessarily done with that, but we’re dealing with: What are the ramifications of law[s] changing the way we interact with each other? What are the ramifications of having de facto segregation? The circumstances are dictating that our neighborhoods don’t mix — our lives don’t mix. And what are the behaviors we need to change for that to start to shift. I think we’re more on that level now, still. And it scares me to think about how much economics dictates so much of that at this point. The poor still look like a lot of people who I know and love. There’s white people in my family, but there’s also a lot of white people who are struggling just as bad. And they get pulled into this ideology that somehow this [segregation] is going to save them, and it’s not. We need to rethink how we look at humans and value human life. I try to at least think about that as a writer and an editor, and as a teacher.