The New York Review of Books has reprinted a speech Zadie Smith gave at the New York Public Library at the end of last year. It is primarily about Barack Obama’s straddling of voice and culture that positions him in a unique place where he can be disassociated from the confines of any one culture, and, unlike what many believe of biracial people, not hovering in some no-man’s land, voiceless, but rather flying high and many-voiced. She explains how this multi-voiced state is endemic among writers, but rarely seen in politicos and how it will be interesting to see where this takes Obama and America, and perhaps the world.
Many things in the speech resonate with me. Issues of bi-racialism are part of our household with a black father, a white mother, and two brown teenagers. I felt sad when Smith spoke about how both Obama and she held tightly to their black side, ignoring the white, for fear of being labeled racist. I felt sad thinking of my own children and the obstacles they must face now and in the future in a world still firmly stratified by race. It doesn’t sit well for me, the donor of the white side, to be shoved away in a corner cupboard, but that is a discussion for another day.
At the end of the speech, she says something that is so important. She relates being at a party with primarily white academics on election night and getting a call to go to Harlem where all of the excitement was. After the call, she realises again that maintaining a varied perspective is not a one off event, but a constant process a process that can so easily be derailed. She says:
In truth I thought: but I'll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating. It's amazing how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment. A few minutes later, I was in a taxi and heading uptown with my Northern Irish husband and our half-Indian, half-English friend, but that initial hesitation was ominous; the first step on a typical British journey. A hesitation in the face of difference, which leads to caution before difference and ends in fear of it. Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can empathize with, is your own.
Since I am often the only white person in many situations I find myself, I sometimes hesitate before proceeding and think about how embarrassed I will feel and how perhaps I shouldn’t do it. Last year, I knew I’d be by far the oldest beginning jazz trumpet player at Music Camp and considered backing out for fear of embarrassment. Reading Ms Smith’s wise words, I think it is time to ban that silly emotion- embarrassment. God how it stops us from living, seeing, experiencing! Once we have let embarrassment take over, we miss so much and are left with only our own voice and experience. The many varied perspectives disappear. As writers that is the beginning of the end.