Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read DeMisty D. Bellinger’s nonfiction piece, I’m Black, You’re Black
John: This is a very timely piece. Was there anything specific that inspired your to write it?
DeMisty: I am still learning to be in Massachusetts. Milwaukee, believe it or not, has a sizable African American population. Right now, 40% of the city is black, which is about 250,000 people (as a comparison, about 13% of the country is black). Where I live now, in Massachusetts, about 5% of the people are black. I should be used to this—most of my adult life, I’ve lived in cities where the amount of black people are very few—but lately, I’ve felt like an outsider.
A lot of the black population in my adopted town (it’s a town of about 40,000) is often Caribbean or African, which is awesome! Since I’ve moved here four years ago, I learned very quickly that to be born American is kind of unusual, especially as an academic. It is hard convincing many people that I am just black and just from Wisconsin.
So, I felt like an imposture. I started to doubt myself, my own capabilities, and I had to assure myself that it is okay to be who I am and from where I am.
When I started this essay, it was well before Trump won. At that time, I didn’t think it possible. But as we got nearer to the election, I started seeing more Trump signs and hearing more praise of Trump, so I started to get worried. My students, too, began to worry. And my kids. As I said, many of the people I know are from the Caribbean and Africa, and many others are from Middle and South America, so we—my kids, my husband, and I—began to worry about what will happen if Trump won. My kids asked me would their friends have to go back to Mexico, whether their friends’ grandparents could come visit or not, and I had to have some uncomfortable conversations with my daughters, assuring them that somehow, all will work out okay.
I worried after the election whether the essay (or any of my writing) was relevant. What a stupid worry! I realized, through revision, that it mattered more now than ever. I need that reassurance, that comfort of belonging now more than ever. I need to look to my new community and find a way to fit in and to help others to fit in. I find that I am writing more about belonging now than ever, moving towards a more inclusive ideology where I am not just theorizing but trying my best to include myself.
And it’s hard. I’m not an introvert, but I’m not exactly a social butterfly, either. It’s difficult finding where I fit in. Writing helps. Writing and revising this essay helped! This is a long answer. I apologize!
One of the things I admire about this piece is how deftly it dissects the concept of identity. Was this your goal when you began?
Yes! Not only my own identity, but that of my daughters (as much as I can identify them; they’ll eventually come to who they are, hopefully, and will continue to revisit that as they grow) and of my new home. I wanted to explore what was created when my own identity rubs up against that of how others perceive me. I think I’m still exploring this!
Your concern for your daughters, and how they will be forced to negotiate the fraught landscape of race in America is very clear. It’s such a difficult subject. How do we talk to children about this?
Very carefully. I try never to talk down to children—my own and others. And I try to define concepts as I go along—what race is, for instance, or what hate is. I try to address problems we hear on the news and words that can be more damaging than intended, such as “illegals” which is a horrible thing to call anyone or “mixed” which sounds, to me, that you’re talking about breeding, not people. I also do a lot of listening and admitting when I don’t know an answer. But when I don’t know, I try to find out with my girls what the answer is.
You are tremendously brave and honest in this piece about confronting your own insecurities. And yet by any measure, you are a success story—in spite of your difficult childhood, you are now a successful academic. Your situation is emblematic to me of the problems we still face in confronting this issue. As an African American woman, and one who has negotiated this territory, is there any room for optimism here?
It took so long to get where I am. I know in lots of ways that I am successful, but there are many ways that I’m still hurting. I still live paycheck to paycheck and sometimes, I don’t quite make that next paycheck. I still work long hours and fall asleep sitting up. And though I do work in academia, I’m at a working class campus. I do not in live in an ivory tower, but it is still a kind of tower–one of isolation where I’m separated by distance from longtime friends and extended family.
But there’s always room for optimism. I love my husband and kids and I see potential in my daughters. My parents and my older sisters sacrificed for me and I’m doing the same for my kids. I’m looking forward to entitled grandkids!
Lastly, I have a “Family Guy” reference towards how I look at the work we do now in both the black and the greater communities. When playing Cleveland’s board game pick, “Two Decades of Dignity,” Peter asks if anyone ever wins and Cleveland answers, “You don’t win. You just do a little better each time.” Say what you will about that show, but every once in a while, you get some little bit that rings painfully true.
So, yes, there’s optimism. It gets a little better each time.