In Morrison’s writings found in, The Origin of Others, derived from the lecture series she delivered at Harvard University, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us in his cogently written Foreword of her work, that humans are inclined “to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and the deficient needing control.” As a result, class, wealth, gender, and especially race, have been used throughout history as tools to define “power and the necessity of control.”
For instance, Morrison offers close readings of her own writings and that of others, to assert her claims about the human need to characterize others. Among the critical points she makes through her analyses of literature, are that Whites get educated into race as much as Blacks do, and that literature uses complexion to “reveal character and drive narrative.” She is most insightful when she turns the critical eye to her own body of work, from her first novel (The Bluest Eye, 1970) to her most recent (God Help the Child, 2015). We cannot read The Origin of Others without thinking of the current social and political landscape, especially given the fact that “Americanness (sadly) remains color for many people.”
These recent publications on race and ethnicity help to explain why the 2020 Census is problematic: Americans have an incessant need to classify and denigrate based on race and ethnicity. Thus we balk when asked about these categories, not sure how specifically they will be employed. Whereas Morrison contends that at the heart of human difference is our need to classify people unlike us as the “Other,” the collection of personal stories elucidates what happens to those who are Othered – they create identities for themselves to escape characterization as the “enemy, vulnerable, deficient and needing control” (3). The Origin of Others and We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America are excellent and relevant texts to contextualize race and difference today, and it is very telling that they were published within a month of each other in fall 2017. Any optimistic claims about post-race made during Obama’s presidency have now been destabilized, as these publications and our political and social landscape exemplify.
When race and racism no longer exist, then the need to pretend to be someone else would also disappear, and we would be more comfortable addressing questions of our ancestry – on Census forms and other documents alike. Given the openness of the next Census, members of the African Diaspora would be able to claim any identity in responding to questions of race and ethnicity. Why don’t we all just indicate “W” — for “Wakanda” or for “White” — the former representing our proud Blackness that Black Panther has inspired, the latter representing the Whiteness that many of us inadvertently share as a result of the history of enslavement? If we take the “one drop rule” and turn it on its head, then one drop of White blood should allow African-Americans to declare Whiteness too, thus tapping into all the privileges that it entails.
In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois predicted that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Little did he realize that his prescient theory would still be relevant today. Regardless of how we define ourselves on the next Census, it is clear that the problem of the color line will persist throughout the twenty-first century, which no amount of identity shifting will repudiate.