In the last post, I discussed how Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White highlights the ways that whiteness and racism seep into the community consciousness. Today, I want to look at how Weaver’s Darkroom shows the intricate entanglements of whiteness, specifically with Weaver and her family. Weaver’s family is from Argentina, and they are immigrants to America. In the first half of Darkroom, Weaver details the clashing of Argentinian and American culture. She details American ideals of beauty that her sister bought in to, and she details American tropes of adolescence. However, she acutely points out the ways that whiteness works. Some view her and her family as white, others don’t.
This tension comes up early in Darkroom when Weaver discusses her interactions with “Mrs. Jackson, the lady that helped out with ironing now and then,” and her interaction with Black boy when she offers to give him a sketch pad as a gift because she enjoyed his drawings. Weaver displays the contradictions in full with two scenes involving her father.
While in seminary, as he neared graduation, Weaver’s dad received an offer from a church in Texas where he would serve in a church focused on Spanish speakers and migrant workers. When he arrived, the man who took him around was condescending and racist not just to Quintero but to the people he supposedly sought to help. Arriving at the settlement, the man tells Quintero, “Down the way is your living quarters. Your wife will want to fix it up a bit. Actually, the who place needs work, but we don’t have the funds right now. But since you were a homeless orphan, you must be used to the lack of indoor plumbing and electricity.”
The man supposedly wants to help the migrant worker, but he focuses on conversion instead of fulfilling their needs. He tells Quintero on the drive over, “We haven’t made much headway getting them saved.” With this logic, the man positions himself as superior, not addressing the physical needs of the community while also working to address the spiritual needs. Along with this, he stereotypes Quintero, believing that because he was an orphan and from Argentina that he knows what its like to live in a shanty town.
Quintero calls the man out, telling him he sees why the church wanted to hire him and asking the man, “I’m a foreigner, so I shouldn’t mind living in such conditions?” The man tries to interject, but Quintero cuts him off with another question. He points to the squalid building and asks, “You’re wondering why you’ve had so few converts in this mission?” Quintero points out that the man, and those in the church see Quintero and those who live in the quarters as inferior. They want the people to convert, but they are unwilling to recognize the disparities and help the people survive and thrive. Instead, the church members views themselves as superior, not just to those in the quarters but to Quintero as well. Quintero becomes othered by the man, but in a later moment, he becomes white.
Quintero got a job in Alabama, where, as Weaver points out, “there were so few Hispanics that slurs against people like us hadn’t entered the lexicon yet.” In Texas, the whites viewed the migrant workers as inferior, and they treated them as such. In Alabama, Quintero and his family become white within the black and white binary construction of race. This movement from being a “foreigner” to being white shows the slipperiness of race and the ways that it becomes constructed and ultimately unstable.
To help them get settled in, Quintero hired “a black preacher with carpentry skills” to build some structures to hold the appliances. On there way to get supplies, the man rides in the front seat, and Quintero tells him, “When we finish, let’s eat some lunch at 4th street diner.” In the passenger’s seat, glances at Quintero, mouth down turned and eyes showing trepidation. They go to the hardware store, pick up supplies, the go to the diner.
Weaver narrates, “By now, six years had passed since Daddy’s unhappy initiation to the South’s racial code. He was no longer naive. When he defied the rules, it would’ve been intentional.” The 4th Street Diner was segregated, and as they walk in, the man tells Quintero, “No, No! You’re supposed to eat up front in the white folks’ dining room!” Quintero responds, “Forget about that. We’re sharing a table.” Unlike in Texas, Quintero is white in Alabama, so eating with the man in the segregated room with other black patrons would be an act of defiance. As well, unlike the man in Texas, Quintero shares and fellowships with the man in Alabama.
This act, though, shows how Quintero becomes white. When they enter the room, Weaver depicts a full page showing black patrons at tables staring at the pair enter the doorway. We, as the audience, become Quintero and the man. The patrons look at us, and one man says, “Ha, ha! You won’t believe this, Pop. There’s a white man just come in here to eat.” Quintero becomes white. In Texas, he becomes Hispanic. This movement between white and Hispanic highlights the ways that race becomes constructed, constructed to suit the system of power in a location.
Throughout Darkroom, Weaver returns to this slipperiness. She does it with other members of her family, and most notably, she does it with herself and her brother near the end of the book. In the next post, I will look at these moments and further explore the ways that race gets defined and how that definition causes Waever’s identity to oscillate and Weaver to question her role and place within the Civil Rights Movement.
In the next post, I want to look a little more at Darkroom. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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