In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson talks about the construction of race within the United States in relation to the institution of slavery and the genocide of Indigenous individuals that used race as a way to maintain power. Through this construction, individuals’ identity became subsumed within a tangled web of ideas that others projected upon individuals. This is, of course, what W.E.B. Du Bois talks about when he talks about seeing oneself “through the eyes of others,” essentially through the stereotypes and constructions of whites who have created these constructions in order to position themselves as superior. Along with Du Bois, I also thought of Frank Yerby when reading Wilkerson. Yerby told James Hill, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.”
When talking about the history of racial constructions, Wilkerson pointed out something that I have been thinking about for a while now. She concludes chapter four with this sentence: “None of us are ourselves.” This sentence stood out to me specifically because over the past few years I have been asking myself, “Can we ever get to our ‘true’ selves?” I still don’t have an answer to that question because I keep going back and forth between “yes we can” and “no we can’t.” Ultimately, though, I continually feel like I lean towards the latter simply because from the moment we enter the world our identity starts to take shape.
I’ve always felt, as well, that no one is born racist, homophobic, prejudiced, xenophobic, etc. I still believe this; however, from the instant that a person enters this world that person’s identity gets shaped by everything. Birth certificates have a space for “race,” “sex,” and other “identifying” markers. This does not even include “zip code” which in and of itself serves as an identifier. When someone enters something into these blanks, they are placing an identity onto the person. In this way, our identity is never truly ours. We enter into this world having an identity placed upon us. As we go through life, we have to work through those identities in order to find our “true” identity.
This semester, a lot of the works we are reading in my Ethnic American Literature class deal with identity, and specifically with hyphenated identities. Over the next few posts, I will be writing about some of the texts we are reading this semester and how each addresses identity and the core of oneself. Sometimes the text does not provide an answer; other times the text does provide an answer. In either case, the text has the reader engage with the discussion of identity and the path towards one’s “true” self.
Cristina García’s Monkey Hunting (2004) foregrounds these discussions in its depiction of Chen Pan and his ancestors. Chen Pan left China at the age of 20 to make money in Cuba as a worker on a sugar cane plantation. He became enslaved, working just as the enslaved Africans did, and he escaped his enslavement. Chen Pan then made a life for himself in Cuba, opening a successful business, having a life-long partnership with a formerly enslaved woman, fathering children, and never returning to China. Chen Pan does not take up all of the narrative space in the novel, but his presence lingers over the entire text because he is the family’s core from the early 1800s through 1970 when his great-great-grandson Domingo Chen leaves Cuba, with his father, after the Revolution and goes to Vietnam to fight with America during the war.
Chen Pan comes to Cuba in 1857 and he dies in 1917, never returning to China to see family, friends, or others. Chen Pan incorporated multiple cultures into his identity, and Lucrecia took in part of Chen Pan’s culture as well: “She’d tried everything to please his Chinese side until slowly she’d become Chinese herself.” Lucrecia took, as part of her identity, Chen Pan’s culture, melding her culture from Africa (I forget what region she came from), the Spanish culture of Cuba, and Chen Pan’s Chinese culture into herself. She crafted her own identity, a melding together of things that defined herself, not projections of others that defined her.
Spending the majority of his life, sixty years, in Cuba, Chen Pan did miss home. However, he became Cuban. When his friends would tell him he needed to return to China, he’d ask, “But where would he go? Whom would he visit? Why would he travel so far just to scratch a bit of long-depleted earth?” Chen Pan knew that the China he left was not the China he would return to see. He knew that others had gone back and not seen those they left. He knew that so much had changed. He’d read about the Boxer Rebellion, Sun Yat-sen, and more. He didn’t even remember much of his native language either.
After so many years in Cuba, Chen Pan had forgotten much of his Chinese. He mixed his talk with words from here and words from there until he spoke no true language at all. There were only a few people left in Havana with whom he could comfortably communicate. Long ago he’d lived in China, known all its customs and manners. How useless these had been outside their own geography! Still, it was easier from him to be Cuban than to try to become Chinese again.
Chen Pan sees himself as Cuban. He has constructed his identity, made it his own. While the narrator says he speaks “no true language,” Chen Pan speaks his own language, a language true to himself, his experiences, and his own identity. While Chen Pan did not set out to find his “true” identity when he left China for Cuba, he found it through the life he lead, through the interactions he had with others, specifically Lucrecia and his descendants. He became Chen Pan, not identified by adjectives but identified by his life and his actions.
All Chen Pan sought as he neared the end of his life he thought about this quote: “If only one person in the world knows me, then I will have no regrets.” Chen Pan knew who he was. He did not have to have national or international recognition. He wanted merely to be known and loved, to be intimate with another human being, to construct his own identity. That is what he did. He found, I would argue, his “true” identity, devoid of the adjectives and labels that others would place upon him. He found himself.
Next post, I will continue this discussion by looking at another text we are reading this semester. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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