Kam Williams | 11/28/2012, 7:09 a.m.
The conversations I was having with men and women of my age group were very different from the conversations younger men and women were having with people of their age group. It’s fascinating to hear the take of those around 17, 18 and 19, as they kind of grapple with their identity and with where America is today.
CNN’s Roland Martin mentions in promo for your show that he had someone in his family pass for white.
Yep, and that’s not an unusual story. That’s another question people would like to explore. What makes you black? How can you consider yourself black while someone with the identical genetic makeup considers themselves white or tries to pass for white? Those are the sort of big questions we wanted to grapple with.
I suspect that the influx of immigrants from South America, India, Africa, Mexico and so many other countries, along with mixed marriage, is changing the definition of what is black?
I think that’s true. I also think that there’s a real interesting conversation going on generationally. One of the young women we profile, who is biracial, very much has a hard time identifying as black. And yet, she has a sister who would say the exact opposite. [Chuckles]
So, this isn’t a documentary where we come up with the right answer at the end. It really is much more a conversation about colorism because, ultimately, what is at the heart of all this is the sense that there’s some better skin color to be, and that people are discriminated against. So, it’s not just that people are grappling with identity but that there’s a lot of pain and shame and embarrassment and hurt and anger on account of colorism. And we wanted to understand what that was.
Tell me a little about Nayo Jones, one of the young women you profile on the special.
She’s biracial. Her father is white and mother’s black. She lives with her dad and very much identifies with her white side. She’s a super-talented, smart young singer and poet. She goes through life with people trying to figure out what she is, and asking, “What are you?” which really makes her mad.
What about Perry DiVirgilio?
In a way, he’s the center of all the stories. He’s a biracial guy. His dad is white, his mom is black and he runs the poetry workshop in Philadelphia on understanding. When you’re a slam poet, part of the agenda is to connect to your material. And your success is a measure of your honesty and your authenticity. I think a lot of those slam poets don’t want to tackle the hard stuff, and Perry really challenges them about what their identity means to them by asking, “What is making you angry?” “What are you afraid of?” and “What are you ashamed of?”
So, he’s sort of the centerpiece of our documentary, not just for his own story but because he connects to all the young people as the poet/mentor who tries to get them to be honest. What you realize is that most people aren’t that honest, and this is one of the rare times when you capture people on camera speaking about how they feel about race and identity.