What Does my Body Mean?

As a student of jazz at my university, I often occupy white male dominated spaces. I am the only woman of color (a black/white biracial woman) in a jazz history class, “Jazz Musicians as Composers,” a course that explores the gray areas of jazz as a concert music. Sometimes, I wonder if I can give myself permission to be a woman of color in this space. In a discussion surrounding the “Freedom Now Suite,” Max Roach’s response to the Greensboro sit ins, I have 75 minutes to say something—anything— so that my professor doesn’t think that I’m “just a shy student.” Rather, I negotiate with myself for 75 minutes what I am allowed to say, how what I say is a reflection of the body I occupy. Pressure mounts as someone questions the rigidity of jazz as a “black” art form. Pressure mounts as students discuss the auto-exoticism of African-American jazz musicians. Pressure mounts as the professor asks if anyone has ever felt that they had to represent a group of people, to act as a monolith. I scream silently: “Yes, every time I enter your class. Every time, for 75 minutes, I measure the amount of voice and the amount of blackness that I allow myself to have.”

What does my body mean here?

. . . . .



For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going

in the hours between dawns

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

audre lorde, a litany for survival


Liminality is vast, infinite. There are no impossibilities. In liminality, there is enough room to breathe.

Liminality is the top of the breath. It is filling your lungs, oxygen massaging their pink lining, brushing into corners that you didn’t know existed, air pressing into ribs. You could fill your lungs forever, but you don’t—for convention’s sake.

Liminality is the asymptote. It’s the space between two curves closing in on an axis. No matter how far it travels, it can never touch zero: a value that is both a number and the absence of a number. Zero, the asymptote, is both/and.

Despite its confines, there is room to breathe in liminality. But in this infinite space, never-ending combinations and intersections can also feel like limitations—boundaries defining what you are not. These intersections, azure lines on graph paper, can box us in until this liminal space feels suffocating. Sometimes in intersections, there is no room to breathe between these walls.


After the end of World War II, Germany—a battered and broken nation—was left to the political players still standing. In this time of post-war wreckage, Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union divided the land into East and West Germany. The capital, Berlin, too, was subject to division despite its physical location in East Germany under Soviet occupation and thus became two halves: East Berlin, under the eyes of Soviet soldiers, and West Berlin, within the hands of American, British, and French troops. In 1961, the Berlin wall began to take shape.

West Berlin became a dim light in darkness as the Soviet’s occupation on the other side of the wall resulted in poor treatment of its citizens. As East Berliners sought freedom by “illegally” crossing into West Berlin, the wall became a sight of loss and memorial for those killed in their attempts. Eventually, to increase security, the Berlin wall transformed into a multi-layered structure: between two walls fortified with barbed wire existed a no man’s land in which guards would shoot wall hoppers. Between these walls lived a space with no definition: a space that was neither West Berlin nor East Berlin. No one lived between these walls: the lucky ones moved between, across, in transition while guards did death’s work… until their shifts ended. How could any identity exist without life in the space between these walls? Who are you “in doorways coming and going / in the hours between dawns?”  Are you a transition?


. . . . .


1,950 mile-long open would

dividing a pueblo, a culture,

running down the length of my body,

stalking fence rods in my flesh,

splits me splits me

me raja me raja


…Yo soy un puente tendido…

“I am a bridge,” writes Gloria Anzaldúa, voice of intersections. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, she describes how her body—its mass, its fullness, its veins pumping blood—connects cultures, languages, people. I imagine her soft, naked skin sprawled across 2,000 miles of desert borderlands. Her body, nearly 2,000 miles long, lays down as her calves, back, shoulders rise hundreds of feet in altitude. I imagine small people sinking their fingers into her soft skin, gliding across her back. Into Anzaldúa, the border disappears. Whatever wall existed melts beneath her breasts and under her breath. Her skin, a skin made for this desert, connects space.

The mestiza, mulatta, her body becomes a bridge. In her body, she adapts, translates, code switches. She becomes the bridge upon which others—the less adaptable, the more comfortable—walk, small steps on plush skin.

Robert Park’s Marginal Man Theory positions a biracial person “outside of the two races to which he belongs, a stranger in both worlds. His personality to the development is based on how he adjusts to the crisis, which is a permanent crisis because he is socially located between two irreconcilable races” (Rockquemore 36).

A stranger in both worlds. Not a bridge but an outsider “socially located between two irreconcilable races.” Anzaldúa and Park offer contrasting positions: she connects and he excludes. She reconciles and he dissociates. She constructs a bridge across two walls and he lives between them. Both are unnatural.

“A Borderlands is a vague and undetermined place,” writes Anzaldua, “created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (Anzaldua 25). Where do connection and isolation meet? Are you a bridge?

. . . . .


Like a glass of water, you fill it till its whole. Full. Completely adequate.

“What are you?” Nine times out of ten, I respond with: “I’m half black and half white.” It’s easy, it’s true (more or less), and it’s habit. But speaking in fractions is a dangerous territory, risking a sense of incompletion, insufficiency, fragmentation that I might impart upon the person who asked. Two halves and twice as incomplete. Now how is that possible?

Most days I wake up full. My body contains no gaps—I fill my lungs until infinity. I have a full body.

I step out of bed and walk to the bathroom. I turn on the light and greet myself in the mirror. On some days, the gaps appear. My hair seems to resemble that of my straight-haired friends, with a just few more coils and frizz. When did that happen? I look for my mother in my face… then I give up. What am I missing? Fluorescent lights make my skin look pale. I wonder: Maybe I do need more sun.

On these days, the gaps eventually fill in. I hope not to feel them tomorrow.

Biracial: two races. Biracial: a binary. Biracial: one body between walls, across borders, in vast liminality.

. . . . .


I sit at my desk. My breath is still. I inhale slowly, feeling my ribs expand, my back pressing into the chair. I fill my lungs until somewhere, the top of my breath—the minuscule space of stillness between inhale and exhale—turns into a release. I raise my hand and speak.


Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Print.

Rockquemore, Kerry, and David L. Brunsma. Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littelfield, 2008. Print.

Carly Headshot

Carly Bates is an artist emerging from Phoenix, Arizona. With a background as a pianist and vocalist, she is active in the Arizona arts community as a creative collaborator with musicians, dancers, poets: storytellers. Carly is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a minor in English Literature from Arizona State University. Towards earning her degree, she is one of three women using the body, voice, and narrative who wrestle with questions of heritage, disbelonging, and specifically her identity as a mixed race woman in a performance titled Negotiations.

[Photo by: Bethany Brown]

White Dads

Being brown and having a white dad means something, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. Right now, I’m working on an anthology project—“WHITE DADS: Stories and experiences told by people of color, fathered by white men.” I’ve been loving the ways people are taking this idea, supporting it, and helping it grow. Thing is, though, absolutely none of us have the same story to tell about what it’s like being brown, raised by a white guy in a society that ranks validity based on melanin and race. This is a part of my story and the story behind WHITE DADS.

Answers are never just black and white–but in the case of biracial identity, sometimes, that’s exactly what they are.

When I was about five years old, I learned the phrase, “Pedestrians have the right of way.” To me, this translated to, “I am going to walk into the road, and you have to stop.” So with all the wonder and arrogance of a new kindergartener, I unfortunately made habit of walking out into traffic with the confidence of a queen. My mother calls this my “Bad Seed” phase. My older sister had to literally grab me by the shirt and yank me from harm’s way as cars backed out of the driveways I didn’t care to notice.

One evening in 1996, I was on out on a stroll with my dad downtown. While I don’t recall it being a particularly bustling evening, I know there must have been enough cars buzzing by to practice caution when near the road. What I do recall, though, is that I was being a brat, most likely because I didn’t want to hold my dad’s hand. I was probably insulted by the sheer fact that he thought I needed help crossing the street at all. Didn’t he know I had the right of way?

I broke away from his grasp and took off tearing down the darkening street. My dad, 6 foot tall, took off running right behind me, no doubt yelling for me to “get back here!” You’ll have to catch me first.

And then, right as the chase was getting underway, I almost ran right smack into a young couple out on a date. The woman was almost frantic.

My dad has told me about the brief interaction he had with that man and woman, all those years ago. Now, he laughs at this story.

“Those people thought I was trying to kidnap you!” he bellows.

It’s funny, you see, because I was little brown girl, being chased by a big white man on a darkish, half deserted downtown street.

I laugh at this story, too. My dad may be a lot of things—someone who, for example, doesn’t fully understand racial fetishization or the panicked terror of police brutality against people who share my skintone—but a stranger or my kidnapper is not one of them. How could those people not see that?

I’m African American on my mother’s side, and I’m a Russian, Polish Jew from my father. In a world where we’re so often told black and white issues don’t exist, I have been coerced into telling the world that’s exactly what I am: A black and white issue.

I don’t have my father’s hazel eyes or his ruddy, pink cheeks. I’m a brown girl, not as nearly as light as my father or quite as dark as my mother. I’ve got my mother’s melanin and big, brown eyes. My sister has the high forehead of the Native Americans we’re mixed with from our mom’s side of the family, and I’ve got the babushka face from my ancestors in Eastern Europe from our dad’s. You probably wouldn’t guess that’s why my cheeks are so round, though. And why would you? I’ve got my mother’s melanin and big, brown eyes, and that’s what people see. When I’m asked that degrading, yet common and impolite question, “What are you?” I know what they’re really asking is not “Who are you?” but, “What made you that color?”

The idea of having my father mistaken for a stranger wasn’t something that really registered with me until I was older. My mom and I were both brown, but my dad and I were both Jewish. Two of a kind on either side. It wasn’t until I was older that the fact that I didn’t get to be in control of how other people saw me, and by extension what they saw when they looked at my dad and I, honestly came as a shock of hurt. Because we didn’t immediately register as looking like the family unit norm, society told me that he and I weren’t two of a kind after all; not really.


I came to realize that rather than being seen as unique individuals, people of color are seen as a blur of the narratives and stereotypes centered around our ethnicities. This is the kind of faulty thought process that has led so many people to ask me, “How can you be Jewish if you’re black?” Or worse, the definitive, “Black people aren’t Jewish.” There’s always this opposition of my identity. I’m either too black to be Jewish, or too Jewish to be black.

In our society, black people don’t get to be dynamic. Black people don’t get to be seen as diverse within the general population. We’re seen as one big lump mass of the same experience, “The Black Experience,” it’s often called. And if you don’t fit neatly into that preconceived fold, the immediate conclusion is that there’s something wrong with you, not something wrong with the narratives that have been concocted around race identity. There’s this false idea that we all have the same, one story to tell from start to finish. We don’t even get to claim an ancestral nation most of the time. People simply say, “Africa,” like it’s all the same. And because we’ve been stripped of the privilege of knowing those nations, that’s almost  just what it’s become. We don’t get very many opportunities to be seen in the mainstream as individuals. We’re used as diversity, but not seen as diverse.

In parallel strides to the systematic and institutionalized racism that’s rampant in our country, this is a colorist society. “White” is typically and continually seen as the default race—even down to little things, like the color “nude” being a light skin tone—and it’s seen as the opposite of brown. Again and again in our male-run world, white men are the gatekeepers who make the decisions for us all. It’s obvious and undeniable that they’re the demographic with the most privilege in our country, and more often than not, the antagonists in stories about seeking social and racial justice.

These are things I know to be true about the climate of our world. My dad and I both know that they’re true. But what it also means, on a personal, individual level, is that I, a young, black woman, am seen as the the opposite of the older white man who is my father.

Enter WHITE DADS. This is the push back, the retort, the response, the healing process. This is a chance to share, laugh, process, and expose the immense diversity that exists in our communities, even within this one sliver of racial identity. This is a chance to tell our stories and say that we, the people of color with white dads, are valid, strong, and that we are not fractions of mismatched cultures inside a single being. We are whole, and who we are is enough.

Don’t let the specificity of the title fool you. In fact, it’s meant to be provocative. In some ways, it’s at odds with itself. Having to preface “dad” with a label, an explanation, can be an othering experience all it’s own. The theme may be specific, but it is by no means narrow.

On top of that, these days, so many brown folks are united under the “people of color” umbrella. This kind of budding unification is an astounding display of support. By choosing an often overlooked focus, potential is created to expand that unification in new ways and to publish those who are bursting at the seams with untold stories.

WHITE DADS is accepting all forms of creative expression from black, brown, mixed race, adopted and/or POC who have the unique experience of having a white father. This is meant to be an intentional, creative opportunity to speak on truths, tell stories and share art that fall within the thematic focus.

I’m tired of defending who I am. Fighting white supremacy and patriarchy, two things I care greatly about,  are political issues I invest a lot of myself into. At the end of the day, though, theory, “-isms,” and social constructs are not going to make my dad less of the father who raised and loves me. These are political issues. My relationships with my family are not.

It’s isolating be unsure of where your identity lies.There is not a universal truth or a simple answer. This project, like identity itself, is far too nuanced and complicated to ever be restricted to binary modes of thought; to ever be about just one thing or another.

These are matters I recognize to be authentic about my own story and experience, but there’s so much more to say. WHITE DADS can be a place for those stories to be told. It’s a space to explore the crossroads of where social and political constructs intersect with personal experiences and family, loving or otherwise; an opportunity to look into the nature of identity and family ties that are anything but black and white.

Submissions are open from Dec 1st, 2015 – Jan 15, 2016. Check out the WDZ Tumblr page for more information. Email whitedadszine@gmail.com with questions. Find more writing from Sarah here.



white dadsSarah Gladstone is a writer based out of Oakland, California. In addition to being a contributor for online sites such as Ravishly and The Huffington Post Blog, she also works on personal writing endeavors. WHITE DADS, a new zine anthology of stories, art, and experiences told by people of color fathered by white men, is her most current project. Most of her writing is creative nonfiction, poetry, and prose on topics relating to identity, race, and orientation. She appreciates all great forms of storytelling, magical realism, and the interconnectedness of art with social justice and humanity. When she’s not entangled with the written word, you can find Sarah debating the merits of pop culture, indulging in discount cinema, and generally trying to live a story worthy life.

Visit white-dads-zine.tumblr.com for more information on Sarah’s latest project, or email whitedadszine@gmail.com


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