Image: Looking for Soul
My first encounter with the poem “We Real Cool” by the African American writer Gwendolyn Brooks was in 1999. I was a half-formed college student on exchange from a Canadian university to one in the north of England. The campus was adjacent to farmland where sheep and cows roamed—the air reeked of dung during warm weather. The class was American literature, which was taught by a team of British professors, all male. This was my only course with a reading list that wasn’t dominated by dead white men. I chose to take it because there was a section on the Harlem Renaissance and African American writing featuring the work of Brooks, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Amiri Baraka. There was also the amusement factor of viewing America through an English lens.
I was not aware of it then, but in retrospect I desperately needed an entry into literature that did not insist on the idea of a universal experience. I yearned for voices beyond Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare. As the writer Junot Diaz has said, “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Deep down, I knew I would become inhuman if I failed to find myself—a Chinese Canadian girl, the first child of immigrants from Hong Kong—somewhere in the books I was consuming for my degree. At that time, my sense of self was fractured, body and mind so distant that I seemed affectless when faced with painful events. My essays and fiction also suffered; I didn’t sound like myself, but rather a poor imitation of dead white writers.
The majority of the students in this literature class were from the United Kingdom. There two Americans: one white woman and one black man. As an introduction to African American writing, one of the professors—a younger white man who was known for teaching the Quentin Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs in another class—told us about going on a walk on 125th Street in New York and how Harlem was safe and the people were friendly, as if we believed otherwise. The African American student and I exchanged looks to confirm that this was really happening. Then the prof played the song “Straight Outta Compton” by hip-hop group N.W.A. We were witnessing a well-meaning attempt to be cool that felt vaguely insulting. This may have been the moment when I mastered the art of giving side-eye.
Since that American literature class, I’ve thought a lot about one Gwendolyn Brooks biographical detail: as she grew older, she became more militant about black nationalism. I think about often this because as I age, I find myself more becoming more political about my identity. When I returned to Vancouver after those semesters abroad, I took an Asian American literature class. I read books where I saw myself reflected. In my writing, I began to develop my own voice. Four years later, I moved to New York, where I lived on 122nd Street, a short walk from the Magic Johnson Theatres and the Studio Museum in Harlem. My neighbours celebrated Juneteenth, a holiday that was new to me.
Last year in Hong Kong, where I currently reside, I watched Southside with You, a film inspired by the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. There’s a scene where Barack recites “We Real Cool” to Michelle as they stand before a painting by the African American artist Ernie Barnes. It’s a magical moment: two clever, beautiful people bonding over art that reflects their cultural history, their humanity. I won’t lie: I cried as I watched this unfold.
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