I finished The Time of Our Singing just before the weekend. I’ve had some thoughts banging around in my head since I started reading it so I thought I might put them down here. I’ve tried to put them into something coherent, but it might be a lost cause. Consider yourself warned, and just go read the book and tell me what you thought of it.
One of the central themes of the book is about music, and it was fascinating to me to read how the author put into words what the experience of both singing and listening to a singer can be like. Especially when he described early music, which is one of my favorites. I wondered, though, if someone who is not familiar with music would find those passages baffling, or just boring.
Mostly, though, the main thing that was so thought-provoking for me was about race. The main characters are a family, a black mother and a white father with three children. The book follows their lives, from the late 30′s to the present. It was at the beginning of the book, when two of the children are asked, “What exactly are you boys?”… that really got me.
You see, I get that question all the time, in a way. Oh, maybe less so now that I have lived all over the U.S., places that are less homogeneous than the blond, blue-eyed town I grew up in. But even now occasionally someone surprises me. Are you from India? Are you Native American? Egyptian? What I am is some sort of dark mirror image of my Dutch mother. It doesn’t really bother me, sometimes people are just looking for commonality — someone from Spain riding the same bus as me and wondering if I was from the same place. In contrast to the book, where the parents of the family decided not to definitively say what their children were, I was always taught to answer proudly. “You tell them you are Mexican,” my father would say. But am I really? The truth lies somewhere inbetween. Which is usually the answer I give.
I am thankful to live in the here and now, where it seems to matter less and less. I grew up in a community who largely accepted me, even if I was the only kid in class with olive skin who wasn’t adopted. I have been called names only a handful of times. In college it actually turned into a benefit, being considered a minority made me eligible for scholarships. But at times it left me feeling like an imposter. When my parents’ marriage ended, I think I chose to identify with my mother’s Dutch heritage much more because being Mexican represented everything negative about my Dad. Besides, how Mexican can you be when you don’t speak Spanish? This was especially clear over the past year, with my husband in school with international officers from all over Latin America. I may have had a passing resemblance to some, but that ended the moment I opened my mouth.
Sometimes I like to think that I am just another part of the “browning” of America, and that our culture is evolving into one without seeing skin color. But I think of the stories my parents can tell about their own courtship, not all that long ago. And I wonder if my perspective would be different if I hadn’t married a white man. If I hadn’t chosen my mother’s faith and culture. If my daughter weren’t fair and blond. If I still had a Mexican last name.