Setsuko Takechi Houston and Lemo Houston, Kamakura, Japan, 1956.
by VELINA HASU HOUSTON
Recently I was honored with a Loving Award from the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival (held June 11-12 at the Japanese American National Museum). The award and the meaning behind it has caused me to reflect on multiracial identity.
My parents married in 1954 after a nine-year courtship in Japan. When they left Japan, they arrived in the U.S., a country in which their marriage was illegal in 17 states and would remain so until 1967, two years before my father’s death.
In the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down laws against interracial marriage, honoring the marriage of Afro-Indian Mildred Loving and her white husband Richard (who also were second cousins).
I grew up in a community where being mixed race was a natural thing, at least for those of us who had foreign mothers and American fathers. We were multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural — and often, like me, transnational. The idea of having a foot in at least two countries and being a blend of three or four ethnicities was par for the course.
The non-international community didn’t think of mixed race in the same way, if at all. They perceived those of us who had white fathers as being white and those of us who had black fathers as being black. Those of us who had Asian American or Latino American fathers also were considered white.
The local community can’t be castigated for their narrow views because they existed in a society that thought of race as black and white. They, however, have hopefully grown beyond that limited perspective to understand the dualities and multiple dimensions of being mixed race and binational. Hopefully.
When I came to California and began writing professionally, I was blessed with encountering more Hapas (mixed Asian individuals) and particularly more Japanese Hapas. I also was compelled to research multiracial identity and discovered individuals such as Dr. Christine Iijima Hall, who wrote the first dissertation on mixed race identity and on Japanese-black identity at UCLA in 1980. Dr. Michael Thornton, Dr. Teresa Kay Williams-Leon, Philip Tajitsu Nash, Dr. George Kitahara Kich, Cynthia Nakashima, Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Kip Fulbeck, Elena Creef, Amy Hill, Dr. Curtiss Takada Rooks – all individuals of mixed Asian ancestry whose art and scholarship were exploring our cultural dimensions in myriad ways.
They were not the only ones. My sister, Dr. Rika Houston, Nora Okja Keller, Marie Hara, and many others were hard at work. I apologize if I have unintentionally not included anyone. My journey was not without speed bumps; there was color-based dissension in the multiracial community, too.
But my point is this: I understood that there was a history, that the quandary and specificity of being mixed race did not begin with me and will most certainly not end with me. When I took a DNA test and discovered my connection not only to Japan, Africa, and Native American Indian culture, but also my ties to Cuba and China, I also observed that mixed race is truly the foundation of humanity. Over 60,000-plus years, we have managed to separate ourselves into countless tribes and proclaim our identity in what I term as “ethnicity lite,” the ancient connectivities obliterated in the course of evolution. Perhaps the necessary progress of civilization…
As the mixed race movement continues and multiracial identity gains greater respect and integrity in the arts and academia, new artists and scholars will emerge to sustain the conversation. It is my hope that each new generation remembers and honors the history that came before it, that helped to carve a place for that conversation. This remembering will fortify the means and substance of the community’s future endeavors.
At the Hapa Japan Conference at UC Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies in April 2011, I met many vibrant new Hapa voices such as Ariko Ikehara and Mitzi Uehara Carter. I am excited about their work and have availed myself to them.
At Mixed Roots, I witnessed many new multiracial voices telling their stories through spoken word and song. It was exhilarating. I am equally exhilarated by the continued, vibrant expression of established voices in our community such as all the individuals that I mentioned above. They are trailblazers who continue to burn brightly, contributing art and scholarship that inspire.
May the conversation continue.
I close with a quote from Dagmar, an Afrodeutsche multiracial character in my new play, “Bliss”:
DAGMAR: We believed things about what we’re made of. All my life I’ve had to explain to nosy strangers why I don’t look like my mother or sister. The world thinks small when it comes to color. No matter what anybody says, they look at you and think “white” and me and think “black.” They learn how Afrodeutsche we are, but their thinking doesn’t change. But Afrodeutsche is real, Schatsi, the most real thing about us. And we don’t owe anybody an explanation.
On the Web: www.velinahasuhouston.com