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In a modest hotel room a few blocks from Dupont Circle, Toi Derricotte is resurrecting a woman who once forgot her name. Derricotte’s grandfather was a mortician, she tells me, and he lived directly above his funeral home. Once, when Derricotte stayed overnight, she wandered through his workplace. She was a lonely child, and perhaps the oblong boxes downstairs piqued her curiosity. But more likely it was the tales she’d overheard about one of her grandfather’s unfortunate clients.
Among Detroit’s black middle class, it was said that the woman had died of grief. That she had spent her adult life passing for white and had left Detroit to work for the New York Times. That she had married a wealthy white man and one day had decided to tell him she was black. That he had divorced her, and that within a year she was dead.
Derricotte was 7 years old when she found the woman laid out in one of her grandfather’s coffins. “I remember coming in, when nobody else was there, and seeing her,” she recalls. “She was laid out, like Sleeping Beauty, in a glass-topped casket. She had long bronze hair…like a movie star.”
Whether the tale was true or not, Derricotte gleaned a lifelong lesson from it. “I remember thinking that there’s a real danger in forgetting who you are, or not holding on,” she says.
For most black folks, “forgetting who you are” requires a healthy dose of hallucinogens, but for Derricotte it’s a very real possibility. Derricotte, like the woman of the story, could pass for white. And for most of her life she’s had the unique experience of living on both sides of the street. “In my neighborhood in Detroit, you had one block separating the black part from the white part,” she explains. “Your parents would tell you not to cross Ryan Road because you’d get hit by a car. Well, that was part true, because Ryan Road was a busy street. But it was also this unstated reason that this was the boundary. This was where our territory stopped and theirs began. But I would cross Ryan Road all the time.”
Derricotte has spent most of her life straddling the racial fence. “There was a time when I would sit down at a table and say, ‘Hi, I’m Toi Derricotte, and I’m black,’” she says, imitating the Alcoholics Anonymous routine. “Because I would sometimes have white people grow intimate with me, and then they would make comments.”
Such instances make up the bulk of Derricotte’s new book, The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. The work reads like the journal of an undercover agent hurled into America’s undeclared race war. By virtue of her appearance, Derricotte is given free passage beyond the Duboisian veil. It allows her to see through apologistic smokescreens (e.g., “I have black friends”) and witness the candid monologues of white Americans on race. And, unfortunately for kids like me who’ve never been called nigger by a white person, Derricotte only confirms what our parents always told us.
There is the man on the train who sits next to Derricotte because, as he explains to her, he doesn’t want to sit next to a black passenger. There’s Derricotte’s regular taxi driver, who picks her up at the airport and uses her trip to Africa as a chance to pimp-slap black folks globally. And then there are the real estate agents who take Derricotte to a white neighborhood when she’s alone but not when she’s with her husband. Notebooks is a work of catharsis, in which Derricotte confronts the pain of not only being perceived as white but at times wishing she were.
Pain is an essential element of most of Derricotte’s writing. The former Potomac resident established herself on Washington’s literary scene not through essays but through poetry. “Before she moved to Pittsburgh, if you were naming the top writers in D.C., you had to mention Toi,” says literary activist and poet E. Ethelbert Miller. “She was also one of the nicest writers on the scene.” Derricotte has published three volumes of verse, and her work constantly is featured in literary journals. She has been awarded an NEA fellowship, and Miller says Derricotte is likely to win a Pulitzer or some other huge literary prize in the near future.
“I came to writing as a child. It was because of the silence in my family. I felt we weren’t talking about a lot of things,” she explains, sipping a cup of Earl Grey. Derricotte’s family was of mixed ancestry and migrated from Louisiana to Detroit. Her relatives became entrenched in Detroit’s black middle-class circles, but they also brought a fair helping of tragedy with them.
Two of Derricotte’s mother’s brothers had died as children, one killed by a stack of lumber that fell on him, the other by a strange infection. Derricotte’s great-grandmother had lost all of her land because she didn’t have a deed to prove she owned it. “That land was all bought up by a white man who started a hot-sauce business,” Derricotte says. “And that next year, all of my great-grandmother’s children were picking jalapenos for 10 cents a bushel, and he was a millionaire in 10 years.”
Derricotte was an only child, and though her aunts and uncles lived with her, she grew up in a lonely and at times abusive house. “There was tremendous amount of frustration in my home,” she admits. “Sometimes the men and women would go a year without speaking.” She describes her father as “terrifying” and says he would beat her over the most minor infraction. “I was writing about all the things I wasn’t supposed to speak about, and I guess I still am,” she explains.
But Derricotte’s writing doesn’t bear pain for the sake of empty confession. Her work subscribes to the belief that healing can’t begin until pain is faced in its ugliest form. Notebooks begins with an epigraph from the Gnostic Gospels quoting Jesus: “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
As I listen to Derricotte run down the host of incredible things she’s heard white people say when she’s been the only black person around, I almost envy her. It’s one thing to suspect what people think about you; to be able to confirm it is another deal. But there’s too much pain in Derricotte’s voice for me to truly envy her. Buried in the hearts of many black people is a sense of disbelief in racism. It’s a defense mechanism perhaps, but many of us really want to believe that racial oppression is merely a simple misunderstanding, a mistake.
We would like to think that when the cabs pass us on the street or the guards follow us in the stores, it can’t be for something as trivial as our skin color. The disbelief protects us, and though we know the reality, it at least allows us to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Derricotte doesn’t have that luxury, because on any given day white people are likely to tell her exactly what they think of her. It is almost never pretty.