Via Perkins & Jeff Chiba Stearns
Wounds that are Healing
Excerpts are from a personal essay written in 2015, titled “Family, Deer, and New Life in Pittsburgh.” The essay originally appeared in MIXD Zine #2: Healing. All photos are my own.
“My father has always been a wound.”
When I view the opening line of an essay I wrote a little over a year ago, my eye lands on the word “wound.” As the daughter of an interracial union – a black father and a white mother – this word is layered.
My parents met two decades after Loving v. Virginia, but of my mother’s mostly white boyfriends, my father was the only one whose presence bothered the landlord. Race wasn’t mentioned, of course; it was the loud rumble of his car, or some other red herring that was the issue.
Despite his gentle drawl and Southern manners, his dark complexion and 6’2” frame was bound to make some people uneasy. These daily wounds have put a strain on nearly every interracial relationship, certainly since the concept of race was established, and likely even before we had terms with which to separate ourselves by appearance.
However, my father had his own set of personal issues that profoundly damaged himself and those around him. Were they really so personal after all, though, when black men are more likely to be raised in lower-income neighborhoods with less resources, underemployed, and affected by addiction and mental illness?
It is sometimes said that hurt people hurt people. Looking through this lens, it may not be so surprising that a significant number of black men, among the most hurting people in our society, have been unable to father generations of wounded daughters and sons.
When considering race, it can be difficult to extricate the personal from the collective, the individual from the institution, the present from the historical.
“When I was young, my parental situation confused my peers. There was no complete, satisfactory timeline I could offer to explain my lack of a father. Meanwhile, the looming stereotype of the ‘absent black father’ threatened to discredit my experience.”
My father was out of the picture long before I developed my first conscious memories. Instead, I remember my mother pushing me on swings at the playground, watching my Granddad shave his pale face in the morning, and listening to my Nana speak Slovak and sing “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” to soothe me.
Love was not lacking in my life. The biggest challenge my father’s absence presented was not something I lacked, but something I possessed that I had no ability to understand.
In her poem “Sheep In Fog,” Sylvia Plath describes a heaven that is “Starless and fatherless, a dark water.” For me, that dark water was my skin: an enigmatic reflection, a blackness that was visually evident, but whose history and meaning I could not access.
Recently, I was listening to a report on NPR that described an experience former President Obama had with a group of young men on Father’s Day in 2013. The boys presented the president with a Father’s Day card, and one of them admitted that he had never signed a Father’s Day card before. Obama confided to him that he hadn’t, either.
There is a comfort in resonating with Obama’s experiences, both as a mixed-race person estranged from father and from blackness, and as a child raised by a white mother and maternal grandparents.
My parents’ story is different from that of Obama’s parents’ – separate eras, geographical locations, nationalities, and ethnicities – but relationships between black males and white females have long been charged with historical baggage.
Interracial relationships are more socially accepted and commonplace than in the days of Loving v. Virginia, but palpable tension remains between white and black people. Even the symbolism in the words we use to describe the races are powerful.
What are we taught about black and white? That they are opposites. What, then, does that make mixed people, like Obama, like myself? Two opposites, two opposing forces fused together by genes.
Thus, a disconnect grows in the mixed identity. There are things that must be unified, reconciled; being mixed-race means one’s body, one’s soul, must find a way to live in harmony with itself and with others.
“In early November of this year, I took a road trip to Pittsburgh with my mom to meet my father’s sister and her husband, my aunt and uncle, for the first time. They live just outside the vast expanse of the city, and only a few streets away from where my father grew up.”
My parents are prototypical opposites in one key way. My mother was born in a section of Levittown, New York – the original suburbia, the very place racial segregation was first sanctioned through the Federal Housing Authority in 1947.
Granddad, an upper-middle-class white American, and Nana, his Slavic wife who came from a family of poor immigrants, would have been a controversial union in a different time and place, but they were welcome in Levittown.
Race, not class, was the new standard, and Levittown had to be white, and only white. This is what made it successful. This is what made it the American Dream.
My father grew up in east Pittsburgh. In the 1950s, the city claimed the Lower Hill District to build the Civic Arena, displacing thousands of poor black people who then moved into Homewood, my father’s neighborhood. It did not take long for Homewood to become almost entirely black.
This is one incident in a long history of our country valuing profit over the black body. And, where the black body is, white flight is bound to occur, as white people often possess both the fear and the means to do so.
Of course, like all people, my parents are not solely defined by their places of origin, or by their respective races and classes. They were curious about and attracted to each other as soon as they met, regardless of (and sometimes because of) their differences.
Amusement ensued when the pair began to learn each other’s likes and dislikes. My mother was shocked to discover that my father’s favorite music group was the Mamas and the Papas, and my father was equally surprised by my mother’s love of jazz music.
The color of our souls is always far more complex than the color of our skin. My parents shared many things, including the generous, polite, and hard-working natures that characterized them.
As for my father, I traveled to Pittsburgh to learn more about of his qualities, both through his relatives who had known him much longer than my mother did, and through the presence of the place itself.
“We drove to the empty lot where one of my father’s childhood homes had stood. I spent time photographing it, meditating on all that had happened there. Meanwhile, a herd of deer wandered nearby and stood, curious and still. It felt like a testament to the significance of the moment: a symbol of renewal, of new life springing up from dead ground.”
This day took place less than a year before my father’s unexpected death. I was not ready to come to terms with our estrangement until adulthood. Before his death, I wondered why it had taken me so long to reach that point, unaware of the inner compass that was directing me in its perfect timing.
In Pittsburgh, I learned about my father’s life before my mother, garnering new details through family stories and photos. One of the accomplishments of his younger years was earning a scholarship to play for an All-American football team in college, where he was scouted by the NFL.
Stories like this humanized him, and helped me feel connected to him on an individual level. He pursued what he loved, and did it well. His passion was in athletics, and mine is in the arts, but the disciplines themselves are secondary to the motivation for cultivating a skill, along with the joie de vivre that blossoms from it.
I want to always carry that black excellence, that sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and determination with me, so that the best parts of him can live on.
“I no longer have a cramped view of a distant father as the only lens through which I can understand the black experience. The pieces of my black identity are falling into place, making my mixed-race identity more whole and complete.”
The privilege I have to freely shape my identity is due in part to Loving v. Virginia, a case fought and won by two people whose love for each other ran deeper than any difference. The couples that walked this path over these past fifty years also widened it for their brown future generations.
As a mixed person, life is a package deal. Along with the typical complications of family, one also carries the tensions, both interpersonal and systemic, of races that are often at odds with each other.
Ultimately, we need not know exactly where the difficulties stem from. We will never know the answers to all our questions, whether they are as vast as how to solve inequality and racism, or as personal as how the facets of our identity reflect our parents.
All we need to focus on is learning what we can, doing the work we are passionate about, and seeking the healing we need, wherever we may need to go to find it.
“My father is a wound that is healing.”
Via Perkins is a multidisciplinary artist from Greater Boston. As a writer and researcher of mixed-race identity, she has presented at the UMass Amherst Undergraduate Research Conference and the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles. Connect with her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/viaperkins.
What role does black fatherhood (or lack of fatherhood) play in the development of mixed-race daughters and sons?
How does place (i.e. parents’ birthplaces, our birthplaces, or where we settle down as adults) affect our identities as mixed-race people?
As I read Via Perkins deeply intimate self-reflection in her essay ‘Wounds that are Healing’ I was taken back to my own experiences and struggles with identity growing up in small town Canada and how place and time played such a huge role in shaping my future self and influencing my creativity. Being of Japanese and European descent I suffered my fair share of bullying with nicknames inspired by racial slurs and taunts to go back home to Japan even though I was a fourth generation Canadian. All things my parents never knew and things I never told my them.
Now that I am father to an 18-month-old daughter I spend more time wrestling with the notions of nature versus nurture. My wife is also of Japanese and Caucasian descent so our daughter is the same mix as us. There is no ‘mono-racial’ parent in this equation. Do I consider my daughter lucky that she has parents who understand her experiences before she’s had them, yes of course I do, but now I wonder how her art will be inspired by her 2.0 sense of hybridity.
I cannot begin to imagine a life where one of my parents wasn’t in the picture growing up. Perkins uses her experiences as inspiration for her own creative process. Chaos can give birth to a dancing star. Through Perkin’s essay I have a better understanding of how our lives are affected so deeply by a sense of home and place and lack there of so tonight I will hug my daughter extra tight and never let go.
– Jeff Chiba Stearns
Jeff Chiba Stearns
Mixed Match: Bonus Material
“Patient Story – Krystin Jung”
“Jason Dehn on Searching for Mixed Race Stem Cell Matches”
Mixed Match Credits
Executive Producer: Jeff Chiba Stearns
Producer: Ruth Vincent
Writer, Director, Editor, Cinematographer: Jeff Chiba Stearns
Animation: Jeff Chiba Stearns and Kaho Yoshida, Meditating Bunny Studio Inc.
Original Score: Genevieve Vincent
Post Audio: Doug Paterson, Big World Sound
Post Production: Jacques Russo, Cinematik
Songs: Little Worrier by Kina Grannis and A Good Day (Morning Song) by Priscilla Ahn
Few people know about this topic and I wanted to help clear up misconceptions and raise awareness on how we need more minorities to become bone marrow donors on the national registry and the umbilical cord stem cell banks. My work focuses on my multiracial identity, and this subject is an important topic as we see mixed race people becoming the fastest growing demographic in North America. As a filmmaker of multiethnic descent (a mix of Japanese, British, Scottish, Russian, and German), this documentary is very personal to me and my connection to the subject matter is of extreme significance. The difficulty of finding a bone marrow donor is a worldwide issue that affects tens of thousands of people a year and each of us have the ability to help.
Leukemia and other blood cancers can affect any family at any time and joining a stem cell registry or donating our baby’s umbilical cord blood is one of the few things we can do to save someone’s life. Most people only know these stories if they know someone who has leukemia or another type of blood cancer. Mixed Match aims to create a better understanding of what these patients experience and their struggles to find a match.
I was unaware of the medical issues involving people of mixed heritage until eight years ago, when I was asked by a friend to join the Canadian bone marrow registry. My friend, who was a cancer survivor himself, was seeking out people of mixed Asian heritage to help save the life of a young, mixed Chinese/Caucasian Vancouverite named James Erlandsen. James was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Since I didn’t understand the significance of why people of mixed heritage needed to join the bone marrow donor registry, I didn’t join.
Through Mixed Match, I wanted to make a difference by creating a dialogue and discussion on mixed identity, ethnicity and ancestry in medicine. I wanted to inspire people to take action and to help in any way they can.
Jeff Chiba Stearns is an Emmy® nominated and Webby award winning animation and documentary filmmaker. After graduating from the Emily Carr University with a degree in Film Animation, he founded Vancouver based boutique animation studio Meditating Bunny Studio Inc. in 2001. From animated viral video ads and broadcast commercials for companies like Sharpie, 3M and Post-it Note, to short and feature films like “What Are You Anyways?” (2005), Yellow Sticky Notes (2007), One Big Hapa Family (2010), Ode to a Post-it Note (2010) and Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam (2013), Jeff’s work has broadcast around the world, screened in hundreds of international film festivals and garnered over 30 awards. Mixed Match is Jeff’s second feature length documentary.
As multiethnic blood cancer patients are often being told their mixed heritage can present challenges finding a suitable unrelated stem cell donor for transplant, what are your thoughts on how racial language is being used in this context and do you feel it is appropriate to use the language of race in this medical application?
What most intrigued me in Jeff Chiba Stearns’ documentary was part of the scientific explanation in “Jason Dehn on Searching for Mixed Race Stem Cell Matches.” Dehn noted that finding matches for mixed-race individuals sometimes proves as easy as finding matches for monoracial individuals, and at other times, it is nearly a miracle.
There is overwhelming evidence to support the claim that there is no scientific basis for what we call “race,” and that two people of the same race can be even more genetically dissimilar than two people of different races. Still, “race” has very real consequences in the world today. This is why I believe using racial language is appropriate in this scientific context. If the terms we use, however flawed, can bring us closer to finding matches that will save lives, then they are beneficial.
Stearns’ documentary is a beautifully shot and illustrated work that shows the urgency of Mixed Match’s work. The only critique I would make is that as a layperson, it was difficult for me to fully comprehend Dehn’s explanation of the genetics behind finding matches. I would also like to learn more about joining a registry, perhaps through a story like Jung’s in “Patient Story – Krystin Jung,” from the perspective of a past donor.
Finally, I would pose this question: In an academic context, could we use donor information to research why people find it easier or harder to find genetic matches, helping us redefine and clarify our understandings of “race?”
– Via Perkins