When I was growing up, I never felt like I fully belonged anywhere. As a half-white, half-Filipino American who very much appears mixed race, my ethnicity was constantly interrogated. Friends, acquaintances, teachers, coaches, and even the occasional stranger would ask, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?”
I understand that (in most cases) there were no ill-intentions. They were simply curious about my ethnicity or heritage. I didn’t live in a community with a significant Filipino immigrant population, so most of those asking had no concrete visual reference point for my physical features.
But intentions aside, being asked this question so frequently had the effect of reminding me that I visibly stood out, of reminding me that I could never pass for someone who truly belonged. The fact that my family integrated certain aspects of Filipino culture into our American lives that none of my classmates could relate to magnified this feeling. And when I visited the Philippines, I quickly understood that returning to the place of my birth did not equate with finding a sense of belonging.
While I felt this sense of displacement deeply for a long time, I couldn’t name it until I went to college and read W.E.B. Du Bois for an English lit course taught by Professor Vincent Woodard. Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Despite the fact Du Bois was writing about Black Americans, I remember reading that passage and feeling seen for the first time. Du Bois had so accurately articulated what I had struggled with internally my entire life.
I had never felt very connected to the English canon, so as I continued my undergrad studies, I took pretty much every English course my college offered that focused on authors of color. It was through these classes (and the wonderful professors who taught them) that I got to explore the writings of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Assata Shakur, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Saul Williams, and other Black Americans. Through their words, beautiful and painful at turns, these writers helped me make sense of my own identity and my own feelings of disconnection from the US. As I did so, I learned about the ways in which their/their characters’ experiences and struggles as the Other differed from my own, all of which better helped me to understand the ways in which power structures have impacted and continue to impact communities of color in this country.
At the time, I also sought Filipino American writers. But it wasn’t until my second year of college that I read one for the first time. Professor Woodard turned me onto Carlos Bulosan and then from there I ended up finding Jessica Hagedorn and the poet Patrick Rosal. Sadly, though, the list of Filipino American writers was short (at least, from what I could find back then). I’m not sure if I was aware of it at the time, but I think this planted the seed of my desire to use fiction to speak to my own experiences, and in doing so, contribute to the body of Filipino American work so that others might not feel as alone as I did when I was growing up.
This June, my third young adult novel comes out. My first featured a Filipino American character as part of the main cast, and my second a half-Black, half-Filipino American character. My third takes a much closer approach to the personal, as it features a half-White, half-Filipino American character who travels to the Philippines. I’m extremely proud of my contributions to YA literature. Growing up, I had never read a single book for children or teens that even featured a Filipino American character, and now I can proudly say I’ve put three on the shelves, and that I’m part of the ever-growing number of Filipino American authors doing this work in children’s lit (Erin Entrada Kelly even won the Newbery in 2018!).
I don’t think I’d be doing any of this if not for my Black professors offering the classes that they offered, if not for those Black writers and historians writing what they did and what they continue to write. So consider this post a small acknowledgment and honoring of what their work meant to me as a writer and as a hyphenated American. Black writers and activists continue to inspire me, and I’ll continue to teach and read their works all year long.
Sadly, Vincent Woodard passed away in 2008. His book, published posthumously, can be purchased here.