Let’s talk about race
Family history, bloodlines, heritage ... there is so much of what we share. Yet parallel to this, Bermuda has many stories of what we do not.
The Department of Community and Cultural Affairs is looking at all of them for their upcoming book, What We Share: Bermuda’s entwined Bloodlines. They are looking for submissions from the community, writers or not.
“It’s the story of Bermuda that we haven’t been willing to look at,” folklife officer Kim Dismont-Robinson said.
“When we think about what we share, there are so many stories in Bermuda of the ways in which we are separate.
“On one hand, we’re able to tackle a history that a lot of people are very uncomfortable with, but we’re also able to look at a more contemporary story of people coming from different backgrounds and being able to celebrate that.”
The book title shares the theme with Heritage Month, but Ms Dismont-Robinson has been carrying the idea since she led a panel on Bermuda’s mixed-race experience in 2017.
“Really since John Cox’s talk; the panel strengthened the idea,” she said.
The white historian gave a lecture on his unknown black ancestry. His story will be included in the book, as well as that of panellist Joanne Wohlmuth, a black woman who grew up with white siblings.
“So much of how we react to people in Bermuda is based on what we see in their faces and the assumptions that we make from this,” Ms Dismont-Robinson said.
“There’s so much more to a person’s history and background and influences than what is visible on the surface. This allows us to really talk about Bermudian identity in a way that we haven’t.”
She anticipates there will be two parts to the anthology.
“[One] deals with the historical issues associated with mixed-race Bermudians. A lot of those stories are not happy,” she said.
“Then, a more contemporary side [about] people who have had a multiracial heritage, but it was a matter of choice for their parents.”
Since she accepted the post in 2005, Ms Dismont-Robinson has put out ten books of varied genres — memoir, poetry, speculative fiction and children’s literature. This will be the department’s first thematic anthology.
“In this case, we’re actually interested in the story more than the writing itself,” she said.
“I suspect that some of the best stories may be coming from people who don’t consider themselves to be writers.”
Her memoir workshop and related book, Take This Journey With Me, is the only one she knows to have tackled similarly sensitive subject matter.
“Rachel Manley, our editor, said that one of the things about memoir is it doesn’t have the hiding places that fiction does,” Ms Dismont-Robinson said.
“I think that we are far more comfortable writing flat history or fiction that has nothing to do with our reality. People more and more now are starting to actually talk, about not just their experiences, but the ways in which those experiences have affected them.
“In a small place, it’s frightening to talk about your feelings. These kinds of stories are not always easy to write and I think that everyone who submits, it’s an act of bravery.”
She cited The Painted Lily, penned by British writer Amy J Baker in 1921. It tells the story of a woman of colour who moves from St George’s to the City of Hamilton and passes as white.
Rumour has it that the white community had all the copies of the book destroyed.
“I think that says a lot about where our society was at that time. The scandal that the book caused because it hinted at the idea of African ancestry within families that were known as white in Bermuda.
“I hope that the public will be more receptive to this book than they would have been to The Painted Lily,” she laughed.
She said the popular trend of DNA testing was perfect timing for a book like this.
“It gives us a glimpse, but it doesn’t tell the family story. Genetics is completely different from family history,” she said.
“Race is one of the biggest issues in Bermuda. We will never fully come to terms with it until we address all of the permutations of the ways in which we are willingly and unwillingly connected.”
They are seeking essays, memoirs, poems and short stories. Non-writers may submit themselves for interview.
She is hoping for examples from the St David’s community and their Native American heritage and from Bermuda’s “often overlooked” Asian population.
“We talk about the invisible ancestor. In Bermuda, you are usually defined as black or white; the fine points are often glossed over,” she said.
“My eldest daughter’s father was raised by his Carib grandmother. It’s not just a matter of a genetic connection, there’s a cultural connection there too that would have affected the way that he functions in the world and that carries through to my child.”
As such, Bermuda’s story is ever evolving.
“If you talk to somebody who is remembering a grandparent who was mixed race, their experience of a mixed-race person or a biracial person would be extremely different from that of somebody today.
“We’re interested in how that story has changed over time and, perhaps, some of the ways that it hasn’t.”
The long-term hope is the books serve as a legacy through which “the children of Bermuda see themselves reflected”.
“The work that we do in the department is about Bermuda and identity and getting to the core of who we are as a people,” Ms Dismont-Robinson said.
“The idea is that this has a life beyond the manuscript. It’s certainly a book that I want my children to read and reflect upon and think about what it means for them.”
Have you got a story to tell? Contact Kim Dismont-Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 292-1681. Submissions are due by July 27.
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