Kaneesha Parsard on (1)ne Drop and the Multiplicity of Blackness
When you think of blackness what do you see? Dr. Yaba Blay’s multiplatform project (1)ne Drop and book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race complicate the answers to that question. In the book, visually stunning portraits and candid personal testimonies, presented along with historical conceptions of race, challenge the rigid notion of what blackness is.
Kaneesha Parsard (Penn ’11) was one of (1)ne Drop’s incredibly forthcoming contributors whose profile shed light on her mixed African and East Indian heritage and the privileges and challenges that are tied to her physical appearance – but her interest in race extends beyond her participation in this project. Currently a doctoral student in the combined program in American Studies and African American Studies (and doing a qualification in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Yale University, her research examines the literary and artistic representations of the late 19th century and early 20th century colonial British West Indies and the ways in which the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured Indians shared spaces and frustrated the colonial management of bodies, dwellings, and reproduction. And by the time you read this, she will have already submitted the prospectus for her dissertation, “Improper Dwelling: The Yard, The House, Sexuality and Colonial Modernity, 1838-1962.”
Read Climbing Vines’ conversation with Kaneesha to learn about her experience with (1)ne Drop, her thoughts on black beauty and self-image and to find out her plans for the future.
How did you get involved with (1)ne Drop?
I did the interview in the summer of 2011 … after I graduated from Penn. Yaba Blay, [Co-Director of] Africana Studies at Drexel – who got her PhD from Temple [University] in African American Studies – got in contact with me, I believe through Salamishah Tillet [Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania], who is one of my very close mentors. I think Salamishah recommended me for the book. She came to my house and that’s where we did the interview. And then we followed it up a couple weeks later with a photo shoot in downtown Brooklyn. It was really beautiful to see the ways that Yaba and her partner in the project, Noelle Théard, who is a photographer, sought to visualize the themes I was talking about in my interview with different settings and colors.
Describe the rest of your involvement with the book, like the editing process, for example.
It was a long interview and I think we decided to highlight etymology, because at that time I’d just written an honors thesis in English about the figure of the dougla [a person of mixed African and East Indian descent]. It was a thesis that was more focused on figuration than anything else, whereas now [in my dissertation] I’m thinking about the city and makings of space and the way people live. [Emphasizing etymology] was about naming and highlighting how I relate to certain terms and how other people identify me and the way I might react to my blackness being challenged. And I think I have an interesting relationship to phenotypic blackness that might be a little bit different than the other folks in this collection because I think I have kind of a medium tone [and] people would not think I’m not black, in other words. But it differs when I’m in different places. Jamaica is one of the places in the Caribbean where people wouldn’t call me black. They would acknowledge that I’m of African descent but in Jamaica they would call me coolie or in Trinidad people might guess that I’m dougla. People have told me that they thought I was part Chinese or something like that. But, nonetheless, I am obviously black and identify in that way. So I think I toe a lot of those lines phenotypically in terms of race.
There’s a quote [in (1)ne Drop] that’s interesting to me. I said, “I don’t know my Indian family, but my Indianness or my multiracial identity remains. It’s not something anyone can take away from me. And most importantly, I understand that being black and being multiracial are not mutually exclusive categories.” I‘ve met a few of my dad’s family since then and I get to ask them a few questions about what they know about our family history. And as a scholar of narrative and cultural forms, it’s important to me to assemble the ways that people in my family have thought about our family history or thought about race or difference. So I’m trying to do that now with getting to know different people in my family and figuring all of that out. Something else is interesting to me here. I said that I was uncomfortable when I was young with people telling me I was beautiful because I didn’t know how to disaggregate colorism and preferences for certain kinds of skin tones or hair textures from a beauty that I can claim regardless. And I was also uncomfortable with those sorts of appeals to color and to hair because, [though] I’m very close to my father, I’ve always seen myself through the eyes of my mother, my maternal grandmother and my mother’s sisters – all dark-skinned women. My first examples of a woman’s beauty were through my mother and my grandmother and my aunts.
And we have it rough as women because the physical is what people love to fixate on. Are there any salient moments that happened recently or in your childhood that relate to this issue?
Members of my family have commented negatively on my nose – making comments over my childhood and adolescence, like ‘Oh you’re growing into your nose’ or ‘Oh, you’re better looking than you used to be.’ Stuff like that, which always kind of tied my beauty and my self-image to features that I suppose they would identify as African.
Was this your dad’s family or your Afro-Jamaican family?
My Afro-Jamaican family. I haven’t even had enough contact with my Indian family to be able to discern any colorist biases that they might have. But we all have those sorts of biases and representations, so that had a big effect on me. I had a perm from the ages of 11 to 14, which is not that long, and I grew my hair out long before the explosion of natural hair resources. So that was back in 2004 when I was in 9th grade; my hair looked a mess, as I think all of ours probably did in the beginning. But because my mom had kept my hair in braids – she braided it or cornrowed it or put it in twists – it was rare that my hair was out. I didn’t know what kind of texture I had and so when I started to grow my hair out I remember once going to my Nana, my mom’s mother, and I was like, ‘It’s been a couple of weeks and I know my perm is growing out but it’s just kind of like wavy. What is this?’ I was like, ‘Nana, is this what my hair looks like?’ She said yes. I was so confused and dismayed because I had – at that time I was 14 – an Angela Davis shirt and I was looking forward to having this formidable Afro, and instead my hair grows down – it’s curly. And little did I know at that time that Angela Davis herself teased her hair in order to make it stand up. I guess I was just dealing with [the fact that] I identified as black, [and] I had an image of what it meant to be a black woman. I had to kind of negotiate those [expectations] when it turned out I had some differences.
Why did you decide that (1)ne Drop was worth doing?
I think (1)ne Drop is an incredible project because I think Yaba is a very forward-thinking scholar. I think she takes such a nuanced approach to issues of color and race and also [(1)ne Drop and Pretty Period] are very transnational projects. She’s not just focusing on the way that race operates in the United States, but also in West Africa, in the Caribbean, in Latin America, and among immigrants from those places in the US. She’s looking at the ways that meanings around race shift over time in different places, and I think that’s a really unique and valuable perspective. The reason I got involved in (1)ne Drop is because at that time in my life I had started thinking about mixed race in a scholarly sense. I’d taken a lot of Africana classes; I was an Africana major, also. And I’d taken Asian American Studies courses and I was kind of trying to wed those two approaches together – the Asian Diaspora and African Diaspora Studies. So those questions were really fresh in my mind. And I think that representations of multiracial Americans are kind of limited to people who have black and white ancestry, and I think that it’s important to complicate what it means to be mixed race and what it looks like to be mixed race. So I thought I might contribute a unique or different approach to multiracial identity.
What kind of impact do you hope this project will have on the public? Have you gotten any feedback about it?
(1)ne Drop is a piece of public scholarship. It’s an affordable hardcover book. It’s on an independent press [BLACKprint Press] headed by a black woman, so it’s not on a university press [and] it doesn’t have exorbitant prices attached to it. And it’s not only visually appealing, but it has personal testimony and analysis weaved through it and I think it bridges a lot of the conversations that happen in academia and among everyday people. I think we’re having the same conversations but using maybe different vocabulary. And so I think having a book like this allows a broader audience to engage with the ideas around race, color, gender, sexuality, beauty [and] class that scholars are engaging with in the academy.
What’s next for you?
Well, this is exciting, so thank you for inviting me to sit down with you. What’s next is I’m going to be defending my prospectus in a few weeks and then after that I can go on to start researching and writing my dissertation. So, pending funding, I will be away next year spending a couple of months in Trinidad and Guyana and in London, England doing archival and literary and visual research.
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.