By Georgia McInnes
“I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had a power to change me completely with the utterance of one word”. The anti-protest bill may have limited our freedom, but McWatt’s Shame on Me shows there is another option. Literature is just as powerful a tool.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging is a book missing from most Black authors reading lists; McWatt provides a fresh new perspective on the construction of race through her memoir which grapples with her struggles to establish identity by being bombarded with the question: ‘What are you?’
McWatt understands that the answer to this question is more complicated than it seems. In Shame On Me she explores the interwoven strands of her heritage, pulling them together with the help of literature. She dissects her body and examines each part to understand who she is and how her analysis stands against the race debate.
Shame On Me is an all-encompassing book that will make you want to pick up a pen and explore your ancestry whilst also calling upon your activism due to the moving and urgent nature of McWatt’s writing.
Locked up behind her identity
It is inescapable for me not to mention the most memorable part of Tessa’s memoir. Recognised by many, McWatt reveals her first encounter with racism. McWatt’s first identification as a writer began at eight-years-old in school when she realised the power language held. “I understood, without being able to articulate it, that language had a power to change me completely with the utterance of one word”. Language is the most empowering and disempowering tool there is. Why do you think book burning is so common in totalitarian regimes?
The catalyst for this realisation was when the teacher asked if anyone knew the meaning of the pejorative use of Black, to which another boy said: “Yeah, Tessa”.
All eyes were on McWatt and if this humiliation was not enough, the teacher responded “No, Tessa’s something else”. Being mixed-race, Tessa was not part of the strict binary. What the teacher thought was an act of rescuing the innocent girl from a racial slur was actually an act of othering, a process all too familiar to those subject to colourism.
McWatt could not conform to either of the two typical racial binaries. A teacher, someone influential to a child of a young age, denied her a Black identity, while simultaneously excluded from a relatable collective white identity. McWatt was both defined and denied by her race. This is a common experience in America due to the One Drop Rule. A legal principle that asserted that any individual with even one Black ancestor from many generations were considered Black. Although this is no longer a legal practise, it is still a pervasive norm. McWatt was left floating in between two fighting sides and was subject to confusing turmoil.
Dissecting the body
McWatt splits the novel into three parts. Structuring her work as a science experiment: hypothesis, experiment and findings. A metaphor exploring the brutality of plantation ideology.
She begins with her “Hypothesis”; exploring a couple line caricatures of her ancestors. One of these being her Chinese Grandmother running through sugar canes in a desperate escape. Another being her Scottish great-great-great Grandmother who is unaware of “the brown women with their hands in the soil”.
We then come to the main body of text labelled the “Experiment”. Here we see McWatt take each part of the body and explore how over history racial features are assigned to certain stereotypes. McWatt takes body parts like nose, lips and bones to see if any of the racial stereotypes made a person different – which of course, they didn’t. Most of those myths have been debunked as ways for colonialists to oppress and justify their abuse of power. For instance, a person with a small, petite nose was viewed as more successful and able to be loved.
Likewise, McWatt, being Canadian, gives us a glimpse into plantation history. From 1885-1923 Chinese immigrants had to pay a head tax to enter Canada. Canada only wanted individuals entering who had wealth and could contribute to the economy of the country through labour. And whilst this tax was abolished, prejudiced views regarding migration is ingrained in everyday thought. Attitudes are harder to change than laws.
McWatt fails to find a unique identity from her physical body parts. She has a nose and eyes like everyone else — they do not define her. So what does?
Finally, we conclude with “Findings”. McWatt is now able to understand why she felt conflicted about her race and determines her identity for nobody but herself.
Write your own story
Language is a vehicle for McWatt’s thoughts. Language is power. She was once defined by the language in the classroom and now she has escaped from that to be defined by the stories she chooses. The stories she was told as a child about her heritage are what truly impacted her, not the results of a DNA test. McWatt has chosen to be what her mind desires her to be. That is how she feels most free.
Do we not feel most free when we read a book? Do we not garner new ideas and construct a new part of identity from a character we like? McWatt believes books are more helpful than DNA and she has a point.
Books show the possibility of living itself. “If we can make a new world on the page, surely we can bring them to life”. The imagination does seem to be stronger than the body. Books outlive the author. It is about what you think, the identity you construct in your head, rather than the limited constraints your physical structure puts on you.
A book missing from BLM reading lists
This should be on the Black Lives Matter reading list because firstly it tackles the issue of colourism elegantly. She explores the hidden norms that allow colourism to perpetuate without disregarding other people’s ancestry. Secondly, McWatt does not blame anyone. Of course, she is angry at the people perpetuating the systematic racism, but the blame falls on herself: “Shame on Me”. She had fallen into the system’s trap and was left feeling empty. She let shame suffocate her.
McWatt’s work gives power to the individual. Through insisting that language is the tool to combat confusion of identity, anyone with the ability to create stories surrounding their identity can liberate themselves.
McWatt ends by demanding others to know how to answer this question: “who are you?” The format of her book and the timelessness of her writing allows the reader to conduct their experiment. Whilst she’s in therapy, we’re in therapy. You’re reading to discover who you are and fight for what you discover. You leave the book with a fire burning. All the shame society has piled on top of you goes up in smoke. McWatt provides you an invitation to reclaim your race and belonging.
Graphic courtesy of Katherine Marriott