I never thought the one-drop rule affected me personally until I read David Matthews‘ memoir, Ace of Spades.

The one-drop rule is a phenomenon of American slavery. It determined who was black and who was not. In brief: If you have as little as one drop of “black blood” in your ancestry, you were considered black. If you were half black, you were black. Looked at the other way: If you were half white, you were black. It damned African Americans if they did and damned them if they didn’t.

At its core, Matthews’ 2007 memoir is about a youth spent “passing” as white — and the serious and obvious questions the social phenomena raises about the metaphysics of race and the paradox of racial identity — while coming to terms with the price he paid for abandoning his heritage and family.

“I was not a racist; I was a hater. I hated the netherworld in which I found myself, the one that tacitly reassured me that it would shun, relegate, fear and ignore all of me if I acknowledged half of me. Half-black, eighth-black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon — all meant black.

I have five aunts who married black men. Four on my mother’s side I never got to know well, nor did I know their children, my cousins. On my father’s side was Margie. She married Jerry. They had three boys and girl. I grew up with them. I went to church with them. We ate Sunday dinners together and played in our grandfather’s apple orchards together. We knew each other. We were blood relatives.

Yet in my childhood, my entire family, even I suspect Margie and Jerry, thought of my cousins as black.

Warren, Douglas, Phillip, and Bathsheba are as white as I am. But such is the perniciousness of American racial pathology — the unconscious yet ubiquitous application of the one-drop rule — that I came to understand my own kin as the Other. Their blood was my blood, yet they were black, not white.

They were seen to be different from us even though they were the same. Race in America, as it was the case in my family, has always been either/or. With us or with them. One thing or the other. Never both. A throbbing paradox. I hope my white family had no intention to privilege one race. I’m certain my “black” family members themselves didn’t. Even so, are we, all of us, guilty? Yes, I’m afraid we are.

The paradox is not easily understood. Matthews (not to be confused with the musician Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band) spent much of his adult life trying to understand the either/or — not white, not black, somewhere in the middle, a place that no one understands, a rock and a hard place. Even so, American history is rife with our inability to tolerate racial ambivalence. As Matthews writes:

“I was David Ralph Matthews,” he writes. “That had been as far a depth as I’d ever needed to plumb. Those first few moments in the hallway [of a new elementary school] had alerted me to the importance they (and to a larger extent, America) place on white or black. Pick one.”

Many have written about what W.E.B. Du Bois called in 1897 black America’s “double consciousness“:

“The Negro 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.”

Like I said, many have written about it. But I’ve never seen the paradox of double consciousness expressed in theatrical form the way that Marc Bamuthi Joseph did with the break/s, which ended a mere three-show run at the Spoleto Festival USA over the weekend. Like Amistad, it cut to the quick of the American soul. But unlike Amistad, it’s fresher and far more touching.

Joseph calls the break/s a hip-hop play. On its surface, it’s reflection on the history, nature, and identity of hip-hop as a musical genre. Beneath that veneer, though, the break/s is a monologue that uses hip-hop as a vehicle for understanding the role of race in America and the role of race in Joseph’s life.

the break/s looks at the general vis-a-vis the specific. It addresses the broad strokes of the macrocosm while recounting the vicissitudes of the microcosm. Like Walt Whitman singing the song of himself, Joseph is really singing the song of all Americans. Just as I was unaware of perpetuating racial pathology, all of us have been affected by the metaphysics of race, even if we’re not conscious of it.

Joseph’s ancestry is mixed. His grandmother was Haitian, his father’s family descendants of slaves. His child was born of a Chinese woman. His wife is white. The first African American he even met, he says, was a white woman born in Texas who spent most of her life in Senegal trying to convince tribal leaders to stop butchering their teen-aged daughters with female circumcision.

The dominant and recurring theme of the break/s is the aching and universal question — who am I?

“I’m trying to love without crossing over.”

“I’m stuck in-between.”

“I have to chose love over identity.”

“I chose my black ego over love.”

Joseph takes us through the geography of racial experience and the lessons he learns there. In Africa, where he expects to reconnect with his roots, he learns that, compared to the values and customs of real Africans, he’s not really African. In Japan, where he expects to be a source of black American authenticity, he learns that, amid race-blind Japanese hip-hop aficionados, he’s not really authentic.

So who is he?

the break/s is among the most innovative bits of theater I’ve ever seen. Accompanied by a DJ and drum kit, Joseph, a nationally recognized poet, spoken-word artist, dancer, and stage actor, recounts his experiences in poetry punctuated by street dancing and three video screens that serve as a Greek chorus of sorts underscoring his narrative points and emotions.

The real achievement of the break/s, however, is its ability to evoke empathy without evoking pity. Joseph is no more a victim than my cousins were victims. Instead, our gifted MC, like writers Matthews and Du Bois, gives voice to what it’s like to exist in world that forces individuals to choose a racial identity even when the options — white, black, other — don’t wholly express the totality of who they are.

the break/s reveals the limits of our understanding and the damage wrought, however unconsciously, by our misunderstanding. It evokes the pathos felt by a man facing a problem that up to now seems to have no solution. No matter how tragic this double consciousness may be, though, Joseph remains hopeful.

“I am an American on the edge,” Joseph says at the end. “Don’t push me, because I’m close. I’m trying.”

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