Detail from Synecdoche by Byron Kim, a series of oil paintings that are “portraits” of racial identity.
As we all know, Rachel Dolezal was by no means the first white American to take on aspects of African-Americanness in her persona — calling Elvis, is anybody home?. . . But blackness has always been an integral part of American identity, and has only grown more so with the passage of time (think of white-rap pop star Eminem and black President of the United States Barack Obama for two recent mirror-image examples), so that for any American, it’s nearly impossible not to take on some degree of Afritude without even trying.
Do you agree?
But for all her efforts at “crossing the line,” including attending Howard University, changing her name, and becoming an official of the NAACP, [Rachel] Dolezal might not merit the crown from the all-time champion of race-crossing. That honor still and forever may belong to jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1899. . . . Milton Mesirow fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, learned to play clarinet and saxophone well enough to become their peers if not their equals, and determined that the only way he could really be a jazz musician and interest the white world in jazz was to “become black.” So he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, adopted a “jazz jive” lingo, and declared himself a “voluntary Negro.” . . . what separated the colorful Mezz Mezzrow from a host of other white musicians playing black music was that “in his belief that through his immersion in African American musical culture and his participation in the life of the black community in Harlem, he had definitively ‘crossed the line’ that divided white and black identities.”
Can race — or, more accurately, racial identity — be fluid, just as gender is said to be fluid? In art, can the artist perform another identity? Can s/he even become another identity?
The dancer on the left is a man. Not a transwoman, but a self-identified man who is attempting to make a career dancing female roles in ballet. Read more here.
On the other hand, this baritone, born male and singing male roles in opera, is a self-identified (trans) woman.
Is identity — racial, sexual, gender, ethnic, religious, etc. — something that can be performed? Does the artist get to choose his/her/their own identity, at least in performance?
Adele singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The Queen singing it (the song’s composer, Carole King — a Jewish girl from Brooklyn — is in the audience, along with a few other people you may recognize).
What do you think?