by Idris Goodwin
“A Preface,” by Idris Goodwin, serves as the actual preface to his 2011 book These Are the Breaks in that it occurs in prose format at the beginning of the book. While it takes on the language of a standard preface, the content satirizes the form with its attack on certainty–in this case, the certainty of the definition of race, and in particular, the definition of black Americans.
The tension propelling the piece forward is realized whenever the audience figures out that they are not meant to actually follow the convoluted and ironic logic that Goodwin is presenting. This occurs, or at least begins to, when Goodwin unleashes a litany of nationalities which would be considered “brown.” The caveat that “you know pretty much the majority of the world are all different variations of the color brown” is one so large that if this were a straight definition of blackness, it would have to pause here much longer. However, he barrels forward, explaining that if biracial people are half the descendent of an African, then they’re still black, and that “biracial works best if you’re like Chinese and Croatian or like Portuguese and Saudi Arabian.” Perhaps when he gets to “biracial” working “best” any lingering doubts that he is satirizing something are gone for the audience, but the target of his satire as well as the message we are to construct are still in question.
Goodwin is also an accomplished playwright, emcee, and performer and his delivery adds an important texture as he continues to build his false definition. The height of his confusing subterfuge is achieved when he points out that there can be “black Puerto Ricans like Roberto Clemente or black Dominicans like Sammy Sosa. They are black brown black brown people. And both baseball players but we’ll get to that later.” The implication that there will be a “later” wherein he will address the baseballness of certain Afro-Latinos posits that in the world of this piece he could go on nitpicking the particulars of race forever. Which to some (for the sake of argument, we will call them “white people”), the point of all of this might be to gesture towards some kind of raceless utopia. “We are one race: the human race” many a white hippy has posted on his Facebook. And at this point in the piece Goodwin could submit to that cultural holocaust, but there seems to be an urgency to be understood underneath the irony. There IS something that is “black” in America, a particular experience and history that can’t be eradicated just because we are all the same species or whatever.
And then at the peak of the ironic and actual confusion comes the illuminating turn:
Now culturally, nationally, ethnically-speaking here’s what I’m saying: by ‘black’ I think I mean brown-skinned Africans and their variants. No, by ‘black’ I mean descendents of stolen people for whom life is a constant improvisation; whose entire rhythm is in constant debate, demand, and duplication; whose mere existence is an atrocious masterpiece.
The vocal rate, inflection, and emotional subtext of Goodwin’s performance help to signal this as the true message. If this were A Modest Proposal it’d be the point in the satire where Swift starts saying exactly what he means in all italics, though neither author betrays their mask (Goodwin maintaining it when he concludes, “By ‘black’ I think I mean: brown?”).
In this volta, Goodwin uses more symbolic language than the rest of the piece, the language of poetry, which for this narrator is the only language that can begin to approach any sort of accuracy when defining black America. The stakes are now revealed that when you are descended from stolen people, every day you run the risk of having your own image and identity stolen again, perhaps by people who would use logic and the soft racism of the dictionary and academic prose to exclude and oppress, separate and diminish. Essentially, if you do not create your own definition of who you are, you must be left with the definition of others, many of whom having proved that they do not have your best interests in mind. Goodwin’s definition includes the duality of his “atrocious masterpiece,” recognizing the shameful origins and violent apparatus of American hegemony that brought black people here and kept their power conditional while also celebrating the essential beauty and survival the black experience has irrevocably added to this country’s identity.