Why You Should Read “Swirl Girl, The Coming Of Race In The USA”, By TaRessa Stovall

By Nancy Burke

“Swirl Girl, the Coming of Race in the USA” by TaRessa Stovall is your first step in learning what it is like to walk through the world as a child, teen and woman whose ethnic identity is not immediately discernible; to live with the relentless scrutiny of your skin, hair and features by just about anyone you meet; and to be continuously subjected to the question, What are you?

Stovall’s father was a Black man. Her mother, a Jewish woman. In Stovall’s memoir, “Swirl Girl,” she describes the different perspectives each of her parents had regarding how their mixed-race children should navigate the wider world. Stovall and her brother internalize the two views they learned from their parents, and as life goes on, each embraces what works for them and sheds those attitudes that do not serve. Stovall’s loving but conflicted response to each parent’s belief about who she should be and which sides of herself she should put front and center are beautifully rendered with the inherent complexity involved in her coming of age. 

We learn it’s not so easy outside of the home where the messages are numerous, varied, and often exclusionary. Stovall describes the lack of acceptance she experienced from both white students at her ‘integrated’ high school and from Black students at a Black Student Union meeting where they sent her packing for not being Black enough. Society is habitually cruel to those it perceives as the “other,” and Stovall recalls being treated as the “other” throughout her youth.

Stovall also includes information from the U.S. Census as a footnote to each chapter, explaining how each decade brought new changes in racial and ethnic classifications, and how attitudes shifted surrounding these demarcations. This alone is eye opening. It indicates our failure as a people (even the language here is inadequate to this task of racial identification) in a united nation. We are not a single ‘people’ as Americans. We are a collection of distinct peoples all flying the American flag and claiming this our country and home. Stovall points out that these census forms reflect the inability of our society to define a space for people of mixed ethnic background. No wonder she swirled in confusion, uncertainty and frustration in finding an identity that both felt true to herself and could easily be conveyed to and accepted by her world. Still, she was and is a powerful presence, and this book offers us as an example of how the flawed world can’t keep a strong woman down.

Several years ago, I helped a young man with his college application essay, in which he too wrote about this What are you? question. His answer included a long list of cultures and individual ancestor’s homelands and backgrounds, and he enjoyed the inability of the questioner to muster a response or to classify him in whatever value system they had operating internally. Yes, cultural background is important, our ancestors deserve the honor of recognition of their blood in us, but the distinctions of difference among us have attached to them a long list of assumptions related to class, intellect, morality and more that we as individuals and as a society must shed if we’re all ‘going to just get along’ because ‘people are just people’ as Stovall’s mother suggested. Or, are we? See what Stovall has to say about this.

While this may feel less urgent than other pressing racial issues, as we see the response to the senseless murder of George Floyd by the police, our need to firmly label people racially is embedded within a system of prejudice and injustice, and it needs to be purged from our collection of ‘unwoke’ habits of heart and mind. Stovall encourages us to do this, using her own self as the subject of scrutiny, and inviting us to share in the result.

Her experience with white groups and individuals as well as Black groups and individuals suggests that the level of trust we give to someone is largely a result of “what” we think they are racially. If we are ever to eliminate the injustices of our society, we must as individuals eliminate the injustice at this personal level of assumption and prejudice. We know that in the hands of the police, labeling and stereotyping quickly turns to murder.

Perhaps we need to shed, not the question What are you?, but the rapid flood of assumptions that arises when we are given an answer. I encourage you to start with TaRessa Stovall’s memoir and consider her perspective. Stovall rightfully points a finger and asks readers, “What can you do about this?” You are going to have to read “Swirl Girl” to discover what Stovall has done about it. 

Nancy Burke is author of ‘From the Abuelas’ Window’ (2006), ‘If I Could Paint the Moon Black’ (2014) and her forthcoming novel, ‘Only the Women are Burning’ (Apprentice House Press, 2020). Her short story, “At the Pool” is a finalist in the 2020 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. Her short fiction “He Briefly Thought of Tadpoles” appeared in Meat for Tea and “The Last Day” appeared in Pilgrim: A Journal of Catholic Experience. She was born and bred in New Jersey, in a large Irish family. Her most joyful undertaking: successfully raising her three daughters. Her passion: writing. To learn more about Nancy’s life and work, visit: http://www.nancyburkestories.com 

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