The Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s 2012 Every Person Is a Philosopher Annual Benefit is just around the corner on June 7! Our featured speaker will be Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the New York Times Bestseller Wench. For the first time ever, we’re hosting a virtual book club in the weeks leading up to the event! Each Wednesday we’ll be posting a piece from the Journal of Ordinary Thought related to themes in Wench, along with discussion questions for the book. Make sure to read last week’s book club questions and a guest post from Dolen Perkins-Valdez launching the book club. And, if you’re new to NWA, read about who we are here.

Today, we’re going to read “Color” by Ranis Thomas from “Lessons Outside,” the Summer 2007 issue of JOT.

Ranis Thomas

What is color?
Color is a figment of our imagination.
It may blind us if so dark,
and brighten us with its true light.

Color is my brown skin that shows my
true self and my culture.
Not the act of hating my opposite
purple, blue, or maybe white.

It’s all the same, no matter what you say.
Just because your house is bigger than mine,
doesn’t mean your color is different.
Just because your father is richer than mine,
doesn’t mean your color is better.

Think about it!
Talking about your sister’s color is worse than fighting
your worst enemy.
Make a decision.
Either we love or hate.

Color will never disappear.
Wherever we travel,
wherever we go,
and wherever we hide.
There’s no way of running away from it.

Like the clouds that float over our heads every day.
Like looking at the colors of friends’ eyes who speak with kindness.
Like the lake that drifts upon us.

 Accepting the beauty of color is accepting life.
Without that feeling, there is no feeling.
Touch the variety of textures and worlds,
and human society will no longer hurt each other, because of color.

1. In “Color” Ranis describes color as “a figment of our imagination,” but also says that “color will never disappear/ wherever we travel, / wherever we go / and wherever we hide.” Which view of (skin) color do you think Wench operates under? The permanency of color is particularly important to the characters in Wench; Lizzie worries about her daughter’s ability to “pass” as white, and the women who run know that even in free country, their dark color will be cause suspicion. Are these practical concerns about negotiating freedom, or do they represent a broader worldview?

2. If Dolen Perkins-Valdez writes about color and race as an unavoidable practical concern in Wench, in what ways does the novel also demonstrate the view that “color is a figment of our imagination?”

3. Lizzie worries about her unusually dark skin for a “wench,” and upon meeting Mawu and seeing her red hair, asks almost immediately if she has white ancestry. Even today, lighter versions of dark skin are considered favorable or more beautiful. Though the women exhibit varying degrees of pride in their own race, do you think they experience pride because they have been chosen by their masters as lovers? Do you think it is significant that none of the women in the book have an important romantic relationship with a black man? What does that say about the kind of power, not just physical and emotional, but also cultural, that the white men have?

4. Physical appearance and appearance in general is an important theme throughout the book, as the women try not to act like slaves and dress like free folks when they can. Lizzie, the most central character, is in particular sensitive to the impression that speech and writing creates. She brings up her own ability to read and write in every situation in which it is safe to do so, and is proud of her own ability, and her son’s, to speak like a white person. Do you think this judging based on speaking and education is different or similar to the way physical and racial characteristics are judged? How? Why?

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  • dee johnson

    I’ve yet to read “Wrench,” but the questions above are provocative. I can only summarize my thoughts after reading the question…

    The issues of race (e.g., the noticeable differentiations in color and unavoidable biological determinants) will–in my opinion–be forever a source of tension and/or ease intersected by environmental and familial determinants that impact or act upon what began as a blank slate–life. Race is a book of endless chapters and the experience of race upon a life–irregardless of the race or the era–will never be told the same way twice. Relationships in any context has the potential to be conflictual, subversive and compelling. Slavery and post-modern slavery share elements of its deleterious effects on the victim.