Janet Stickman re: Amerasian identity (Filipina and African American)
Interview by Rainjita Geesler
1 Disc, Track 1, 41:33
RAINJITA: Janet is a high school teacher in Richmond California and she’s a spoken-word artist and also an author who has just published her memoir ‘Crushing Soft Rubies.’ You present a deep part of yourself, your personal transformation around who you are. Being Filipina and African American you represent a lot of people who are mixed-race in America. What does this mean to be mixed-race in America?
JANET: It’s been great. It’s been a rocky one. I think the most popular question I get with regards to being biracial is ‘that must have been confusing.’ And I’d hate to think that us, as multi-racial, biracial people that were destined for this lifelong journey of confusion that in the end, I can’t say that, it’s still in process. I can say that I have learned so much about the complexity of race and race relations just by looking at how things operate on my mom’s side, the Filipino side and on my dad’s side, the black side, and where I fit in and where I didn’t fit in on both sides. It’s been a challenge but at the same time I’ve become comfortable with being both fully all the time every single day instead of at several times in my life, fragmented. I can only experience this side of myself when I’m in the presence of these folks, and vice versa.
RAINJITA: In your memoir I could see the identity crisis. It is real and it’s hard to find where we belong. Talk about the experience of being with part of your family who sees you as other.
JANET: Growing up, after my mom died I had spent the three years between the time I was 15 and 18, living with my mom’s side of the family, so it didn’t become obvious that I was not fully accepted until a few months into living with them. I didn’t feel it so much from my aunt and uncle but I felt it mostly from their children, where various comment s were made with respect to finding my hair in the bathtub. They were completely disgusted by it. Whereas when I went into the bathtub there was all this straight black hair and they were never abhorred by that. And there were comments, at the time I had straightened my hair and they would make comments like oh you’re so pretty now, you don’t even look black. And immediately after that I felt I’m not going to straighten my hair anymore if it means a perceived whiteness that seemed to be what came across when I did straighten my hair. As far as my dad’s side, I would visit them mostly during Christmas and thanksgiving and nothing was ever blatantly said but I would get comments regarding how I spoke. Like if I called the house, if I called and asked for my brother the children would say Charles isn’t here. Thinking I was a bill collector but not thinking I was his sister. It was a challenge and still is. I think one of the barriers when I look at the black side of the family is being one of the few who has gone through a college education and it makes me look at what I have turned into, by virtue of that education, and it takes a lot of self-reflection to figure out is what they’re seeing really accurate or am I my own person with regard to how they see me.
RAINJITA: Promo for bookstore. Talk about the title of your book and how you wrote it.
JANET: As far as the title, it came from a line from one of my poems when I was talking about my mom and I crushing cans in the park, we used to do this when I was, about 7th to the 9th grade and talked about us, mostly her, crushing her dignity beneath her feet, crushing our hearts, squeezing out the dignity and selling them for 40 cents a pound, was the complete line. And when I finished the book I was trying to figure out what would be a good title that would sum up the entire text but also my entire life and I thought of that line. When I think of soft rubies, I think of our hearts, well, specifically my heart and how it’s been crushed by several tragedies, by losing mom, losing dad, house burning down way before then, but in spite of that, rubies, when you crush a ruby it smashes into several pieces, each of those pieces is still resilient, each is still brilliant, each is still strong. So it’s I guess a way to see my heart as becoming strong but by the crushing can be shared with several people. So there you have crushing soft rubies.
RAINJITA: As an orphan at a young age. How did you come to write the book?
JANET: How did I come to write the book? Around ’97 or ’98. ’98 is when I first started writing poetry, and it was maybe a few months after I started writing poetry that I began to get the audacity to think that I could write a book. I was beginning to find my voice, finding confidence in that voice, and I was able to release so much through the poetry that I started thinking if I had an even longer text and not just restricted to a poem that was one, two pages long who knows how therapeutic it could be, who knows how many other people I could reach with a text. So I believe it was around 2000 was where I officially began. It was during the summer. I pumped out a draft and several people asked me what I had done that summer and I said I wrote the first draft of my book and several people looked at me like I was crazy, especially people who were in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, looking at someone, at the time I was 27 when I started, they looked at me like what can you write about? There were blatant comments made and it did bother me, but I looked at them and said I have a story. I have a very important story to tell. And not just for my sake but for the sake of other people that are also going through similar experiences, whether it be being biracial or losing two parents, and feeling alone. If there’s something I can do to help people to not feel alone, to not feel isolated, then I’ll do that little bit and that’s how the book came about.
RAINJITA: Why did you write it?
JANET: Several reasons. Some of it had to do with wanting to take all these memories and put them on paper to put them behind myself, a sense of closure, because I had a tendency to hold on to all this stuff, hold on to the stories in my head and not move forward from it, so one of the purposes would be to begin to move forward, but also to, like I mentioned before, to encourage to help other people that biracial or were orphans to not feel alone. Not feel isolated. But also for those same groups to begin to write their own stories. It was frustrating, I’d seen a few stories along these lines but I’d never been fully satisfied with them so I wanted to write my own as a way to create a space for other people to feel that their own stories were important. They didn’t have to be these glamorous sorts of stories but it’s us normal folk who can tell our stories and they’re just as important as XYZ celebrity.
RAINJITA: You lost parents at a very young age. What has your mother represented to you since she has passed?
JANET: Mom still guides me. I can really feel her presence. I constantly talk to her and introduce her in my mind and through prayer and through spirit introducer her to all the people who I’m meeting as I continue to live. Is see her as the woman who provided the foundation for me to be confident, to multi-task. Through mom putting me in diving and swimming and tap dancing and roller-skating, all these different things. It’s no wonder that now I’m not scared to try anything even if it means not being an expert or a master in it, just believing that I could possibly be good at something if I give it a chance . I believe that spirit, that seed she planted still remains with me with everything I do between teaching and working on the second master’s and with writing and relationships with friends and with my husband and everything.
RAINJITA: And your father?
JANET: My father is the one who gives me strength and hope and a lot of joy. I remember my father was very upbeat and whenever he met strangers or acquaintances or even when he hooked up with his friends he was always lighthearted, always had a smile, and I think I’ve inherited that from him, that sense of joy, and that remains with me. I try my best even if things are not that great. Not that I’m going to be fake and have a smile all the time, but I literally have a sense of joy just in my daily life. And that’s something that has not always been the case. So now that it feels genuine it’s like oh my god, I’m going to hold on to this.
RAINJITA: How do you identify?
JANET: I identify as a Filipino-African American woman. I rarely say I’m half-black, half-Filipino. I like to maintain the idea that I’m fully both at the same time. That I can’t shut one off and turn the other one on or anything like that. Although I do know that depending on the context, I know that when it comes to sense of humor I do know what’s appropriate when I’m with the black community, I know what’s appropriate when I’m with the Filipino community. ways of speaking that are intuitive, that aren’t just mannerisms that I throw on and take off but it’s just simply a part of my being that becomes natural when I go in and out of those contexts.
RAINJITA: Looking back, when you think about identity, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
JANET: I’d say losing mom, that was a very big challenge. I literally had no idea how I could live without her. When I in retrospect I look at all these experiences in awe because just how depressed I was as a child and not as a child, as a teenager and in different various times throughout college, it’s a wonder that I’m experiencing total and complete, genuine goy. So that was very difficult to get through. It was also difficult to lose m y father. That that was an official marker that I was an orphan. It wasn’t just sad for that sake but who was my safety net now? Even though he was in the nursing home, there was a sense that I still have dad. So that was painful. I guess the third one was getting through college and having the whole idea of I can make it, I’m going to graduate, having that self-taught get challenged being on academic probation. Sitting in class, being completely confused, and it didn’t have, it wasn’t so much the idea of the grades themselves or being on academic probation, it meant something larger. This serious failure with not understanding my homework and with getting an F on an exam, all these other issues I didn’t deal with began to snowball. It was I knew I could never graduate because mom died. I knew this could never become mom’s dream or dad’s dream. It just became so much more, so much deeper than just the problem itself. It began to have these other wounds resurface.
RAINJITA: When you were a teenager trying to make friends, how were you accepted or not?
JANET: With peers and high school…Or they just can’t figure you out and it disturbs them so much that they can’t put you in a box. When I transferred to a different high school when my mom died, that was right around my junior year, I was not… I can say this for a large portion of my life I was not active in making friends. It was do what you’re supposed to do, get your homework done, go to track practice, go to band rehearsals, whatever friends you make are the friends you make. For some reason that system had worked and I still use that to a certain degree as an adult. I don’t try to hard to be accepted, I really try to focus on accepting myself and being comfortable with myself. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t people that definitely were racist and were either blatant about it or just were really backhanded about it. I’m trying to think…I’d say during college, with people not so much friends but I would say acquaintances I would get comments like wow, you’re a really nice black person, I can talk to you and you don’t get mad. I can really open up and talk to you. And they would expect me to take this as a compliment which frightened me and pissed me off. It really infuriated me. No matter how many times you would try to explain they wouldn’t get it why something like that would be offensive. And things like your hair being straight, oh you look so pretty, and I see the advantage of being light-skinned. And all right, it’s the Filipino blood that’s making me light skinned and let’s say attracting black men. And the premium tends to be placed on the lighter-skinned black woman as opposed to the darker-skinned. And oh you’re so sophisticated and so well spoken and all of that, that you can’t just. It makes it difficult to just be Janet. I like being kind. I like being articulate and whatever. But the thing is I can’t just have these qualities without something extra put on it. Usually racist misconceptions shaping all of it. And not to say I’m one of those folks who embraces why can’t we all just be human and ignore race. I am just the opposite. Because it is good to see the differences between the ethnic communities and to ignore it would oversimplify the various issues that need to be looked at good and bad.
RAINJITA: How have you brought the two pieces together?
JANET: I think through writing and constantly reminding myself that I’m both. Whether it be poetry or through the book, just a constant reminder that I am both. So there’s that in one respect. On another level it’s making sure that I’m constantly in the presence of other people of color in general but specifically grounded in a Filipino community, grounded in the black community so I still have those roots there. As far as how they become connected, really they become connected really in my spirit, in my way of being. It’s difficult to explain. Sometimes I find myself doing two or three times the work because I want to make sure I stay in touch with both sides but also with making sure I’m in the presence of other people who are mixed-race. Because the idea of being in between, some of those ideas the feelings, can only be shared with those who also feel in-between. But I don’t’ want to restrict myself to one community so I make a substantial effort making sure my foot is in everything. It takes a lot of energy. But like I mention at the end of the book, I feel at home in several places so it’s important to make sure I visit those different homes. Which takes a lot of energy, takes a lot of gas, however you want to view it. But it’s necessary, it keeps my spirit alive.
RAINJITA: A bridge-walker. Tiring.
JANET: I remember somebody, it might have been Gloria Zaldua, saying if you’re a bridge you get walked on from both sides. And there are wonderful, positive things about being a mix but you do experience being walked on and being that bridge, and it’s not a comfortable position.
RAINJITA: Does APEX outtro & promo.
JANET: Thank you for having me. www.brokenshackle.org. they can purchase the book and a CD of my book at that website.
RAINJITA: Did you bring any poetry? Any that deal with mixed race?
JANET: Yes, I do.
LOOKS FOR POEM
JANET: I was never completely comfortable with some of my black sisters and brothers because I was insecure about my own blackness. I was never sure if I was black enough. Often in the presence of other black people I felt I had to compete with them. This competitiveness took its origin in being the sole black person in most of my social and academic circles. I learned to gain great satisfaction by being by default the expert, the position expected of me by non-blacks in my company. Many of these folks that I hung out with were the same people who tried using black slang, acting animated around me, and deeming me the nice black person they could talk to, and addressing me as ‘sistah’ because they thought that was how they could effectively relate to me, since I was a black woman. And I just dismissed it all. My need to compete could be traced to my choice to separate myself from other blacks as early as the second grade. In elementary school I noticed some of my black classmates who didn’t do their homework or got in trouble and made the decision not to associate with them so I wouldn’t be labeled as ‘bad.’ I subconsciously put on the shroud of the ‘good Negro’ which later evolved into an official uniform that helped me to assume the leverage to judge all my sisters and brothers according to how they spoke, whether or not they smiled, how they dressed, and whether or not they were formally educated. I never knew that I was using the same standards of judgment, of condemnation, that some whites, Asians, and Latinos used to judge us. The more that I became aware of what I didn’t know and the connection I didn’t have with my peoples, the more difficult it was to learn what I was missing. What was holding me back? Embarrassment clung to every admission I made to not knowing my cultural histories. If other Filipinos discovered I didn’t know who Lapulapu was, I knew I’d be judged. I’d embarrass myself if I began spending time at the Black Student Union and people discovered I didn’t know who Angela Davis or Markus Garvey or Korenga were. To save myself the public embarrassment I avoided these circles, and never placed myself in situations where I was a learner of my own cultures. I feared being vulnerable to criticism.
This is a part taken from this is primarily my second year in college so this is around 1992. Around 92, 93. So it took a while to actually come to a lot of these admissions and to publicly just to put them on paper is a little bit embarrassing but at the same time I think there are a lot of important things to be said that a lot of folks find it hard to admit to.
RAINJITA: Those things make us humble. Let me put that at the beginning. REINTRO Do you have any poems?
JANET: I have one here I just have to find it. One that does deal primarily with mixed race. It’s in here, where is it?
Did you want me to read the whole thing?
RAINJITA: Maybe introduce yourself first and the name of the poem.
JANET: My name is Janet Stickmon. This particular piece is…I’m Janet Stickmon and this particular piece is called Your Personal Prophet.
READS ‘YOUR PERSONAL PROPHET’
RAINJITA: Thank you. I have this release form…