April 8, 2002
| MARGARET WARNER: The
book is "Brown: The Last Discovery of America." It's described by
its author as the final book in a trilogy on American public life as seen
through his life. That author is NewsHour essayist Richard Rodriguez.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's take the title "Brown." Now, on its own most obvious level, it refers to skin color, but to you it's a metaphor for much more.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. I don't even see myself necessarily as brown, though probably people see me that way. I see brown as the mixture of colors. If you let... if the child leaves the Crayola box out in the summer sun, the child gets a very rich brown as a result. It's red and green and black mixed together. It's every color mixing together. For me, it is... when I speak of the brown in America, of America, I mean the mixing of all of us. It is not my particular color I'm speaking about in this book. I mean to exclude no one in this book. That's why so much of its preoccupation is with my relationship to African Americans, for example -- my relationship to other people.
MARGARET WARNER: You... on one level, it seemed to me this book did look at this experience through your experience, though, and there's a passage I'd like you to read about your growing up in Sacramento in the '50s. Maybe you could just read that.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Yes. This is quite early. "A boy named Buddy came up beside me in the school yard. I don't remember what passed as prologue, but I do not forget what Buddy divulged to me. 'If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stand back.' It was as though Buddy had taken me to a mountaintop and show me the way things lay in the city below. In Sacramento, my brown was not halfway between black and white. On the leafy streets on the east side of town where my family lived, where Asians did not live, where Negroes did not live, my family's Mexican shades passed as various. We did not pass for white. My family passed among white, as in one of those old cartoons where Clara bell the cow goes shopping downtown and the mercantile class of dogs does not remark her exception. As opposed to Amos and Andy, whose downtown was a parallel universe of no possible admixture."
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying you felt invisible?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In some sense, certainly in the years in which I was growing up, brown had no significance in America. This was a black-and-white country. And, in some sense, there was a freedom in that. There was also this sense that you didn't matter in the great American discussion, that your brownness was not the point of America. My particular brownness, of course, is so complicated because I come... my parents come from Mexico and the great brownness of Mexico is the mixture of the Indian and the conquistador, the Spanish and the Indian. That's a very brown country because it recognizes these two different colors, these two different crayons, within its own reality. In America, you were one thing or the other, and it was that difference-- that I had a mixture to me-- in a country that did not talk of mixture. It was so peculiar. I had no way within the mythology of America.
MARGARET WARNER: Didn't you say that when you got to college, for you and for all Hispanics, you ceased to be invisible, at least in political terms. What did that mean for you?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, for me, it meant that I became part of a numerical mass. Hispanics were suddenly announced by the Richard Nixon Administration, were suddenly announced as the new... as a new minority; Asians, also, at that time. We were suddenly... there was suddenly these new colors -- not simply white, black, but also red, yellow, brown. Most Americans to this day, though, regard Hispanics as a race. They miss our point. We are not a race. Most of us are of mixed races, and some of us are white and some of us are black, and so all the ways we have of talking about us as a group are wrong because they misunderstand our significance in the life of the country. We represent a new force, a new way of entering the American imagination.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you say that America to this day still doesn't know how to think about brown and how to think about Hispanics?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, I think that's right. I think we're still at a very early stage, but clearly something is going on. I think, for example, just to speak as a journalist-- NAFTA represents the beginning of an admission within the United State-- a country that has been traditionally between an East-West country, beginning its history on the East Coast, moving chapter after chapter westward. We are beginning to see ourselves now as a North-South country, beginning to realize that we are related to Canada-- a country we barely understand, this white vacancy-- and to Mexico, this brown mass that we understand all too well. And we are beginning to realize that we have some connection to the North and to the South, to hot and to cold. These are new borders in our imagination. And they suggest to me that brown is very much the color of the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also write about your search through all your years as a writer to discover what your brownness or your Hispanicity meant to you as a writer. You have a line saying, "I have, throughout my writing life, pondered what a brown voice should sound like." What do you mean?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, part of the problem with this is that, you know, the presumption was that I knew what a black voice was. What was a brown voice, or for that matter, what was a white voice? This large question that looms over the book is what exactly does it mean to write brownly? And what I discovered in the course of writing this book... and one of the reasons I write this as a literacy performance, literary essays-- not sociology, not op- ed pieces for The New York Times, but as this literacy performance; dense, baroque even-- is that I'm looking for a way to write brownly.
And for me, "brown" means that we engage all the issues of our lives, that the issues of contradiction, the sense of irony that we have about our lives, the sense of inconsistency in our lives. I'm not only Hispanic, but I'm also, as I say in this book, a gay Catholic. I'm a homosexual man who also belongs to a church that regards homosexuals as essentially committing the sin of vanity with their love. I'm also... I belong to two civilizations. By birth and by ancestry, I belong to the Spanish empire. By citizenship, I belong to the English empire, and these contrary impulses within me that play on my imagination. That... it seems to me to write brownly is to admit that all of this confusion in a life belongs within the life, and that I should see my life as a whole rather than... a brown whole rather than as pieces.
MARGARET WARNER: And you resent, at the same time, being typed or categorized as an Hispanic writer or Latino writer.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Oh, I have to. I mean, I owe my existence to so many other influences. The notion that you would find me on a bookshelf somewhere far in the corner with other Hispanic writers denies that the writers who shaped me, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin... those writers... I want to be on a shelf with them. I want to belong with them. I want to write in a voice that continues their tradition. I'm very proud of this book in the sense that, you know, I don't know whether there are readers anymore for a book this... this dense, this literary, but in some way, I'm writing not for the future, I'm writing to line this experience up with the books that created me, to line it up with the past, in a sense. Do you know what I mean? I'm trying to glamorize this experience of brownness but also to give it its stature in America, this unspoken story of what it is to be brown. Not as the story of Richard Rodriguez, but as the story of someone who begins to see America as an impure experience and ... it glorifies that experience.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Richard.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Margaret.