By B. Root
A spoken-word poet, performing artist, and LGBT activist, Staceyann Chin is a force to be reckoned with. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and on Huffington Post. Chin has appeared on television and radio, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, and PBS, to discuss issues of race and sexuality. Her 2009 memoir This Side of Paradise recounts her experience growing up and coming out in Jamaica. Chin announced in 2011 that she was pregnant with her first child through in-vitro fertilization. In January of 2012, her daughter, Zuri, was born.
I had the opportunity to speak with Chin about identity, politics, and motherhood.
Root: In a recent interview, you discussed how you moved from Jamaica at 24 because it was too difficult to be gay there. Once you relocated to New York City, you said you found the freedom to be a lesbian, but quickly discovered the dissonance of being black in America. What has your experience as a gay woman of Chinese-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican descent been like?
Staceyann Chin: It’s interesting, because when you’re mixed-race—in fact, when you’re a double-minority mixed-race person—when you are in the space with either of those cultural groups, you wear it on you very clearly. So when I’m in the black space, everyone is very aware; everyone can understand in a very clear way that I am not only from black parents. And I think when I’m in a Chinese space, it’s apparent that I’m black.
I think nowhere else is the “one-drop rule” enforced more rigidly than here within the boundaries of the U.S.—especially for black people. So when I came here, I immediately became nothing but black. I think if I were a person whose name was Jones or Smith or Williams—one of those kinds of names that could come from anywhere—I don’t think that anyone would even query my Asian roots. But because I am Staceyann Chin, people always ask, “Where does that ‘Chin’ come from?” I find myself answering that question even though they’re not really asking about [my] Chinese origins; they’re really asking, “How does a black girl bear the name Chin?”
So my name, I think, provokes the conversation more often than anything else. And because [of this], I’m consistently forced to talk about my relationship (or my non-relationship) with my father, or the fact that Jamaica has a strong Chinese cultural presence, or my complicated relationship with being Chinese.
When I was a child in Jamaica, my black mother had abandoned me and my Chinese father had never come forward to claim me. So I was left to my black relatives who had responsibility for caring for me. I grew up knowing that I was something else that I was not connected to. There’s always a longing in me for my Chinese-ness. I longed for my father. I longed for the culture.
I think the question [of my Chinese origins] provoked the conversation inside of me. I wrestled with it when I came here because identity is such a big thing in America; I needed to talk about the parts of me. I was supposed to articulate my Chinese-ness, my gayness, my Jamaican-ness, my blackness, my mixed-race-ness, my immigrant-ness, my woman-ness, my feminist-ness. All of these things I was articulating, and I know that my Chinese-ness has always been problematic in terms of claiming it or holding on to it
When I came here, I became black. I became solidly black in my politics, in my identity, in my cultural claim. So there were two things happening simultaneously: there was a solidification of my blackness that I didn’t have access to in Jamaica because everyone sees me as other—other than black. Coming here, and having that erased within the context of the “one-drop” rule, I became very black.
You have been very open about having your daughter Zuri through in-vitro fertilization. In fact, you recently wrote and performed a biopic play called Motherstruck about your journey to motherhood as a single woman without healthcare or stable finances. What was it like sharing your personal experience with motherhood on such a public platform?
It was so empowering and affirming. Because here I was, thinking that there was a fringe group of women who are doing this kind of like crazy thing of making babies by themselves or buying sperm. But because it’s become the norm for a woman to have a career in most modern cities of the world, we have been putting off getting pregnant for a long time. It’s becoming very normal for women [to join] the workforce in their 20s and spend their 30s working. Early marriage—and even marriage itself—is no longer the norm for so many people, and so “marriage-then-babies” isn’t really happening as much as it used to. So when women find themselves with a desire to have families, they are having to walk the same route I did. And because women are putting off getting pregnant until later, the problem of infertility is becoming a more widespread issue for women.
In the show, I talk about my threatened miscarriage. That’s another silent group of women—and the number is much larger than anyone is talking about—who are miscarrying, and because of the shame of it, they are not talking about it. These are realities. My story is far more common than people have been talking about. I think it was very empowering and wonderful and amazing and affirming and beautiful to sit in rooms where, every evening, I could spot the women who share parts of my story. I could see them holding on to their partner’s hand and weeping more at this part, or tensing up more, or they come to whisper in my ear after the show, “That happened to me, too. Thank you so much for giving voice to it.” It shows that it really struck a chord of universality.
You will be giving the keynote address at the Rainbow Families Conference this year. Held every two years in Washington DC, Rainbow Families provides an opportunity for LGBTQ parents, family members and their children, as well as prospective parents, to gather for a day of learning, networking, and fellowship. What are some things you plan to address in your keynote?
I’m definitely going to tell them how much I found out I don’t know about being a parent. I think that the most helpful lesson I’ve learned is how important it is to not be married to [a preconceived] idea of parenting. You always have some idea about how you think it’s going to be, but you can’t assume anything. It’s just this everyday, unfolding surprise about being a parent, and that teaches you that you have to be able to shift with a situation, and you have to be able to apologize quickly, and you have to be able to stand your ground when you know something’s really good for her and she hates it. All of the normal things that parents are like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this,” I’m finding out that I’m very much a cliché in that way.
You and Zuri have an ongoing video series on YouTube called Living Room Protests, where you both address issues ranging from police brutality to affordable education. In one of your most-viewed videos, you and Zuri speak out to defend Planned Parenthood. What has been the reaction to these conversations you and Zuri have been having?
They have been overwhelmingly positive. But the people, of course, who have been negative have been loudly and viciously so. There are moments when I question, “Am I doing the right thing? Should I be protecting my kid from all of these nasty comments?”
So that’s something I will have to figure out—a negotiated balance with my child as she grows older, because right now I tell her that I’m going to post something and she’ll say, “Fine. Sure.” I imagine that it would be a very different conversation when she’s actually cognizant of what it means for her image to be out in the public space like that. Which brings me back to the thing I said in the beginning: you have to be willing to change should the situation require it, should the child require it. I always tell people that raising a kid is like this grand experiment.
Before I had a kid, I worried that after I got pregnant and I had this life growing inside me that I desired so deeply, that it would compromise my feelings about being pro-choice. But I know that the sacrifices and the change in everything—in my life, in my body, in my thinking, in my ability to feel, in my ability to know—is so deeply affected by my child that it has completely reinforced my belief that a woman should be completely all in before she makes that choice. And she should be allowed to defer if she doesn’t want to become a parent, because the toll is so great. I mean, the joy is so great, but how it changes your life and the scope of that change is so significant that no one should be forced to make that choice, for that woman’s sake as well as the child’s. The unwilling, resentful parent is a disaster for the creation of an unwilling, resentful adult.
With Mother’s Day coming up this month, do you and Zuri have any big plans?
I don’t know if she has any plans. Maybe she’s keeping them secret. Every Mother’s Day, something arrives in the mail that says “From Zuri,” but I suspect she either has people who are helping her or they’re acting on her behalf. Things arrive in the mail, and it’s wonderful because I don’t have any family, really. I don’t have a mom or siblings or an extended family that is present with me. So my fans—I don’t want to call them fans, [but rather] the people who believe in the work I do—show up in this amazing way. Maybe at least half of the gifts that came to us when Zuri was born came to us from people who I probably hadn’t even met yet, or people who I had only met online. That stands as a testament to the power of belonging to a global community. You know, you talk about belonging. For the girl who felt like she didn’t belong to all these different groups that she had a right to be included [in], she certainly now belongs to this global army of activists and progressive thinkers and radical feminists and anti-racist workers.