Identity and Resilience, Part Three: My Collegiate Crisis

Okay, so everybody goes through an identity crisis in college, right? These are the formative years, a time of nascent adulthood and three-drink bisexuals.

I’ve been thinking about college not only because my oldest daughter is about to embark on her search for one, but also because of my recent explorations with identity and resilience. It’s been a long time since I figured out who I am—although it hasn’t been all that long since becoming comfortable with certain aspects of what I figured out.

Who and what am I?

Well, I’m mixed-race black and white. I can be shy, I see myself as an extroverted introvert, and I’m a filmmaker, wife, mom, and lover of solitude. These are all aspects of myself that are and were easy to appreciate. I’m also a queer chick who spent about 18 years drinking heavily then stopped (pretty much cold turkey—I’ll save the crazy AA stories for another time).

The heavy drinking, quite honestly, actually helped (for awhile) with the “uncomfortable” part—specifically, being around those of the queer, female persuasion. I came out in 1990 but spent the next many years overcoming this anxiety. Although I came to understand other parts of my identity, my evolution into a shiny, happy lesbian was a slow one.

It all went down (so to speak) in college. It started in a drama class with Anna Deavere Smith and ended with lesbian sex in a passenger’s seat.

It was my senior year at Stanford, 1991. Anna Deavere Smith, who was about to bask in the theatrical limelight of Fires in the Mirror, was teaching a drama class. It was a popular class and I knew it’d be hard to get in, but I showed up to the first session to try my luck. The criteria were simple enough: precedence was given to drama and American studies majors. Everyone else had to provide a convincing argument for being in the class.

We went in a circle, offering hard-hitting and deeply sociopolitical reasons for wanting a coveted spot. “As a Black female,” started one student. Others had similar, self-prescribed labels of identity: Black man, Asian woman, gay male. (Among those who made the cut were Omar Wasow and my friend Alice Wu.)

My answer to the identity question: “I don’t know what I am. I just thought the class sounded interesting.”

So, yeah, I didn’t make it into the class. Right afterward, however, after I wandered out of the drama department in a daze and headed toward The Claw in front of the Stanford Bookstore….I ran into her. She was the unofficial Big Dyke on Campus. Like me, she was mixed-race. We talked for probably four hours about ethnicity, our families and backgrounds, identity, and sexuality.

Cutting to the chase: about a week later I had my first lesbian sex in her car. She interned for the police department and knew the nighttime beat, so we were supposedly safe in the parking lot near the Stanford Museum for the time being. I think Joni Mitchell was playing on the car stereo. (Of course Joni Mitchell was playing on the car stereo.)

I promise I won’t dredge up a fake scandal if she’s ever nominated to the Supreme Court.

And with this—along with my years of heavy drinking—I was brought into and eventually became comfortable in the world of my own skin, at least to the extent that I avoided any major, life-threatening catastrophe. Was it easy? No. Did I make it to the other side with a better understanding of myself (and a new if unfortunate lesbian wardrobe)? Yes.

What I learned from all of this: For anyone going through any sort of identity “crisis,” or any process of bringing into greater focus those things that lead to “me,” it always feels like the first time—not unlike sex in a parked vehicle with a time limit.

In the next and final installment of identify and resilience, I’ll share a few of the finer moments with my now estranged friend, alcohol.

Identity and Resilience, Part Two:
Points of Light

In the last Cinemulatto post I discussed Eartha Kitt’s life-long identity crisis and difficult childhood, and her ability to nonetheless enjoy a successful career. I’ve been fortunate to experience my own level of success and contentment: I consistently got straight A’s until my junior year of high school (when I got a B in math), I was the valedictorian of the Duarte High School class of 1987, I was the first in my family (and I believe city) to go to Stanford University, I’ve been the recipient of multiple creative awards, I have a great job, I’m surrounded by wonderful friends and a tight-knit artistic community, and I have an amazing and loving wife and family. I often describe myself as “blessed”. I also often wonder—because of good fortune, not bad circumstances—why me?

Again, in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, there are a couple of key findings—from years of research in neuroendocrinology and stress physiology—that have changed the way I view certain pivotal moments of my childhood:

  • If a child receives nurturing and emotional attentiveness from a parent or caregiver, particularly during the first year of life, that child is more likely, as an adult, to avoid depression, drug abuse, chronic unemployment, and unsuccessful relationships. Conversely, children whose caregivers respond to their emotional needs during the first year are much more inclined to deal effectively with stress and adversity.
  • Getting a child to think of character not as a set of fixed traits but as something that’s constantly developing and malleable instills confidence and drive in that child.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, my mother was schizophrenic. The first time she was admitted into an institution was in 1965; records I uncovered during my childhood indicated she’d been at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. I don’t recall the dates of her time there, but 1965 was the year of my older brother’s birth. He’s not someone I discuss openly very often, and only to close family and friends. After he faked his death in the summer of 2010, I cut off contact with him. He’s an alcoholic in an abusive relationship who’s never been able to hold down a steady job. He spends his waking hours creating enemies on the message board of a very famous English rock band.

I now realize that there’s no way my mother could’ve provided the nurturing and attention my brother so desperately needed during the first year of his life. My father was also pretty checked out during this time, working long hours at a janitorial job and showing the first signs of his abuse toward my mom. On top of that, my brother’s having to contend with a coming out process during his teen years, the indignities of my father (who called my brother “dummy,” among other things), and the absence of any significant role models all apparently took a lasting toll.

My brother David has wrestled a few demons, for sure, but now he’s living his life mission, doing important work around compassion.

And me? I’m certainly not without my issues. As an adult, I spent ten years in therapy to develop strategies for addressing these issues. Still, I remember the first years of my life as being positive ones, and stories from my aunts throughout my upbringing confirm that my mother was lucid, positive, and loving during the time when I most needed it. She didn’t know what my gender would be before my birth, but after the doctor recommended that she have an abortion due to the health threat, she insisted, “I’m going to have my daughter.”

It was this foundation that created a child, who as a student of Head Start, had the deep confidence that she could run faster than her teacher. When he won the race, I was confused and thought something had gone wrong—not that I had done something wrong or lacked any inherent talent. I went on to be high school league champion in the 300-meter hurdles. In one memorable race, the mile relay, our star athlete was injured, and my coach decided to put a couple of the faster girls in the first two legs to try and gain an early advantage. I ran first. As I approached the 200-meter mark, I thought I’d slow down. Something in me, however, thought, “Speed up.” I gained a wide lead for our team, which was unfortunately lost during the course of the final three legs.

As for constant development, I never lacked positive role models who advised me on character: in addition to my mother, there were teachers, my aunts (“Bad things will happen; it’s how you handle them,” my Aunt Blos told me), relatives, and church members who provided small flashes of hope and insight along the way. I’m no longer affiliated with organized religion, but the effects of the church when I was a child were significant—Sister Mary Esther bringing me a new pair of shoes to replace the one pair I had, or another woman whose name I can’t recall giving me a job cleaning her house when I was in third grade. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Sheehan, was also a member of our church. At one parent-teacher conference (the only one I recall from so many during my childhood), he mentioned to my parents that he saw no reason why I couldn’t go on to attend a four-year college. I didn’t fully understand what this meant at the time, but from that moment on, I wanted to go to college, simply because he said I could.

The sense of importance and purpose that these people and experiences instilled in me all contributed to good grades, will power, a strong desire to escape from my family situation, and an enthusiasm and love of life that I note and appreciate daily. Maybe “blessed” is an appropriate label after all. I’m still not sure. Regardless, I’m grateful for those moments that my mother was able to respond to my emotional needs. I’m thankful she gave birth to the daughter she knew she’d have.


Identity and Resilience, Part One:
Eartha Kitt

My friend Jesse Kerman shared a recent article from the UK Guardian with me that discusses Eartha Kitt’s search for the identity of her white father. “Eartha Kitt’s daughter has revealed that the singer died without knowing the identity of her white father,” the article begins, “after being denied the truth by officials in the American Deep South.” The article goes on to describe Kitt’s discovery of her birth certificate at age 71, only to find that her father’s named had been blacked out.

The story raises the obvious issues of classism, racism, and identity. It also speaks to the nature of resilience; despite being the victim of child abuse and experiencing a life-long identify crisis, Eartha Kitt went on to become a world-renowned singer, political activist, and according to Orson Welles, “the most exciting woman in the world.”

This raised all sorts of questions for Cinemulatto: what was it about Eartha Kitt and significant events in her life that prevented her from succumbing to the effects of poverty, hardship, and an identity crisis? Is resilience a quality, a set of fortunate circumstances, or a complex combination of both? Thinking even more broadly about something close to home, how are children of gay parents who were conceived by a sperm donor and capable of finding the donor at age 18 affected by the years-long wait? And specifically, how will this wait affect my daughters? Do my children have needs that can only be met by some unknown male, and if so what are they?

I know only some of the answers to these questions. I know that my children—who are both mixed-race—aren’t growing up surrounded by abuse, or uncertain of their heritage. I know that lines of communication are gapingly open. In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough explores how persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence all contribute to well-being and success, and the importance of overcoming failure. If her public persona is any indication, these are all qualities that Eartha Kitt possessed. They’re ones my wife and I are trying our best to pass along to our daughters. By all accounts, these qualities were fostered by various adults during the course of my own upbringing, and allowed me to navigate through rough emotional and psychological terrain.

Weighty matters indeed. In the next Cinemulatto post, I’ll map out how resilience worked in my family of origin.

8 Ways My Third World Parents Were More Zero Waste Than You Are

I wanted to write about Florida for this edition of Cinemulatto, but I decided I can’t take any more bad news without feeling a combination of acute depression and intense rage. It’s become too much for me. So, for now I’m going to concentrate on happy things, and consider the complicated topic of people of color and environmentalism (and reference Florida in an indirect way—be sure to click the link).

Breaking it down further—Cinemulatto’s gonna tell you how the early lifestyles of my Jamaican mom and French Creole dad were greener than the bottom of a compost heap.

I know, I know….Louisiana’s not Third World. But a wooden shack with 12 kids in a backwoods swamp certainly is. We can learn so much from Sylvester Breaux’s and Dorothy Newton’s sustainable examples circa the early 1930s.

Here are 8 items that my parents’ working-class generation grew up with. They make Al Gore look like a 6-pack of aerosol hairspray. Remember when this stuff was everyday and not a hip new trend?

  1. Cloth items: handkerchiefs, napkins, diapers. Brawny was, as yet, nowhere near the picture.
  2. Glass containers and household “appliances” (like a glass churn; how did that work?).
  3. Hand-washed clothes, often in a large tin tub or involving a rock.
  4. “Farmers” markets: otherwise known as “the place where my parents’ families bought their food.”
  5. Gardening: a necessity, not a hobby.
  6. Automatic hand-me-downs: in the case of my father, 12 kids = large-scale reducing, reusing, and recycling.
  7. Naturally preserved foods.
  8. The sun: a useful item for such things as drying clothes and maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D. Too bad it’ll burn out in 6 billion years, so good thing it got replaced by food supplements and petroleum.


Ignore the fact that she dated Chris Brown—this half German, half Black model has a tattoo that reads, “Strength is nothing more than how well you hide your pain.” This makes Cinemulatto wonder where the tattoo’s hidden. Naming Jasmine the July 2013 Mulatto of the Month is a happy thing.

10 Lessons from a French Creole

Sylvester and Dorothy Breaux’s Wedding, Compton, CA, September 1962

This year’s Father’s Day has come and gone. I spent a portion of it recalling that I forgave my father three years ago for how shitty he was to my family when I was growing up. He did horrible things—verbally and physically abused my mother; kept a strong, domineering leash on everyone; ruled with an iron fist and a loud voice; and was prone to tantrums and rage. Still, in hindsight and after an inevitable maturation process (and also during a moment of being massively drugged three years ago for a surgical procedure), I recognized moments of kindness I never saw before, moments previously clouded by teenage anger and a reluctance to see any other sides to my father’s personality. He once told me that if he could read and write better and could be anything, he would’ve been an author. He had to live with the daily reality of his family hating him. We never asked how he was doing, or how difficult it must have been for him to have a schizophrenic wife.

Well—at least we appreciated the damn good gumbo he made! Also the awful but highly memorable Zydeco records. Also the dance moves that looked like he was rubbing out spots on the floor with his feet. In other words, there were some pretty cool things I learned from my 6th-grade-educated and sometimes outwardly charming father, Sylvester Breaux.

Here are 10 of them.

  1. Stanford was named after Fred Stanford. When I was accepted to Stanford my dad thought it was funny that a TV show had the same name as my university. Me: “You mean Sanford and Son.” Him: “That’s what I said. Stanford and Son.”
  2. All good words end in c, as in the credic in credic card. Also, bra is pronounced bray, and Home Depot is either French or one of the Marx Brothers (as in DEH-poh).
  3. The best way to divide a cantaloupe for a family of 5 is into 10 pieces. That way each person can have “two each.” I spent years hearing “two each.” I used to hate this. But how sweet is it for a grown man to always get pleasure from equitably slicing a melon?
  4. If you have menstrual cramps, take Tums.
  5. You can make any sentence funny just by adding “to my bed” at the end. Try it. This is not to be confused with “between the sheets.”
  6. Whenever you’re laughing and you’d like to explain to someone what’s so funny, preface it by saying “I’m laughin’.” They’ll have sufficient time to prepare for your whimsical anecdote.
  7. A safe word for gay is funny, as in “your brother’s funny.”
  8. Jamaicans aren’t black. They’re Jamaican.
  9. Instead of turning out the lights on Halloween to indicate you’re not giving out any candy, yell “Ain’t nobody home!” when small, costumed children knock on the door.
  10. Establish your own bank by hiding all earnings inside coat pockets. Avoid checking or savings accounts.


He mostly passed as Cajun, but Sylvester Breaux was mixed with white, black, and Native American. He was born on May 10, 1917, in time to serve as a truck driver in the 2nd world war, but missing Obama become the first black president—my father was staunchly Democrat but oddly racist; our next-door neighbors were always good family friends and were always black. He was an usher at our Catholic church and said his rosary every evening. I asked him once if the Depression was hard on his family and he responded, “Yeah.” (End of conversation.)

Wish you were around for further questioning. This month, we honor you nonetheless.