black/Maybe by Roberto Carlos Garcia
Willow Books, 2018. 68 pp.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
Part history lesson, part memoir, and part love letter, Roberto Carlos Garcia’s black/Maybe: An Afro Lyric explores identity, belonging, and race with grace and frankness. In the opening essay, Garcia paints a broad portrait of home that includes housing projects and suburbs, a grandmother’s apartments, a rooming house, and “cracked and crooked sidewalks forming patterns like neurons.” In this essay, “Home [An Irrevocable Condition],” Garcia grants us access to places that have formed him, describing even how the cracks in the concrete “made new forms, retreaded old ones, and [were] used . . . all the time like stencils,” patterns that created a life. These themes of identity and home continue throughout the collection, as Garcia navigates a world where being black/Maybe is an irrevocable part of both.
In the second section, Garcia turns to poems that explore childhood, family, confrontation, and pride. In language charged with energy and heritage, he introduces us to Mamá Ana, a grandmother who serves as muse for many of the poems. She is also one of three voices in a series of “Chorus” interludes which feature her wisdom along with advice from James Baldwin and Miguel Piñero. The first poem, “Mamá Ana’s flat nose” ends with the book’s first denial of blackness: “We’re not black, we’re tan Now callate!” In “Back to School,” even being in the sun is admonished: “Mamá Ana warned me / AVOID THE SUN YOU ARE TOO BLACK ALREADY / But the sun taught me I belonged,/ it loved me blacker, stronger.”
This is only one of the many contradictions faced by a mixed-race speaker straddling multiple worlds that seem to question rather than accept. A poet he admires dismisses him for not being “Black-black,” leaving him “the spare left in the wake/of the juke move/he performed to negate me/ My blackness and me/shaking hands with the air.” Garcia also investigates how language itself divides in poems such as “Speak the lingo” and “Castas.” In the poem “Castas,” Garcia organizes caste labels used by colonizers as well as Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, interspersing them with consequences–
Español . Colony Criollo Colonial
Indio Español Mestizo Rape
Español Mestizo Castizo Pass –
and moves through a brilliant series of permutations to end with how the world still regularly forces people into categories–
White(Not Black (Not Native American
White (Hispanic/ Black (Hispanic/ Asian (Not
Latino) Latino) Hispanic/Latino)
Asian (Hispanic/ Two or More (Not Hispanic
Latino) Races: Latino)
The book’s third section, also comprised of poems, looks at conflict and erasure in various contexts, including poems for Nelson Mandela, Zoraida Fonalledas, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The scathingly lovely “Irony” invokes both Merchant of Venice and the Nazis to indict Israeli attacks on African immigrants.
The titular essay “black/Maybe,” which forms the last section, traces differences between African-American and Afro-Latinx culture and the denial of blackness in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. It wonders “how much of my grandmother’s denial was a self-defense mechanism, how much was self-hate and how much was just her carrying out what she was taught.” But it also sees a future where, despite an American culture which “thrusts black or white upon you quickly,” all Afro-Latinx people will be “proud to walk black and beautiful in the sun.” In one of the chorus sections, Mamá Ana advises “Write beautiful words, Mijo. Write beautiful words.” Garcia has done that and more in this both ambitiously broad and intensely intimate collection, exploring race and identity in an honest and unforgettable way.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.