– The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe
Washington Square Press, 387 pages, 2016
– Loving, a film by Jeff Nichols, 2016
On the day I reached Chapter 18 of this 32-chapter novel, The Gilded Years, I had to put it down — not because it was boring and bad; and not because I didn’t want to find out how Anita Hemming’s life turned out. That’s not it.
This story of race and class really struck home. It made me think how growing up Japanese Canadian is thrust upon us. No one chooses to be born a person of colour, just as no white person chooses to be born white, but our society — with its pervasive sense of privilege and white superiority — tells us every day who you should look like, where you should live, and most damagingly, encourages us to think thoughts like, ‘I’m better than you.’
In The Gilded Years, we read that Anita Hemmings had always aspired to attend one of America’s most exclusive colleges for women, Vassar College. She wanted a better life. (“The world was kinder to the educated, and kindest of all to whites — and she knew that in a way almost no Negroes ever would.” ) With her olive complexion and dark-haired beauty, this bright
third year student in the class of 1897 decides to ‘pass’ as white, though she’s the daughter of an African American janitor and a descendent of slaves. If this were ever discovered, she’d be banned from the college. Now in her final year at Vassar, Anita finds herself unexpectedly rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the boisterous daughter of one of New York’s wealthiest and socially prominent families. And when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s light-skinned brother Frederick, who maintains strict control over who Anita socializes with — lest their closely guarded secret is ever found out — the siblings have a painful private discussion in which Anita says to Frederick: “You are allowed to have your own identity. I have to create mine.”
The Gilded Years is a compelling work of historical fiction by Karin Tanabe, herself a proud graduate of Vassar. When author Tanabe came across a copy of the 2001 Vassar College alumni magazine with its cover photo of the beautiful Anita Hemmings, it sparked her curiosity and her desire to know more about the life and career of this first African American graduate of Vassar. It’s a fact that Vassar — if you don’t count Anita Hemmings or her daughter, Ellen Love — did not graduate an African American student until 1944, and was the last of the Seven Sisters women’s colleges to do so. (The Seven Sisters are Radcliffe, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Barnard, and Vassar.)
And now, with the recent screening of the excellent Jeff Nichol’s docudrama, Loving, the issue of miscegenation (the mixing of the races) rears its head again. By all accounts, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeeter simply loved each other. They were not outspoken, they were not political people, and they weren’t propagandists. They were in love and wanted to be married. Somehow, they struggled through Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws for a period of over 10 years, from their initial arrest to taking their case to the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, where they altered the Constitution in 1967. The demure Mildred was likely the ‘mouthpiece’ of the two, but the film focuses more on the resilience of their domestic relationship amidst the swirling legal battles and politics that surrounded them. The white Richard Loving is beautifully played by the actor Joel Edgerton who disappears thoroughly into his character and barely speaks more than twelve words in the film. Ruth Negga, through understated loving glances, effectively portrays Mildred Loving’s true and direct nature. There’s not a lot of talking in this film.
These two pieces of historical fiction — Karin Tanabe’s book, The Gilded Years, and Jeff Nichols’ film, Loving — have made me re-examine myself and the society we live in. I’m writing as a sansei entering his ‘golden years’, but I increasingly feel my concerns about race and JC identity mostly belong to the Issei-Nisei-Sansei line of generational thinking.
Mind you, I’m not saying racism and race and class are no longer relevant. And I’m not saying we’re living in a post-racial society. Not at all. I see that racism and race and class battles are unfortunately alive and doing well.
But what I’ve noticed is that the JC community is increasingly represented by the yonsei, gosei, happa, and the children of the ijusha, and they frequently don’t focus as much on race and mixed race matters in the same way as older nisei and sansei do; they’re usually mixed race themselves and are, frankly, beautiful, and in enough cases they have a healthy appreciation of their bloodlines, especially if they’ve absorbed the life stories of their parents and grandparents; and they’re often involved in the fight for human rights and gender equality. Think about it. The ‘younger ones’ have a different perspective — they’ve grown up in a ‘multicultural’ society — and we elders should start recognizing and respecting this. Our generations have changed; and we have to talk more, and be patient with each other.
(By the way, I did read The Gilded Years in its entirety and recommend it highly.)