Monday, April 4, 2011

"The Skin Between Us. A Memoir of Race, Beauty and Belonging" by Kym Ragusa

Year of first publication: 2006
Genre: memoir
Country: USA

Kym Ragusa's memoir begins on the Strait of Messina, dividing Sicily from Calabria and representing the crossroad between Europe and Africa. This place is significative for the author, because her paternal ancestors migrated from Southern Italy to America and her maternal ancestors were African slaves brought to North America via a forced migration. Standing there on the ferryboat, with her corkscrew hair tied in a knot in order 'not to stand out' (p.18), she reflects on the meaning of belonging to a place. She would like to shoot the ancient Greek-Sicilian myth of Persephone, the goddess that divided her time between the underworld and the mortal world. 'What are you?', American people ask her, 'where are you from?', Italian people always enquire, curious about her skin colour and her childlike Italian.
The skin between us: a border, a map, a blank page. History and biology. The skin between us that kept  us apart and sheltered us against the hurt we inflicted on each other. The skin between us: membrane, veil, mirror. [...]
What are you?
Black and Italian. African American, Italian American. American.
Other. Biracial, Interracial. Mixed-blood, Half-Breed, High-Yellow, Redbone, Mulatta, Nigger, Dago, Guinea.
Where are you from?
I DON'T KNOW where I was conceived, but I was made in Harlem. Its topography is mapped on my body: the borderlines between neighboorhoods marked by streets that were forbidden to cross, the borderlines enforced by fear and anger, and transgressed by desire. The streets crossing east to west, north to south, like the web of veins beneath my skin.(p.26-27).
Here begins Kym Ragusa's investigations of her identity, split between two communities that hardly interacted with each other: the Italian and the African American communities of East and West Harlem. Her mother, stunningly beautiful (but not at all a tragic mulatta!) and young, with a genius IQ and a career in modeling is the last of a series of strong African American beauties in her family, all light skinned and unfortunate with men. Descended from a Pittsburgh community where German ancestors have mingled with African American former slaves, blond hair coexisting with a 'double-edged pride' of being black, so that their ethnicity was both emblem of honor and deep shame, the author struggled to understand the entanglements of race divisions. Her corkscrew hair, her grandmother Miriam told her, were her father's fault, the result of HIS African roots, rather than her own (which had produced red hair, by the way, of the sort Malcolm X had). The glamor of the Harlem Renaissance her grandmother had experienced, her friendship with Marilyn Monroe in Los Angeles and with some of the greatest poets and musicians working in the Harlem area clashed with the violence in the nieghboorhood. The writer experienced it first hand: a man was murdered in the apartment building where she lived and her mother was threatened with a gun by a drugaddict.
On the other side of the family, a noisy, poor Italian American family, her grandfather speaking always Calabrese and her grandmother Gilda always looking at her suspiciously, because of the color of her skin. Her Italian American relatives struggled to get along with the maternal side of her family: her grandmother Miriam and her aunts thinking that her father was too poor and working class to suit their taste. With a mostly absent father, who after the Vietnam war had become addicted to drugs, and a Puerto Rican step-mother to add into the salad bowl, the author relates how her family, after a whole life spent in the city, tried to adjust to the life in a small place: growing vegetables in the garden, for example.
Revolving around the figure of her two grandmothers Miriam and Gilda, who died one week apart from each other like two sisters crossing the ocean as immigrants to a new land, this memoir is written in an intimate way, never banal and always compelling. It challenges notions of fixed identity, of blackness and whiteness - her skin is sometimes lighter, other times the same as that of her Italian American friends, but it is always perceived as different by others. It strikes me that the two communities are different and similar in ways that I didn't expect: the neighboorhood of La Kalsa, in Palermo, getting rough at night time, resembles the Harlem and the Bronx of her childhood and teenage years. There, as well, civilizations meet: African and Asian immigrants living side by side with the Sicilian people, who also show the signs of the Arabian and the Norman dominations. Also, on her maternal side she can go back several generations to Sybela, a slave who escaped slavery with the master's son, but on her paternal side things are dimmer: one would expect the opposite. The trauma of immigration, together with the ghost of racial segregation add to the picture of a conflicted identity, but her "family portraits" are always affectionate and above all honest. Written with an evident gusto for storytelling, "The Skin Between Us" is a bridge between cultures, an ode to every family and every painful story that nonetheless hides a pleasant aftertaste.       

About the author: Kym Ragusa was born in New York City in 1966. She is a writer and a documentary filmmaker. Her short movies "Passing" and "Fuori/Outside" explore her double heritage. This is her first book.


  1. A fascinating book indeed. The idea of home, and place is gradually becoming blurred through inter-racial marriages. Like Voldemort who hated half-bloods but himself born of a Muggle father, we are gradually becoming no one but people of the planet. However, it isn't everyone who is able to handle this heritage crisis well. Some fall in the course of their understanding; some succumb to the 'you don't belong here' attitude people show. And clear examples of these individuals include May Ayim, an Afro-German of Ghanaian and German parentage who became psychotic and later had to commit suicide. It is sometimes difficult not to have a place of belonging. And to know that Kym has multiple heritages and still handle it with such perfection assures me that there is hope for these individuals.

  2. Sounds like a very insightful memoir. Thank you for this excellent review and for the excerpt. I'll have to look for this one.

  3. @Nana: LOL, I like your connection with Voldemort. I think it's not by chance that J.K. Rowling made that choice: it speaks to teenagers about racism in a way that is not pedantic.
    I didn't know May Ayim, but I'd like to read her poetry or non-fiction (in translation, as I don't speak German well enough). She represents, in a sense, the "tragic mulatto" experience I mentioned in my post. I have heard that Germany was a hard place to live in for black people (I hope things have changed in recent years).
    Kym's book is marvellous: she is the proof that multiple heritages can be a blessing, too.

    @The Lit Withc: You're welcome. Do look for it, it's worth it.

  4. I love the excerpt too. Draws me closer to the book. An interesting review, indeph ofcourse.