Review: Black Was Not A Label by Kathryn H. Ross

by DW McKinney


Black Was Not A Label
by Kathryn H. Ross
PRONTO, October 2019
90 pages / $12.00, Indiebound


“Here.
Let me peel back this skin
that seems to stand in the way
between me and all that I might’ve wanted
from the world within the world in which I live.”
           

–from “Defiance” in Black Was Not A Label

Lately I’ve been plagued by a particular memory. In it, I was 21, sitting at a breakfast table in a treehouse hotel in Brazil. I was sipping agua de sandia, watching these vicious little monkeys terrorize hotel guests, when one of my friends looked up at me from across the table and loudly asked, “Is that your real hair?” If it’s possible for the Amazon to fall silent, it did, and everyone at the table turned to me. This was not the first time this particular “friend” had asked me this during our trip. She was becoming bolder and more public with what I recognized as an examination of my blackness. I don’t know why this memory has been nagging me, but every time it arises, I envision myself giving an empowered speech, different from the exasperated “Yes. Why?” that I actually said.

I am encouraged by Black Was Not A Label, the debut essay collection by Kathryn H. Ross, which presents the unwavering voice of a young woman addressing similar questions of her blackness head on. Where I lacked a confident response to interrogations about my hair, skin tone, and heritage in my 20s, I find Ross retroactively standing in the gap for me.
 
Ross’ collection is an evocative exploration of her journey to reconcile her double-consciousness as a Black person in America. She writes compelling personal stories that reach back through her family history, pulse through her young adulthood, and release themselves in pleas toward Father God. She confronts multiple subjects—racial slurs, internalized racism, fetishization, colorism, interracial relationships—explicating their effects down to the emotional, physical, and spiritual levels of her life.
 
It begins with the pangs following Ross’ realization that the world she knew up until young adulthood was not the actual world she lived in. The middle investigates the source of those pains. The collection ends with her standing firm in this new world but yearning for the life she’s “ever wanted, ever hoped for.” Despite Ross’ anguish, the essays read like two ongoing conversations. One that speaks to the Black community, resonating with their experiences and providing space for mutual mourning and emotional processing. Then there’s the conversation for non-Black audiences, where Ross does the labor—common for Black women—of explaining the problematic racial inequalities and structures found in everyday interactions. Her book serves as a medium for healing in one hand and teaching in the other.
 
The first essay, “Ghost World 3 — Disillusionment,” expounds on disillusionment and resignation and how they both ebb, flow, and intertwine as Ross navigates life in a Black body. She wrestles with the perception that Black lives and history are miraculous because they are borne from resilience. “But there is still pain, and still evil, and still mess and muck and mud the world throws at God, at His children.” She profoundly asks, “why can’t miracle come from miracle?” In other words, why must attaining a thriving Black life be dependent on pain and suffering?
 
“Defiance” is a striking, braided essay that includes scenes where Ross undergoes the “big chop” (transitioning to wearing her natural hair), her experiences as the only Black student in an English class, a discussion on being the “black friend,” and excerpts from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The essay details the burdens that come from living with double consciousness and how Black folks wear them until they must be cut off, like Ross shearing her own hair. “Erasure” reflects what so many black and brown folks like me are doing as they seek healing from past traumas. In it, Ross sits with her younger self to methodically address deep wounds in her memories.
 
Here, too, readers will begin to see thematic elements replicate and entangle throughout the collection. “Erasure” takes a thread of double consciousness from “Defiance” and digs deeper, exploring the emotions and guilt associated with several painful moments in Ross’ life.
 
The core of the collection delves into the complexities of heritage, reflecting on its role in the dissonances within blackness (culturally and linguistically), pride, shame, and the sliding scale of attractiveness that Black women are subjected to. In these chapters, Ross depicts her spiritual faith with an unwavering sincerity that makes each of these essays read like separate prayers to God.
 
Although the collection is tonally heavy and Ross’ weariness lays thick on the page, it is never overwhelming. She interjects prose (“Little Brown Girl,” “Addendum,” “Brown People”) that amplifies the collection’s thematic elements, but also offers declarations of strength that uplift her and the reader.
 
The collection is a stunning show of Ross’ ability to carefully peel back the intricacies of her own life. At times it is a repeating emotional wave that, with a cursory read, would come off as redundant. But this is real life; this is the double consciousness. These redundancies are actually patterns that Black folks experience in their day-to-day. We are unable to divorce ourselves from them. And this is the crux of Ross’ essay collection. No matter how hard Black people try to be seen as just themselves, they are still othered; still forced to acknowledge their double consciousness.
 
Although my confidence and strength have significantly grown in the 14 years since I sat at that table in Brazil, my younger self and I still need to have a conversation. Just as Ross has done, I will take myself by the hand and begin that healing work. I should start with Ross’ epigraph, taken from Song of Songs 1:5, which reads with profound poignancy. “Dark am I, yet lovely…”
 


DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch MediaLinden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary JournalTAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.