Who am I ?
As Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12 grapples with her own complex racial identity, she implores others to take a look in the mirror, as well, and ask themselves this loaded question.
Early in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, before clips of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s more polemical sermons looped endlessly on cable television and Obama was forced to publicly denounce his pastor, the neologism “postracial” was on a lot of lips. A hopeful word with an elusive definition, it seemed to have as much to do with Obama’s fair skin and poise as it did with any message he espoused. Indeed, postracial was more about what the junior senator didn’t say than what he did—here was a man of color who appeared to transcend his mother’s whiteness and father’s African heritage, an editor of the Harvard Law Review who could acknowledge the tribulations of being a black man in America without letting it consume him. In short, a man who had moved beyond race. The implication being, so should we.
Janet Mondlane Rodrigues ’12 hasn’t moved beyond race, and she’s determined not to let others move beyond it, either. Mozambican born and Brooklyn raised, she shoulders a complicated identity: Her maternal grandfather was a black African revolutionary, her maternal grandmother a tenacious, white Indiana girl. Her mother is a multiracial world musician; her father is white Portuguese. From this vantage point, Rodrigues sees an America and a campus still struggling to address racism and privilege. To her, talk of a post-racial era is a way of silencing an argument mid-sentence.
Much has changed since 1965, when James Baldwin told Time magazine, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” But much has not. Rodrigues doesn’t mind being an angry, black woman—what concerns her is being called “an angry, black woman.” She says that speaking out about your most intimate frustrations often earns you a pejorative label. “I don’t want to be the face of racial harmony at Middlebury. People have gotten tired of listening to me talk about race.” She pauses. “But if I walk away from it, it only perpetuates the idea that race is something you get tired of.” And that’s the paradox of being Janet Mondlane Rodrigues. How do you talk about race—and engage others—in what was supposed to be a postracial America?
For a young woman with so unquiet a conscience, Rodrigues wears a disarming smile. Her gregariousness is charming. She dresses like a New Yorker who realized too late what “Vermont winter” means. And with a fair complexion and raven hair, she says that people often assume she’s Hispanic.
Ask where she’s from, and Rodrigues will usually tell you she’s from Brooklyn—Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rough neighborhood that gave birth to Spike Lee and hip-hop. She adds: “Then, whoever’s around, especially if it’s an international student from Africa, [that person] will say, ‘Where are your roots, girl? She’s lying to you: She’s from Mozambique.’” Brooklyn is Rodrigues’s topsoil, but her roots extend much deeper. Home is perhaps the place we long for most acutely, and for Rodrigues that would be Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.
As the Facebook generation understands: It’s complicated. In pure semantics, she’s an African American. Which makes her. . . black? “I feel like my color, my speech, my backgrounds, my roots are not definite; it becomes difficult for me to explain to others how I feel—and for me to understand how I feel. I’ve never been black enough for the black community, but I’ve never been white enough for the white community.” Rodrigues alternately describes the privilege and pain of straddling so many racial identities. “I feel like I’ve been spread too thin.”
When she engages the Middlebury campus about issues of race, Rodrigues is plumbing the depths of her own identity. She asks provocative, uncomfortable questions—without claiming to know the answers. But then, she’s not the first in her family to look at the way we live now and ask, Why?