JEN IS BLACK IN AMERICA
The 25th of 28 interviews with a variety of artists, writers and friends to learn more about individual perspectives on being black + original illustrations by George McCalman
JEN HEWETT (printmaker + surface designer + textile artist)
We are both highly visible and yet incredibly invisible. … Perhaps the reason we gave birth to cool is because we are both highly visible and yet incredibly invisible.
What identity — racial or otherwise — do you feel closest to?
I’m multiracial — my mother is from the Philippines, and my dad is black — so my identity has always been fluid. I’m not obviously multiracial (I’m not particularly light skinned, and I wear my hair in a short afro), but I’ve had access to two different cultures because of my heritage. I’m descended from African slaves and am also first-generation American born. I don’t feel completely at home, or completely out of place, in either culture, but I freely claim both.
And when was the first time you understood what it was to be black?
I was in third grade, and my class was studying Africa. The other kids kept looking at me and giggling, and a couple of them mispronounced (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here) the “River Niger.” I was 50% of my affluent, white, Catholic school’s African-American population (my brother was the other 50%). I knew I looked different from the other kids, but I wasn’t aware of the difference until that moment.
Some say blacks gave birth to cool, agree?
Yes, though I am very much not cool.
What’s something most people don’t realize about being black?
We are both highly visible and yet incredibly invisible. I’ve been followed by security in stores, yet other customers in those same stores jump ahead of me in line because they didn’t see me.
How has being black made your life better?
Perhaps the reason we gave birth to cool is because we are both highly visible and yet incredibly invisible. I’m always a little out of place in most situations, and have learned to read people and social cues, as well as understand what isn’t being said. I think this sensitivity is what has made me an artist. I see things that are there, but which other people don’t see. I feel nuance. I make connections that others miss.
Can you tell if people see you as black before they see you?
Ah, the dismissive or fearful glance. Because of my name, I’m often not who people expect to meet. A few years ago when I was still consulting, a potential vendor (who I’d only spoken to on the phone) and I arranged to meet at a cafe. He walked by me a few times, not thinking I was his potential client, until I called his name. This happens so often.
What’s the best thing about being black?
Honestly? Traveling abroad and getting treated better than many white Americans because I’m not what people in other countries think of as the “Ugly American.” When I told people in Istanbul that I was American, they would pause for a second, and then say, “Oh! Like Michelle Obama!” And then they’d offer me tea.
Okay, now tell us what you think about Beyonce.
Years ago, when Dreamgirls was in theaters, a white friend dismissively said that Beyonce wasn’t that black because she’d grown up middle class (*smh). That instantly made me like Beyonce more because I, too, had grown up a middle-class black kid whose authenticity was constantly being called into question by people who had a narrow view of blackness.
I love Beyonce because she doesn’t try to fit any of the stereotypes, and yet manages to show the complexity of blackness in this country in this beautiful, nuanced way. Is she Everywoman? No. She is richer than most of us, and has a well-run, behind-the-scenes team that manages the details for her. But I have tremendous respect for her and everything she’s trying to do.
What’s on your mind when you’re not thinking about race?
This tends to happen when I’m outside, but in familiar places — hiking, riding my bike, swimming. In those moments, I’m thinking about how amazing the sun feels on my face, or noticing the smell of the ocean air as I bike towards the beach, or how warm the water of the pool is. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are athletes and performers: that intense presence forces us to focus on that exact moment. We are aware of ourselves on a whole other level that transcends everything.