In Shame on Me, Tessa McWatt traces the intersecting issues of sexism, racism and colonialism down the latitudes of her body in a reflective investigation of her ancestry. Using body parts as chapter titles, McWatt examines why she is asked to identify with a carousel of different racial monikers as she travels the world. Her family’s lived experiences color the historical explanations she uses to analyze her identity, adding memoir to history.
Tessa McWatt uses ancestry as a jumping-off point to explore political, social and emotional topics with insights found in her research of the history of slavery, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and sugar plantations across the globe. Her coming-of-age anecdotes provide a personal context for other great writers’ and academics’ theories on race, gender and sex. Meanwhile, she educates readers on historical events that set in motion her family’s migrations across the world.
Heart wrenching descriptions of racialized and gendered violence and the intergenerational trauma that resulted in her family line highlight the ways information gets passed down and forgotten. In her mother’s old age, McWatt could no longer solicit details of conversations about her grandmother’s traumatic childhood experiences. Other family members grow old and ill, still McWatt pieces together childhood memories with genetic test results. She includes family portraits and historical artifacts to bolster her points about the complexity of the economic and cultural pressures to engage in behaviors ranging from migration to foot-binding.
Well-researched and chock-full of allusions to groundbreaking literary contributions by authors of color, Shame on Me could substitute as a course syllabus on race and literature. Her analysis fills in the gaps, making meaning out of facts. Her insight, gained through blood, sweat, and tears over the course of generations, is a hallmark example of why qualitative data is as important to sociological investigations as quantitative data. McWatt’s analysis of her ancestry, the historical influences on her family’s location and movements, and of her feelings of belonging shed light on the meaning of phrases such as, “Race isn’t real,” or “Race is a social construct.” These types of statements about race and belonging often lead to confusion and distrust in daily discourse, but McWatt elevates these phrases with emotional anecdotes and insightful rephrasings.
One of my favorite insights from McWatt’s ability to weave theory into a memoir is the metaphor she shares from Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, in which she extrapolates on the point that “race is like six o’clock.” She analyzes the similarity between the constructs of time and race, nodding to the fact that in most cases it is easier for mixed-race people to simply go along with the assumption that race, like time, is a simple observation. However, the reality of race is that she deals with perpetual anti-black violence and discrimination. In contrast with the threat of missing a flight because of the construct of time, race is a more powerful force with which to contend.
The boxes that mixed-race people are forced to make themselves fit into do not leave room for individuality. McWatt reflects that for all the information provided by her genetic test results about her ancestry, none provide more insight into who she is as a person than the books she has read and loved. By the end of her body analysis, she concludes that the sense of belonging she sought was a red herring, distracting from political action and revolutionary leadership.