All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way
By Patrice Gopo. W Publishing Group, 2018. 224 pages. $16.99 paperback.
Patrice Gopo, formerly Patrice Harduar, grew up in Anchorage as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. In her beautifully written, insightful and ultimately loving memoir in the form of essays, she takes readers on her journey across the world and into the social and racial issues of our time.
Anchorage in the 1980s and '90s was nowhere near as diverse as it has become, and Patrice and her sister grew up living in a largely white world. Their parents, moreover, as Jamaica immigrants of African and Indian descent, had little experience of black American culture.
Gopo writes, in the context of eating flavorful tamarind balls, "My family's presence in Alaska was a mixture of flavors too. Jamaican roots and an American life. While my parents adapted to mountain hikes in the frosty air and summers spent fishing for salmon, our home often featured the customs and foods from the early years of their lives — the years when they first met each other in the breezy, salt-scented air of their island home. As we lived the multi-faceted existence of Jamaican American, we were tamarind balls — not fully one flavor, not fully another, but two distinct parts coexisting in my family's unique form."
In one essay, "Caught in the Year of O. J. Simpson and Huckleberry Finn," Gopo recalls squirming in her seat as her high school English class—in which she was the only brown-skinned person — read about Huck and Jim, with the n-word used over 200 times. "I interpreted my classmates' curious stares to mean that when they read about Jim, they must be thinking about me. . . .Years later I would learn that the book I read in high school is considered antiracist. A satirical account of the evils of the era. A story meant to make a mockery of slavery. In tenth grade I retained none of this. All I remember is the longing to finish the unit and move on." At the same time, everyone at school was following the O. J. trial, and the racial component of what to believe about guilt or innocence loomed large and confusing in her mind. "How could I offer an opinion that might remind others how I, in fact, was not like the rest?"
Gopo's parents — a banker turned educator and a nurse — provided a solid middle-class life for their two girls, and after high school Gopo went off to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, where she earned a degree in chemical engineering. It was at college that she found both a group of African-American friends to belong to and more acquaintance with racism.
In the year after college, Gopo chose to serve as a missionary English teacher in an "African country I care about and so choose not to name." In "Washing Dishes in the Family of God" she tells of working with white missionaries. "So in this life — and in this kitchen too — I straddle two worlds. Not outsider. Not insider. Instead, other."
On one occasion during the trip, Gopo writes, she volunteers, "Is there something I can do to help?" and is shown into a kitchen piled with dirty dishes. This is who she is — someone who serves others as part of her faith, the same as serving God. The others in the home are celebrating in the other room; she is washing dishes. When another person comes into the kitchen, it's not to pick up a dishcloth to dry but to make a joke: "It's like you're our slave."
It's painfully clear from this essay how this encounter (and too many others) reverberates through Gopo's later life. In the years to come, she writes, "when my mind wanders during a dull sermon or when I startle awake in the predawn hours of night . . . I will return to washing and stacking those plates. I will loiter over the memory of this kitchen and dream of ten — no, of one hundred — different statements to spout in response."
Gopo spent the following year working a soulless job at Eastman Kodak, then went to graduate school for master's degrees in business administration and public policy, with a goal of working in community development. On a 10-week assignment to South Africa to teach women about starting small businesses as a way out of poverty, she met a man from Zimbabwe.
Today, her family — the man from Zimbabwe and their two daughters — live in Charlotte, North Carolina, a community they chose sight-unseen from a magazine article she read, "Top 10 Cites for African Americans." Although they gave serious thought to returning to Alaska, "Charlotte seemed like a place filled with opportunity for our black family, a city exploding with a bounty of opportunities."
In her final essays, Gopo explores some of the contradictions they found in their new American home — Confederate flags still flying, fear induced by the church murder in nearby Charleston, Gopo's nervousness as her husband drives off alone. "Please, my love, keep your hands on the wheel, your registration close. Keep your speed under the limit and go straight home."
In this time of racial strife, immigration politics, and general divisiveness in our country, "All the Colors We Will See" is a very welcome addition to the open-hearted discussion we all should be having. Gopo does not try to tell us how to live; she simply shows us how it has been for her to be herself — a person of intelligence and faith, an "other" who is finding her way. Her sensitive but direct questioning and her eloquent prose make this book a joy to read.