Roberto Carlos Garcia
Willow Books

Reviewer: Brian Fanelli

In an interview with Plátano Poetry Café from April 2018, Robert Carlos Garcia describes himself as Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx, adding, “Who I am is at the center of everything I write…my identity is my major metaphor.” This statement is especially true when describing Garcia’s latest work, black/Maybe, a book that explores Garcia’s history and personal story, straddling different racial and class identities, and navigating the complex issue of familial and social belonging. At the same time, while echoing James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and Ismael Rivera, among others, Garcia places his story within the larger, deeper context of U.S. history and European colonization. The result is a book that successfully blends the personal with the political against a broader historical backdrop.

The opening poem, “Home [An Irrevocable Condition],” is a sprawling, three-page, multi-sectional piece that veers on being a hybrid work, part prose poem, part personal essay. This opening features warring identities and bounces from location to location, including Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Elizabeth, NJ, and the burbs. While shifting through memory and location, the speaker addresses issues of race, class, and identity, sometimes questioning how he ended up in the white-washed suburbs. In opening he says, “Concrete is my sounding board, my advisor, and hardship my silent navigator,” before addressing his move to the burbs, where, as his friend says, “married people go to die.” Despite having a comfortable, financially secure living, the speaker can’t escape memories of the past. These images haunt the present, as the speaker admits, “Yet I remember the two-family homes in my hood, leaning like they partied too hard – paint chipped front doors the corners rat-chewed, rusted hinges on rotting wood, and big shiny new locks like the gold Jesus pieces on the hustlers parked out front.”

There is a constant juxtaposition in the opening pages between the poverty-stricken locations of the speaker’s childhood and the suburbs, which contain their own problems and racism, as the speaker recalls a neighbor telling him to vote for Romney because “You can’t trust those people. They’re terrorists, all of them.” The speaker admits that as a kid he witnessed drug deals gone bad and other real, ever-present physical dangers, but that the suburbs contain a violence he isn’t used to, a casual type of racism evident in day to day conversations with neighbors.

Other memory-specific poems see the speaker trying to make sense of his mixed heritage. In “Back to school,” Garcia writes,

Mamá Ana warned me:
But the sun taught me I belonged,
it loved me blacker, stronger
I went back to school
& sought Brenda Vazquez,
walked up to her & she said:
Hay que Negro, tu parces un puro Negro!
& my friends on the playground froze
then laughed & repeated:
El Negro, el Negro, el Negro!
Damn, why did I feel so bad,
why have I been sitting barefoot
on this small patch of schoolyard grass
ever since?

“Back to school,” in its narrative form, illustrates a thread that runs throughout several poems in the book, how the speaker was sometimes told to shed his blackness by family members and yet shunned by the Hispanic community for being too black. In that regard, he struggled to find a sense of belonging and identity that made sense for him. In the follow-up poem, “Back to school (the B Side),” the speaker is shunned by black classmates. He recounts being told,

You ain’t Black   You Spanish
You Goya bean eatin’

             I ain’t Puerto Rican

You ain’t Black   You
think you Black but you ain’t,
You Spanish

             I guess you English

Whatchusay?   Crazy Spanish boy,
you dark, a little bit
See me? Black

             Mm-hmm, you English too

I know nothin’ bout no England

             My grandpappy’s massa was from Spain
             Your grandpappy’s massa was from England
             So who Spanish?
             Who English?

On the one hand, the speaker is told in “Back to school” that he’s too black to hang with the Spanish kids, while on the other hand, in “Back to school (the B side),” he’s dismissed by black classmates for being too Spanish. In the later poem, however, at least he has more of a voice and refutes those who try to dictate his identity, while stating that the black classmates who taunt him have roots to English colonization that they don’t fully understand.

This issue returns later in the speaker’s life when he is ignored by a black poet whom he admired. In “The day a poet I looked-up-to clowned me,” the speaker again is isolated because of his mixed identity. He’s not black enough to warrant attention from the poet, who asks the speaker, “Oh, you’re not Black black?” before casting him off and giving more attention to the other students. There is a powerful moment in the poem, told through a stark image, when the speaker interrogates his identity, staring at his outstretched hand, “darker than a paper-bag,” but “lighter than mulch.” The poem concludes with an examination of the speaker’s family history, an acknowledgement of the grand-pappy’s Middle Passage, “the blue-skied, / salt sea air of Caribbean cane-fields,” the “Same all-inclusive package / as our cousins in Virginia.” The speaker then says he is “the space left in the wake / of the juke move / he performed to negate me / My blackness & me / shaking hands with the air.” The speaker’s pain and frustration of trying to grapple with his identity and not finding acceptance with either community is especially felt in the poems that combine personal memory, such as being shunned by a black poet, with family history told through the lens of race and colonization. The speaker is constantly the one on the margins.

The book concludes with “black Maybe,” which is more of a personal and historical essay than a prose poem. In it, Garcia gives a brief history of the Dominican Republic, which helps to explain his grandmother’s aversion to blackness, as she grew up living under the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, who ordered the deaths of countless Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans. What Garcia again does so well is place his personal story within a larger historical framework.

Garcia’s black/Maybe is a book that feels important in the present moment, as global nationalism continues to rise, and darker-skinned people continue to be vilified, including in the U.S. The book is in part a history lesson, but one that contextualizes first-person narratives to show how the past impacts the present and continues to affect us in deeply personal ways.