Teaching third graders in an underserved area of Brooklyn, Cenisa Gavin often looks out at her mostly black and Latino students and is reminded of the failings of her own teachers when it came to discussions about race and identity.
Gavin, 23, is black on her father’s side, and Korean Eskimo on her mother’s side. She has long, thick hair and, by her own description, slanted eyes. Growing up as a mixed-race child in Anchorage, Alaska, was one thing – she could never, for one, converse with her Korean great-grandmother because of a language barrier, and that was always the way it had been for her family – but coming across the term “Blasian” as a high schooler, and then joining a group of them to talk about her heritage as black and Asian on a theater stage at Spelman College years later, was another.
“I think my teachers did us a disservice by not discussing what it is to be colorblind, and how being colorful is greater than that,” Gavin said. When she told her students about her mixed race last year, she said, and when they saw her black father, the kids were surprised: “They said, ‘Ms. Gavin’s dad is black? You’re black?'”
This is one of the themes carried in the stories told by the seven-member group with which Gavin has now starred in a film project, “Blasian Narratives,” started by Cambodian American director Omnes “Canon” Senmos and looking toward release this fall.
The project began as a student theater production with friends at Morehouse College and Spelman, two historically black institutions. Canon, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Cambodia at age 10, grew up around a predominantly black community and quickly came to realize a polarization between the black and Asian communities. At Morehouse, he began wondering what he could do to bridge the two – and “Narratives” was born.
Cast & audience of “Blasian Narratives” (Musila Munuve/Courtesy photo)
“I think having a project like this is an attempt to bring people to the same space,” Canon said. “It’s also about representation, because representations matter. We’ve had people say, ‘Wow. This is the first time I’ve seen people who look like me and talk like me and struggle like me.’ It goes back to a lot of communities that are underrepresented, and the Blasian community is one of them.”
Cast members, now also comprising students Canon met at Stanford University, come from all parts of the country, from Hawaii, Minnesota and Texas to California, Colorado and Alaska. “Narratives” tells stories about families, communities, colorism, dating and religion, all the while struggling with the question: “Am I black enough? Am I Asian enough?”
What has emerged, Gavin said, is a sense of empowerment for the cast. For her, it’s about education, for not just Blasians, blacks or Asians but for everyone. “We all need to find ways to understand that there is more than one story that represents an identity,” she said.
“Narratives” first debuted in the fall of 2014, close to the birth time of the Black Lives Matter movement. The case of the shooting of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man, by Peter Liang, a New York City police officer, did not escape the group. “We all show up in our activism in different ways,” Canon said. “[‘Blasian Narratives’] was our way of helping people understand racial relationships. This is our way of offering our own narrative to the world.”
He said their first show was performed in front of a mostly black audience in Atlanta, many of them friends of the cast. “We’re thinking, how does a space like this affect other Blasians, and non-Blasians?” Canon said. “Most people understand race as black and white, and us offering our narrative has added color to the spectrum.”