by Deborah Jang
In the visual art world, polyptychs are multi-paneled paintings that were popular among early Renaissance artists. They also appear in Japanese woodblock art, where multiple prints pieced together tell a larger story. Similarly, in the realms of music and literature, a polyptych consists of four or more components that convey closely related or contrasting themes.
That the polyptych model traverses various art forms aligns with the multidisciplinary background of author Meca’Ayo Cole (aka Tameca L Coleman), whose debut book an identity polyptych was released in September 2021 by The Elephants Ltd. A self-described “singer, multi-genre writer, itinerant nerd, and point-and-shoot art dabbler,” Cole offers up this literary polyptych, assembled from childhood impressions, earnest inquiry, and raw reflection. From Cole’s multi-pronged creative depths, their efforts typically find voice for heartbreak and healing, discovering beauty even during times of strife. This publication is no exception.
an identity polyptych is an engaging work of art constructed of four distinct panels, metaphorically hinged together as a powerful whole: “my Blackness is a constant question,” “The Story of My Name,” “childhood,” and “How to Honor Your Mother and Your Father.” It is a hybrid collection of interesting line breaks and whole narrative paragraphs and essays. It is delightfully punctuated with a variety of expressions — old black-and-white photos, a “Shape Story” that was handwritten and illustrated in grade school, and poignant captions like Am I Black? and We look happy here. Family photos are nostalgic and relatable — they flesh out the poetic observations, anecdotes, and descriptions found throughout the text.
As its title suggests, the overarching focus of this multifaceted work is that of identity — familial, nominal, and racial. The author, while confronting the quizzical looks and the tired “What are you?” question, also recognizes the potential violence of breaking down oneself and humankind through too-convenient social constructions. For example, the forced fragmentation effected by the one-drop rule or the hurtful taunts from the kids on the bus who called them Zebra assault Cole’s quest for authentic identity.
Within the structural component addressing family identity, another kind of violence recurs in the “flying hands” scenes involving Cole’s father. Yet, these memories intersect with the tenderest of observations. For example, Cole recalls the reunion with their father after twenty years apart. They remember the way their grandfather, who had modeled the flying hand syndrome to their father, taught his grandchildren to eat crab legs and appreciate the taste of mustard. They vividly describe the dapper way their father dressed at the beach. And, in the heat of a vibrant, spirit-filled church service, Cole quietly recognizes the same “dry and cracking lower lip” shared by a prodigal father and his ever-earnest adult child.
I was easily drawn into the book by its compositional originality, its straightforward language, and my lived familiarity with the family complexities and reconfigurations that are a large part of the narrative — as well as the introspective rummaging regarding identity and belonging. I could feel the childhood woodland explorations with their brothers, the ride on the school bus with the bully (and the careful extraction of a well-planned revenge), being the only brownish person in the classroom, the little yellow house on Pinetree Road, the geographical separation from their father at age 10, a tenuous reunion after twenty years, and the witnessing of their father’s repentance later in life.
Racial identity, of course, is central to the work in a persistent way. The book touches on this theme early on, specifically Cole’s self-reflective angst that comes with the territory of a mixed-race body, as a child-to-young-adult trying to decipher judgments and innuendo from the outside and how those align with their own internal realities. If Cole and their brothers are half Black, then are they also half magic? How must one prove their rightful access to revered cultural objects like cowrie shells? Can one in good conscience house-sit a cat named Nigger? Does growing up outside the right (black) neighborhoods, or does talking like white people, delegitimize the authenticity of one’s blackness? The questions are ongoing, and the author does not shy away from them nor offer tidy answers. Cole does, however, ultimately affirm their blackness “[I am black. I am black. I am black.]”
This is a unique volume, worthy of a thorough read. It conveys honesty, vulnerability, and resilience wherein the reader catches a glimpse of Cole’s family secrets and internal reflections as well as their respectful, nonjudgmental care for others and self. The book opens with a meditation on reconciliation and forgiveness: “I do not know when reconciliation comes.” Against the backdrop of a harsh, disempowering reality, the quest for these higher ideals remains present but is not forced into the story. The binding that holds this artful work together is the author’s openheartedness, offering promise towards such reconciliation in the creation of a larger whole.
Deborah Jang is a visual artist and poet based in Denver, Colorado, and Oceanside, California. Her debut collection, Float True, was published in March 2020 by Shanti Arts, LLC. Her forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press is titled Last Will and Best Guesses.