Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Braided Narrative

Author’s Note

The protagonist of my memoir often thinks he knows who he is, only to find that he is someone else. Rarely recognized as Black because of the camouflage of his light skin, he spent most of his adulthood living under deep cover in predominantly white settings. Who is this Black man he claims to be? How do others see him? How does he see himself? What does he mean when he says that he is Black? These are my central questions as a memoirist.

Race constantly blindsides my protagonist, disrupting the normal narrative continuities that make linear storytelling possible. Instead of graceful arcs, there are jagged inflection points where one self abruptly becomes another. Connecting, arranging, and making sense of these twists and turns is a great challenge. To make matters worse, his identity is always a multigenerational project. He must go on backward journeys through time to find traces of himself in his parents and grandparents. Ultimately, his search takes him to the enslaved people and the enslavers who were his ancestors. His story is a braided narrative that extends from the beginnings of enslavement to the present.

Unifying themes in his narrative sometimes appear in surprising places. Hair is one of his most ambiguous racial features. It is not curly enough to be recognized easily as a Black person’s hair, but it is much curlier than the hair of most white people. The excerpted chapter begins with an innocent boy walking to the barbershop with his father. A simple haircut begins a lifelong entanglement of hair, race, and identity. Since then, each haircut has been an occasion for him to reflect on who he really is. Every change in hairstyle raises profound questions of belonging, recognition, passing, shame, self-esteem, and authenticity.

Who does the boy see when he looks in the mirror at the barbershop? He has a glimpse of the unending cascade of selves that stretch into adulthood and beyond. There will be curl relaxers, hair straighteners, Afros, buzz cuts, beards, goatees, and dozens of looks that create inflection points in his identity. With graying and balding, an uneasy truce comes to this battlefield of identity. He even finds a touch of humor in this long journey, but the old questions of identity endure unanswered. Who is this Black man he claims to be?


HERB HARRIS attended Georgetown University, obtained an MD and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and completed residency training in psychiatry at Yale University. He has been involved in neuroscience research and clinical practice for over twenty-five years. His creative nonfiction presents intergenerational narratives that explore race and identity. His essays have appeared in New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus, Solstice, Tahoma Literary Review, and Under the Gum Tree. His essays “Topsy-Turvy” and “A Tourist at Home” were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His essay, “Portrait of the Artist as a Black Man,” won Solstice’s 2021 Michael Steinberg Nonfiction Prize. His work appeared in the anthology The Beiging of America from 2Leaf Press, and he was a contributing editor of the book Racial and Ethnic Identity from Routledge Press. Find Herb on Twitter at @HerbertWHarris.