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Charlotte Writer Reflects On Race, Grace And The ‘Colors’ Of Life

“It’s like you’re our slave.” Patrice Gopo was 22 years old when she heard those words as she stood washing a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen of a missionary home in Africa. The speaker was an adult, white male in the missionary community where Gopo spent the year after college. 

Credit Mark Rumsey / WFAE

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Gopo grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. A degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University led to a job with Kodak, and plenty of career potential. But it was Gopo’s passion for writing that eventually won out. Her first book is a collection of essays titled, “All the Colors We Will See.”  WFAE's Mark Rumsey spoke with Gopo about the book, and some of the experiences behind it. Here are the highlights of the interview. 

Gopo on how she reacted to hearing, “It’s like you’re our slave:”

In the moment, I did nothing. Honestly, I think I was just shocked, really disheartened, and very hurt and confused. I think those were all the emotions. I didn’t do anything except just think of it. I think in many ways, I felt guilty that I hadn’t responded in a way that I think would have been appropriate.

Gopo on how she reacted to a former white colleague who said, “We keep Patrice around for the diversity:”

I felt like that situation was different.

I feel like he had demonstrated many other indications of genuine friendship. I feel like this honestly was something that he should not have said. It wasn’t good, but I felt like there were other things about his character that I knew that made me interpret that more from a standpoint of we all say things that we should not have said. Here would be the opportunity to offer grace.

I often say that I write with a redemptive arc because I do believe that the world can be better than what it is. So I feel like part of that is my ability to extend grace to people, or people to extend grace to me. But at the same time not blindly doing that, or overlooking true injustice.  

Gopo on her switch from chemical engineering to writing:

I feel like to be a black woman and to be an engineer is to fulfill a role that is, in many ways, sorely needed. There are not a lot of black women that pursue engineering. I was one of them. I pursued engineering and I saw the way people would lift me up as an example to other black girls of what they could become.

There’s a part of me that still thinks, would I have better served my community by staying where I was? But at the same time, I feel as though there’s this whole other aspect that I chose to pursue something that was calling to me.

I think that — in many ways — that is another example of what we as black women can be in society as well. We don’t necessarily have to be tethered to other peoples’ ideas of who we should be.

Gopo on the title of her book:

I write with a lot of color. I mention the color of landscapes. I talk about the color of the dress I got married in. I also think about the ways in which we classify people in our society based on color.

I know as the black American daughter of Jamaican immigrants that people will look at me and will put me in the black American category, which is absolutely correct. But I feel with that comes a whole narrative that I’m supposed to have lived because of what I look like. What happens when your story doesn’t necessarily fit to the narrow narrative we offer black Americans?

We are the color that we are, but we are not the narrow categories that our society often gives people based on the colors that we are.

More information about Gopo's book and upcoming events here.

Editor's note: the interview has been adjusted for clarity and brevity. You can listen to the full interview above.