A Reflection on Color in Patrice Gopo’s “All the Colors We Will See”

Patrice Gopo’s All the Colors We Will See was released by Thomas Nelson this week. The book was named a Barnes & Noble Fall 2018 Discover Great New Writers selection. Patrice will read from and discuss the book at Park Road Books at 7 pm this Thursday.

In one of the essays in her new collection All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way, Patrice Gopo conveys the uncertainty and despair she often felt while working as a chemical engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, writing, “I cried not about the reality of my daily life, the commute to a seemingly endless surface parking lot, the elevator I rode up each morning, the dull walls and dusty floors. Rather, I cried about what my life might be, that there might exist another occupation replete with a greater palette of colors.” Thankfully, this despair didn’t crush her. Instead it pushed her onto a journey through which she “finally stumble[d] into writing” and found a way to broaden the color spectrum for readers lucky enough to stumble onto her book.

Writing may not have been her first vocation. But working with color at Eastman Kodak seems to have been an essential turn toward it. I’ve always been amazed by the synchronicities that weave through our lives, the patterns we inherit through genetics and through the particular families and cultures in which we are raised, as well as by the choices we make for ourselves as we quest and stretch toward some often unconscious knowledge of who we are—and who we are meant to be. For many, if not most of us, the themes and metaphors that are to be our life’s work seem to be with us from the very beginning, “coloring” every turn in the road. After reading her new collection of perceptive essays, one can clearly see that Gopo’s path circumambulates the field of color, particularly as it relates to race––a topic she examines with the eye of an artist, the precision of an engineer, and the devotion of a pilgrim.

The word color is both noun and verb, both term and metaphor. Color is a phenomenon of visual perception that gives us a way to differentiate and describe objects in the world around us. But it can also indicate pretense or deceptive appearance of some kind. Colorful language is vivid language. A colorful story is sometimes true. Sometimes we wear colors that tell others what group we belong to. At other times, whether we mean to or not, we “show our true colors” through our words and actions. And color is the word used to describe skin pigmentation, especially when that skin is not “white.”

All of these definitions of color are woven into the narratives Gopo tells about her experience as a black American––first growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, the child of Jamaican immigrants in a predominantly white community, and later traveling the world, meeting her Zimbabwean husband, and raising two daughters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before she went away to college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Gopo’s primary experience of race was one of feeling different—of having a darker skin color and different hair than other kids in school and church. Once in college, however, Gopo also realized that because she didn’t receive a traditional black American experience from her immigrant parents and because there wasn’t much of a black community in Anchorage, neither did she feel completely at home within black culture on campus.

The fairly unusual circumstances of Gopo’s heritage and experience have situated her in a liminal place, a between space, that allows her to examine through a unique lens the topics of color, race, culture, identity, and the many of the barriers that keep people divided. The personal stories she tells in these essays challenge us to lean into a deeper observation of and reflection of color, of the ways in which we perceive (and don’t) the experiences of people who’ve lived their lives in different shades of skin.