“Black Chameleon”: Memoir and Mythology

Lyrical and moving, Black Chameleon: Memory, Womanhood, and Myth is a fascinating memoir by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, a librettist and Houston’s Poet Laureate Emeritus. It is a deeply imaginative mixture of personal history, poetry, and what she calls “modern” mythology, a blend Mouton refers to as a “biomythography.” It’s a bold and innovative read, covering themes of storytelling, motherhood, identity, and reclamation.

Mouton grew up in the Inland Region of Southern California, the descendent of Alabamians who made the Great Migration to the West Coast, and her fiercely proud mother made sure the young Deborah grew up hearing stories of her enslaved ancestors. Mouton combines this ancestral folklore with poetry and elements of magical realism to weave entrancing and often wrenching mythological tales that she blends in with her personal narrative. The powerful women and goddesses of her parables are stronger than fate, passionate and defiant.

At the beginning of Black Chameleon Mouton writes that “I’m gonna tell you these stories. / Not all of them are real, / but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.” It’s a brilliant dare for the reader, and you will constantly be wondering as you read which myth is based on African folklore or is wholly original, or which memory recalled by Mouton is pure historical fact. The memoir offers a challenging concept of the nature of memoir and memory. “They say that a memory changes its face every time you look at it. What is a memory anyhow, but a story you have heard rattle in you so many times that your mind calls it truth?”

Homeschooled for much of her early childhood (and academically precocious as a result), Mouton’s mother was the dominant parent in her life: beautiful, razor-tongued and belt-wielding: “She feared God as much as I feared her. But what is a healthy faith without a little fear?” Mouton’s Southern Baptist preacher father is another larger-than-life, godlike figure in her childhood. “Hope may not come when you want it, buts timeliness may be the only way I know to speak of my father. What a dangerous deity. Hope, begging you to risk all on its fickle arrival.”

Her mother is defiant in the face of the conformist church ladies and inspires young Mouton to “reclaim herself all Black, all woman, and loved.” She even crosses Mouton’s father on occasion, a gentler person but still a patriarch; it’s only her rebellious teenage son that Mouton’s mother can’t conquer, which leads to turmoil within the tightly knit family. She is a complicated character who looms over much of the memoir; it is at times frustrating that Mouton doesn’t fully explore the psychological legacy of her mother’s bouts of physical violence.

Beautifully and often heart-breakingly rendered are milestones of Black girlhood. The struggle to fit in at school, hair treatments (as a child she viewed her hair as both a torment and a secret weapon) and first crushes. Mouton writes vividly of growing up “in a land not built for her,” and the struggle to claim her own body and identity in a world built and girded by white supremacy. One of the most harrowing moments in the memoir is when she remembers a stranger making sexual comments about her body when she was only ten.

Mouton’s autonomy as an individual within her family and as a Black woman are fiercely fought for and hard-won. As a child, her intelligence and independence set her on a course that is destined to take her far from home, and far away from her indomitable mother. She is fortified by her love of knowledge and her preservation of her Black heritage. As she puts it, “The thing about being good with words is it also makes you a threat. I had become a marksman.”

Black Chameleon is powerful and engrossing, although at times difficult to digest. Sometimes Mouton’s poetic statements come across more as truisms that occasionally fall flat or are perplexing, such as “I have searched Time seven times over and found that Progress never masters longevity,” but overwhelmingly her musical sentences hit the mark. It is certainly a book to be reread and is a powerful, enlightening memoir by an exquisite wordsmith. “All I hear is my heartbeat, like feet running through the backwoods of the South in the middle of the night: rebellious.”

Black Chameleon: Memory, Womanhood, and Myth
By Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton
Henry Holt and Company
Published March 7, 2023