The Devil Finds Work

The Devil Finds Work is the last book-length piece of nonfiction (Baldwin calls it an “essay”) that Baldwin wrote, and though it’s similar to some earlier pieces in its focus on Baldwin’s autobiography, and obviously addresses similar themes, it picks a new point of departure: the movies.  The sweep of this book is captured really well by the 2017 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which draws several passages from this book (as well as No Name in the Street).

A simple way to summarize this book would be to say, Baldwin tries to show us what American film looks like (and has always looked like) to him as a black American.  He starts very early in his life, going all the way back to his earliest experiences attending movies with his family or with his white teacher (a woman named Bill).  This all brings me back to a memorable passage from the much-earlier “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the narrator, a high school math teacher, describes students’ plight:

All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness.

That narrator has discovered his way out of that blindness, or else he couldn’t write about it: here in The Devil Finds Work Baldwin is exploring the impact of that blindness from another angle: what it does for White America.

At first, the title of the work – The Devil Finds Work – seemed oblique and irrelevant to the cinematic criticism that forms the bulk of the essay, but towards the end, in a powerful few pages of deeply personal confession of faith, Baldwin tells us about the Evil One:

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror.  It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.

This draws together some threads that run through so many Baldwin essays, especially the idea that in failing to truly regard the other, we lose a sense of ourselves, and that this is a particular problem for white America.  In making black people in to n-words, Baldwin, argues, white people make themselves into monsters.

Baldwin ends up arguing that American cinema, from its earliest incarnations (he spends a long time on The Birth of a Nation) has served just this devilish function – to anesthetize White America’s against its own awareness of its evil and guilt.  Now, for Birth of a Nation, this is a straightforward exercise in racism.  It’s a film that venerates the KKK as the protectors of order after the end of the civil war, after all.  Nothing new there, and we don’t need James Baldwin to decode that for us.  What I think Baldwin got closer to answering, for me though, is just why Birth of a Nation occupies the central place in the history of American film that it does.  Why it was such  a hit.

And the way Baldwin explores that question is by looking to some other more apparently “liberal-minded” films, considering In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and then also a biopic about Billie Holiday, in which he analyzes a scene where the Klan harasses her, and her white band-mates rally to her defense:

The scene operates to resolve, at one stroke, several problems, and without in the least involving or intimidating the spectator.  The lynch scene is as remote as an Indian massacre, occurring in the same landscape, and eliciting the same response: a mixture of pious horror, and gratified reassurance.

The genius of The Devil Finds Work is that it draws together the dehumanization of white racism and the strategy of reassurance for the liberal-minded white person so many of these films appeal to.

Which really helped me understand a frustration with certain films I’ve always experienced – most recently with Lincoln but going all the way back to things like Schindlier’s ListA Time To Kill and earlier in my own movie-going experience: you sit down to watch a film that is “about racism”, but you know from the beginning it will actually be about the profound goodness or inherent earnestness of its exceptional WHITE protagonist.  He (and it’s usually a “he”) will rise above his historical circumstances and sound to us “strikingly modern,” while he looks down upon the small minded simpletons who just happen to be racist, who surround him (and, as Baldwin points out, there’s often a simple-minded black person in their midst as well).

The function of all of this is to free the white viewer from ever having to more deeply interrogate his own privilege.  I.e., the devil preserves his foothold as you emerge from the theater still numb to your own self in your willingness to believe that there is nothing irredeemable or historically conditioned or problematic about your own racism, because, after, all, you can always tell yourself “things have gotten better.” Because of someone like Lincoln, who, among other things, feels just like yourself.  So we can look to the past to validate our present even while we think we’re watching a film “about racism.”

Baldwin explains that all much better than me but that’s the core idea here, and it’s extraordinarily powerful in its explanatory power in understanding film and understanding our world.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

When a student told me last year that If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin’s 1974 novel which I had not read at the time – was being made into a movie, I was sort of nonplussed.  There were other better choices, I thought (even though I hadn’t read this one).  Why not Giovanni’s Room or Go Tell It On the Mountain or Another Country?  The film is being written and directed by Barry Jenkins, writer/director of 2016’s best picture, Moonlight.  

But now I’ve read it , and I’m here to tell you that this is probably Baldwin’s best novel (though there’s still one more I haven’t read).  What makes it work best is the freshness of its first-person narrator Tish.  Telling the whole story from the perspective of its newly pregnant 21-year-old black female protagonist does so much at once for Baldwin.  It forces him to set aside No Name In the Street’s world-weary Jeremiad lightning-bolt throwing (which is great, but it’s also something he’d more or less mastered by this time).  It forces even its most racist reader to acknowledge Tish’s humanity and that of her entire family.  It allows an exploration of the relationships within and between two black families that makes tokenization impossible.  Tish’s voice brings a burst of light to this 2018 world that I had not anticipated as I began reading, and drew me to read the bulk of this novel in just a few hours over two days.  This was a revelation.

Last year, in my senior Ethnic and World Literature class, a student of Latinx and Black heritage told me one of the things she hates the most is “the Struggle film.”  What she explained she meant by this is that she is tired of every black character being a drug dealer, or a victim of police brutality, or pregnant and on welfare or in jail… she went on to explain it’s not that these things don’t happen, it’s just that she’s tired of teachers making choices which only highlight these aspects of black experience.  And she didn’t just mean she was tired of encountering those stereotypes – I think she was also tired of liberal-minded white people fetishizing them even as they mean to fight the anti-racist fight by making “gritty honest portrayals” of these aspects of black and Latinx existence.

I carry that student’s frustration with me now – her frustration was so palpable and true.  But she wasn’t saying “we should make more Cosby Shows” either.  When I read novels or watch movies representing black characters now, I think: what would that student say about this book?

Here is the really wonderful thing about If Beale Street Could Talk.  Even though its narrator Tish is an young, unmarried pregnant black woman, and her boyfriend Fonny has been arrested for rape and is in jail through the book, and their families live in a very traditionally undeserved, segregated neighborhood — in short, even though this has all the makings of “the struggle film” writ large — it is so much more than that, and somehow not at all what you would think a novel about “an unwed black mother” and a “falsely accused black man” would be.

I have tried to reflect on why I feel this way – but somehow, from the first words, that is not the space I was in:

I look at myself in the mirror.  I know that I was christened Clementine, and so it would make sense if people called me Clem, or even, come to think of it, Clementine, since that’s by name: but they don’t.  People call me Tish.  I guess that makes sense, too.  I’m tired, and I’m beginning to think that maybe everything that happens makes sense.  Like, if it didn’t make sense, how could it happen?  But that’s a really terrible thought.  It can only come out of trouble–trouble that doesn’t make sense.

Today, I went to see Fonny.  That’s not his name either, he was christened Alonzo: and it might make sense of people called him Lonnie.  But, no, we’ve always called in Fonny.  Alonzo Hunt, that’s his name.  I’ve known him all my life, and I hope I’ll always know him.  But I only call him Alonzo when I have to break down some real heavy shit to him.

Today, I said, “–Alonzo–?”

There is a love at the core of this book – the love between Fonny and Tish, yes, but also the love that binds the Rivers family together, the love that joins Fonny and his father – a love that does not deny pain or resentment or the harm of segregation (this is not that “when I went on a mission trip to the Caribbean I saw people that were happier than us even though they had so little”-type of crap) – but a love that “accepts” those injustice “as commonplace,” as Baldwin put in in “Notes of a Native Son,” but also one that fights them with every fiber of its being.  In that essay, Baldwin frames it as a paradox; this novel brings that paradox to life in a way that makes it make sense.

I said before that If Beale Street Could Talk is not written in the almost-expected Baldwinian Jeremiad voice – quite the opposite – but little bits of theorizing do creep in.  What I think works so well about them is that Baldwin has forced them to emerge organically from his younger narrator – she is making connections about a world that is new to her – things she has always had an emotional understanding of but only now is verbalizing them in narration.

So Tish will toss in a line like this —

I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same.

— And though you can here in that the voice of the Baldwin who has lived through Martin’s and Malcolm’s and Medgar’s (and Bobby’s and Jack’s) assassinations, you can also here a 21-year-old’s emerging inquisitive, critical consciousness.  You can also hear that nothing will ever break Tish – not because she is naive, but because her life is grounded in the love and support of family.

Baldwin’s epigram is drawn from gospel:

Mary, Mary,/What you going to name/That pretty little baby?

So the whole time you’re reading, you’re reminded, well, who was Mary really?  A poor pregnant unmarried woman of color.  And so this book forces you into the position of really examining what it would mean to place the child of such a woman at the center of your belief system.  What a radical revolution it would entail, for us actually to accept that woman’s love for her child — and how far from it White Christianity has wandered.  But Baldwin does this without white characters playing too much of a role at all.

STill, there is a powerful lesson in ally-ship in the depiction of a well-meaning white lawyer Hayward.  Here’s how Tish puts it:

Although, naturally, in the beginning, I distrusted him, I am not really what you can call a distrustful person: and, anyway, as time worse on, with each of us trying to hide our terror from the other, we began to depend more and more on one another–we had no choice.  And I began to see, as time wore on, that, for Hayward, the battle increasingly became a private one, involving neither gratitude nor public honor.  It was a sordid, a banal case, this rape by a black boy of an ignorant Puerto Rican woman–what was he getting so excited about?  And so his colleagues scorned and avoided him.  This fact introduced yet other dangers, not least of them the danger of retreating into the self-pitying and quixotic.  But Fonny was too real a presence, and Hayward too proud a man for that.

This is not a novel about or for white people, really, but this passage helps me, as a white person, understand what actually being an  “ally” might mean: not just to be willing to, but to actually put yourself on the line for racial justice so that your “[racist white] colleagues” “scorn and avoid” you.  To get to the point where you actually take it personally, and it is not a matter of morality or “public honor.”  It helps me understand what it might actually be to divest myself of my own “possessive investment in whiteness” (to borrow George Lipsitz’s term).

In the end, what works best for this novel is how short it is, somehow – it is a taut exercise in narrative economy that rings true 45 years later.  It redounds with life and freedom in the face of death and imprisonment.  I can’t wait to see the movie.

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No Name in the Street

It is not true that people become liars without knowing it.  A liar always knows he is lying, and that is why liars travel in packs: in order to be reassured that the judgment day will never come for them (James Baldwin, No Name In the Street, 1972).

This is the best book by James Baldwin I had never heard of.

If there’s one book I’ve read so far in all that James Baldwin has written that, more than any other, just sticks its finger in the eye of the White America, grapples onto its body and refuses to let go until it’s been heard, it is No Name in the Street.

Also, if you were a fan of last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, this is the place that a lot of those narrated passages came from–sequences about the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, but also several of the extended, damning disquisitions about the moral bankruptcy of White America.

I’m definitely not the first to say this, but these are the words of a prophet.  I don’t just mean “prophet” like “seer of the future,” but there is plenty of that.  Consider this passage, which does way, way more, in my mind anyway, to make sense of the Trump election and “Make America Great Again” than any number of “we need to listen harder to poor white people’s demands”-type op-eds have done for me:

But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power–or, more accurately, an energy–which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control.  For a very long time, for example, America prospered–or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives.  Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can never understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them.  Above all, they cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.  They are forced, then, to the conclusion that the victims–the barbarians–are revolting against all established civilized values–which is both true and not true–and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in imagination. 

It is difficult to describe the overall feeling this book generates: Baldwin moves freely from directly autobiographical summary of encounters with both famous and unknown people and places, and then organically moves toward epic denunciations of the United States and the West.  And that back-and-forth works – this is a Jeremiad of the first rate.

There is a continual focus on the sexual aspect of white supremacy, something else that also anticipates Trumpism and was written at least 50 years before the Access Hollywood tape.  This passage grows out of Baldwin’s account of being groped by a southern white politician:

In the case of American slavery, the black man’s right to his women, as well as to his children, was simply taken from him and whatever bastards the white man begat on the bodies of black women took their condition from the condition of their mother: blacks were not the only stallions on the slave-breeding farms!  And one of the many results of this loveless, money-making conspiracy was that, in giving the masters every conceivable sexual and unknown license, it also emasculated them of any human responsibility–to their women, to their children, to their wives, or to themselves.  The results of this blasphemy resound in this country, on every private and public level, until this hour.  When the man grabbed [me]… I watched his eyes, thinking, with great sorrow, the unexamined life is not worth living.  The despair among the loveless is that they much narcotize themselves before they can touch any human being at all.  They, then, fatally, touch the wrong person, not merely because they have gone blind or have lost the sense of touch, but because they no longer have any way of knowing that any loveless touch is a violation…  When the loveless come to power, or when sexual despair comes to power, the sexuality of the object is either a threat or a fantasy.

The only real way I can find to write about this book, apparently, is to put long quotations onto the page and insist that you read them – not usually a successful writing strategy.  So I’ll leave it at that.

One final idea: Baldwin wrote this after Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had all been killed.  There is a deep despair between the pages of this book that would seem in some ways (though not all) to say that Baldwin had given up hope when he wrote it.  These deaths moved Baldwin deeply on a personal level, beyond just their impacts as the deaths of public activists–these were all people Baldwin had gotten to know personally.

And No Name on the Street is, in many ways, a sequel to The Fire Next Time.  That book was written in two sections – “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross.”  No Name on the Street uses what would seem to be more optimistic imagery in titling its two sections. Part one is named “Take Me to the Water”; Part 2 “To Be Baptized.”  Just on first reading I can’t tell what sort of irony is intended, but still, my impression is, not that much, and that Baldwin thinks deep in his soul that some kind of transformation of our entire country, and therefore our world, is possible, even if extremely unlikely.

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James Baldwin – Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone

Though Baldwin wrote about his own life a lot, Baldwin’s 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone seems like the closest he came to writing a full-length autobiography.  It’s written in the first person and as his biographer David Leeming notes, a lot of the micro- and macro-level details of protagonist Leo Proudhammer’s life map onto Baldwin’s.

But this book still felt like a novel in the changes made.  Proudhammer is a stage actor turned movie star who suffers a heart attack at the outset of the book.  His stay in a San Francisco hospital provides a frame narrative which allows him to reflect on episodes in his earlier life.  Initially, as he drifts in and out of sleep, the memories are more distant and dream-like; towards the end, he and his friends make their way out of the hospital to a friend’s house, a Chinese restaurant and then finally a return to the east coast, and a resumption of his career.

The undulating, almost chapter-less organization of the text reminded me a lot of Proust, if M. had been a black man living in America, a bit more extroverted, who pursued an acting career.  Which might not sound all that similar to Proust’s M. at all – the overall effect of the narrative, though, is similar.  A kind of free association motivates the flashbacks and flash-forwards, though Baldwin’s free association is more social and less sensory in structure.

Anyway, the overall feel of the book was extraordinarily intimate, something I’ve noticed in different ways in each of Baldwin’s works of fiction.  There is always this very active sense of the ways personal interaction is both extremely particular and idiosyncratic, and yet still representative and demonstrative of the social structures that condition our lives.  That’s a tough square to circle, but really, for me (though not for all reviewers, apparently – Mario Puzo called this book a “simpledminded.. polemic”), Baldwin executes it persuasively.

I think one sort of problem a lot of white people have with books like this — which Puzo’s review illustrates very clearly — is that they tend to presume that everything is metaphor and allegory.  That when the protagonist has a humiliating run-in with the police (Proudhammer is arrested for trespassing after sleeping in and then leaving a white lover’s house alone, for example), or when we are treated to a grotesque depiction of a wealthy pseudo-liberal white couple, this is just the author “making a point about race” or something.

This is really just a more genteel species of the racist habit of white people refusing to believe people of color when they describe their experience.  These kinds of frustrating interactions, it seems to me, really happen, and they really happen to millions of people on a regular basis.  It seems to offend white literary sensibilities for them to be narrated with such straight-forwardness– surely, it seems, things can’t really happen like this.  Just like the court of public opinion ends up destroying already-dead figures like Trayvon Martin–where a good bit of the discussion in the white media takes the form of “well, the story really wasn’t that simple,” a certain kind of white reader encounters these narrations and thinks somehow the author has become polemical when they were really just being realistic.

One of the persistent concerns of this text is with acting, and roles.  The allegorical aspect of Proudhammer’s initial heart attack is obvious but still trenchant: there is a stress that Baldwin is giving voice to that arises from being black in America, a constant demand to play roles that seem to require the continual exertion of an almost impossible amount of mental and physical energy.  When Proudhammer collapses on stage, and his doctor tells him he needs to relax, we end up, by the end of the novel, understanding why that is not possible: the acting is an inevitable feature of his life, not because of his “stage personality,” but because the whiteness of our society constantly demands it of him.  At one point, Proudhammer explains that while he is tired of being relegated to playing minstrel-era servant types who dance jigs and act like simpletons, he confesses that he hates even more being asked to play long-suffering protagonists who we are actually supposed to sympathize with, as they make their peace with a racist world.

In keeping with the exploration of roles, there is also the signature Baldwin exploration of the intimate interpersonal dynamics that arise within actually racially diverse groups of people.  For me the most memorable sentence was this one:

Connections willed into existence can never become organic

This speaks a lot about the near-impossibility of the dream of American post-racial integration as it’s so often spoken about.  It’s a deeply perceptive answer to the old “why can’t we all just get along?”  It’s a truth enacted over and over again in this book – clusters of seemingly well meaning white people and well meaning black people gather and then disperse, those connections never quite becoming what everyone involved (or at least the white people) might have believed they could be.

The famous last passage of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time hints at the difficulty:

If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

There is a hope there, but also a dread, a resignation in the face of apocalypse.  That initial “if” – is it possible ever that it might be fulfilled?  Does being “relatively conscious” amount to anything in the end?

Leo Proudhammer begins the novel with a conflicted but certainly “organic” connection with his troubled brother Caleb, whose beating and arrest becomes the founding experience of trauma in young Leo’s life.  He moved along, in the second section, to a mostly white troupe of actors, falling in love with Barbara, though eventually they go their separate ways.  The novel’s final third brings us along to Leo’s relationship with “Black Christopher,” a resolving move in which Leo rediscovers the love he had for Caleb but now in an unambiguously erotic, grown-up context.

One of the book’s final scenes cashes in on the dynamics explored through these characters, as Leo and Christopher join Barbara and her southern-patrician parents for brunch.  Like some of the greatest moments in Dostoevsky, this scene’s awkwardness was palpable and in its own way hilarious.  Barbara’s parents insist that neither they not anyone else they’ve ever met is racist; Christopher tries to tell them off, Barbara is more or less silent, not wanting to “offend,” and Leo seems confirmed in his decision to have left her behind.

A scene like this is allegorical, yes, but all of his key elements it also happen every day in our real, non-allegorical world.  It is more or less, what public life in America has become.

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What I’ve Learned Bringing Kendrick Lamar into my Classroom

When Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize today, I think more than a few people probably dismissed it as somehow the committee trying to be trendy but that the award itself is undeserved.  They’re wrong.  For me, the question is not whether he deserved it, but why it had to wait until 2016’s DAMN, when 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is, from where I sit, the true masterpiece (admittedly, I sit somewhere pretty lacking in hip-hop knowledge).

A few years ago I was at the AP grading in Kansas City.  I was talking with a guy whose name I’ve forgotten – he was a grad student (most of the most interesting people to talk to  at the AP grading – to me anyway – are on the college side).  Sort of half white hipster, half white stoner from a mountain state.  I was talking his ear off either the unit in my AP class about code-switching, race and language policy.  Because I’m really proud of that unit so I tend to talk people’s ears off about it.

Anyway somehow he gets a word in and says “you should listen to Kendrick Lamar.  To Pimp a Butterfly.  It’s like Dubliners, but in Compton.”

Now he barely knew me, and I hadn’t even yet talked his ear off about James Joyce yet (another subject I’ll hold forth on if you don’t stop me).  But when he put it like that, since either Dubliners or Ulysses is my favorite book in the English language, it left an impression.  He also told me there was a kind of radical etymology of the n-word offered in between tracks, and that I should make to listen to the whole thing, not just the popular songs.

I made a mental note, and later in the summer, got to the album.  To be honest, the first time I listened, I had trouble.  I grew up listening to punk, post-punk and grunge.  There are a lot of ways that music is confrontational and challenging to its audience, but something that’s almost entirely absent from all of it is sex.  The Clash may actually never speak to it.  Nor REM, Sonic Youth or Nirvana.  The Pixies or the Ramones?  Occasionally.  So when I heard the opening moments of “Wesley’s Theory,” the first track on To Pimp a Butterfly, specifically the line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck,” it felt uncomfortable and embarrassing to hear through my headphones.  Even the album’s title seemed to rest on a sexual metaphor that felt somehow too intimate.  Later on when I listened to “For Free,” the second track, the refrain “this dick ain’t free” also didn’t sit well.

But – As I made my way through the album, past those opening tracks, something else opened up.  I’m not sure what happened to that initial discomfort, something I’ve come to see as a kind of armor placed at the outset to deter people like me, but I listened through.  The middle tracks felt less uncomfortable but I didn’t quite hear the point.

Now I very specifically remember getting off the red line at Roosevelt, walking to get my son from daycare, when I was listening to “The Blacker the Berry,” almost at the end (track 13).

There was something absolutely electrifying about this track.  The sample itself has a chilling, minor-key terror behind it, and “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” felt like a pretty new idea in the world – a daring and odd way to start a song.  When I came to the final climactic moment –

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a n— blacker than me?
Hypocrite!

I was actually in tears.  The amount of emotional energy – real, intense, sincerely rendered, vulnerable pain – that was compressed into that final turn – it overwhelmed me.  It sat with me.  It entered a level of my consciousness from which it hasn’t really receded.

Here, I thought, okay.  This is what that nameless guy back in Kansas City wanted me to hear.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m at a new job, working at a school I’ve been hired to but only barely understand.  I’m making small talk with one of my classes and I say “What should I listen to?”  I remember one kid – call him Alan (all names are changed) – he was a very serious-minded Latino kid who whipped out his phone and started scrolling through playlists he had assembled.  He mentions Kendrick, and he says “To Pimp a Butterfly?  You have to listen to ‘Mortal Man.’  That’s where he explains all of it, like really breaks it down.”  One of the things I liked about my new school almost right away is that kids seem ready to have conversations like this with me for whatever reason.  A few other kids in the class perk up and offer their opinions about it.  That year a big music question on a lot of their minds, I learned right then, was “J Cole or Kendrick?”  Another student, Jameson, a black kid who had rarely spoken before that in class, said he thought both were all right, it just depended if you were feeling more chill (J Cole) or more hyped up (Kendrick).  Still a third (JD) – more outspoken than the other two, also black, said “what you really want to hear is Kendrick on Good Kid/MA.A.D City.  ‘The Art of Peer Pressure.'”

I file all of this away, and spend a lot more time riding home on the el, looking out the window, watching the north side drift by (especially when I can snag a front-facing seat on the purple line) and listening intently to To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that’s more than 75 minutes, thus actually too long for me to finish on my commute.  I do things like take a longer walk home so I can finish it.  Over the span of a few weeks, I gradually absorb it – come to memorize lyrics, listen hard enough to hear them when they’re harder to make out because of the speed or the production— one day it dawns on me that that originally awkward line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck” is sexual, yes, placing this into the genre of a spiteful breakup song – but also have recognized it’s introducing an extended metaphor: “you” becomes the United States, “love” is about patriotism and the internalized vision of unity he has held, and “now I just wanna fuck” means “I’m done with all the romanticized image of this country, my place in it and what it is supposed to mean for me – now I just want to get paid.”  There are hundreds of other references to US history, especially black history, laced throughout the album’s 16 tracks.  “This dick ain’t free” becomes not just a sly put-down of a nagging, materialistic girlfriend, but a protest about the exploitation of the black body through the history of the United States, made clear by that song’s masterful conclusion, a spoken-word explosion that never fails to make at least one of my students jump out of their seat the first time they hear it.  Its final rhyming pair, a conclusive couplet worthy of anything you will find in Shakespeare, is stark in its implications:

Oh America you bad bitch

I picked cotton that made you rich

Now this dick ain’t free.

Once you start to hear that, meaning proliferates and doubles back on itself.  Allusions unfurl.  Motifs suggest multiple, hybrid and still internally consistent interpretations.  When you step back to read the album’s hundreds of lines, parse them, unpack their references, puns, metaphors, repetitions— you get to a point where you realize you can’t hold it all, it’s too big to comprehend in that way.  I’ve only ever really experienced that – and the emotional punch that would seem to be the opposite of complexity – in one other context, and, just like my stoner-hipster conversational friend had said – it was when reading Joyce, especially Ulysses.  And I don’t just mean that as a comparison that suggests they’re both “complex”– they are — but also that the nature of their complexities is very similar, and pointed towards a similar end.

Both Lamar and Joyce integrate “high” and “low” culture in a dizzying, overloaded, hyper-allusive and entirely idiosyncratic whole. The residue of motif, imagery, allusion, pun, and the like are probably impossible to grasp all at once, I can only really get different senses of coherence each time I listen. And both Joyce and Lamar intend the comprehensive indictment of a system, one which, as Lamar puts it, is “based on apartheid and discrimination.” Joyce’s targets are the British empire and Catholicism, mutually reinforcing powers that have destroyed his hundreds of thousands of his countrymen’s lives; Lamar’s are the United States’ scheme of racism, white supremacy, capitalism and all the religious and cultural manifestations of those huge forces, which have done the same.  Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say “I am the servant of two masters” (i.e., the pope and the king and all they represent). When Kendrick says “Oh America you bad bitch/I picked cotton that made you rich” he has something just as grand and seemingly indestructible in his sights. Both authors hold the whole system in view the whole time, and explore the subjective experience of living within it, and somehow use the latter to interrogate the former, sifted through the filter of a consumer culture whose signs and significations are both maddeningly shallow and also pregnant with critical possibility.

If you think I’m reading too much into this: I keep coming back to this passage from “Ab-Souls Outro” on Lamar’s earlier Section.80:

“See a lot of ya’ll don’t understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money
Hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I’ve spent twenty three years on the earth searching for answers
Til’ one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I’m not on the outside looking in
I’m not on the inside looking out
I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around
You’ve ever seen a newborn baby kill a grown man
That’s an analogy for the way the world make me react
My innocence been dead
So the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
Just know I meant it, and you felt it
Because you too are searching for answers
I’m not the next pop star
I’m not the next socially aware rapper
I am a human motherfucking being, over dope ass instrumentation
Kendrick Lamar” (Ab-Souls Outro, on Section.80).

or more minimalistically, this:

“the mind of a literate writer but I did it
in fact you admitted it once I submitted it
wrapped in plastic (“Momma” on To Pimp a Butterfly).

The Joyce/Lamar parallel goes much deeper I think – obscenity, the blending of the sacred and the profane, the materialism, the density, apparent commercialism and finally both of their initially sexualized veneers – but I won’t belabor the point now.

In that English class, we were slated to read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a text I had read and taught many times.  But as I had listened so many times to To Pimp a Butterfly, this sense emerged that both of these were texts of liberation, where a self-assured yet vulnerable black male voice told his story of his emergence from slavery to freedom.  So while we were reading Douglass, we listened to one song each day until we were done.

I asked the students to do something simple and experimental – every day, we’d read a part of Douglass, and listen to a song from To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’d ask students to write down a quotation from each, and draw some kind of a connection.  Any kind.  I had no agenda except the vague teacherly intuition that these sources were telling a similar story.

What they came up with was powerful in its imperfection.  They did not offer coherent theses, but instead pulled strings in both texts to cinch them together.  A very particular strain I remember growing out of one girl’s ideas (call her Janet).  Janet had spoken very frequently before the class about the idea that black people couldn’t experience depression, even though she, as a black girl, did.  And hear she found, in both of these texts, both men forthrightly acknowledging their depression.  Others discovered a pattern of religious belief (and critique of false religion) shared across the 150 years that separated these texts.  The nontraditional way in which each claimed to have acquired their learning was a big trend.  Hypocrisy was a shared theme.  Every day it was something oblique but real.

Since then I’ve tried to treat the album as its own thing, not ancillary to Frederick Douglass, and we’ve come to explore themes through the lens of the documentary 13th.  And as I’ve worked with now three sets of students going through this process, this is (in extreme summary) what I’ve made of this album.  Though I’ve written a ton already, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Here’s my findings in one paragraph:

The multi-layered “Wesley’s Theory” opens the album and sets forth several hugely resonant motifs through the lens of the record industry’s desire to commodify Lamar’s abilities.  “For Free?” expands upon the historically gendered basis of that commodification, rooting it in slavery.  “King Kunta” advances the first glimmer of the solution/resistant stance the end of the album will cash in on – it’s about African ancestry  (i.e., Kunta Kinte, not Toby) and experience deployed as a counter-narrative to “Uncle Sam.”  Tracks 4-10 explore the first-person experience of Kendrick’s life in much more depth, and they are woven together by a cumulative tale, a few lines of which are revealed in each retelling. – “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…” – it eventually swells to a full poem.  Each reveal between songs expands the themes introduced on tracks 1-3 and connects them to Lamar’s personal experience.  Tracks 11-16 set forth a slate of increasingly radical indictments that imply alternatives, exploring selfishness by returning to Africa on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” examining colorism’s origins in the slavery period on “Complexion”, internalized forms of white supremacy on “The Blacker the Berry,” and then finally the self-affirmation of “i” (which has that fascinating coda about the n-word, itself a kind digressive appendix that recreates the argument of the album as a whole in an oblique context).  “Mortal Man,” indeed does, as Alan said to me 3 years ago, break it all down, using the language of a kind of double eulogy for Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur, one that expounds a final plea for Kendrick’s audience to learn from history, “unite and stop the enemy from killing us.”

I can’t do justice to the complexity of all of that in one paragraph but that’s my best try, and I’ve barely even delved into the poetics of it at the line level, but that’s my best try for a Tuesday night.

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Ain’t Nothin’ New – Or – James Baldwin – Blues for Mister Charlie

[I put the James Baldwin reading project on hold for a while, but it’s back.]

In one of my classes, we just finished an almost quarter-long exploration of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.  One of the coolest things about studying this album with my students is that, for whatever reason, kids often share music with me.  “Hood Politics,” the 9th track (a track, like basically every other track on that album, that rewards deeper re-listening) has these three lines:

Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans
Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?
They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs

I had a quick after-class conversation with a student.  He pointed me to a song by 21 Savage called “Nothin’ New.”   As an English teacher this was a cool moment because here was a student unearthing an allusion in real time (not sure if Kendrick had this in mind, but it’s plausible for sure, after you listen to both songs).

That line from “Hood Politics” – “They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs” is one of those couplets on To Pimp a Butterfly that redounds with meaning, especially for my students.  There are hundreds of lines you will find on that album, but this is one that catches almost everyone’s attention.  And in Lamar’s telling, that act — the white world’s ideological and material construction of blackness and criminality – “ain’t nothing new.”

Which brings me to Baldwin and Blues for Mister Charlie.  What is eerie and devastatingly effective about this play – a 1964 effort by Baldwin – is the way that it functions almost as a literal script for what goes down in the United States whenever a white person kills a black person.  Something distinctive about plays vis-a-vis novels is the way they compress meaning and elevate the universal aspects of the story they tell.  Without a narrator, there is rarely “down time” in a play – it’s both more efficient and less “realistic” than the kind of fictional text that can expound at length upon a theme or idea in a narrative voice.  In plays need to be performed, so their length will never expand beyond a certain point.  Good uses of the genre (at least for me), distill their core ideas into the dialogue of characters in a way other fiction doesn’t, because other fiction doesn’t need to.

Baldwin wrote this play as a kind of universalization of the story of the murder of Emmett Till.  The play begins in medias res with the words of Lyle, the white murderer, just after he has killed Richard – “and may every n—– like this n—– end like this n—- – face down in the weeds!” then dips backwards to explore both characters’ backstories and communities, and culminates in a courtroom scene and its inevitable verdict of “not guilty.” That inevitability arrives as anti-climax when we reach it – there’s very little suspense – but the steps along the way read, as with so much in Baldwin, as prescient, prophetic even.

And so that’s why I started with “Nothin’ New.”  For me, as a upper-middle class white person raised in an almost all white suburb, all of this is new.  To teenage me, In 1991, the Rodney King beating (and the acquittal of those police officers) was new.  My classmates and I argued about it in school like such a thing had never happened before.  Trayvon Martin’s murder by a neighborhood vigilante felt new.  And yeah, we read To Kill a Mockingbird, but even that, in some sense, was “new” when I read it.  New in the sense that it was exceptional, or so we were told, and so we preferred to think.

So when I read the pages of Blues for Mister Charlie, I finally started to feel the impact of Kendrick’s words – “ain’t nothin’ new.”  I am guessing (though I don’t know) that if I had grown up black, this is a story I would have already known.  I think reading this play would be different from that standpoint.  So for me, what’s new here is the gradual acceptance – at the level of emotion, not only intellectually (where I’ve accepted it for years)– that this is not new.  That this is in the very fibers of this country.  And this play helped me feel that.  Which I think has to be part of Baldwin’s project.

And what’s new is not only the two macro-level steps: (1) dehumanizing violent act against a black victim, (2) the court of public opinion’s re-dehumanization of that same black victim and their family.  That’s there in Baldwin, sure.

But what’s really devastating is the familiarity of the micro-level.  Here’s a line Baldwin has Lyle speak:

He probably got killed by some other n—– – they do it all the time – but ain’t nobody even thought about arresting one of them.  Has n—–‘s suddenly got to be holy in this town?

I have of course encountered many racist internet trolls who have their own theory of “black on black crime.”  They usually describe it as a new phenomenon – they want to say “back in the day, sure, black people were oppressed, but now, racism is gone, but still THEY DO IT TO THEMSELVES through BLACK ON BLACK CRIME!”  They often seem to believe that sometime after the Civil Rights Act passed, black people’s problems were all fixed, but then for some reason, black people started reconstructing their own oppression, and Democrats helped them through “the welfare state.”

Of course, that’s wrong-headed, but what I now see is that my understanding of this narrative was problematic in a similar way.  In my white naivete, I thought that the rhetoric of “black on black crime” was a mid-80’s Reagan-era invention.  I did not realize that for at least 60 years (and I’m willing to guess, for the 300 years before that too), white people (fictional or real) have been saying that about black people.  Since Baldwin wrote it down with so little explanation or exposition, I can assume that this was already a common talking point, something Baldwin had so grown weary of hearing that it was easy for him to write it into his character’s mouth.  Ain’t nothin’ new.

One of the points of real ambivalence in the play is Parnell, the patrician journalist in the town, rumored to be too sympathetic to the black folks, but holding enough power and influence among the whites that he can’t just be ignored, marginalized or murdered.  The fear of journalism and “liberal bias” is all over this text.  And what’s more, when Meridian, the black pastor, pleads with Parnell to help convict Lyle, Parnell says of Lyle, a childhood friend, in defending him against the obvious truth of his racist murder:

Well, yes.  From your point of view.  But–from another point of view–Lyle hasn’t got anything against colored people… He’s not mean, he’s not cruel.  He’s a poor white man.  The poor white has been just as victimized in this part of the world as the black have ever been.

So sitting here in 2018, I was further hardened against the lazy analysis of the 2016 election that announces that it knows why Trump was elected – “because in this era of multicultural ‘identity politics’ and Hollywood elitism, the poor white people’s voice has gone unheard!”  I am guessing that right back to 1776 – heck, back to 1607 – there is a literature pleading that it’s not racism that killed the Native Americans and enslaved the blacks – no – the problem wouldn’t be there if only we had been listening closely enough to poor whites!  Ain’t nothin’ new.

These are just two particularly resonant moments.  There are dozens more: the ideological apparatus, the media talking points – they are all already fully visible in 1964 to James Baldwin.

The place in the play we find the most of this is in the surreal courtroom sequence in Act III.  It’s a quasi-legal miasma of victim-blaming and narrative indirection.  “THE STATE” speaks with a sonority that makes you miss, at least initially, that though this is a murder prosecution, the witnesses being most attacked by it are the victim’s family and friends.  There is also a “COUNSEL FOR THE BEREAVED” who, at times, presses an actual prosecutorial case against the murderer (and there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Lyle is guilty).  But it’s a show trial whose unjust conclusion is known to all from the outset.   The process of posthumous character assassination of the victim should be sufficiently clear to anyone who followed the Trayvon Martin story (or any of the dozens of other cases which have captured the public’s attention since then).  Ain’t nothin’ new.

In the documentary 13th, you can see the clips of Emmitt’s Till’s mother Mamie Till Bradley at her son’s funeral.  The last time I saw it, that was the most moving moment for me (in a film of pretty powerful moments, let’s be honest).  To experience the horror of your child, killed, and to stand up proudly in front of thousands of people – a black student of mine once spoke words to this effect: “don’t get sad about this stuff, stay angry, that’s what you gotta do” – in Mamie Till Bradley’s face, I see something about what he was saying.  Stand proud in the face of unutterable loss.

But not only did she endure the funeral.  She demanded that her son’s body be exposed to the world in an open-casket funeral.  After reading Blues for Mister Charlie I see this not only as the act of defiance and confrontation that it was, but also as a mother’s best attempt to stop her son from dying a second death.  Those grotesque black and white images of his bloated body starkly contest efforts by the journalistic-historical-industrial complex from rationalizing his murder, from assassinating his character.  It was a loving attempt to protect Emmitt Till’s name through the deployment of his hatefully desecrated body.  And that feels like something new.  But I bet if I read and study more, I will find a whole line of Mamie Till Bradleys, standing in defiance in the face of loss, preserving the dignity of their children through proud confrontational insistence after white people have killed them.

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From Slavery to Freedom – or – Why White People Need to Learn from Black History

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear (James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”/The Fire Next Time).

One of Baldwin’s fundamental lessons for white America is that it needs to get its head out of the sand.  That’s true on a lot of different levels, but for me, one of the most straightforward, least theoretically complicated, least “social justice warrior”-ish, is the simple statement that most white people are not aware of the history of black Americans.  We know bits and pieces of it, especially as it intersects with events that are important in our preferred soft-core historical pastimes (like as a momentary pause in obsessive deep-dives into the military strategies and technologies deployed in the civil war), but for the most part, we were not raised to take the perspective of black Americans seriously.  We were not raised with the habit of listening to them, either in person or in writing.  If we grew up in a nearly all white community (and most of us did), we had little opportunity to get to know any of them.  And if that all white community constructed its educational institutions and curricula without reflecting on the ways that they came to live in an all white community within a country which has never been all white in its totality, well, we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to learn.  Which is what I think Baldwin means by our “inhumanity and fear.”

So instead of hearing from black people, if and when we had any exposure to them, it was because we heard about them – a huge difference in so many ways.

I just finished reading the massive From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr.  This is a book I bought because when he died, the New York Times ran a front-page obituary of John Hope Franklin, and this book was mentioned there.  That was probably 5 years ago.  I finally had a chance to read it, end to end, and it took me almost a month.  Because it’s nearly 500 pages, and they’re dense, factual and refreshingly un-stylized–it was originally published in the 1940’s, and no attempt at “accessibility” is made beyond the facts themselves as they compel your attention.

Not to put too fine a point on it: what I learned from this book is that in every single single era in American history black people have been met with unrelenting resistance, hostile and violent, on the part of the white population.  Franklin’s approach is consistently materialistic: he says very little about “racism” in the abstract, preferring simply to illustrate it through the sequence of events he narrates.  Beginning with the abduction and forced enslavement of millions (yes, he does discuss the ways that in some ways, African leaders had a hand in this, but not in the ways that your racist uncle likes to bloviate about), the hostile, violent resistance put up by white Americans continued (and continues) in every corner of our society: in the workplace, the military, the church, the schools, real estate, political realm and everywhere in between.  Franklin does not argue that this is because of some vast and secret conspiracy undertaken by white people, or on account of a biological trait inherent in us.  Franklin actually does not try to address this question in any abstract way: the simple veracity of the events that have taken place works well enough on its own.

Reading a narrative history like From Slavery to Freedom is a very simple way for white people to understand what “white supremacy” is.  It requires no theoretical commitments, only a willingness to read, listen and believe what is reported.

Set against this narrative of violent oppressive force, is Franklin’s painstakingly assembled catalog of black efforts at empowerment, education, cultural recognition, political power, dignity and, most fundamentally, freedom and equality.  In long lists of political leaders, organizations, publications and city population data, one can feel Franklin reaching out from the page and saying “whatever you want to think about your country and my place in it, know that I have done my part not to have these people forgotten.”  In producing such lists, he has guaranteed that future generations, should they want to, can continue the work of excavating this history, not allowing it to be forgotten or under-emphasized by mainstream history.

Dostoevsky’s imperative — “judge a society by its prisons” has a more general form: the best way to understand the history and present day reality of a nation is to consider its history from the perspective of its least-advantaged members.  For the United States, that does not necessarily mean from the perspective of black people: Native Americans, Latinx, East Asians, Pacific Islanders, South Asians and Middle Easterners all have legitimate claim, at various times and in various ways, to be counted among the least advantaged.  And reading a history from the perspective of any of those groups would also yield a wealth of insight into American society.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates has said in an interview I was fortunate enough to attend, if you want truly to understand America, you need to listen to black people’s experience and history.  Because black people were there, played an integral role, and were not given credit for that role (or were otherwise lied about in our culture’s dominant myth-making spaces), at every crucial juncture in the history of the construction of our republic.

If you are one of the legions of white people who believe that “identity politics” is bad, and that somehow looking through the perspective of black people is unduly “identitarian,” “relativistic,” too “postmodern,” too “Foucauldian,” or however David Brooks or Mark Lilla (or whoever your favorite condescending and willfully ignorant white “intellectual” commentator is) wants to put it, please consider reading Franklin’s book.  Because whatever else you might say about it, it is none of those things.  He sets out from the start to pursue a simple project: since there have been black people here in the United States, people the governing population referred to as “Negros” (or worse) for hundreds of years, and that act of race-naming and acting-as-though-it-were-real is undeniably present, in our country’s founding documents, published histories, census records, and its speeches, we are very reasonable in asking the simple question: what were things like for this group?  What were their experiences?  How were they treated?  What practices did they undertake?  Sure – the idea of such a group is a “social construction,” race is not “real,” but its construction is pretty much something that’s been underway for as long as this country has been a country (and before).  The construction has been undertaken in different ways and at different times by different people, but it has never ceased.  So we need to consider the effects it has had.  The best way to do that is to listen to the people whose existence has been defined as “black,” “Negroid,” “Afro-American,” and so on, for all these years.

Franklin does not seek to explain slavery as a phenomenon in anything other than materialistic terms: there was such a possibility for profit to be turned from cheap/free labor, that capital found a way for slavery to begin.  And once it began, ideological reinforcement (in the form of racism) was ready at hand.  From then on, the dialectical interplay between capital and ideology has been enough to sustain it:

In the beginning little social distinction was made in America on account of race.  As the racial justification for slavery developed, there began to creep into the mores of American society a distinction between blacks and whites.  One of its manifestations was the passage of laws against intermarriage.  More and more, however, the real distinction came to be that between whites and those blacks who had some claim to freedom.  In the nineteenth century, as the slave-holding class found it necessary to establish safeguards for effective control of the free Negro, a veritable wall was erected around the black man, and he found it necessary to develop his own life and his own institutions.  There existed between him and the rest of the world a minimum of communication, and even this communication steadily decreased (145).

That’s about as much “high theory” or “social-justice mysticism” you will find here.  It’s all Franklin really needs.  The facts themselves speak loudly enough.

If you’re like me, you learned history without any sense of perspective.  My history textbooks spoke from on high, trying to educate me about “America” and “Americans” without recognizing that a fundamental asymmetry in American history arose very early between white Americans, Native Americans and black Americans.  And that this asymmetrical structure grew to incorporate more and more immigrant groups as the centuries wore on.  Because if you are historigraphically naive enough to speak for “the American experience” they way that Boorstin and Kelley, or whomever, insist upon doing (how else could you have ONE historical textbook?), if you are arrogant enough to believe there is one American story, you will of necessity miss a fundamental aspect of that very story: the violent silencing and redefinition needed to make such a story coherent.

Of all the things that reading From Slavery to freedom showed me, it is the fundamental truth of how and why Donald Trump is the 45th president of this country, as expressed in these two brilliant paragraphs from Ta Nehisi Coates’ “Donald Trump is the First White President”:

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far. Like the black working class, the white working class originated in bondage—the former in the lifelong bondage of slavery, the latter in the temporary bondage of indenture. In the early 17th century, these two classes were remarkably, though not totally, free of racist enmity. But by the 18th century, the country’s master class had begun etching race into law while phasing out indentured servitude in favor of a more enduring labor solution. From these and other changes of law and economy, a bargain emerged: The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave. But if the bargain protected white workers from slavery, it did not protect them from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them, and always there lurked a fear of having their benefits revoked. This early white working class “expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery,” according to David R. Roediger, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or ‘negers’ or ‘negurs.’ ”

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What I Mean by White Supremacy

“The bondage of the Negro brought captive from Africa is one of the greatest dramas in history, and the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race.” (Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro)

Back at that anti-racism workshop in Hyde Park I wrote about yesterday, as I was drawing the crude stick figure KKK member, the teacher in me sensed where this was going: my image of white supremacy — my pre-conscious, un-thought-out vision of what it meant — needed work.  The presenter debriefed with us, and of course, I was not the only person who had produced something like that Klansman.  Many of us had very simplistic ideas of what white supremacy was.  The next thing the presenters did was show us this chart:

There’s a lot of compressed information here, but the short version is, white power and supremacy exist because a set of six narratives that support it also exist.  These narratives might look like “stereotypes,” but they are not only that.  They are also material structures, histories, stories, images, policies, philosophies, and more.  What I take from the Woodson quote above is that to understand history is not only to know the facts, but much more importantly, how we assess the significance of those facts.  I have always known (at least starting in 3rd grade or so) that slavery happened, and over the coming years, I also learned about the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Mexican War, the Gadsden and Louisiana Purchases, the annexation of Hawaii and much more.  I also lived through Iran-Contra, both Gulf wars, 9/11 and the construction of Guantanamo Bay.

I was always encouraged to all those events as “dark moments in our history,”  as mainstream historians and journalists so often describe them — as unfortunate detours in the grand march towards freedom I was always told America was.  What I have come to see now, though, is that these are not detours: they are the route itself.  Our country would not exist in any recognizable form if these acts of violent, aggressive seizure (and many more not named) hadn’t happened.

I grew up in an upper-class, nearly all white community, but our school teachers did not hide these facts from us.  What was kept from us, though, was their significance.  Consider Woodson’s words: “the writer who merely sees in that ordeal something to approve or condemn fails to understand the evolution of the human race” (my emphasis).  What I learned about slavery was that it was something that had happened in the past, and that it was morally wrong (“something to… condemn”).  According to Woodson, then, at that point, I failed “to understand the evolution of the human race.”

I think many white Americans’ understanding of slavery is like mine used to be.  We know it happened; we have done relatively little reflection on its significance, legacy, or present-day manifestations.  We are all sure it’s wrong – because it was and is – but we have no knowledge or awareness of the dynamics that drove it.  This is what was so terrible about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: it was a movie that saw slavery as a random, stupid institution that was wrong, and whose savior, played of course by Daniel Day-Lewis, was clear-headed enough to oppose.  It failed to place it into any kind of meaningful context, or give the audience any sense of the ways the North and the South were deeply dependent on it.  It made it look like ending slavery was just a matter of buying off a few votes of a few venial politicians.

But what I have come to understand about slavery in the United States is that it etched its mark on (1) our national psyche, (2) our economic realities, and (3) our political institutions.

First – our psyche – there is a chicken-and-egg sort of problem here.  Did slavery create the notion of “African Americans a social and intellectual inferiors”, or was it created out of that notion?  I don’t know, but what I do know is, since it began, the material institution of slavery and the intellectual racist discourse of African-American inferiority became co-productive.  The one strengthened the other and vice versa.  And when slavery ended, though a material structure crumbled, the intellectual one persisted.  And so long as that intellectual structure remained, new material manifestations of it could be re-spawned: convict-leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, redlining, white flight, urban renewal, mass incarceration, and more, on down to the present. Each of these new material structures re-affirmed the intellectual narrative of African-American inferiority, and each time one of them has been destroyed, the underlying narrative has remained.  It’s like a continually twisting double-helix.  This last point is not my own: it’s one Michelle Alexander makes very powerfully in the final chapter of The New Jim Crow called “The Fire This Time”.

So if we just see “slavery” as something that “ended” in 1865, we fail to understand the persistent narrative impact it has had upon America.  If we just see slavery as something to “condemn” we “fail to understand the evolution of the human race.”  We fail to understand the way that its material reality created intellectual ones, which in turn created other material ones, on down to now.

Second, economically, we also fail to understand the economic impact that it had and has.  We know that the day slavery ended, African Americans had very little amassed wealth, whether we mean real estate, other owned property, liquid assets, stocks or bonds.  So long as the anti-black intellectual discourse remained,  each successive material manifestation worked deftly to prevent the accumulation of black wealth, and also (easy to forget) created more and more wealth for white people, a group of people who were already economically ahead because of the enormous amount of capital generated directly by slave labor prior to 1865.  Each successive material manifestation of anti-blackness has meant more extraction of capital from black bodies into white people’s bank accounts.  The surface-level material form changes, but the extraction is constant.  Again, this not my own point – this one I took from this talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Third, our political institutions.  Slavery was such an economic boon to both the north and the south that at the time of the founding of our country, there was no way it was going to be abolished, as obvious as the contradiction was between slavery and the ideals the founders allegedly believed in.  The three-fifths compromise, the promise not to end the slave trade for twenty more years, the electoral college, the senate, the fight over westward expansion, compromising one state at a time– all of these things happened because the north was unwilling to surrender the profits its manufacturers could make based on the steady supply of free labor in the form of slavery it had come to expect from the south.  And even when the civil war ended, and the 14th amendment seemed to pave the way towards a new form of equality and social contract, it didn’t take long (DuBois makes this point really well in the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk called “Of the Dawn of Freedom”) for the old ideology to re-establish its grip, and the institutions to revert to form.

We must understand how slavery “evolved,” to return to Woodson’s words, to truly understand our social reality – our country’s thinking, its economic and its political structures.  It’s not enough to say “it’s bad and it was in the past.”  We totally miss its impact if that’s how we see it.

And though what I’m saying here is all in the context of the enslavement of African-Americans, and the discourse of intellectual inferiority that grew up around them and the economic and political implications of that discourse, similar stories can be told about each of the other “wedges” of that pie chart I included above.

  • (material) Native American genocide coupled with the (intellectual) vision of the Native American as a savage
  • (material) anti-Latinx colonial expansion coupled with the (intellectual) perception of Latinx as “tainted mestizos”
  • East Asian labor exploitation and political repression coupled with the vision of East Asians as perpetually foreign
  • South Asian/Middle Eastern Americans indefinitely imprisoned and unfairly searched in airports coupled with the vision of them as “marauding infidels”
  • perhaps most significantly, White people’s exploitative wealth accumulation worked hand in hand with the intellectual vision of White people as intellectually and socially superior.

I talked about slavery at greater length because I know more about it, but the outlines of each of these bullet points should be clear enough that you can see where I’m coming from.

And that is what I mean when I say that life in the United States is characterized by a system of white supremacy: there is a mutually reinforcing network of historically rooted material and intellectual structures that make it so that, all other things equal, it is easier to be white in America – if you are born white in this country, chances are, you will live longer and healthier, hold more wealth, have better access to almost everything than if you are born a person of color.  PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying every white person’s life is easier than every person of color’s life.  I am only saying that, if we keep other factors (like income, or place of residence) equal, white people will have it easier.  Because we have developed a long-term economic, social and intellectual commitment to their superiority.

To bring it back to the idea of the earth and the sun: people who believed in geocentrism knew the facts about Mercury and Venus’s orbits looking different than Mars’ and Jupiter’s, but they didn’t understand the significance of them.  A closer examination of their orbital paths, along with a set of other insights, led some scientists later to realize that the earth goes around the sun.  My argument is that a whole set of historical events, narratives and structures, rather than being anomalous and unusual in the history of the United States, are actually the core experience – that’s something that I think a lot of people of color just realize, because it happened to them and their ancestors, but it’s something a lot of white people, like me, need to come to see.

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What is White Supremacy? Does it Exist? One try at explaining these questions

 Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. (James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew,” 1962)

Short answers:

What is white supremacy?  It’s a system (or set of systems) that systemically advantages white people at the expense of people of color.

Does it exist?  Yes it does.

Before a longer answer, a couple of disclaimers:

1) I have thought a lot about these questions and am pretty clear on the answers in my head. And yet when I’m asked by someone who does not see it like I do, I’m almost at a loss for words.  Not in a bad way, it’s just humbling.  It’s a weird feeling.  It feels a little like being asked whether earth revolves around the sun.  I don’t mean that in a dismissive or trivializing way.  I mean it’s the kind of thing that once you see, you can’t un-see, but before you have, it’s easy to miss.  And once you see it even for a moment, it can be terrifying (hence Baldwin’s language).

2) I think the question of the existence of white supremacy will likely sound insane to many, many people of color.  Like, how could you even ask?  And so it’s really tempting for me, a white guy who thinks he gets it, to be smug and sarcastic when confronted with someone who thinks that white supremacy is not a force in our world.  And I have been smug about this, especially when discussing it semi-anonymously on the internet.  Like I said, this will seem insane to many people of color that it could be a question.  But I have also spoken with many people of color who have said things like (paraphrasing) “it’s crazy there are people out there who don’t believe it exists, but it your job [i.e. white people’s who do think it does] to find the other white people who think it doesn’t, and it’s your job not to give up on them until you’ve gotten them to see things as they are.”  I take this charge seriously, and many people I have known and cared about, as well as many public intellectuals whose work I have read, watched and listened to, have laid it upon me and all the other, as Baldwin calls them elsewhere “well-meaning white people.”

3)  This is such a complex question that the best way I can think to handle it is to try to answer it in a lot of different ways.  Since my first recourse in life is often intellectual/abstract, I’m trying an abstract way here.  It’s probably too abstract and doesn’t prove too much.  I’ll try others later.

Okay, disclaimers done.  Now for the much harder part.

What is white supremacy?

I was at an anti-racism workshop a few years ago.  It met at a Catholic Seminary.  It was expertly facilitated by a black woman and a white woman.  The black woman asked us to turn to a blank paper in our packet, and said “what is white supremacy?  Draw the first thing that comes to mind.”  I am bad at drawing.  It’s actually the thing I’m the worst at in this world.  My 3 year old is only a little bit worse at drawing than I am.  But I thought for a second, and drew a stick-figure KKK member.  He had a triangular head, a trapezoidal body, and four single-line ball-point-penned limbs.

When I was younger, and I heard people talk about “white supremacist organizations,” I figured I knew what they meant.  And a lot of times, when people use the phrase, “white supremacy,” they in fact do use it to describe the KKK, Neo-Nazis, etc.  And so if that is what White Supremacy means, well then, sure, it exists, but it is hardly a prevailing force in the world.  By this I don’t mean that those groups and the violence and harm they have inflicted is trivial–it’s not–I only mean that they do not rule the world and (though this is less true than it was even 18 months ago) they are nowhere close to ruling the world.  The governing norms of our society are not the KKK’s or the Neo-Nazis’.

But that’s not what I mean by white supremacy when I say, self-assuredly, that white supremacy exists.  But what do I mean?  And why am I so sure it’s real?

Like I said, it’s really hard to know where to start.  In fact, in the anti-racism protocol we use at my school, the question I’m writing about right now is the last one I’m supposed to tackle, the hardest one, the final of six “conditions” which need to apply to make a space (a individual’s head-space, a classroom, a curriculum school, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a nation, a world) anti-racist – to be able to recognize the role of “whiteness” within that space.

So maybe “what is white supremacy” is not the best place to start.  Maybe instead I should try to explain the previous 5 “conditions” first, and the 4 “agreements” that are supposed to precede them.  But that all gets so theoretical and abstract so quickly, and so jargon-filled, it will sound circular and question-begging to someone who doesn’t see it that way.

And also, maybe a written monologue isn’t the best way to do this either.  Because these things change in people’s minds in dialogue, in lived experience, in conversation, workshop, argumentation, not just from sitting and reading.

But I honestly believe part of what let me, as a white person, to come to understand this, WAS reading, and abstract, intellectual explanations (part, but not all).  So I don’t want to set that aside entirely.

So here: this isn’t proof, nor is it meant to be, but one thing I can do right now is provide an alternative definition.  What is white supremacy?  It’s not a group of men in white sheets in The Birth of a Nation.  It’s not a cadre pseudo-military dimwits haplessly chasing Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi across the screen in The Blues Brothers.  

It’s something much more complicated (in some ways) but also, much more visceral and simple (in others).  I started off by comparing this to the question of whether the earth goes around the sun.  Here’s what I meant: there were (and still are – in obscure corners of the internet) geocentric astronomers.

[Okay, what follows is not real intellectual history – I’ve read accounts that were much more precise and responsible to the facts – I’m haphazardly summarizing to make an analogy]

Prior to the 16th century, the Catholic church’s official position was that geocentrism was true: that the earth was at the center of the universe.  Now, if you try to do astronomy while maintaining that the earth is at the center of the universe, you have trouble doing basic calculations.  You can account for some planets’ motions, but not others.  The moon makes a whole bunch of sense; the sun less so.  But as long as you believe the earth is at the center of things, you can work and work and work to do science on that premise.  People did (at least some people did) for hundreds of years.  And they didn’t totally fail.  Every theory has problems, and the role of science normally is to try to solve those problems.  If you accept relativity and quantum physics (neither theory is now seen as simplistic of obviously wrong) you have problems too.  There is no airtight theory of everything now either.

So when people urging the heliocentric model came along, they weren’t just ushered in as truth-tellers.  The geocentric tradition thought it might be rash to just go changing everything.  They thought they could explain planetary motion if they kept working at it.  This is where the idea of “epicycles” comes in.  The idea is that you can explain phenomena in less-than-intuitive ways as long as you’re willing to invent more and more exceptions (theories of epicycles) and write them into your theory.  From a heliocentric perspective, we have a very clear way of explaining why Venus and Mars appear to behave differently – one is closer to the sun than Earth, the other is farther.  But if you’re a geocentrist, you don’t have that.  So you start to say “some heavenly bodies work like X” (i.e., Mercury, Venus), “others work like Y” (the other planets) and still others work like Z” (the sun) “and others like W” (the stars).  In retrospect, the reason we see those categories as all needing to exist is because of their relationship to the sun, but if you don’t think the sun is in the middle, there is more work you need to do to explain them.  It becomes your work to explain why W, X, Y, and Z make sense as separate categories.

One more point about all that: geocentrism didn’t just die because all of the sudden everyone saw it was wrong.  It took generations to die, and still isn’t entirely gone (though it is gone from respectable science).  When we’re talking at the level of such major premises for theories, it’s not just all based on “the facts.”  Replacing a major premise with a different major premise requires lots of other things to change.

So asking whether or not white supremacy exists is a lot more like asking whether the sun is at the center of the universe, than whether the sky is blue.  That latter question can be answered by simply pointing and explaining “see, that’s blue.”  We could quibble about the meaning of “blue” but that’s not the point.  It’s a short leap from the fact of the appearance of the sky towards “the sky is blue.”  If you didn’t know any science, have a telescope, or otherwise have ever investigated too deeply, and pointed to the sun and said “are we going around that, or is that going around us?” you’d be asking a real question, one that couldn’t be easily answered.

It is easy, as a white person in the United States, not to know that white supremacy exists.  It’s so all-pervasive, so omnipresent, and it gives us so many advantages, advantages that we would rather not give us, that we don’t know to look for it, and we don’t really want to.  But to get to the point of being able to see it requires a ton of work.

To which it’s fair to ask, “well why should I do that work?  Why contort myself into all these weird ways of thinking if the world works perfectly well for me now?”  Which a non-astronomer could also fairly say to the person insisting that even though it looks like the sun goes around the earth, it doesn’t.  You could go on being an ordinary person and never really know the truth about the sun and the earth.  But think about how much more the human race has been able to do once it recognized the complexity of the astronomical situation. Think about how much other science, technology, math, philosophy, etc, flowed out once geocentrism was seen as overly simplistic and out of line with the data.

I am saying that being able to see and respond to white supremacy is a similarly productive change, just in society, rather than science.  I know I haven’t proven that here, but I’m asking you to take it on faith that this is a journey I have tried to take, and if I’m doing a bad job of explaining how I got there, all I’m asking you to believe right now is that it feels as important.  Which is, I believe, why James Baldwin (a much more gifted writer than I) chose the analogy with which I began.

Like I said, I am going to try to get at this question from a bunch of angles.  This is just the first one that occurred to me.  It’s probably not the best one.

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George Pelecanos’s DC Quartet

I started reading George Pelecanos novels because he was one of the writers on HBO’s The Wire.  Specifically, he gets the writing credit on the episode that has what still feels to me, 15 years later, like the saddest moment I have ever watched on television, and perhaps the truest evocation of the catharsis of tragedy I have ever encountered: the second-to-last episode of the first season, on which an until-then not-really-central character is murdered by his friends.  Pelecanos also wrote the second-to-last episode of the 3rd season, where something very similar happens, arguably with even greater heft.   In my mind, Pelecanos’s name came to hold such power that when I was watching season 4, and the opening credits finished, and it said “Written by George Pelecanos” I became scared  and sad , because I suspected something profoundly tragic was going to go down (it did).

I figured that anyone who could have written those moments for television, it was worth reading what they could write in a novel.  Continue reading

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