Saturday, July 30, 2011

Discovering Inhabited Lands: Black Studies Becomes Everybody's Business

In honor of Ann duCille's "The Occult of True Black Womanhood," I offer an article-in-progress that, like hers, was "difficult to write and...will be, for some, a difficult article to read."

The trend of turning African-American intellectuals' work into a straw man seems to be gaining currency among scholars these days. In an earlier post, I discussed David Reynolds's admonition that black people should re-read Uncle Tom's Cabin and return to the style of nonviolent resistance that Stowe champions. I still am unsure what good this would accomplish, except returning his favorite writers and heroes to popular favor and, perhaps, rendering some black people who scare him less frightening.

I could just as well have pointed to some black writers of the Anglophone Caribbean who disdain black Americans as culturally impoverished (Orlando Patterson), provincial (the Paul Gilroy of The Black Atlantic, Hilton Als), or even fascistic (the Paul Gilroy of Against Race).† I'm going to put that part to the side for now, because I'll have to find out more about this inter-diasporic beef. But I do want to turn my attention to some full-length scholarly works I feel more ready to comment upon.

In his Lying Up a Nation, ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano claims that there is no African-American music that isn't influenced by the overarching presence of white racism. His emphasis is on white transcriptions of black singing and how these early musicologists took interracial religious ceremonies and insinuated that black vocality was different. While Radano may be right that the literary records of what black music "is" are influenced by literate whites' preconceived notions of black difference, he is not therefore correct that all black musicians were perpetually looking over their shoulders wondering what white people thought while they made music. While he may think the feeling of black community is simply the collective delusion of people who want to escape the violence and amalgamation of life in the Americas, I would counter that the violence of racism is not all-determining. There are moments--however brief--in which the violent separatism of racism seems to fade away. Our thinking has to be able to account for those as well as the tenacious persistence of racism.

*[Addendum 8/1/11: As I mention below in the comments, Radano puts forward a "mulatto" thesis, arguing that American culture--on both sides of the color line is utterly entangled. This makes one of his text's strategies even stranger. The book is meant to overthrow the entirety of African-American scholarship on black music -- from the oral history of Bernice Johnson Reagon to the detailed musicological analysis of Samuel P. Floyd. His contentions: 1) There is no such thing as a black musical tradition, there is only sound that then gets classified within a racist discourse run (it seems) by whites. 2) African tradition also stopped in North America because drums were confiscated and all the enslaved had left were their voices. So the so-called continuity of the drum is an illusion, based on slaveholders' diaries.

Now, he is going against what every living black music scholar (academic or independent) believes. And that's fine. But then he has this strange tactic of using *dead* canonical black figures (such as DuBois and Hurston) to support his stance. Now, who is likely to be closer to DuBois's ideas: someone who went to Fisk, or a white academic who did not? So, it becomes very strange to hear him talk about what DuBois or Zora Neale Hurston "knew" -- and have their knowledge reflect perfectly what he believes today, rather than the beliefs of people who come from the places and institutions they helped found. And, besides, if black culture is a nonentity and all we have is hybrid, then why is none of the "tour guides" in Lying white? In an irreducibly mulatto culture, there should be dead white intellectuals who had as much insight into black music as the super-canonical black intellectuals he revises. 

To be clear, it's not the argument Radano makes that grates; it's the way he goes about making it.]

Eric Goldstein differs from Radano in that the black people who just don't get it in his The Price of Whiteness include the living and the dead. In addition, Goldstein's black people are not just mistaken, they actively perpetuate racial problems. When it isn't blaming African-Americans for controlling the US racial discourse to produce simplified notions of Jews as white, Price is an astute, wide-ranging history of the complex and regionally specific ways American Jews situated themselves as a race or in relation to the black/white paradigm of race. His discussion of American Jews' relationship to the category of race in the twentieth century is unparalleled, necessary, and nuanced. Yet, he couldn't allow the book to be that. Instead, he begins with a strange attack on James Baldwin for having a supposedly "simple" view of Jews' relation to whiteness. Yet, in a later chapter, he repeats, almost verbatim, Baldwin's claim that many Jewish shop owners were as charitable as they could be to black Harlemites considering the middleman status of Jewish merchants in the US's white-over-black economy. Still, Baldwin and every other black thinker Goldstein invokes signify unsophisticated thinking that Goldstein is there to correct. [Reynolds, too, attacked Baldwin who, to be sure, makes some errors in his interpretation of Tom, but makes a larger point that cannot be dismissed: namely, that the impossible goodness of some of Stowe's characters is as dehumanizing a portrayal of African-American men as is the standard fare of morons, sambos, and studs.]

It may not be politic to say this, but it appears that the result of integrated academic units, such as American Studies, is that everyone can have one chapter about race in her book, or speak with authority on topics that, for decades, no one with academic ambition would even touch. I am happy to have knowledgeable white colleagues and mentors, let me be clear. But the presumption of a sort of over-arching knowledge informed by a more objective position... this just seems like having the supposedly objective, disinterested, and even-handed whites take over fields that they had no hand in building (and that their predecessors actively stifled). 

This is not to say that every white scholar has to defer to scholars of color. We know you don't have to be one to study one: some of the most important advances in queer theory have come from women partnered with men--Eve Sedgwick and Madhavi Menon, to name two. So, by all means, welcome to the party. But a caveat: to deem that the field was unsophisticated and amateurish before you showed up is not an opening gesture likely to win friends and influence people. But, even more important, it is likely to weaken the scholar's own work with misunderstandings that could have been avoided by presuming that the the knowledge in place before he arrived (like Columbus on inhabited Hispaniola) issued from intelligence and not simply superstition and paranoia. 

It is also crucial to do some of the careful self-scrutiny that anthropology demanded: knowing who you are and what your interests and investments are might shed light on why you see the situation so much differently than "the natives" do. In that case, it might not be that they were gabbling Calibans who did not know their own meaning all along but that they fit differently into your universe. African-Americans have long been deemed partial or marginal, rendered vulnerable to being resituated within science, Christianity, liberalism, Marxism or some other European universal. Of course, since Af-Am Studies doesn't occupy the high ground of the universal, the gesture can't be reciprocated. 

In another future post, I want to think and talk about the ways that the pressure to distance ourselves from the alleged provinciality of Af-Am has affected my generation of African-American scholars.

† I am considering an essay about the reasons for this rivalry between black people coming from Britain's orbit and those from the US. 1) It seems that black immigrants to the US often receive the same message that their white counterparts did--specifically that the native-born African-American population is lazy slime that is beneath them. 2) I'm sure there are remnants and reconfigurations of black American nativism that appears in Harlem Renaissance novels--African-Americans directing insults and violence toward Caribbean and African immigrants they considered less civilized "monkeys." Perhaps #1 above is just a reversal of fortune. 3) My understanding is that Britain's commonwealth education system steeps students in the supposedly universal canon of dead white masters--Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Thackeray, Austen, et al. This might account for the occasional accusation that African-Americans are comparatively provincial, what with the pride and interest many take in African-American art. 4) There may also be a rivalry and jealousy because of the US's dominance in the cultural marketplace. Because most of the media companies with the widest distribution are here, US products go out while even an international star like Bob Marley had trouble getting his work in. This imbalance may have changed, but it still seems that to become an international superstar, internationals must pitch themselves to the US market, while US stars can become international stars by virtue of being American stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seizing Difference or Having Difference Thrust Upon Him: President Obama and Democratic Strategy

For SC and NEP
I'm not an Obama hater, but this from Krugman was so startlingly true it made me laugh: "It looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions."
Since the early 1990s (at least), the Democratic leadership has had some success in stealing Republican initiatives and making them their own. For President Clinton, it was welfare reform. Currently, President Obama seems to be trying to take deficit reduction and spending cuts from the Tea Party. There's no doubting the political advantage to stealing an issue that has galvanized your opposition. However, snatching the rug out from under your opponents and making it your cape is not the only strategy. In fact, I would say it is best as a short-term strategy and what the Dems lack is a long-term one. Hence, they lost their majority in the blink of an eye. (Let's not forget, the Democrats--fractured though they were by region--controlled the Congress from the 1950s to the Gingrich-led revolution of 1992. Why do Congressional majorities shift so frequently now?)
Think back to 2004. Remember all the excitement around Howard Dean before the infamous post-primary press conference where he somehow mixed "Yeah," "Yee-haw," and "Ow" in an over-inflated show of optimism? The excitement Dean generated came from the clear alternative he offered to the sitting President--one who, we should remember, won the office by the narrowest of margins (and that's a generous interpretation). As the Democrats struggled to find a military candidate to steal President Bush's war mantle, they eventually settled on John Kerry. Most of us recall him--with some help from late-night television--as a dry and boring senator. However, what I would say was most boring about him was not his demeanor but his political unoriginality. 
I remember watching one of the debates and hearing Kerry say, repeatedly "President Bush is right..." or "I agree with the President..." My question, at that point, was simple: Then why should I vote for you to replace him? It's difficult enough to unseat an incumbent; drawing only faint contrasts can't improve the odds. (Kindly correct me if a candidate has ever taken an office by vowing to do the same things as an opponent who is still living).
Kerry's copycat strategy had appeared before in 2000 when candidate Gore said that he supports the death penalty despite the fact that its application is notoriously  in thrall to racist fear, the capacity to buy an excellent defense team, and judicial caprice.  Krugman's point above helps us to see the unnecessary "pre-emptive concessions" made by politicians who seem to have taken themselves hostage. It makes me laugh, but then it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rip Van Negro: From the Rock of Race to Postracial Sands

For Twunch.

I remember reading a Frank Rich op-ed in the New York Times, a year or so before he retired from that position. During the campaign of then-candidate Obama, Rich had written a few pieces about the social fault line of race, describing his own segregated childhood, surveying the current scene for improvements and regression, and offering insights about the significance of Obama's campaign and opposition to it. As I recall, his take was optimistic, as he insisted that those attempting to re-entrench white supremacy were on the losing side both demographically and in terms of shifts in public opinion. In response to his column, a young white mother wrote that he was harping on an issue that had died. Her children, she exulted, would be completely unaware of race as a way of identifying people. Rich, she explained, was one of the last of his kind. If he still thought in racial terms--even anti-racist terms--he was using terminology that was already antiquated and soon to become alien.

Although I have a number of retorts that I think disable her claim, it's still one that chilled me in a way I've never been able to shake. I'm thirty-three. Is it possible that the framework and vocabulary I have used to analyze the world are already outdated? Unlike Rip Van Winkle, I didn't sleep for twenty years. I was awake the whole time! During my childhood in the 1980s, the era in which we tried to become postracial by becoming colorblind, racism was not a force I could choose to notice or blissfully ignore. How could acknowledging the force of racial hierarchy become optional while I was awake?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Uncle Tom's Champion

The New York Times recently ran an appeal from a noted American Studies professor, CUNY's David S. Reynolds who wishes to rescue the term "Uncle Tom" from what he deems popular misuse. His quest strikes me as a foolhardy attempt to regulate popular meaning via academic authority. What makes this attempt more lamentable is that his premise appears to be a deliberate mischaracterization of the criticism of Stowe's novel. According to Reynolds, adaptations of Stowe's novel for the stage promulgated misinterpretation. These distortions, in Reynolds' view, left black militants of the 1960s with the misperception of Tom as "a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race." 

Reynolds' article could not have been better timed, appearing as it does in the wake of Grant Hill's lengthy insistence, in the pages of the same newspaper, that he was undeserving of the name of Uncle Tom bestowed on him by Jalen Rose. Were it not for the Rose/Hill affair and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (allegedly sparked by Stowe's novel), I find it hard to imagine the Times considering this op-ed timely. I do not begrudge Reynolds the press; this nod will surely increase his book sales, a very necessary thing in the book industry in general and in academic publishing more specifically.

However, I cannot say that I am looking forward to reading the book. In this op-ed, Reynolds tries to locate an original, pure and unsullied version of Uncle Tom--one independent of stage productions that supposedly bowdlerized the novel. Theater historian Loren Kruger notes that the first "anti-Stowe minstrel sketch" actually appeared before the serialized narrative was compiled in the book form we now know. Given this crossing--as well as the entanglement of Tom's illustrations with minstrel imagery on stage and in print--it seems inaccurate to posit an absolute distinction between the text and its stage iterations.

The distinction between the text (as Reynolds interprets it) and the stage history is crucial, because Reynolds imagines civil rights-era African-Americans' exceptions to the novel as rooted in a regrettable misunderstanding induced by the stage shows. Does Reynolds think himself the only person who ever decided to set aside popular representations of Tom to go back to Stowe's novel? He'd be sorely mistaken. From Richard Wright and James Baldwin to Hortense Spillers, many African-American intellectuals have carefully assessed the novel. Reynolds may disagree with their conclusions, but he may not use all of their work to make a straw man humming Yip Harburg's famous "If I Only Had a Brain." 

In vernacular usage since the Black Power movement, the accusation of Tomming certainly conjures an image of groveling and cowardice. Reynolds defense is that Tom was no coward, but a nonviolent resister in the tradition of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong, and Jackie Robinson. After all, he rightly notes, Tom refused to tell the whereabouts of runaways. For Reynolds, this is proof that Tom did not collaborate with slaveholders. 

However, this defense does not answer the primary charge Black Power advocates would have levied against Tom. For them, non-cooperation was not sufficient, nonviolence itself was suspect. Based on whites' participation in or indifference to anti-black terrorism, Black Power advocates doubted that hearts would be softened if black people endured suffering without retaliation. Tactically, they considered nonviolence a losing strategy in the face of concentrated, armed police efforts in every region of the country to contain antiracist protests by means of beating, killing, and incarceration. Reynolds' invocation of Tom's Christian forbearance does not answer the likely charges of Black Power advocates who  considered a self-defensive posture the only viable one in a country so committed to preserving its racial hierarchy. Ironically, while the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party found themselves confronted with major opposition from law enforcement, specifically--and from white America (more broadly)--their stance on the intelligence of armed self-defense mirrored the stance taken by American Patriots against occupying British forces two centuries earlier. But you won't hear any Tea Partiers talking about the intelligence of armed black self-defense any time soon.

Stowe's rejection of slave rebellion in favor of faith in God's deliverance has been a longstanding thread in black critics' dislike of the novel. To frame it otherwise is either a result of poor research or deliberate stacking of the deck against his opponents.

This is, it seems to me, one of the great dangers of academic publishing (or publicity-seeking). On the one hand, academics are often so steeped in a particular period and genre that our attempts to speak across specialties are vexed by massive gaps in expertise. Worse is that, with waning of academic influence (especially in the humanities), some scholars have taken more and more strident but (dare I say) preposterous positions about the value of their work to contemporary life. 

Reynolds' admonishing black people to re-read the novel, to respect Tom for his valor and Stowe for her contribution to ending slavery in the US, could not be of less contemporary relevance. What does reading this novel--and agreeing with his sanguine interpretation of it--have to do with closing the gaps in education and health outcomes? Based on the op-ed and Andrew Delbanco's subsequent generous review, it would appear that Reynolds is advocating a return to Tom's stoic, nonviolent, Christian resistance. That may very well be his preferred model for the transformation of racial hierarchy. I think it is reasonable to say that this model is not responsible, solely, for halting the momentum of white supremacist social structure. That is, moral awakening was not the sole cause of legislative actions prohibiting slavery and segregation. A widespread fear among whites of having their heads cut off in the night also played a small part. 

In the end, Reynolds seems to want support for an author and a character that he admires. Certainly, that's acceptable. But is the job of the literary critic or the cultural historian to advocate for an author? Even if this partiality is desirable (or, at least, inescapable), it is not a vital intervention in contemporary social life. A young black person who reads Stowe, encounters our shared history, and emerges with her own well-considered ideas about her past, present, and future is in far better shape than one who merely accepts Reynolds' static version of the story. As the saying goes, the best instructors help students learn how to think not what to think.

I recall my own experience as a high school sophomore with Huckleberry Finn. On the first day, the teacher told us we weren't to say "the N word" and that the book isn't racist. The idea that it might be was simply not to be entertained. Reynolds seems to be taking a similar position toward Stowe, and I can't say (based on what I've read thus far) that I feel sufficiently respected to engage his book or to re-engage Stowe's.