Saturday, September 10, 2011

Race and Masculinity, Sports and Swagger -- Second Thoughts after Justin Timberlake

One day I was watching C-Span's Book TV. Toni Morrison was speaking to a room of librarians. She read from the first pages of her then-new novel, Love. When she finished, she closed her portfolio and said: "This is from the new novel, Love, which--as you can tell--is perfect."

I hollered.

The combination of audacious pride and irony tickles me to this day. But if I like pride and audacity, why was I so repulsed by Punk'd and then, again, by Timberfake's and Fallon's History of Hip-Hop (the topic of last week's thoughts on the Timberlake phenomenon) ? Why do I find it ok for the senior black diva to show this arrogance and not the junior white boy?

Well, to start, I'd have to say I consider the artist's back story. I know that Morrison didn't just waltz into her position in national (not to mention global) arts and letters. Her success came relatively late in life -- she was nearly 40 when her first novel was published. The acclaim for her work was not immediate and universal. She paid dues. And, to this day, some cultural critics take it as a badge of honor to despise her writing.† So, I like her for the same reason I like the way Navratilova and Boris Becker played tennis. (Schiavone has the mantle now). I admire people for whom it doesn't come easily, but who persist and excel nonetheless. I admire people who take a risk and leave it all on the court (or on the stage). Conversely, I also admire those--like Morrison and Roger Federer--who can produce magic, seemingly at will, yet have a humility about it, even if slyly expressed.*

But the obligation to work hard and the freedom to express self-satisfaction often get distributed unevenly in a race-and-gender matrix--especially in an economy that sells us fantasies of race- and gender-specific properties (see: the Jersey Shore, or, actually, nearly any reality show where there is no task at hand). So, in the interest of taking a risk of my own, I am going to step down from my academic pedestal and try to explore the roots of my contradictory distaste for white braggadocio and admiration of the diva mode... but through autobiographical rather than sociological means. Of course, I don't think that social and historical forces can be taken out of the picture, but those can be delivered via pronouncement or implied in a narrative. I'm going to try the latter as an experiment.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Meet the New Dad, Same as the Old (Deadbeat) Dad: Justin Timberlake Pt. 1

In a previous post, I talked about the unexpected trouble caused by the success of African-American Studies (broadly) and black feminism specifically. It's a common story about subnational cultures or youth subcultures. When the underground comes above-ground, more often than not, the community that nurtured the art when no one else respected it suddenly finds that the fruit of their unassisted labor-- newly popular and profitable--is claimed as common property.

Some of you are old enough to recall (and others should avail themselves and look into) the bad old days in the history of hip-hop. Once, MTV wouldn't touch the stuff. Then they played it on a restricted hour on a Saturday night on a show called Yo! MTV Raps. From those marginal beginnings, hiphop has replaced rock as the sound of the US, exported to the world. Well, this is the way of things. And it is certainly a kind of success.

But then there's the moment when you turn on the TV, and Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon are performing a "history of rap." They aren't apologizing. They know the songs and they're doing it. Am I just jaded and paranoid for noticing the Roots, the all-black back-up band whose musical talent underwrites the white boys messing around up front? Does anyone listen to what The Roots actually play behind them, or is it just assumed that, since they are the black back-up band and they sound fine that they must also sound good (enough)?

What did I want from Fallon or JT? Certainly not a disclaimer: We apologize for being white and performing these songs. That would have been ridiculous. Yet, some other things stuck out to me--and this, with only one viewing. The one song they referenced by a white rapper was cut extremely short. They just gave us the Alright stop of "Ice, Ice Baby." What's the message there? That one of the first rap songs to hit #1 on the Billboard charts did not deserve to be performed? (Ice's single and album went to #1 on Billboard's pop charts, the first double-whammy in the genre's history. Well, I suppose if I can root irrationally for the Williams sisters and any black contestant on Jeopardy, white people can go nuts for white rappers in a black-invented and -dominated genre).

Timberlake's and Fallon's refusal to sing the lyric said to me that "Ice, Ice Baby" was simply too uncool to perform. But isn't part of its uncoolness that Vanilla Ice's roots in the vanilla suburbs were exposed? So isn't part of what is happening when Fallon and JT do not deign to perform it a refusal to inhabit the illegitimate white rapper position? It seems to me that this moment establishes distance from the old white person who couldn't hang. We are the new white party boys, it says. And we don't even need your permission to be in black cultural territory, because we've moved the hood to a sound studio at 30 Rock and hired you to bring the funk to us.

In the end, I just want good art. I love Michael McDonald's soulful singing; I agree with New Yorker film critic David Denby that the best black actors clamor to get in John Sayles' movies because he writes such amazing parts for them. I think John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is among the very smartest, most beautiful narratives of race, class, and sex in our literature. So it's hard for me to put my finger on what makes me defensive when it comes to Timberfake (now that he's off Saturday Night Live, I quite like Jimmy Fallon). I suppose it is that with the artists I enjoy, I sense they are hard-working and humble, and this combination wins them amazing, uncommon insight. They don't think they already have black culture down (hell, I been black for thirty-three years and I still don't have it down).†

Milan Kundera once wrote that love is a continual interrogation of the other. I take this to mean that when you have no more questions, you have fallen out of love -- the opposite of love being indifference (or dis-interest, as it were). So the white artists that I enjoy are those who show a continued curiosity about the black thing, the way it may overlap with their experiences and, right at the moment of identicality, breaks off again... only to return, at the moment of extremest difference, to another point of convergence. This is our shared history in this country. Its inequalities are not simply dissolved through the arrival or acknowledgement of the multiracial. To reverse a point made by Mahmood Mamdani, even if cultural identities are cumulative, political identities tend to be singular. In other words, bilingualism, mixed-parentage, and cosmopolitanism do you little good when the person sitting in judgment of your job application or your court case has one of those switches flipped. You become citizen or illegal, man or freak, Israeli or Palestinian, family man or sexual predator, and your fate proceeds accordingly until the next reading.

But it is a bit strange, now, after channeling culture, geography, and money along racial lines for centuries to suddenly declare that your black blues ain't so black after all. I find myself hearing things like That's not black: it's Southern--as if something couldn't be both. As if black is exclusionary in the ways that white was. Hell, as a discard category, black has had far less capacity to reject what gets thrown into it. The real estate (and symbolic space) of blackness has not been typically been sealed by restrictive covenants. Speaking generally we have been obliged to take in all shades and all kinds--those who wanted to be with us, and those who were banished and had nowhere else to go.

But the fact that white American culture is hybrid is the result, it would seem, either of intentional appropriation or of minority influences that had to overcome white indifference or dismissal. Claiming, then, that black cultural production is hybrid is an entirely different enterprise--one that comes perilously close to staking a claim to the very baby you once dropped at the side of the road and left to fend for itself. To the extent that white America has been a deadbeat Dad to black America (to borrow from Hortense Spillers' "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe"), white scholars and cultural producers might tread lightly when returning to embrace the children, all grown up with no help from Dad. A rapprochement can happen, but it takes time and effort.  The claim of genetic similarity will not be enough, just as the knowledge that we've all been here together on this continent as one (un)happy family has not been enough.

 --- In one week, Part Two -- "Sports and Swagger"

† Guare, for example, builds an enormously moving story out of a simple dilemma for the white female protagonist. This gay black hustler comes into their lives, after having memorized the connections of Manhattan's social circles and learned an amazing amount of art and literary history. She decides, at his request, to take him in, to teach him the family business. Her children want nothing to do with her, but this kid wants in. After he is arrested by the police on nebulous charges, he disappears into the prison system. She tries to find him but realizes, sadly, "We weren't family. We didn't know Paul's name." This person who knew her, loved her, touched her life and invaded her dreams was gone to her forever, as if he'd never been there at all. It's this loss, and the desire to prevent it, that sparks a massive change in her life. Guare was smart enough not to pretend that we get a complete passport into someone else's community--or even into their individual psyche. But we get the possibility to work on it, to turn it  over and over like the film famous Kandinsky canvas in the film, painted on both sides.