Thursday, October 27, 2011

Red Down Below: The Place of Indians in Black/White Dialogue

Preface: It appears that being swamped with work doesn't mean I blog less often, it means I blog more often in shorter bursts. Who knew?

In Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize Winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he condenses US history in this bit of poetry that forms the song's refrain and gives the work its title:

Blood on the fields
King Cotton grow
Brown soil yields
White up above
Red down below
A depiction of cotton-pickers in Texas. Source unknown. .

Marsalis produces a chilling portrait of the entangled violence and forced labor production that made the US a financially independent nation. In Marsalis's words, a shadowy, unknown force wields the whip and attacks black women's bodies: the blood is already on the fields. If we were to personify these metaphors, it would seem as if the brown soil of black female bodies is giving birth to cotton instead of children. In the lyrics that precede the refrain I quoted, we can see black hands (male and female) "picking, hoeing, feeding, and seeding." In this imagery, enslaved African America births a white supremacist nation ("white up above").

But what of this racial hierachy: white above, red at the absolute bottom with a layer of brown soil between? Black workers and mothers are dramatically present, while the presence of white masters and overseers can be inferred. Indians, however, are already disappeared. While Marsalis's oratorio begins with a wordless chant "To call the Indians out" -- the only place of the so-called "red" people in Blood on the Fields would seem to be in a past that runs quite literally underground: "Red down below." Any blood on the fields would have to be that of tortured African Americans; North America's indigenous peoples are not onstage in this racial conflict, their presence is subterranean, subtextual.

Marsalis's poetic history forms an interesting contrast with Dessalines, the revolutionary general and former slave who is said to have had this reflection on the achievement of Haitian independence from France in 1805:
We have avenged these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country. I have avenged America.
Bucking Columbus's insistence that flesh-eaters were around every corner when he landed at Hispaniola--Dessalines insists that Europeans who decimated and enslaved were cannibalistic in their use of other human beings. But, in reviving the first inhabitants' name for the island, calling the new "black Republic" by the Arawak name of Haiti, was he asserting kinship with an injured but still present people? Or was he promising that blacks would carry on in the name of a cruelly extinguished Amerindian population? In other words, was Dessalines trying to make political connections in the present, or was he lending luster to the first black postcolonial nation through association with the nobility of a vanquished people?

I ask these questions about black uses of the Indian past to open up another question related to a particular conversational habit I've encountered. You might say it's a move akin to that made by whites who would prefer to "talk about class" than about race. Where I posed some pretty stiff rebuttals to that false substitution, I have to say, this one leaves me genuinely perplexed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

If David Brooks Dislikes It...

then it is probably the path you should take.

In his most recent column, David Brooks suggests President Obama should reverse his recent more combative turn and make (more) conciliatory gestures toward Republicans. I think the only reason Mr. Brooks would advise that President Obama's attempts to uphold some Left values (such as increasing the real share--and not just the symbolic/patriotic one--that citizens share in the nation) is "suicide" is because such a strategy will work. Brooks pretends sweet reasonableness when he is actually a partisan unafraid of bending the truth to make his arguments (see his very intentional misquotation of Justice Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings. Attention, Mr. Brooks: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life," is absolutely not equivalent to "a wise Latina woman would make better decisions than a white male." The first is a wish; the latter is a statement of fact. And you knew that when you misquoted it).

I have no problem with Brooks's partisanship. I have a problem with his feigned moderation, his pretense toward a (pseudo)scientific objectivity (with all his nonpartisan articles on individual and social psychology). This is not to mention his insistence that his position is always coincident with that of the American people. Now, that's a game I'm sick of from both parties. I could stand for everyone to stop saying "the American people want" or "the American people don't want." How about some truth?: "I believe this is the best course of action because it will have these effects." Or: "I think this is the right thing to do for these reasons." Or, even: "I think this is the right thing to do because it fits these core national values -- or, even better, because it furthers the cause of human rights." 

I know these latter words are not perfect, but at least they offer the possibility for a persuasive argument. We are stuck in an argument about who the American people are. When, in fact, the argument should be over what actions and policies are just and humane. David Brooks contributes very little to that debate. And President Obama's insistence that Congress pass a jobs bill is, finally, a turn in the right direction because it is framed as a question regarding the right thing to do, the responsibility of government to its people. Conservatives can disagree, and I hope they do. But the ensuing debate could be about persuading Americans to go in one direction or another, instead of politicians and pundits claiming (ad nauseam) that the direction they advocate is already what all Americans want.

So... (as a follow-up to my last piece), I suppose we'll see if our black President can represent the working-class underdogs our nation typically imagines as white and move our government to do something to help their plight. (It's too much to hope he'll address the ways that race affects class, so I won't).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Great Expectations, Frustrated: or The White Face of "Class Diversity"

Dear Readers:

Posts will be fewer and farther between for another month or so as I venture into the job market incognegro. That's right: your friendly blackademic is applying primarily for jobs that are not marked "colored only." This is not an entirely conscious choice; this year, there are few positions in African-American Literature or History before 1865. And, though I have a chapter that deals with Cherokee audiences of Shakespeare, I am not a specialist in Native American history and culture.

However, there are Shakespeare, Early American Literature, and 18th Century British Literature positions galore. I have always wanted for the consideration of those forces that shape the distribution of property and pleasure (race, gender, and sexuality among them) to be central to academic study rather than peripheral and subordinate. We shall see if my applications--which speak to those areas but do not announce where I sit in them--are appealing.

Have we come a long way, baby? Would my being hired without announcing my blackness be a sign of postracial utopia? Or does the success of critical race approaches in the academy have unintended negative consequences? Often, minority scholars celebrate not having to study their own identity group as progress. But the more meaningful victory, I think, will be when such study is neither disallowed nor deemed mere partisan advocacy, a dead-end avenue that never opens onto the "big issues."

This thought brings me to the language of class, in its Marxist and populist incarnations--both of which have been reactivated by Occupy Wall Street and its galvanizing slogan, We are the 99%. Two caveats before I begin: first, I am tremendously supportive of the OWS protest. Their courage to be there and to stay give me hope that a new social contract might be negotiated. What I say below is an attempt to help provide a different way of looking at the old "identity politics is tearing our movement apart" conundrum. My second caveat relates to that: this is an early draft, a work in progress that I will continue to edit and revise.