In a Sea of Red

•November 17, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this week, a friend forwarded me an email originated by a professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. The email contained statistics, collected immediately following the election, on the presidential voting results in Norman, the most “liberal” town in Oklahoma. The professor’s agenda with the statistics was to map out the town’s blue precincts. Norman’s level of liberalism must be understood in context: At 66% pro-McCain, Oklahoma is redder in 2008 than it was in 2004, making it the only state in the country that increased its republican vote in this election. Oklahoma also now holds the distinction of being the reddest of the United States of America and the only state in which not one single county went Obama. Cleveland County, the county in which Norman (the “Berkeley” of Oklahoma) is located, went 62% McCain.

The main question driving the professor’s research might be summarized as, “Are there at least people in my immediate environment who share my view of the past eight years?” He took solace that his findings showed he actually does live in a blue precinct – probably close to the university and composed mostly of out-of-staters affiliated with the university.

I found something both sweet and sad about this guy’s efforts to make sense of the election for himself, and perhaps to make sense of a decision to live in this red state, red county, red town. The research question, as I understand it, resonates with my own sense of loneliness these days post-election, and provides me with some reassurance that I’m not quite as alone as I had thought. Perhaps the professor, like I, felt like he’d been left off the invitation list for all the “Obama-brations” around the country, sensing the excitement and energy in telephone calls and emails from friends and family across the nation, but unable to find the party in Norman. Perhaps he, like I, is aware of the sharp sense of disappointment blanketing the town and, out of simple courtesy, in public has expressed his pleasure about the election results in hushed tones to friends. Perhaps he, if he is white, has shyly smiled at black people in town, as if to secretly say, “It’s our victory.” If he’s bold, maybe he has said to a random black fellow citizen, “I’m really happy my candidate won.” And if he’s black like I am, he’s maybe had the experience of people shouting out their window, “WE HATE OBAMA!!” as they speed city streets in large pickup trucks. Unlike the buttons and t-shirts, the skin can’t be removed.

In my good moments, I think Oklahoma plays an important role in grasping the political reality of the country, especially right now. Oklahoma helps us not to forget that the popular vote margin wasn’t big. Close to half of the citizens in the United States (46%), would have preferred to have had a republican White House, after all we’ve been through in the past eight years. Or maybe party affiliation wasn’t the issue, they would just have preferred to have had a white White House, regardless of what it would mean for us as a country.

While our friends in more progressive states have the pleasure of celebrating and basking in Barack Obama’s victory, those of us in Oklahoma (and places like Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Alabama, and Alaska, all of which went 60% and more McCain) sit with hope when we can – over dinner with friends and in those moments of eye contact with a stranger driving in a car with an Obama bumper sticker – and always with a clear picture of the reality of the work ahead.


Back to Octavian

•September 23, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’m coming in late to this exchange, and mainly reacting to the original post about Anderson and Octavian Nothing. At the same time, there’s perhaps something in what I’m trying to say about white writing on race that connects with the focus on discomfort noted in the previous post. In sum, I might say that, counter to what Anderson claimed, it is not one’s empathy that would sanction white attempts to speak truthfully about race, but rather one’s discomfort.

Yes, what does it mean — could it mean — for whites to write “appropriately” about black experience?

If I read them correctly, something in these posts seems to suggest that whites can’t write well about race: that the privilege associated with whiteness cannot be overcome to say something meaningful or accurate about blacks in particular or race relations generally. From a certain perspective, this is undoubtedly the case: one could easily make a long list of unsatisfying white attempts to address race in fiction and non-fiction.

From another perspective, though, one could characterize this (i.e., whites writing about – or listening to, or thinking about — blacks . . . or Native Americans, Latinos, etc.) as something of a necessity for a substantial shift in race relations. Simply put, I think that we can’t effectively get “outside the bubble” of a(n often) pernicious white common sense about race without “leaving” it through engagement with black people, bodies, voices. I know that this has been my experience: in a number of ways, it has been through extended contact with people of color that I have come to grips with my own (dis)comfort and (mis)understanding of race. . .

That said, I would agree with your claim that there is a very live question as to how to do it productively — to really tackle the issue of slavery, as you put it re Anderson — so that it is more than a (mis)appropriation.

Also implicit in the initial post is the assumption or the criteria that acceptable white engagement with blackness should challenge or critique or reveal something crucial about whiteness. If not, then for the sake of argument, let’s posit this as a working hypothesis. For instance, it seems that the problem you identify with Anderson is that while he writes a narrative that includes blacks, and, in doing so, renders his fiction that much more inclusive or realistic, this inclusion does not destabilize or question whiteness. That is, the centrality of whites to the making of history, and the presumed rightness, the blamelessness, of their intentions and actions remains intact. I’d agree — this is thoroughly problematic.

So, can we say this: the price of acceptable white engagement with blacks/blackness is that somehow the racialness of whiteness — e.g., its contingency (as opposed to its seeming invisibility), its culpability (not infallibility), its partiality (instead of universality) — have to be admitted or come into view? In other words, that somehow the project has to come back around to critical implications for us as white individuals and for whiteness as a racial label.

If so, the issue might then be characterized as one of the purpose or goal animating the writing project, and how well it is achieved. In other words, for white writing about blacks/race to be acceptable, a reflexive and (self-)critical take on race would have to inflect the project, i.e., whites and whiteness have to be critiqued, destabilized, or questioned in the resulting text. Or stated differently, that a certain “price” has to be paid to justify the leveraging of white privilege enabling white writing on race: namely, that the writer undermines white privilege through his writing.

This seems a little abstract — what would the undermining of white privilege look like? — and yet I bet we could think concretely about what it actually looks like by taking up some “good” examples, e.g., the way that white characters appear in Jones’ The Known World. While some are intriguing and three-dimensional, they also appear quite limited by their own flawed desires and vices. Moreover, on the whole, the callousness and brutality of that world comes through in spades. There is little romanticism in Jones’ portrayal of antebellum Virginia, and thus no refuge, no foothold left for narratives of a whiteness that might escape the moral mayhem of a world built on black enslavement.

Perhaps black writers like Jones (or Morrison, Baldwin, etc.) could be used to generate the standard: a world built on racial hierarchy and exclusions has nefarious effects on everyone, and she who would write about it must render it thus.

Remebering the love …

•August 15, 2008 • 3 Comments

I’m so glad you reminded me of “Yellow Raft on Blue Water.” I read that book in my early twenties and loved it, and was in complete awe of the fact that a white man could convey the complex character that was a Native American/African American teenage girl. I think about it now and wonder if my lack of racial analysis and understanding in my early twenties allowed for my reaction to the book or if it was just the book itself and what it was able to do. If the former, I have to ask the question now in my early forties if it’s a too sharp and uncompromising analysis of race and white supremacy, along with twenty additional years of lived experience, that won’t allow for the kind of reaction my younger self had – the kind that comes from the heart and less from the brain. I hope not, but I don’t rightly know. I think I’d have to read “Yellow Raft on Blue Water” again.

I’ve just finished reading a few essays in a book called “The Love that does Justice,” about the integration of spirituality, love, and activism.

One thing that stays with me from the essays is the importance and power of love and compassion in any struggle against injustice. The key to social transformation can be found in marrying a rich inner life dedicated to the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion with the practice of new forms of politics, economics, and public policy.” And “…love is radical equality consciousness, a force that breaks down all distance and hierarchy. This is a love that respects the necessary self-empowerment of others, eschewing paternalism and romanticism for relationships of truth and authenticity, even when they move through phases of conflict and disagreement, as all do. This is a love that encourages us to live up to our social obligations as well our individual moral values, connect our interior life worlds to public spaces, encourage collective judgments, and create open networks of self-reflective and critical communication. This love is active, not passive, explicitly considering the effects of oppression.”

These are not new messages, but as I fume about how white privilege and the arrogance that can flow from it impact my life day after day, they can be a hard to remember, not to mention practice.

I really appreciate the questions you propose that artists ask as they create work: What motivates the creation and how does the artist weave the creation into their own world of assumptions? Does the character have integrity or is s/he a projection? These kinds of questions push artists (academics, activists, citizens … whoever!) to approach and/or be with their work consciously and in a *real* way. As you say, these are questions any writer (artist, academic) has to ask if s/he is going to give birth to an autonomous work. In addition, the questions challenge us to go beyond ourselves in creating the work rather than continuously (and simply) projecting ourselves onto it. It’s important for everyone for different reasons, and particularly with issues related to race, gender, and sexuality because we all breathe this polluted air of white supremacy and male dominance.

There’s something about the way it smells

•August 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This is a tricky for me. I don’t really believe, at least intellectually, that white people can’t create black protagonists. At least Anderson did make the black character the protagonist and not the two dimensional best friend. Had it been Hollywood they would have found some way to make a white protagonist a slave at the center of the story. I think it is as you say, D______, it is how Anderson creates this character of color that is important. What motivates the creation and how does Anderson weave Octavian into the world of his assumptions? Does the character have integrity or is he more projection. I’m thinking these are questions any writer has to ask if she is going to give birth to an autonomous work, what any artist has to ask for that matter – how can we artists/writers facilitate the growth of a character/work who/that defines itself, who/that grows beyond who we are?

I’ve definitely read examples of white authors who’ve done this. Years ago I read a novel by Michael Dorris, who was married to Louise Erdrich, and adopted two American Indian kids, who I think had fetal alcohol syndrome. I remember how deeply distressed I was when I found out he’d committed suicide. The novel of his I love is called Yellow Raft in Blue Water, which tells the story of three generations of American Indian Woman. The novel begins with the teenage daughter who is half Indian, half black and I can’t remember if each section was the voice of the woman or just her perspective, I think it was first person. Anyway, the second section was her mother’s story and the third her grandmother’s. Just thinking about it, and I read this years ago, brings a whole mix of emotions. I think what was so amazing about this novel, what Dorris was able to do, was that – I’m having a hard time putting it into words – but reading the first section about the daughter so poignantly and sensitvey presented her life – teenager, mixed race, American Indian, alone, living on a reservation, poor – that she fully came to life.  We also know her mother and grandmother filtered through who she is in this first section. While I was reading this section I assumed I knew the mother and grandmother. It was only when I read the Mother’s section that I realized how much of the character I did not know from the first section. By the time I got through the grandmother’s section I felt so fully and deeply connected to these characters and the fullness and sadness of their lives. I think that’s why even though I can’t remember the details of the story, the feelings I had are still so vividly present.

I suspect I wouldn’t have the same experience reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. But, I don’t really know. I decided to sniff around the book instead and see if I could figure out whether Anderson did create a character and work that grew beyond him. Here’s an NPR interview with him on New & Notes – Unfortunately, Farai Chideya didn’t ask how he prepared to write a black character from such a different era.

” When asked in that interview about this variety of subject matter, Anderson responded that it comes from “{r}estlessness and over-enthusiasm, I guess. I tend to get fixated on subjects serially, and I often write about them to exorcise my interest. I also believe firmly in forcing yourself to do things you think you can’t do, things you’ve never done before. The world is a dazzlingly varied place — why should we assent to limiting ourselves? Better to try and to fail . . .”

He does answer that question here somewhat.

7-Imp: Did you feel at all awkward about writing a story from the point of view of an African American slave? If so, then how did you deal with it?

M.T.: This issue actually delayed the writing of the book by five months. During that time, I thought a lot about the issue, talked it over with others. Concerned about the very real dangers of cooption, for almost half a year I writhed around trying to make up a new plot, trying to change who the narrator was . . . But it didn’t work. I kept coming back to Octavian himself. I knew him intensely. In many ways, I knew him better than I knew the narrators of my earlier books. I didn’t want to tell someone else’s story; his very idiosyncratic life was the one I wanted to narrate. And I didn’t want to water down the history: I knew that I wanted my character in the center of this storm, in the middle of this contestation of what independent identity meant.

In the end, all I can really say in my defense is that my commitment to these characters was total, encompassing these five years I’ve worked on the project, in which time it has become all-consuming. It’s for the reader to decide whether I was successful in producing these characters credibly. If I haven’t told the story well and with sufficient empathy, then I had no right to tell it.

What I wonder about is why only consider changing the plot and not how you might prepare to write a black character – by talking, interviewing black people, black writers who’ve written about slavery – Edward P. Jones could’ve been an amazing resource, for example. So I wonder if the character was already set before taking into consideration of what being black in the U.S. might mean, how the institution of slavery did and does continue to influence all of our understanding of what it means to be black. As I listened to this interview and read the interview I took these excerpts from I find myself asking if it really matters that Octavian is black? I can only really answer this question by reading the book, but there’s something about the way it smells.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

M.T.: Variety, solitude, and the alien.

Octavian Nothing

•July 9, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I just finished reading “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,” by M.T. Anderson.  It’s a story of a slave, Octavian, before and during the American Revolution.  Octavian’s mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and she is sold, pregnant with Octavian, to a society of scientists conducting range of “social experiments,” including the one that Octavian and his mother are involved in.

Let me say up front that I have nothing against the novel.  Style-wise, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it was extremely well-written.  You can’t take good writing for granted – I spend a lot of my reading life wondering where a particular character came from and why; wondering what happened to an idea that got introduced a couple of chapters back; and etcetera.  On the writing score, the book was excellent … until the end, at which point, the author seemed to kind of ran out of breath.

Outside of the excellent writing, I didn’t care for the book.  It wasn’t something I longed to get back to and, in fact, I found myself irritated that I was reading it rather than something else.  Some of that had to do with the fact that one of the main topics was slavery.  Slavery, as a topic, has to be more than a recount of history for me to hang with it in a novel.  I know the history, I live the history – it’s got to go beyond that.  It needs to really push me to consider, not just how this institution is integral to the inception of the United States, but also how it shapes who we are and our relationships with one another today.  The thing with dealing with slavery as an historical fact is that it allows us to believe the lie that it is, in fact, in the past.

M.T. Anderson kind of got around to this in the end, when he had one of the main characters in “Octavian” do a soliloquy of sorts on production, consumption, the market – capitalism, but it felt kind of glommed on and not really integral to the story.  Anderson also tried to address the point of naïve liberal whiteness steeped in privilege through the Private Goring character, but again, it was glommed on in a short paragraph at the end with no real examination.

So I had problems with all of that – if you’re going to tackle the issue of slavery as an institution, go ahead, but then tackle it.  You know what I mean?  I’m sure some people would say that I missed the intent of the book, that it was intended to really explore the American Revolution, the uncertainty with which it started, the ambiguity of the different “sides” that fought it, and etcetera.  But I think that if your protagonist is a slave during the Revolutionary period, you’re also dealing with the institution of slavery.

My biggest issue with the book, however, was the fact that it was written by a white man.  Please.  Do we now need white people telling us what the experience of slavery was?  Please.  I googled the book and the author and found only one small reference to this on a blog that basically exalts the book:

“How much do you think the fact that this is a Caucasian man writing the story of an African American slave impacted the story? Is this a book about the Great White Guilt? Did it bother you at all? I think it bothered me a little – I mean, a good story is a good story, no matter who tells it, and I’m not saying a person from one race or culture doesn’t have the right to try to get inside the mind of a character from another and tell his/her story. But… how different would this story have been if it had been written by someone else?”

Response:  “Dude, I’m sorry that I can’t add anything enlightening to the discussion of the fact that a Caucasian man wrote this book. Honestly, it never crossed my mind and, therefore, didn’t bother me — that is, the possibility of Great White Guilt, as you put it.”

White Guilt?  How about White Privilege?  Only white people could assume so deeply so as not to even consider the fact that a white man writing about a black experience is a project totally steeped in privilege.  So okay, the air we breathe is white privilege, there’s no getting away from it, but the privilege has got to be examined, otherwise, it just gets perpetuated as more privilege.  How about just some reflection on what it means for a white man to render the experience of slavery?  How about some small reference in the forward, preface, interviews, or anything I could find on four or five Google pages about the fact that he is a white man writing about slavery and what this might mean?

I’m wondering if there had been some reflection if Anderson would have written the novel with a white protagonist living with the dehumanizing effects of colluding in the slavery project, either through ownership of a slave or through ignorance of his or her own privilege.  There could still be an Octavian character, but the protagonist would be a white character really exploring what it means, deep down, to be white vis-a-vis the institution of slavery.  I think it would make an excellent story, but that’s the story that white people don’t want to explore.  And have the privilege not to.

But it’s the one that they have the lived experience and legacy to explore.  Really, what does M.T. Anderson know about being a slave?  What do I know about being a slave?  I know nothing about being a slave.  But I sure as hell know something about being a descendant of them 160 years later.  As removed as my educated, middle class, comfortable self is from the reality of slavery, being black in the U.S. makes not knowing what it means to be a descendant of slaves impossible.  In fact, I live and breathe the reality of it every day.

Am I saying that white people should not write about black people and their experiences?  Maybe I am, I’m not sure.  Maybe I’m saying that if you’re going to tell those stories you have to step up and identify yourself as a white person and acknowledge the challenges inherent in a white person conveying the feelings, experiences, thoughts, perspectives, stories of black people.  Otherwise, aren’t you just cashing in on your privilege to continue defining the black experience for black people?

Ethnic Identification

•May 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I was in a conversation with an anthropologist at a party the other night during which the topic of African Americans claiming other “ethnic identities” came up. Actually, the person I was talking with brought it up because her topic of study is people claiming Native American identity. She said something about how African Americans seeking to claim their Cherokee roots are frowned upon by other African Americans and how this is messed up. She didn’t say, “and this is messed up,” she said, something like, “There’s this thing that in order to be black you have to be black and you can’t embrace other parts of yourself … black people can only be black because other black people get pissed off when blacks try to claim other identities.”

I chimed in to confirm her point by saying something about how the people she was talking about (the African American/Cherokees) were probably just wanting to embrace wholly who they are.

I actually believe what I said, at least intellectually I do. Deep down, however, I know I’m troubled by the whole topic of claiming ethnic identity. I’m troubled by an apparently white person (later I learned that she identifies, at least in some cases, as Cherokee) assessing “the black reaction” to it. I’m troubled by my willingness to enter a conversation on the topic without voicing my deep ambivalence.

I wrote an essay once about a bi-racial (Swedish and African American) woman I knew who identified with her Swedish identity more than her African American one. Her situation was so incredibly complex – not just bi-racial, but bi-national and cultural too. I’m guessing her identification choices had to do with her relationship with her parents – her mother was Swedish and her father was African American and I had the impression by the way she talked that she was somewhat estranged from her father. Having had an estranged relationship with my own father, I know the reasons for the estrangement were probably multiple and complex, although it was hard not to wonder if his ethnicity and what it represented for this woman didn’t somehow play into her choices. Outside of the father, I’m guessing there was a good dose of self hate in her choices.

From my perspective, however, was what was more interesting about this woman and her ethnic identification was my reaction to it. Rejection, shame, and anger. I never let on to her or anyone else that’s what was going on for me, but when I wrote the essay it’s what came up. Basically I wondered where she got off choosing one over the other when the rest of us can’t. Was there something wrong with being black? Was there something wrong with me? And on and on.

It’s complicated.   Like I said, I want people like this bi-racial woman to be whole and to claim themselves. I have bi-racial children – I want them to claim their whole selves and I want to be reassured that they’re doing it for the right reasons. Reasons that don’t threaten me. That’s totally ridiculous, I know, but I’m being honest. And I’m putting it out there as an example of how complex it is for this black person when bi-racial (African American and other) people claim their whole selves. The true solution is for me to be more secure in who I am, and I take that responsibility seriously. And then there’s the reality, in a culture based on white supremacy, of what mitigates against my ability to do that. It’s not impossible, but it sure as hell is an uphill battle.

Anyway, I’ve written a whole essay on this topic and it’s not really the topic here. The topic here is how it feels as a black person smack dab in the middle of trying to reckon with the issues around bi-racial identity and identification and simultaneously raise bi-racial kids to love their whole selves with as little of my crap intervening as possible to have a white person tell me how black people are about this topic.

First I feel like, “You’re right!” and add to rush my affirmation of her point because I don’t want to be one of those closed minded black people. And I don’t want you, white person, to see me as one of them. And then there’s the, “What the hell? Why are you telling me what black people think and do?” And then (probably most useful) there’s the, “Why don’t you concentrate on what WHITE people have done and continuing doing to contribute to the dynamic of race protection, anger, jealousy, and what have you?” Remember those mitigating forces I mentioned earlier? Et viola.

We black people are not just sitting here in a vacuum by ourselves self loathing, feeling insecure, and being angry that others are claiming other ethnic identities. That all has been nurtured in a fertile hothouse of pervasive white supremacy in this country for decades on end. Shouldn’t an anthropologist be looking at the issue of ethnic identity in this full context? I would want and expect a white anthropologist to be doing some analysis of the role that white supremacy has played, continues to play, and is dependent on shaping African American identity and how we all feel about it.

First blog

•April 27, 2008 • 1 Comment

I’m not sure this post has anything to do with the elections, but I thought I’d lead off with this paragraph/query anyway:

A friend of mine recently had a gathering for women of color to talk abut the democratic presidential candidates and how we, as women of color, are in this whole experience — what is coming up for us and how we are processing it.  Obama and Clinton are competing in this game of “Oppression Olympics” — a kind of “Sexism is way worse than racism …” and a “Racism is way worse than sexism …” kind of game, while some of us are smack dab in the middle of it. What is worse, racism or sexism? In some ways for me as a Black woman, they are so inextricably linked, it’s hardly worth asking the question.  It depends on the moment, I suppose.

So that’s the lead in …

Is it an indicator that I need to move on from the board of directors that I’m on that after every conference call we have I feel pissed off? It’s not just one person — it’s how different individuals enable one another and then how I find myself enabling the enabling. There’s how race plays out time in and time out with white liberal people who have enough awareness about race to call one another racist and to act like they are authorities about it. I’m honestly wondering how much I want to continue being involved in the game with these people — how much I want to be the person of color in those conversations which are starting to feel like they actually perpetuate an insidious supremacist dynamic.

Right now, though, what’s really eating me is the whole male privilege and sexism thing. The men on the board are so called “enlightened,” but their sexism is so apparent in so many different ways. Their gross power relationships with their staff (and who knows who else …) is just one small example. I can’t stand getting emails from peoples’ assistants to set up phone calls with them — these are people who are not only colleagues, but personal friends. Can not a personal friend schedule his own damned calls??

Today on the conference call, our board chair (who is actually a good friend of mine) gave me an assignment for our next board meeting. No big deal, right? I wouldn’t normally think so — I’m a team player, a hard worker, and contribute a lot to the board. Which is why I’ve already produced a hefty synthesis of the reflections on our last two meetings for the rest of the board to consider. It took me a good half a day of unpaid work to do the summary, which I had no problem with because I’m a team player, a hard worker, and blah blah blah.

Given that I had already done a fair bit of unpaid work for the next meeting I was quite surprised when the chair said, “For the next meeting you’ll do a summary of the evaluation report recently done.” He actually said it twice at two different points in the call and it was only the second time that I understood that the “you” was me, or at least I thought it was, which is why I said, “Are you asking me to do a summary?” I hadn’t meant to be flip or hostile — I honestly wanted the clarity, was he addressing me? I couldn’t really believe it. There were three other people on the call, one of whom was a woman (a woman of color, I might add) and she was organizing a whole other piece of the meeting and two other white men. To be fair, the chair had given himself a number of tasks, but he didn’t ask either of the two other white men to do anything.

Of course, because I confronted the chair’s demand/request with my question I immediately became the angry, uncooperative, oversensitive, Black woman. The energy on the call shifted, the response from the chair was laced in defensiveness, there was silence, there was clearing of throats. I let the silence sit for a couple of seconds, but succumbed and said, “That’s fine, I’ll do it, I just wanted to get clear on who you were asking and what you were asking for …”

More collusion, perpetuation, and enabling …