Back to Octavian

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.

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~ by evansmousike on September 23, 2008.

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