Tag Archives: Blackness

Singing Testimony Across Difference: Anthony Russell and Berkeley’s 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Day

The following is a reflection I am pulling out of the archives on occasion of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27, 2019). It features a write-up on Anthony Russell, black Yiddish opera singer extraordinaire. I have wanted to make this public for a long time and have finally had the wherewithal to do so. Though it is dated by almost five years now, it is still relevant. I trust that you will find it of some insight around issues concerning the performance of racial identity and the role of religious music in creating a platform for cross-racial solidarity in the midst of human suffering and multi-generational trauma. 

On Sunday, May 27, 2014, the City of Berkeley celebrated its 12th Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in downtown Berkeley. Titled “Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses,” the ceremony honored the life and work of creative writer and teacher Renee Passy-Zale and UC Berkeley professor of engineering George Leitmann. Both Passy-Zale and Letmann were commissioned to recount their experiences of surviving the Jewish Holocaust by means of escape from and active resistance to the Nazi presence in Europe. The program included a distribution of lighted candles to survivors in the audience as well as musical performances by Bay Area composer and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and African-American opera singer Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell. The latter, a convert to Judaism, recited Yiddish folk hymns alongside playwright and A Traveling Jewish Theatre co-founder Naomi Newman’s reading of work by Holocaust survivor and poet Irena Klepfisz.

blog-anthonyrussell-06182012-1425721632
Yiddish opera singer Anthony Russell

Between Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s eye-witness testimonies to the struggles of escape and the creative renderings of Jewish suffering that Gaskin, Russell and Newman offered, the ceremony foregrounded the provenance of cultural production—through autobiographical narrative, folk song, and poetry—in effecting historical redress for the wounds of war. Indeed, Passy-Zale’s harrowing account of fleeing Paris to live under an assumed identity in the south of France where, at the age of eleven, she helped to smuggle secret information to the French Resistance when her father came under suspicion, and Leitmann’s moving account of losing his father to a concentration camp before escaping from Vienna with his mother and two grandmothers to New York City in 1940 represent “unofficial” histories that might otherwise go unheard by the public were it not for the cultivation of testimonial space such as that of the Magnes.

Without discounting the significance of Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s stories in terms of redress and the role their imaginative witness to trauma and survival plays in suturing the gap between past and present, I was particularly intrigued and moved by Russell’s evocative performance of two Yiddish folk songs: Ukrainian-American singer Sidor Belarsky’s “Der Germore Nign” and “Bessarabia,” a piece attributed to Bukovinian-born folk bard Itzik Manger. The deep bass of Russell’s singing imbued each piece with an air of lament resonant with the mood of the classic Negro Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” thereby fostering a sonic entryway into what it might feel like, as per the subject matter of “Der Germore Nign,” to be a child separated from her family—an experience all too familiar to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Russell thus expanded the parameters of remembering and, in this, who gets to remember (more on that below), in a turn to music that served to inflect the respective narratives of Passy-Zale and Letimann with a haunting aurality. Furthermore, his singing opened up a space of contemplative silence between testimonies. Indeed, after the ceremony, as I was speaking with Russell about his performance, an older woman and Holocaust survivor introduced herself to the basso to commend him for his soulful singing.  When I asked her about what Russell’s performance evoked in her she smiled and said, “I would need to write a poem about it.” Implicit in this response is an acknowledgment of a mystery that resists category or definition. It is a submission to a kind of unknowing which occurs in the face of trauma. Her inability or, perhaps, refusal to give words to what in Russell’s singing captured her imagination points to an experience of suffering that renders language absurd because nothing save a “tear or a sigh”[1] can approximate the “unspeakable”[2] nature of its magnitude. In this, it was Russell’s role to give some melody to it.

That said, I left my conversation with Russell, which was cut short in light of some other engagements to which he had to attend, mulling over the dual question of identity politics and cultural appropriation with regard to his testimony on behalf of Jewish survivors. What does it mean for an African-American to invoke the memory of the Jewish Holocaust in a way that moves others—both those who have and have not undergone the trials of political persecution—to engage more deeply with the reality of Jewish suffering? Moreover, in what ways does Russell’s appropriation of Yiddish folk songs function as a kind of historical redress and, in this, cultural survival for Jews?

With these prompts in mind, I decided to contact Russell by e-mail to glean insight from him on his own experience of giving witness to the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust, especially in terms of his African-American ancestry and what role it might play in his engagement with the racialized violence wrought on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Speaking to this, Russell placed himself in company with “every other Jew who has not directly experienced the Holocaust,” emphasizing the impossibility of empathizing with those who withstood “horrors of that event.”[3] He wrote that it is only by way of interaction with survivors, “singing for them, listening and speaking to them, that my attempts to invoke and honor the lives of those affected by the Holocaust has begun to approach their experiences.”[4] Russell meanwhile nodded to what his African-American heritage brings to bear on his performances, noting that he draws on the “immense historic trauma” which “looms in the background” of his cultural history to give himself perspective on the experiences of Jews.[5]

By the same measure, the [then] 33-year-old Russell found a way to self-fashion through the incorporation of Yiddish folk song into his already expansive repertoire of musical training, based mostly in the European tradition of classical opera. In this, he has drawn on the experience of Jews, through music, to give himself perspective on the experience of African-Americans.

In an article he published recently in an online edition of Tablet Magazine[6] the singer recalls his conversion to Judaism, by way of his now-partner and Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, as an invitation to find a medium of self-expression that he could not locate in the world of classical singing where he grew weary of dealing with 15 years worth of “competition, rejection [it is difficult for a basso to find key roles in a field that revolves around ‘high tones’], technical difficulties, great expense, and casual racism.”[7] “Having just left the stage,” he writes, “I tried to find a new direction in texts, narratives, and experiences I had chosen to accept as a Jew. These, in turn, led me to those sounds I had carefully tried to avoid. They led me to myself.”[8]

It was at a Seder two years ago that Russell first heard a live rendition of the first song he ever learned in Yiddish, a piece called “Piramidn” by anarchist poet David Edelstadt that tropes on Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Russell was especially struck by the relevance of the song’s primary message, a question—“People, who will free you today?”—to his own social status as a gay, black male whose cultural history finds credible parallels with the Passover story, as evidenced by the Judeo-Christian themes of the Negro Spirituals. He writes, “It may come as surprise that I—a young-ish African-African gay convert—have any affinities with the world of Yiddish song. But right there, at the beginning of my Yiddish journey, was a story I could credibly portray. I knew the discontents of a history that included ‘di viste shklafnvelt,’ ‘the bleak slavery-world’ described in ‘Piramidn.’”[9]

From there, as Russell notes, he took on the catalogue of the aforementioned Belarsky, “a rich-toned bass from Russia and one of the 20th century’s most prolific performers of cantorial music, Hasidic nigunim,[10] and Yiddish art song.”[11] This led him further into a musical tradition he had, as a young man, scoffed at for the ways in which it marked him as a raced body: the Negro Spirituals. Through his engagement with Yiddish folk song, which has turned into a career of international proportions, Russell said that he returned to the Spirituals with new ears: “I could now hear my own history along with striking projections, elaborations, and celebrations of the foundational texts I had accepted as a part of myself as a Jew.”[12] He adds:

I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other.[13]

Russell thus found a means to articulate his own experiences as a racialized subject into whose black body a history of political violence has been inscribed by dint of his skin color and the legacy of slavery it references. Taking Belarsky’s “Der Gemore Nign” as a case-in-point, Russell notes that he drew a striking parallel between the subject matter of that song—“Are you homesick for your / father, mother, sister, brother, / and without them, / you are like a ship without a rudder?”—and, as referenced above, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” part of which reads: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone / A long way from home….” Echoing singer/actress Ethel Waters, Russell says he found in Yiddish folk song a “‘despair similar to that of my own people’ that tells the story of ‘my own race, too.’” And with the multi-talented Paul Robeson, Russell notes, “‘The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.’”[14]

It is therefore out of a place of cross-racial identification that Russell has found a way to delve more deeply into his own cultural heritage without erasing the Jewish presence within it. In his conversion to Judaism and subsequent appropriation of Yiddish folk music that Russell came to acknowledge just how integral Judaism’s “foundational images and texts” are to the formation of African-American religious expression.[15] In the same way, he has witnessed the “reverse appropriation,” as he calls it, of African-American Spirituals by Jews who have incorporated songs such as “Go Down Moses” into Seders he has attended.

In all of this, Russell’s appropriation of Old World Jewish music meanwhile serves as an act of redress insofar as it functions as a kind of reparation that “seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression”[16] through acts of remembering, such as singing, which articulate the needs and desires of the oppressed.[17] This is particularly evident at the level of the language itself. Yiddish is a High German language written in the Hebrew alphabet of Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European, Jews whose names derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of the ancient Jewish patriarch Gomer.

When asked about the role of Yiddish folk songs in giving witness to the Holocaust, Russell noted that “Yiddish itself is a witness to the depredations of the Holocaust, holding as it does the sounds and sentiments of many of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”[18] In this way Russell is granted access to remembering not only on behalf of, but with, the Jewish community. In this, moreover, he contributes to Jewish cultural tradition and its survival by “performing […] sounds and sentiments through song [that] educate, engage, connect and remind listeners of a world and culture that the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany attempted to destroy.”[19]

Playing on Russell’s most recent musical project which combines “African-American roots music (work songs, early blues and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century [sic] to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope,”[20] the cultural work he is doing as an African-American deeply invested in performances of Jewish identity through Yiddish folk song signifies a “convergence” of experiences related to racialized oppression that catalyze not only cross-racial dialogue in a spirit of cosmopolitanism, but, more to the core, the kind of empathic identification that is necessary to, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, “cultivating humanity.”

As Elaine Scarry notes and Russell himself makes clear, it is essentially impossible to fully know, if at all, another’s pain due to the “severe limits” of our imaginative capacity as human beings.[21] However, it is difficult to conceive of the formation of legal provisions concerned with citizens’ rights or the work of redress without some degree of what Scarry calls the “cosmopolitan largesse” that underlies Nussbaum’s “word-citizen” framework of civic engagement, predicated as it is on an imagining of the so-called other.

Such imagining, in which cultural producers such as Russell seem to engage, is not so much a matter of allowing one group to decide or mediate the welfare of another, as Scarry suggests with regard to the trope of “generous imaginigngs,”[22] or erasing the other’s body altogether as Hartman warns against in Scenes of Subjection, but a means to enact new modes of friendship in communities of solidarity and mutual support. In the same way that Nussbaum speaks of narrative art as a way to understand how circumstances sculpt the lives, desires, hopes and fears of those deemed different,[23] I believe Russell’s performance fosters “an informed and compassionate vision of the different”[24]—his own narrative of intercultural exchange a case-in-point—that in fact makes the so-called other more visible, more audible, and, ultimately, more human.

Indeed, his performances provide a “basis for civic imagining”[25] that is undergirded by compassion for the suffering of others in light of, at the very least, knowing pain in one’s own body and, if nothing else, making plain the plight of the ones who suffer. In his work of translating experiences of human trauma through Yiddish folk song Russell does not attempt to erase the irreconcilable differences that distinguish his personal make-up from that of another, let alone an entire population of people. Rather, he engages with the life-world and texts of another cultural tradition as a means to build bridges across those differences which requires neither an obliteration nor a reification of “otherness”—his own or that of his Jewish brothers and sisters—but an acknowledgement of shared fears, desires, and hopes that come out of historically different circumstances. This kind of multiculturalism, which refuses to flatten difference, but instead finds avenues of “convergence” is the foundation for the healthy constitutionalism that Scarry seeks and undoubtedly conducive to creating the “world citizenship” the Nussbaum espouses.

As a gay, African-American Jew, Russell does well to embody the concept of the “world citizen,” taking on the responsibility of remembering through an act of appropriation that contributes to, rather than co-opts, the cultural heritage of a community which would otherwise consider him an “outsider.” Russell’s performance of lament meanwhile references the terror and torture undergirding “sovereign violence” and its exercise in the extermination of those, such as Jews under Nazism (or African-Americans under American Apartheid), deemed incapable of bearing the “sovereign presence of the state.” [26] In so doing, his recitations of Old World Jeiwsh music restores a sense of humanity lost in what Giorgio Agamben identifies as “a flagrant case of homo sacer [i.e. ‘accursed man’]” by which the Jew living under Nazism embodied a “mere ‘capacity to be killed’” as one banned from the realm of “biopolitical sovereignty” that structured the Nazi state.[27]

In its attempt to accomplish this act of restoration, Russell’s is a work of redress that functions to bring us into a deeper awareness of the ways in which political power, when abused and unchecked by law, can lead to the kind of “grotesque moral blindness”[28] that legitimates historical atrocities such as that of the Jewish Holocaust or American slavery. As African-American cultural critic Huey Copeland notes, however, the work of redress is never done; redress is “terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[29]

For Russell this work is doubly layered, as his artistic output is situated at the convergence of identities—his blackness and his Jewishness—that each carry the burden of a history haunted by state-sanctioned racial violence. In giving representation, through his voice, to these histories Russell “invokes a lost world” via the “circular movement” of translating into song the life experiences of those who survived the trauma of the Holocaust, as well as those who died from it.[30] This makes possible networks of affiliation, communities of solidarity, essential to creating a more just society. Such community-building happens through the refusal to forget. For, as it is inscribed into the front interior wall of the Magnes: “In remembrance is the secret of redemption.” It is my contention that Russell’s act of remembering discloses just such a secret, not only in terms of the Jewish Holocaust, but also with reference to the history of American Slavery.

Notes

[1] Riffing on Paul Robeson (see below).

[2] This is a reference to Thomas Merton’s trope of the “unspeakable” as the existential emptiness, the dehumanizing void, out of which the terror and torture of war emerges. See Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966).

[3] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to author, May 5, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover,” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] From the Hebrew for “tune” or “melody.” The term refers to Jewish religious song.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[17] Riffing on Saidiya Hartman. See “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 77.

[18] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’”, op. cit.

[21] See Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People,” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar, http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf, March 4, 2014.

[22] Ibid., 106.

[23] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[24] Ibid., 89.

[25] Ibid., 93.

[26] Riffing on Paul Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 39.

[27] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 114.

[28] See Peter Brooks and Julie Stone Peters, “Law and Literature in Dialogue,” Modern Language Association 120, no. 5 (Oct., 2005): 1645-1647.

[29]Copeland, op. cit., 35.

[30] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.———

References

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brooks, Peter and Julie Stone Peters. “Law and Literature in Dialogue.” Modern        Language Association 120, no. 5. (October 2005): 1645-1647.

Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Paul. Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Russell, Anthony. “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover.” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar. http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf. March 4, 2014.


 

What About Latoya? – On the Spectacle of “the Other” in Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Black People”

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. – bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992)

Stereotypes, however innacurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make true knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed. – bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination” (1992)

I was on facebook recently and received a notification from a group of which I am a part called White People Conference [WPC] – Got Privilege? An online forum for people of all social locations to discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality, WPC constellates around a critical interrogation of white supremacy at it shows up in instances of racialized violence—whether physical (via police brutality, for instance) or “symbolic” (via racist slurs, as an example)—in various contexts. It is also meant to be a space in which to offer viable avenues for white solidarity with the cause for racial justice.

The notification I received came from a woman of color who posted a video blog from white comedian “vlogger” Nicole Arbour with the following preface: “Who the heck is this, and WHAT is (are) her problem(s)?,” followed by the hashtag: “#whitegirlflexsherwhiteprivilege”.

Entitled “Dear Black People,” the six minute video is a tongue-and-cheek response to the nonwhite indictment of cultural appropriation on the part of white people who borrow or steal elements of food, music, style, taste, and vernacular from nonwhite cultures without assuming the burden of what it means to be an object of racialized oppression in a social system predicated on white racial domination. A social system in which cultural practices on the part of people of color have functioned as creative responses to exploitation and social dislocation in an historical context still living down the legacies of (chattel) slavery and segregation.

Arbour’s video engages racially charged humor as a means by which to deescalate crossracial conflict centered around claims of cultural theft launched against whites who borrow blindly and specifically from, in terms of this video, black cultural practices for the purposes of their own self-making. As a deconstructive move, the piece works to question the logic of such an indictment by way of Arbour’s acknowledgement that, yes, white people do appropriate from black culture, but not always blindly (that is, without understanding the history of black cultural practice), inviting “black people” by way of rather empty examples (i.e. black women sporting blonde hair weaves; black patronage of Starbucks; and black consumption of pickles, attributed spuriously to Polish people) to consider the possibility that appropriation is multi-directional—that is, appropriation goes both ways and is therefore something of which we are all guilty (or in which we are “innocently” implicated).

To illustrate the “conscientiousness” of her own appropriation of black culture as cool (i.e. “Your shit is just cooler!”) and literal consumption of it as spice (thinking here of her enjoyment of jerk chicken, as long as it’s not too spicy because of her “delicate” white girl palette, as a case-in-point), she situates her epistolary rebuttal to charges of cultural stealing in terms of a willingness to recognize that, though (chattel) slavery has ended, its residues linger in the form of wage slavery and the American prison system—each of which disproportionately affect the black population in America and which Arbour sees as “disgusting.”

Using her black friend Latoya as an “insurance policy” to further legitimate her thesis, stated in the form of a question—“Why can’t we all just enjoy whatever the fuck we want from every culture?”—Arbour engages in a form of blackface minstrelsy (embodied literally insofar as she dons a tight red design tee mottled with the cartooned visage of tilt-crowned rapper Biggy Smalls) that reduces her friend-turned-object Latoya to an absent presence in the play of her virtual performance of a blackened white identity.

In this, Arbour deploys what Toni Morrison calls an American Africanism (see Playing in the Dark, New York: Vintage, 1993) by which Arbour, as a white cultural producer, uses a one-dimensional black character as one would a stage prop by which to work out the ambivalences of her own problematic whiteness. She relies on the stereotypical image of an angry black female (the caricature-archetype Sapphire), played by Latoya, standing in as metonym for all black women, to construct a space in which she can contextualize, albeit precariously, her white performance of a blackness lampooned by her uncritical glorification of long nails and her impersonations of the guttural inflections of ghetto talk attributed to black people in the white imagination.

In this way, she participates in a fetishization of blackness that circulates within a transnational marketplace in which black bodies are bought, sold, and consumed as stereotyped representatives of a homogenized black culture, a cultural Other, from which we (i.e. white people) all can just take “whatever the fuck we want.” Arbour does this even as she attempts to establish intimacy with her black associates by picking apart stereotypes that associate blackness, namely black males, with criminality and the monstrous phallus, imitating a stuck-up and rigid white girl threatened by the sexualized and raced other.

Yet despite her feeble efforts to dismantle such stereotypes she reproduces them by telling black folks to keep the stereotype of the large black phallus, reinscribing a black male phallocentricism that black intellectuals such as bell hooks (see “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992) and James Baldwin (see No Name in the Street, New York: Vintage, 1972) problematize as symptomatic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Arbour reasserts white fascination with the black penis that comes to represent a specific kind of black manhood–one that is deeply misogynist, sexist, and homophobic–operative in both the white and black imaginaries and which is symptomatic of what Andrea Smith would call heteropatricarchy.

In her essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” black American cultural critic bell hooks gets at the problematic logic of such intimacy, pinpointing its inherent racism:  “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (see Black Looks: Race and Representation, 23). In the case of Arbour, she engages, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an act of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ by which she romanticizes the pre-modern primitivism that blacks represent in the white racial imagination while calling out nonwhites, unjustifiably so and perhaps jokingly (it is difficult to tell how jokingly by way of her inflection and facial expressions), for the seeming hypocrisy, if not “reverse racism,” at play in their injunctions that whites stop appropriating.41J5G72iPqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Arbour enacts this kind of nostalgia, a variation on the Marxist notion of “false consciousness” (which is to say historical amnesia), by way of implying that she is not racist, particularly in light of the fact that, as she says, “I was not there!”, in reference to the “fucked up” historical fact of (chattel) slavery. Granted, she was not “there”, yet such a stance, often espoused by whites defensive of their privilege as whites when it is called into question, discounts the fact that, regardless of whether or not they were “there” when (chattel) slavery existed, their whiteness still implicates them in a history of oppression that manifests in the contemporary moment as the supremacy which affords them the privilege to “[assuage] the guilt of the past” (hooks, 25). It is the privilege to claim: “I wasn’t ‘there’ in the context of past oppression so I am not responsible for your present oppression.”

Meanwhile, claims of reverse racism made by whites such as Arbour against nonwhites, even if made in jest, evade the actuality of institutional racism and its disenabling effects on and in the lived experiences of people of color in today’s world. That structural inequality and systematic oppression along lines of race—to say nothing of gender and sexuality—still exist renders null and void the notion of reverse racism by nonwhites against whites. Blacks, unlike whites, are not in a position of racial dominance. Thus reverse racism on the part of blacks, in particular, and people of color, more broadly, does not exist so long as white supremacy is a reality. And it is.

Even when whites at the level of the personal, or the individual, make no clear move to dominate, oppression still functions through acts of “symbolic violence” by way of “microagressions” that occur along a spectrum of desire and fear. Arbour’s vlog could well be considered one such aggression through the politics of desire in which she engages for the purposes of exonerating white people of responsibility to a heightened awareness around the problems of appropriation.

As hooks notes, “The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other,” which is implied in Arbour’s vlog piece, even when there is no “apparent will to dominate […] takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection” (25). Hooks adds, “Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (25).

Certainly, Arbour expresses no explicit will to dominate, nor do I believe that such is her conscious intent. Indeed, “Dear Black People” functions as a gesture toward deconstructing that will to dominate insofar as it pokes fun, self-consciously so, at white people who complain about being underrepresented in public celebrations of multiculturalism (as per her ironic jab at a non-specified Caribbean Festival that has no “white girl float”) or at the white hypocrisy evidenced in the simultaneous call for the (white) right to bear arms and for the imprisonment of black men (to say nothing of women) on the basis of non-violent drug crimes. This is a commendable gesture toward crossracial understanding, but it really flattens the complexity of systemic racism while associating black folks (black men, in particular) with drug consumption. It meanwhile attributes social pathology in the black community with the bastardization of the black family: “When kids don’t have a dad, they’re going to act up!”).

In this way, Arbour identifies the seeming unruliness of troubled (black) children with the absence of (black) fathers who have been jailed by an unjust system of mass incarceration that targets black folks. In this can be heard the haunting echoes of the Moynihan Report. While it is laudable that Arbour makes historical linkages between the past and the present in terms of slavery and the slaveability of black folks (thinking here of Andrea Smith’s piece about heteropatriarchy), the connections she makes are tenuous at best. For instance, what are other socioeconomic factors that contribute to the oppression of black folks in this country? In what ways does she, Arbour, play a part in this oppression by dint of her own desire to appropriate? If slavery still exists, what part does or will she play in imagining an alternative whiteness for herself and others who recognize that black folks are victimized systemically?

Arbour’s social and racial analysis is ultimately thin, cloaked in humor that, despite its irony, reinscribes a notion of blackness as part of a larger commodity culture to be consumed by whites. The thinness of her racial analysis is perhaps best exemplified in her invocation of Bill Nye the Science Guy to argue that we are all part of one race–asserting a tired notion of race as biological fact that contemporary theorists of race have worked ad nauseum to upend, favoring instead a definition of race as a social construct, a category of identity, tied up in a system of white social domination. By espousing a universal theory of race and, in this humanity, one that universalizes experiences that are actually not shared between whites and nonwhites given the reality of racism, Arbour gives herself license to borrow without keeping in mind the fact that, just because we can recognize ourselves as part of one human family does not mean we can ignore the fact that our global society is structured according to a racial hierarchy–a divorced human family, as it were–that blind appropriation perpetuates in its unwillingness to explore or acknowledge that white and nonwhites are raced (and gendered and sexed) differently.

That this stratification remains an historical fact should check her, or anybody’s, assumption that sameness is present where difference exists. That such difference is an actuality demands a conscientiousness, a race consciousness, that Arbour fails to take on in her willfully color- and power-evasive desire for the Other. This is not to say that appropriation cannot function as a means by which to bridge current divides. It perhaps can do so, but only insofar as it is contextualized by a deeper and more incisive identification with and involvement in the larger historical struggle of the Other, whose cultural practices one is adopting, against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy–lest appropriation morph into a kind of blackface (or yellow, or red, or brown face for that matter).

Though she may acknowledge this struggle, Arbour relinquishes her responsibility for and accountability to the anti-racist whiteness she gestures toward in this video by essentially telling black folks how to behave. This is particularly evident, for instance, in her charge that blacks drop the “N-word” (i.e. “nigga”) from their music so as to make it easier for whites to enjoy what blacks produce without the attendant guilt or paralysis that may come with repeating, or being tempted to repeat, what amounts to an epithet when lip-synched by a white mouth. It elides through humor the possibility that the “N-word” may in fact serve a liberatory purpose, a means by which to re-appropriate or reclaim the linguistic signifier of subhuman status from which it derives and thus counter and resist the “symbolic violence” of that inflammatory term.

In the above instance we witness a self-absolution of responsibility to an honest interrogation of her own whiteness and the ways in which that whiteness is predicated upon the “innocent” consumption of black cultural production/products that seeks nothing more than to maintain its perceived innocence against the threat of black accusation, of being called out for racism.

In the end, what we are left with is not simply an unspoken longing to become the Other but, taking what hooks says above further and keeping Morrison’s trope of American Africanism in mind, a display of desire to “make the Other over in one’s image.” Were it otherwise, Arbour would neither be speaking over and against or for a monolithic and essentialized “black people”–signified by the lone and silenced black stand-in/representative Latoya–regarding the issue of cultural appropriation.

That said, Arbour’s act of “speaking for” is nowhere better evidenced in the video than in her dynamic with the essentially voiceless Latoya, whose visage haunts the vlog like the fleeting spectre of blackness Morrison locates in the white literary productions of authors such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. Unquestionably, Arbour links herself with the struggle of black folks for racial justice, yet the issue of racial inequality is overridden by her claim to understand experiences of structural inequality as a woman. In this sense, gender erases race in an equation that leaves a white woman—blind to the privilege which permits her to disregard the ways in which she is oppressed differently from her nonwhite Other by dint of her class status as white subject—as the sole spokesperson for a struggle that she both “gets” and does not “get”.
At the same time,  Arbour fails to recognize the ways in which racial and gender oppression intersect within the larger confines of white supremacy, or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She thus misses a moment to act in solidarity with blacks against a bigger systemic force that oppresses all of us, though differently, and in this acknowledge that whites too are situated as subjects in the struggle insofar as white supremacy is an assault on the dignity of the human person in general–not just nonwhites.

Speaking out of both sides of her mouth, as the saying goes, Arbour admits toward the end of the video to not fully understanding the “struggle” and asks for her nonwhite compatriots to explain it to her–thus absolving herself of responsibility to researching systemic racism, interrogating her whiteness and calling into question the privilige which allows her the lazy option of foregoing research into the “struggle” on her own (without taxing the already tapped reserves of people of color who are deemed fully answerable to white people for explaining racism).

Out of the proverbial other side of her mouth she then proceeds to “whitesplain” to black people one small part of their “struggle”—that is, the racially skewed aspects of the American prison system—preceded by her proclamation that what she “sees” happening to the black population is “disgusting” (without explaining her sympathetic, if not empathetic, identification with black blight).

This statement of recognition bookends the video’s opening sequence in which she plays on white desire for and fear of blacks by parodying white girls’ fascination with gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. before beginning her salutation, “Dear Black People…” followed by the a clip of her, hands-up, shouting “Don’t shoot!” Fooling her audience into thinking that she is on some racist rant, she adds in subsequent clip, “…is what too many of you have to say to the fucked up po-lice!” She adds, “Oh, you thought I was going somewhere else with that. That’s kinda racist of you.” It is then that she introduces her friend Latoya, tokenized as testimony that Arbour is not racist and deployed as a back-up or legitimating factor (read “insurance policy”) in Arbour’s contestation that we need to get beyond the narrow identity politics involved in debates around cultural appropriation.

Similar to what hooks says of white filmmaker Sara Bernhard whose Without You I’m Nothing associates blackness with the struggle for liberation, understood as an effort to end racial domination and free up political space for the right to black self-determination, Arbour “places herself in a relationship of comparison and competition with black women [represented by Latoya], seemingly exposing white female envy of black women [evidenced in her glorification of long nails stereotypically linked with black women as well as in her staging of Latoya as prop], and their desire to ‘be’ imitation black women; yet she also pokes fun at black females” (38).

Though Arbour may be working to establish a context, through comedy, by which to “make light” of the “awkward situation” that is race talk for the purposes of constructing some modicum of crossracial solidarity beyond the policing of racial borders evident in the identity politics of race, she in the end appropriates blackness without acknowledging the debt she owes to what she perceives as black cultural practices in food, music, style, taste and vernacular—taking up space to mock white people (“white girls” in particular) as refracted through her understanding of the stereotypes into which blacks cast her white womanhood (or “girlhood” rather), that leaves no room for black women (such as Latoya) to do it themselves. The video concludes without a trace of blackness, used and left behind as a vanishing Africanist presence by which to situate and defend Arbour’s blackfaced whiteness without any inkling of how, riffing on hooks, “the Other leaves her” (39).

While I can appreciate the notion that cultural appropriation is multi-directional and often times seemingly natural to the fabric of our exchanges with each other within and between cultures, particularly due to the fact of intercultural flow in a global marketplace where ethno-racial boundaries are so easily transgressed, I question the stability of Arbour’s argument that we should be able to “enjoy whatever the fuck we want”—even as she attempts to lay some groundwork for candid talk across the color line at the level of cultural production (in this case, comedy). Lastly, I question her capacity to speak for all white people (the video is subtitled: “What we’ve all wanted to say to black people…”). As a white person, I cannot in clear conscience say that she speaks for me.

What is lacking from Arbour’s largely social, versus political, analysis is the space to explore in a more self-reflexive way her own relationship to the stereotypes with which she engages to speak about and for black culture/people and, in so doing, “shift her positionality” (as with the character of Traci in John Waters’ Hairspray, which hooks upholds as a cultural product in line with the agenda of black liberation), in order to invite a more sustained “engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the [white] status quo” (37). There is no such sustained engagement in Arbour’s satirical response to the issue of appropriation; the finer nuances of racial analysis fall by the wayside for the sake of one-liners that preclude the possibility for deepening the dialogue about race with a critical cognizance of how power operates racially through the flows of the cultural marketplace–precisely where we find Nicole Arbour’s video. Ultimately, it seems unclear as to what Arbour is trying to accomplish.

As with what hooks says of Bernhard’s film, Arbour’s “Dear Black People” “walks a critical tightrope” insofar as it “mocks white appropriation of black culture, white desire for black […] even as [the video] works as a spectacle largely because of the clever ways Bernhard ‘uses’ black culture and standard racial stereotypes” (39). In this way, again riffing on hooks, it does not really go against the grain. It hints at a critical politics of appreciation for black culture and even identification with the black struggle for liberation, yet it falls short of going any further to disrupt white supremacy and de-colonize the white mind (diseased by white imperialism) at the site of desire (the black body) precisely because of the ways in which it flattens cultural difference, white-washing the debate around cultural appropriation through its defense of an uncritical and in so many ways power- and color-blind multiculturalism which preys as a matter of white enjoyment on the flesh of the fictive black Other.

Beyond the #BernieSoBlack Standstill: A Self-Implicating Proposal for Crossracial Solidarity in Social Reform

A Problem

I am a White radical who has been very vocal in his support for Vermont Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an Independent who is running on the Democratic ticket. I am also a White ally who has been engaged in the fight for racial justice in this country through my involvement in mobilization efforts on the ground to the point of police arrest as part of the #KettleAtRoss, in church-sponsored marches, and in my academic life as a doctoral student doing work around critical whiteness and hip-hop. In fact, it is in large part because of my dedication to decolonizing whiteness that I, a White radical ally, have found myself so enthusiastic about Sanders’ compelling campaign with its revolutionary socialist rhetoric and its thrust toward the redistribution of wealth, which carries implications for deconstructing hierarchies that are classed, gendered, raced, and sexed.

However, in light of my ideological commitments to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I cannot ignore the protests that disrupted the Netroots Nation 2015 event (#NN15) in Phoenix, AZ on July 18 and caused a stir of White “progressive” backlash at the Black protesters for their supposedly misinformed attempts to be heard by a prospective co-conspirator in the Black freedom struggle.

In light of the call to White accountability that a movement in which I wholeheartedly believe has offered not just Sanders, but White progressives, in general, I cannot help but reassess my own, until recently, blind enthusiasm for the presidential candidate—a zeal lacking in the critical self-reflexivity necessary for White allies such as myself to be effective in the move toward freedom from bondage to White supremacy that affects us all.

Upon the kind of critical self-reflection on my investments in Sanders for which the cries of agitators at Netroots Nation called White progressives, and if I’m to be sincere with myself, this fervor for Sanders has been informed by a kind of unconscious racism on my part called White paternalism, an attitude that takes responsibility for and thus displaces the needs of the Black lives which I so often, through social media and in my own activism and academic work, proclaim matter.

That’s a rough confession to make inasmuch as it challenges me to question my perceived innocence as one who professes himself—in the spirit of Alicia Garza’s admonition to White allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement—to be a “co-conspirator” in the fight to abolish the structural inequalities that perpetuate in and through acts of discrimination and violence against my brothers and sisters of color in America and around the world.

Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography
Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography

But I need to offer this inventory as a check on the pride, arrogance, self-delusion, and self-centeredness which would have me believe that I, a White male, know what is best for Black people. “Step back, brother,” I tell myself, and “slow your roll”—words a Black priest-friend of mine from Baltimore told me when I critiqued his own deeply personal engagement in race matters in the course of an online exchange in May of this year.

The supremacy of Whiteness and the privilege that secures its hegemonic stranglehold at the level of individual and institution is insidious. It has snuck up on me and I’ve let myself be seduced by it in my own unquestioned adherence to a campaign that, if I’m again to be honest with myself, has not been as vocal as it could be about the fact of White supremacy and its intersections with the unjust economic conditions that Sanders rightly laments. In his seeming lack of racial analysis regarding income inequality in America, meanwhile, and his unwillingness to field the questions of protestors at the #NN15 gathering concerned with his commitment to ending Black blight, Sanders reproduces the paternalism and racial privilege to which all White progressives are subject in believing they have a monopoly on the “best practices” of social protest and/or reform.

In the defensiveness I’ve felt around Sanders and the gusto I’ve mustered on behalf of his campaign, I’ve been avoiding a conscious acknowledgment of paternalism as it functions in the subtleties of my past reproach for the line of critique that claims his racial analysis is lacking.

Previous to the interruption at the #NN15 event, I have used social media, primarily facebook, to highlight the ways in which Sanders has indeed been part of the struggle for racial justice in this country, as evidenced by his involvement in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), his voting record, his own vocal excoriation of police brutality and mass incarceration, and his awareness of the disproportionately disenfranchising effects that income inequality has on people of color in this country. I also capitalized on the news concerning rapper Killer Mike’s endorsement of the presidential candidate—in no small part, whether or not I was aware of it at the time, because of the MC’s Blackness, exploiting it as testimony of Sanders’ appeal to the Black vote (as if Killer Mike is the sole representative of African American cultures) to advance a political agenda. #smh

Lastly, I recall the racially insular comfort of a conversation I had with a White friend of mine during a hike through a regional park in the hills of North Berkeley a few weeks back in which I admitted in so many words, “I think Sanders is it. I am just worried about the Black vote. I hope it does not go to Hillary.” Perhaps this admission might seem innocuous at first glance or upon hearing it in passing; but when scrutinized under the light of the critical Whiteness I espouse in my own work as scholar-activist, it reveals an ironic anxiety about the self-activity of the collective Black political body–diverse and variegated as it is in and of itself–that indeed knows what it means to take part in the political process! #smh

Admitting all this throws me into an imperative crisis of identity and identification as the defects and contradictions of my own character come roaring up at me in the mirror like monsters returned from the repression of my racial closet—the door of which was opened yesterday upon reading on my pastor Michael McBride‘s facebook wall an article detailing the incontestable uproar of Black activists at #NN15 and subsequently witnessing Sanders’ glib dismissal of their demands for recognition in an evasive reiteration of his populist economic vision—wholly lacking in the necessary humility and poise of deep listening that I believe was being asked of someone championing such political commitments as his platform proffers.

The criticisms from Black activists are incontestable precisely because the fragility of Black dignity and life in this moment and throughout the history of the modern world deems it so. My professed adherence to the Christian Gospel of Love deems it so. The pangs of a conscience I feel, which are informed by the Christian Gospel, deem it so. I say this not out of the insecurity of White guilt, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but out of the security of a self-responsible ethic of empathy.

If I am to be serious about the sincerity of my engagement with the cause for racial justice, then, it is necessary that I undergo a continual inventory on racism as it manifests in my consciousness and character if only to create a space of vulnerability and open-heartedness within myself to receive the moral indictments of my Black brothers and sisters whose rage refuses White silence (i.e. consent) and demands accountability from those touting “revolution” as a slogan for a movement not altogether unrelated to the aims of #BlackLivesMatter.

A Dilemma

Because of the messiness of splitting I feel within myself and which I am witnessing in the current battle in which White and Black progressives seem pitted against one another, I’ve had a hard time conceiving a viable picture of “where to go from here” in terms of the move forward regarding issues and stances that both Sanders and those in the #BlackLivesMatter camp hold dear and true in their hearts—issues and stances that I, myself, hold dear and true in my heart.

I am disappointed in myself. I am disappointed in Sanders. I am disappointed that he failed to receive the invitation, even if challenging, to just listen in Arizona. It saddens me that he seems to have under-utilized his privilege—which he could very well leverage given the clout he has garnered in a convincing grassroots political movement that overlaps with the goals of the global #Occupy—to talk more incisively, more intersectionally, more prophetically about systemic racism as well as the concerns voiced by those whom he chose instead to hush in Phoenix. I am equally as disheartened by the White “progressive” backlash in his defense.

At the same time, I remain wary of a wholesale rejection of his campaign. 

This is not to reinscribe the implicitly paternalistic proselytizing I believe was operative in my past endorsements of his platform, nor to claim a monopoly on the “best practices” of social reform, but to hold true to my own convictions that Sanders has a lot, if not the most, to offer the movement(s) for racial justice in this country of any major party candidate running for the job thus far–largely because of the work he’s done to combat the disinheriting monolith of monopoly capitalism that hurts racial minorities the most. By the same token, I believe said movement(s) have much to offer his “revolution” as a deservedly celebrated creative foil and corrective to his progressivism, in particular, and that of White liberals, in general (myself included), inasmuch as it reminds us all that the issue of racism must be treated as a problem in and of itself–without reducing the issue of social inequality to race alone–and that the self-activity of Black organizers must be taken seriously (see Dara Lind in Vox, “#BernieSoBlack: Why Progressives are Fighting about Bernie Sanders and Race,” July 20, 2015; see also this article in The Nation).

Neither the movement for economic justice nor the movement for racial justice is mutually exclusive of the other and I fear that what could function as an invitation toward unification across difference in the present social media uproar regarding Sanders and Black lives is instead turning into a kind of ideological race war: anti-progressive Black radicals versus anti-radical White progressives. In a word, it seems people on both sides of the divide in this specific conflict are castigating each other into corners of categorical disposal, resorting to an “all or nothing,” “us versus them,” and “black versus white” mentality that is flattening the complexity of a potentially fruitful moment for “real talk” rather than cynical stone-throwing from each corner.

A Proposal 

That being the case, as far as I can tell, I wonder what the possibilities are for a unified crossracial progressive movement rooted in more nuanced class- and race-based policy reform that brings together the predominantly White base at the foundation of Bernie’s platform and the predominantly Black base undergirding the various movements committed to ending institutional racism and racialized violence in this country. What could happen if there was a joint effort that combined the best insights of each movement for the purposes of overhauling our current political-economic infrastructure without drowning out the clarion call to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter and that racial injustice and economic injustice are intertwined?

Though he has not ignored the issue of racialized oppression in America, Sanders’ predominately class-based critique of the present economic situation fails to name the ill of White supremacy at the root of the present order of things in which economic inequality is merely one symptom of that global disease. By the same token, it’s important that the issue of economic injustice and class-based reform not be altogether disregarded either.

If anything, Sanders’ bid for president presents us with an opportune moment to at least consider the need for a co-conspiratorial grassroots movement sharpened by the precision of a race-class cultural critique that looks at the ways in which class is organized along racial lines and vice versa; that recognizes that income inequality and racial inequality work in tandem and must be addressed as two sides of one corroded coin of monopoly capitalism, the global processes of which function to erect what intellectual-activist Andrea Smith calls “the three pillars of heteropatriarchy” that constitute White supremacy: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War.

I am not proposing anything new—see Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994), for example—yet this moment, in which class- and race-based measures for change seem to be at odds with one another in the split imaginaries of progressives isolated from one another across what is amounting to a racial divide of mutual alienation, incites us with a pivotal urgency to put theoretical intersectionality into practical action in a joint effort for policies that address classism and racism, bedfellows that they are, as well as the ties of each of these -isms to various other forms of prejudice (heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

imgresYou cannot adequately address one issue without the other in this line of logic, which accounts for how Whiteness, specifically, and class formation go hand-in-hand. I find labor historian David R. Roediger‘s insights useful here as he argues convincingly that class-based reform is as much a precondition for attacking racism as attacking racism is for class-based reform. We must all wake up to the fact that the income gap is deeply racialized and that racialized violence is deeply classed–to say nothing of the gender and sexual dynamism at play, here. I believe Sanders recognizes this, but needs to be more explicit about this. Not just by attacking racism, but by calling out this country’s “possessive investment in Whiteness” (George Lipsitz 2006) itself for its collusion with the global processes of capitalism in creating a racial hierarchy that is also classed, gendered, and sexed. imgres

That said, I think Sanders is on point in so many ways, but needs to fine-tune his approach to meet the race-based demands of those at the center of the #BlackLivesMatter movement so that the largely White progressive movement he represents might divest itself from a “possessive investment in Whiteness” (Lipsitz 2006) to which we are all victim. By the same token, it is important that those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other organizations campaigning for racial equality fine-tune their approach to reform so as not to overlook racism’s economic dimensions. In the end, none of us can hope to accomplish anything by shouting over each other as such action only fuels a deafening resentment. On that note, it is not up to White progressives to decide what are best tactics for Black protest, particularly in a movement that purposely eschews a politics of respectability in favor of a politics of disruption. The most important step across the color line is that of listening.

Hopefully, the chaos of righteous Black indignation and the White racial anxiety it provokes will pave the way for constructive, clarifying dialogue to take place across current divides. In the meantime, it’s important that we hear each other out and keep grappling with underlying causes–to paraphrase the words of a friend and colleague who quoted Dr. King recently in a facebook thread on this very issue–so that our social analyses remain as sharp and precise as the long arc of the universe which bends toward justice.

The Fine Line Between “Identity” and “Identification”: Debating Appropriation in the Case of Dolezal

A friend of mine recently sent me an online version of an op-ed piece that the retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabar penned for Time magazine. Entitled, “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” the article is a tongue-and-cheek response to the righteous backlash the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP has received for lying about her racial identity. In it, the former Lakers player engages in a thought experiment about the possibility of living a lie with regard to his towering frame as a means to make an argument about the arbitrariness of (racial) identity and the ways in which we can convince ourselves and others of our social location through the power of repetition.

“Although I’ve been claiming to be 7’2” for many decades,” he writes, “the truth is that I’m 5’8”,” adding, “Just goes to show, you tell a lie often enough and people believe you.”

Good point? Not so sure. Last time I checked, no one ever believed, nor is there a chance that anyone ever will believe, that Abdul-Jabar is 5’8”. Not to mention the identity politics of race is far more nuanced, complex, and complicated than those of height–at least in terms of the present debate.

Judging by the evidence against her—from allegations of receiving a full scholarship for Howard University’s MFA program under false pretenses to those of cultural appropriation so as to legitimate her involvement in various causes for racial justice—Ms. Dolezal has woven a masterful web of deceit around her self-identity that has allowed her to commit what amounts to a crime of cultural theft and, ultimately, an abuse of White privilege. Only recently, with the stir caused by her parents’ outing Dolezal as White, has she come under the proverbial gun of scrutiny—and rightly so.

rachel-dolezal1

In opposition to Dolezal’s critics, however, Abdul-Jabar, an African American by ancestry, offers a sympathetic interpretation of her situation—one that he renders through the unstable metaphor of his choice to claim himself shorter than he is. The point he is making through this dubious analogy is that race is a social construct. Therefore, if this White woman, who claims a deep-seeded commitment to the African-American struggle for existential, social and political freedom, wishes to identify as Black it is damn well her imperative to do so. This is the case, Abdul-Jabar argues, particularly in light of how much Ms. Dolezal has contributed to the Black community through her involvement with the NAACP as well as her role as instructor of African-American studies at Eastern Washington University and her chairwomanship of a police oversight commission in Spokane.

I think Abdul-Jabar is right to remind us that race is merely a social construct. Indeed, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have gone to great lengths deconstructing categories of race, gender, and sexuality, revealing to us how fluid such identity signifiers actually are. The wonderfully compelling thing about the controversy surrounding Ms. Dolezal’s act of willful appropriation is that it provides a contemporary case-study by which to reconsider fixed notions of race because of how easily it can be adopted and performed (Dolezal a prime example).

After all, as Abdul-Jabar makes clear, race is not a biological reality. It is something we inherit culturally through discourse—that is, as a matter of shared values and social practices—that is not bound to or by genetic makeup. Its only tie to biology lies in the fact that it is used as a way to classify people according to phenotype, or skin color. An historical account of race meanwhile reminds us that it is an invention of White colonialism which ushered in the slave trade and, with this, a systematic ordering of people according to a hierarchy of being predicated on prejudicial assumptions about the supposedly inferior relation of non-Whites to Whites—the latter forming the top of a social pyramid into which we, as a global society, are still locked today.

While it may be true, as Abdul-Jabar writes, that “[w]hat we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another,” it is also true that the cultural histories and social conventions tied up in the physical characteristics used to classify individuals according to race are imbued with a specific politics that, for people who are actually Black or non-White, carries the weight of centuries-long oppression. In light of this burden, Blackness, even if an arbitrary construct, cannot be taken up by cultural outsiders simply by dint of waking up in the morning and deciding, “I am Black.” Especially not with the same hypothetical ease with which Abdul-Jabar imagines himself as shorter than 7’2”.

Indeed, his conceit does not hold up in large part because race cannot be so easily transcended or dismissed in a society where people are still being targeted as victims of violence based on the politics of skin color. The recent terror of the #CharlestonShooting as well as the spate of historic Black church burnings offer us horrific and sobering cases-in-point.

The problem with Abdul-Jabar’s logic, furthermore, lies in the fact that he fails to account for the ways in which Ms. Dolezal has in fact overstepped the boundaries of appropriation through her spurious claim of Blackness as a matter of “identity” rather than as a “politics of identification” (see Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness, 2010: 234ff). The distinction between “identity” and “identification” here is important (more below).

By claiming Blackness as a her racial identity when she is in fact White, Ms. Dolezal has assumed a heritage of historical burden that she has never actually had to live down—despite her claims of being discriminated against (apparently, she has alleged, as the target of anti-Black and anti-White racism, which reveals further the contradictions of her past and present social locations). While it is clear, as Abdul-Jabal notes, that she has committed herself to the struggle for Black enfranchisement and has at least ostensibly aligned herself with Blackness as a kind of political ideology that signifies solidarity with the racially oppressed, her actions reveal an overt misrepresentation of the very people with whom she has taken up a co-conspiratorial relationship in the cause for justice.

Not only has she misused her White privilege in manipulating the boundaries between races through a destructive kind of border crossing, she has also perpetuated the problem of White Supremacy by abusing her privilege to claim ownership of a cultural heritage tied up in experiences of racial oppression for which the very Whiteness she has at once eschewed and taken up (to cross borders) is responsible (riffing on the insights of Beja of the White Noise Collective; see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). She is, in sum, a walking contradiction of herself.

Furthermore, what she and, it seems, Abdul-Jabar, may deem an act of cross-racial association is really nothing more than a reinscription of an essentialist notion of race—the same notion she is supposedly attempting to disrupt, ironically, by donning a Black mask—that defeats her superficially altruistic purposes of taking up the Black fight for liberation.

By denying her racial identity as White and playing into a performance of Blackface that relies on a questionable appearance of phenotypic Blackness (i.e. Blackness by way of skin-type)–a Blackness fetishized in the White racial imagination (Dolezal’s to be precise)–she is enacting a politics of racial identity that capitalizes on a fetishizing conception of race which views it as a categorical difference rooted in skin color, thus associating Blackness with a kind of skin-deep essence that can be integrated as easily as picking up and putting on a facade for a theatrical display.

Despite Abdul-Jabar’s shaky comparison of Dolezal’s pitiful act to the potentially anti-racist Blackface of late entertainer Al Jolson, she deploys an identity politics that reinforces stereotypes of Blackness as a biological marker of identity and difference. She therefore seems to be at cross purposes with herself, at once reproducing (consciously or unconsciously) a racist construct of Blackness as a biological reality through Blackface at the same time that she is advocating for a more anti-essentialist conception of Blackness that informs her highly questionable commitments to the hard work of racial reconciliation.

Put another way, her masquerade of Blackness, replete with frizzy, Afro-curled hair and darkened skin tone, falls back on a White imaginary of lampooned Blackness that maintains a caricatured depiction of the racial other—an act she used to convince people on both sides of the “color line” (Du Bois 1903) of her status as a minority so as to further an ulterior agenda for professional advancement that works in irreconcilable tension with her professed value system.

Truth is, she is not a racial other and her motivations for appropriating Blackness prove dubious if not duplicitous.

With all this in mind, her act of cultural appropriation functions as a form of “othering” that decontextualizes, dehistorizes, and depoliticizes racial difference (Sharma 2010: 237) between Whites and non-Whites. She lifts Blackness out of the context, history and politics with which it is has been wedded since the dawn of the Euro-American slave trade (read: modernity) and thus silences, or reduces to invisibility, the historical realities that created Blackness as a social construct in the first place. The paradox in this is that her act of “appropriation as othering” is about both “‘love and theft’” as it “[works] through positive stereotyping, such as in the idealization or exotification of the other […]” (Sharma 2010: 240). In Dolezal’s case, it appears that her destructive engagement with appropriation happened as a matter of possessive love through thievery.

The sad thing in all of this is that she could have engaged in appropriation to the advantage of the people to whom she has purportedly dedicated her work. As race theorists recognize, appropriation is multi-directional (Sharma 2010:236); it flows back and forth across racial and cultural lines.

51IF8CxUkNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

That being the case, appropriation does not have to be a bad thing. It depends on how one positions oneself in relation to those cultural formations with which one is associating his or herself. There are ways to engage in the act of appropriation constructively and with dignity, honor, knowledge, and respect for the cultural other that is informed by an awareness of the histories that have shaped the culture of the so-called other (Sharma 2010: 271). We see examples of this in White jazz musicians who contributed to the push for desegregation of clubs (Jones 1963; Sharma 2010:  264) or in White rappers who were socialized by the Black nationalist sensibilities of the crews they grew up listening to. Hinted at above, in contradistinction to the act of appropriation as a form of “othering” is that of “appropriation as identification” with the object of “othering” (Sharma 2010: 237). In this instance, appropriation signals solidarity with the cultural practices of the other rather than a colonizing co-optation of the other’s life-world—as we witness in Dolezal’s confused and delusional self-association with Blackness.

Seeing appropriation as a means of identification, however, first requires that we rearticulate the terms and politics of identity that police acts of appropriation. In so doing, we get out of thinking that appropriation only and ever equates to stealing or inauthentic borrowing (Sharma 2010).

For sure, the question of racial authenticity as it pertains to the issue of appropriation and the boundaries of cultural ownership is a tricky one to answer. Yet the fluidity of race as a concept calls us to find new ways to engage the tired politics of racial identity, challenging us to break ties with strict adherence to cultural mores around race and racial authenticity that ultimately prevent cross-racial fertilization (Sharma 2010). To sample hip hop studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma: “When ‘culture’ is considered to be ‘owned’ by a demarcated group it is rendered static by trapping individuals within fabricated categories that reaffirm the logic of racism based on naturalized differences” (281).

The traditional script of racial identity politics relies on fixed, or essentialist, notions of race to say, for instance, that any non-Black performance of Blackness is racist and should therefore be dismissed as inauthentic. In recent scholarship on the matter, cultural theorists—riffing on the concept of racial formation (see, for example, Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United Sates 2014) which recognizes race as a social construct—encourage us to consider the ways in which appropriation does not necessarily equate to either fraudulence or inauthenticity; “theft” or “colonization” (Lott 1993, Lipsitz 1994; quoted in Sharma 2010: 264).

As Black sociologist John Jackson goes at length to discuss in his book Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (2005), racial authenticity claims, specifically in terms of Blackness, run the risk of “ossifying race into a simple subject-object equation, reducing people to little more than objects of racial discourse, characters in racial scripts, dismissing race as only and exclusively the primary cause of social domination and death” (15). In saying this, Jackson argues that sincerity should function as the real litmus test for cultural membership. A shift from an emphasis on racial authenticity to racial sincerity works to engage the interior motivations of those involved in acts of appropriation and gets us to consider the possibilities for coalition building through multiracial deployments of an anti-essentialist Blackness, in particular, and race, in general. In this way, race can function not as a cause for domination and death, but for mutual empowerment and life.

Again playing on Sharma, this shift in approach beckons us to interpret appropriation according to a comprehension of actors’ ideologies (238). Given the amorphous nature of race and the effortlessness with which we can find ourselves in the act of cultural borrowing, to the point of assuming a racial identity other than our own, it is crucial to interpret acts of appropriation through a contextual lens, as Sharma would have it, so as to “dislocate authenticity from the body” (Sharma 2010:272) and focus more on the issue of identification in terms of one’s approach to to Blackness, for instance, rather than on the Blackness of one’s identity (sampling Sharma 2010: 215). 51L1XZai8NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

This is to say that, following the dual lead of Jackson and Sharma, our understanding of appropriation must be informed by an awareness of the political, ethical, and moral commitments of those who appropriate rather than their bodily identity. In this way, non-Black actors can, as Jackson and Sharma suggest (see also Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, 2003), identify with Blackness as an ideology and/or epistemology—that is, a way of knowing—and of being in the world that is tied to a conscious awareness of the history of racialized oppression against Black bodies as well as an intentional dialogue with the various Black cultural responses to said oppression that find expression in books, music, and political activism. In this way, appropriation can function as a form of flexible “identification” with the racial/cultural other.

“Appropriation as identification” in the meantime refuses to flatten racial difference—a flattening we see in the neo-liberal adherence to color-blind “multiculturalism” that actually diminishes the non-White other to the status of non-entity through its misguided celebration of sameness. We see a variation on this misguided discourse of “multiculturalism” in Dolezal’s claim to be Black inasmuch as she attempts to transcend the fact of her Whiteness by becoming Black. Her act of appropriation therefore falls short of identification in her own concern for assuming a Black identity that in fact reproduces the old script of racial politics which, unchecked, operates according to ossified articulations of race as bounded and secured. Indeed, Dolezal has locked herself into a Black identity in her act of racial crossing that, though she may believe signifies a gesture of identification, is an ironic repetition of a racial politics which says one has to be Black in essence in order to be Black in worldview–or taken further, one can assume a Black racial identity, dismissing the reality of difference, simply by adopting a Black worldview. This is not to get overly caught up in identity politics, which would be to fall into the very trap that scholars like Sharma warn us to avoid, but to reiterate the distinction between constructive and destructive forms of appropriation–a distinction that Dolezal ceases to make in act of over-identification.

Instead of either melting racial difference into a “post-racial” goop which implies a disregard for the atrocities that created racial difference in the first place or “ossifying” racial difference into a fixed dichotomy of “us” and “them” that shuts down the possibility for cross-racial exchange, “appropriation as identification” recognizes that there are specific histories to be accounted for in light of how the non-White other has been raced, or racialized, by Whites, at the same time that it seeks to create a dialogic of shared worldviews across the racial-cultural divide. This demands a practice of critical memory that resists the temptation to amnesia we see in gestures of multiculturalism; in those mistranslations of what it means to be transracial (echoing Lisa Marie Rollins; see “Transracial Lives Matter,” 2015); and in those acts of appropriation that co-opt the other’s identity wholesale while foregoing the possibility of dismantling one’s own Whiteness in self-critical rather than self-shaming ways (see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). Ultimately, what “appropriation as identification” calls for is a critical recognition of difference at the same time that it invites us to intercultural and interracial bonding.

In the case of Ms. Dolezal, she had an opportunity to employ appropriation as a form of identification. However, she overstepped her bounds by going so far as to appropriate Blackness as an identity that she never had the rights to claim. In this way, she “othered” the very ones she sought to relinquish from the burden of “othering” and ultimately confused the political ideology of Blackness as her racial identity—taking up “everything but the burden” (Tate 2003) from those with whom she says she most identified internally. 5178xVxtybL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In this, she unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, leveraged her Whiteness to gain access to a commodified Blackness (hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” 1992; quoted in Collins, 2015) that resulted in an ultimately poor and insincere—which is to say, inauthentic—act of appropriation, discrediting all of her purportedly pro-Black advocacy and revealing a skewed racial logic that has subsumed her identification with Blackness into a Black identity itself.

To play on the insights of a colleague of mine who wrote some pithy responses to this incident on his facebook wall last week, Ms. Dolezal’s experimentation with her own Whiteness offers those of us who are White and who consider ourselves committed to the cause of decolonizing Whiteness, an invitation to become race traitors ourselves (thinking here of Noel Ignatiev’s “The Point is Not to Interpret Whiteness But to Abolish It,” 1997)—not in a way that would lead to an unwitting act of “appropriation as othering,” and therefore wrongful treason against our brothers and sisters of darker hue (à la Dolezal), but of “appropriation as identification” with those brothers and sisters and their plight as the objectified targets of racial terror. In this way, we can involve ourselves in the work of deconstructing Whiteness, committing an act of rightful treason against White Supremacy and the various and insidious manifestations of it both at the level of systems (the “macro”) and everyday interaction (the “micro”), so as to rearticulate it according to a discourse of anti-racism.

I believe Ms. Dolezal’s racial insincerity prods us to consider the fine line between Blackness as an epistemology and Blackness as a racial identity; between “appropriation as othering” and “appropriation as identification.”  Insofar as she claims an investment in the ideology undergirding the Black freedom struggle—with Blackness as a political worldview informed, though not solely, by resistance to oppressive systems and structures that target racial minorities—yes, I agree with Abdul-Jabar, let her be “as Black as she wants to be.” However, insofar as she has never actually had to endure the heaviness of the historical burden that is racial Blackness by dint of her unexamined Whiteness, yet has proceeded to strip Blackness of its contextual content and meaning through identity theft and fraud, I say: “Step back, Rachel, and slow your roll.”

Playing Bongos with Louie: A Reflection on Thomas Merton, Race, and Rap

A version of this article was originally published in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (2015) on Fons Vitae Press. Republished with permission. 

Bongo Louie
“Thomas Merton Playing Bongos” (1968), Ralph Eugene Meatyard

We claim the present as the pre-sent, as the hereafter.
We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun.
We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us.
We are determining the future at this very moment.
We now know that the heart is the philosophers’ stone.
Our music is our alchemy.

Saul Williams, “Coded Language,” from Amethyst Rockstar (2001)

Though he has remained an ever vigilant presence in my life since I was first gifted Seven Storey Mountain by a close friend and mentor in the fall of 2001, my first semester of college at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, it’s been a few years since I’ve thought seriously about Merton—a man I consider, like so many other of his readers, to be a spiritual father.

This is ironic, in a way, because he led me through my undergraduate years as a student of religious studies, and continued to accompany me both personally and professionally through two masters programs—in English Literature at Arcadia University in Philadelphia and Systematic Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University (JST-SCU)—and a slew of Merton Society meetings. Indeed, I first came to Berkeley, California, my current place of residence, almost four years ago with the intent of making him the focus of a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where I am currently engaged in doctoral work that has very little to do, at least ostensibly, with Merton.

Upon acceptance into the GTU’s common M.A. program in the spring of 2010, however, Merton was front and center. Cultivating-Humanity-9780674179493Taking up work I had already started at Arcadia, I wanted to engage Merton as a mouthpiece for the politics of mysticism and its role in facilitating societal transformation. I had it in mind to further what scholars such as Lynn Szabo and Ross Labrie accomplished with their own detailed exploration of Merton’s mystical poetics and examine the ways in which Merton’s poetry has implications for a shift in social consciousness necessary to creating a more just society. Undergirding this claim is the still strong belief I have in the power of literature to influence human rights discourse and, as American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum posits in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1999), nurture “powers of imagination that are essential to citizenship” (85).

For sure this is a tenet that Merton himself would hold true. Hence his prophetic “Message to Poets” and “Answers on Art and Freedom,” which close his prose-poetic magnum opus Raids on the Unspeakable (1966)–a text that became the centerpiece of my GTU master’s thesis. In it I interpret Raids as a political theology using work by Christopher Pramuk and Johann Baptist Metz to sharpen my hermeneutical lens. In returning to Raids, I find Merton there embodying perhaps more fully than any of his previous works the parrhesia (Greek for “free speech”) that he does so well to unpack in theoretical terms in The New Man (1961) and which Jonathan Montaldo treats deftly in his manuscript “To Uncage His Voice: Thomas Merton & Parrhesia [Free Speech].” Merton likens the concept—which refers traditionally to the “rights and privileges of a citizen in a Greek city state” to “speaking one’s own mind fully and frankly in the civil assemblies by which the state is governed”—to human intimacy with God “in work as well as in contemplation” (NM 72).41yINHj74-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Merton meanwhile culls from the writings of the Church Fathers and his own allegorical reading of the Judeo-Christian creation myth to interpret parrhesia as the “symbolic expression” of the human person’s self-actualization in love (NM 74).  This happens by way of laboring with “some consciousness of the value of human society” that puts us “in dialogue with reality” (NM 80)—a figurative “conversation with God” which Merton understands as the “free spiritual communion of being with Being” (NM 76) that duly manifests not only in the fact of being human, but in the intimacy of being-for-other (read: human relationship).

As an expression of parrhesia, Raids provided Merton the space to come most fully into himself as activist, artist, global citizen, monk, poet, and theologian who tears the fabric of social orthodoxies through the power of “free speech” in order to do his part, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said of his own work, in ridding the world of social evil and thereby come into deeper intimacy with God. This is no small task to say the least. And it is one that Merton challenges his readership to take up in Raids when he urges us to dispel the magic of political propaganda through love (caritas)—giving witness through his own “free speech” to an underlying eschatological faith-hope in the possibility of “the word” to usher in a new dawn of fidelity to life in “the Spirit” rather than to artificial systems; to human solidarity rather than to the mere collectivity of the herd (as illustrated by Eugene Ionesco’s metaphor of “rhinoceritis” which Merton expounds in “Rain and the Rhinoceros”; see also RU 156-57).0811201015

That being said, I closed Raids with the completion of my master’s thesis and the prospects of doctoral work at the GTU looming on the horizon in the spring of 2012, wondering: Where do I go from here? What more, if anything at all, do I want to write about Merton? What do I do with the work he has left me to take up?

Feeling as though I had exhausted my stint with Merton, I have to admit that by the time I submitted a second thesis on him, I was itching to explore new terrain; to bid happy farewell to the figurative parent who reared me intellectually in/on the mystery of parrhesia and find my own voice as the would-be poet to whom Merton addressed his penultimate essay of Raids. This led me to ask the further question about what most enlivens me, about what makes me feel most fully myself (and therefore a poet as Merton would have it), particularly in terms of continuing the academic route on which I was set.

Like Fr. Louie playing bongos inside of his Gethsemani hermitage, photographed in the iconic black and white picture taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard in 1968, I found myself drawn to the sound of the drums, specifically as elicited in the work of my favorite rap artists. Along with Merton’s catalog, it was hip-hop that kept me in step to the rhythms of life through my formative years—which included an undergrad and two grad programs dedicated to the mystic’s teachings. When finally it came time for me to solidify a set of research questions that would take me through yet another degree, I turned my attention away from Merton’s poetry and toward the poetics and politics of rap music.

Indeed, before Merton even entered my world, hip-hop taught me what it means to really “dance in the water of life” as when I was nine years old and first heard the jazzy interplay of sampled vibraphones, bass, and drum on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” bumping out of my stereo, tuned to the frequency of Baltimore’s rap radio station 92 Q. It was then that I first learned, at least unconsciously at that point, what parrhesia is all about.

81781Yet it is with the image of Merton on the bongos in mind that I presently engage what I call, riffing on American jazz drummer Max Roach, the “politics in the drums” which lies at the heart of a now global cultural phenomenon that post-colonial theorist George Lipsitz, appropriating the terminology of humanist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, coins a counter-hegemonic “war of position” (see Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-Colonial Politics of Sound” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place, 27, 38). Deeply informed by Merton’s self-identification as poet on the margins—clapping stretched canvas in happy protest of the “hegemonies that be” or listening to jazz and blues records as they spun on the turntable situated in the cosmopolitan space of his hermitage—I have found in rap music a medium of and variation on parrhesia that has allowed society’s most disenfranchised to take ownership over their own lives, as well as the means of production, through the power of the word—what in West African parlance is called Nommo.

In this, Merton has provided the inspiration, the necessary push, for me to enter the dance of parrhesia as it takes place in hip-hop culture as well as my work as a student of the rap academy, rife with street-level philosophers whose gift of “free speech” signifies the “combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist and bonz” (RU 173). By entering into conversation with these figurative high priests of rap-inflected parrhesia as (ra)parrhesia—including the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Shabazz Palaces, Ab-Soul, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Project Blowed, among many others—I enter into deeper intimacy with God, embodying my own capacity for “free speech” in the process of interpreting for and with others the insights gleaned from what a former GTU professor of mine calls “message music.” Insights that reveal a deeply invested commitment, riffing on Merton, to the pursuit of political solutions to problems “that endanger the freedom of man [sic]” (RU 171)—not least of which is institutionalized racism as it operates in a global capitalist economy that, in the post-industrial predicament of American cities, has blighted once prosperous North American urbanscapes populated mostly by racial/ethnic minorities.

Inasmuch as my current academic pursuit entails an examination of the ways in which black cultural production in the form and content of rap music (read: [ra]parrhesia) fosters new ways of being in and for the world that are deconstructive of the white supremacist status quo, I am being challenged to keep in check the egoism of the “false self” by which I have been conditioned in a socio-economic milieu that privileges both my whiteness and my maleness. Positioned in many ways as the well-meaning “white liberal” to whom Merton addresses his searing essay on American race-relations in Seeds of Destruction (1964), my work implicates me in a practice of self-reflexivity that is an act of intersubjective parrhesia in its own right.41pOurJW4eL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It invites me, echoing James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time (1963), to “fruitful communion with the depths of my own being” that serves to decenter my subjectivity (and the assumptions that inform it) in encounter with the so-called “other” (130 ff) and there root out what Merton calls in Seeds of Destruction the “cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences” (SD 45-46). Such an act of “free speech” is grounded in the purpose of fulfilling the democratic promise upon which the American project is founded, a mission Merton himself worked to accomplish during his own lifetime as a prophet of parrhesia.

Rap music—as a cultural platform for minority youth in particular and young people in general to embody the freedom of self-expression—is in its own way empowering me to answer Merton’s injunction in Seeds of Destruction to “think black” (60); that is, to reorient my understanding of the world by adopting an epistemology informed by the plight of those who suffer the injustices of systemic racism. In this performative dialogic, this dance of “free speech,” between me and the racialized other, I am called to further engage the “crisis in which we find ourselves” (SD 60) as a society still deeply entrenched in what black feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy” (see bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1999).9780896087699_p0_v1_s260x420

Furthermore, it is cluing me into the “streets” and the “ghettoes” where, as Merton notes in Learning to Love (1967), “much of the real germinating action in the world, the real leavening” lies (231). In this, I am being summoned (along with rap’s actual practitioners and other like-minded “hip-hop heads”—be they black, brown, white, red or yellow–to plumb the depths of my own unique possibilities for civic engagement and thereby conduct a Mertonian “raid on the Unspeakable,” implicating rap music, and my love for it, in what black cultural critic Huey Copeland calls, à la the intellectual contributions of black literary theorist Saidiya Hartman, a “rhetoric of redress” aimed at reparative justice (See Huey Copeland, “Fred Wilson and the Rhetoric of Redress” in Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, 2013).

So it is to the imagined boom-bap of Merton’s playful bongo beats that I march into the matrix of cultural production that black public figures from Afrika Bambaataa, Queen Latifah, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to Tupac Shakur and his protégé  Kendrick Lamar have helped shape, remapping the global landscape into a social sphere more livable through electronically-based, rhymed storytelling that functions to develop the essential moral capacities, recalling Nussbaum’s insight into narrative, necessary for a kind of (ra)parousia to occur—understood in the context of American race relations as the realization of the Ellisonian dream of democracy that the Harlem Renaissance-era author espouses in his seminal The Invisible Man.

Signifying on traditional conceptions of what constitutes literacy so as to create an entirely new lexicon that is at once wretchedearthtextual, verbal and non-verbal, rap music acts as kind of “Talking Book,” to borrow a trope from black literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, 1988), which provides its practitioners, particularly those in ghettoized or under-represented communities where the “real leavening” takes place, a means of enunciating a specific stance, location and visibility within a broader cultural framework that has historically reduced them to the status of the invisible or, in Frantz Fanon’s terms, “the wretched of the earth.”

In the same way learning to read and write allowed slaves a means to contest their oppression and use the master’s tools of literacy to speak themselves into subjecthood, rap music’s Nommo, as an African-derived variation on parrhesia, empowers its practitioners (and its audience) to disarticulate, or dissemble, the oppressive historical circumstances in which they find themselves, and rearticulate their discursive terrain in a speech act of forthright self-assertion. As such, rap music offers the necessary resources for a subtextual analysis of history, on the part of artist and audience, which discloses unpopular political truths pertaining to systemic evils such as racism and, as black critical theorist Houston Baker Jr. argues in terms of the blues, serves to reorient historical discourse from the perspective of the oppressed (see Houston Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, 1984).

Rap is in this way an exercise in an expansive kind of literacy which challenges us, as did Merton’s mystical poetics, to re-conceptualize language as more than the mere manipulation of words. Put another way, it pushes us to take language, and the way we use it, more seriously. As with Merton’s “Message to Poets,” rap’s underlying ethos invites us to see language as an embodied act of self-fashioning that takes on many forms, styles, and articulations, and has everything to do with keeping in step to the soul’s beat—that embodied metronome of rhythm and rhyme which empowers its speakers to “claim the present as the pre-sent” and, in an eschatological turn, determine the future “at this very moment.” In this same way it gestures toward the love and hope that undergirds a sturdy “politics of conversion”—what in Race Matters (1994) black cultural critic Cornel West deems the antidote to the problem of “spiritual impoverishment” in America.the-fire-next-time

That said, I’m grateful to Merton for awakening me to the narrative play that is inherent in the gift of “free speech,” as intimate conversation with God, and the many ways it manifests through different forms of poetry—be it the anti-poetics of the Trappist monk’s later prose poems that constitute Raids; the politically polemic poetics of such Golden Era rap classics as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988); or, with Sophia’s blessing, my own work as an aspiring hip-hop scholar. And I’m also grateful for the opportunity and space this essay has given me to enter into a figurative “cipher” with someone whom I consider a dear father, brother, and friend in Sophia. [A “cipher” is a situation in which two or more rappers form a circle and play off of each other in an informal performance of freestyle, or improvisational rapping/talking.]

Hers is a wisdom that Merton would find resonant in rap’s vernacular Nommo, resplendent with a message of hope for our time in its function as a kind of “free speech,” a (ra)parrhesia, imbued with potential for bringing us into deeper intimacy with God, as if in cipher, through deeper intimacy with each other and ourselves. An intimacy which, thinking of Merton in (ra)parlay with Baldwin, takes us beyond words and into a kind of “wordless communion.”

I have no doubt that were Merton still alive at the time of hip-hop’s burgeoning, and even still today as the genre continually evolves into new forms and patterns of “free speech,” he would be tuned in to the sonic frequency which is rap, “routed” in the Afrodiasporic politics of the break beat—what spoken word poet and rapper Saul Williams allegorizes in his invective, “Coded Language,” quoted in the epigraph, as the “missing link connecting the diasporic community to its drum woven past.” Indeed, I can hear Merton right now, in the spirit of (ra)parrhesia, chanting with fellow anti-poet Williams: “Motherfuckers better realize! / Now is the time to self-actualize!”

On “Dear White People”: Blackness In A Millennial Age of Pop-Cultural Criticism

Dear-White-People stripMany critics have compared Justin Simien’s debut feature film, Dear White People (DWP) to Spike Lee’s early canon of films that tackle issues of racism and black identity, in particular Do the Right Thing and School Daze. Although DWP includes some self-reflective nods towards Lee’s legacy in both stylistic and narrative moments, the universe it inhabits and attempts to deconstruct is on much different terrain than Lee’s afrocentric representations of black life, culture, and identity.

Taking place at a fictional Ivy-League university called Winchester, the film follows four black protagonists as they navigate a predominately white institution. With the expressed goal of shedding light on the tensions and contradictions of a mythical “post-racial” America in the age of Obama’s presidency, Dear White People is premised to illuminate the ways in which institutional diversity functions in upholding and reproducing cultural hegemony, especially white supremacy. The film’s narrative strands come together at a “black culture” themed party organized and attended by white students garbed in full-on contemporary black minstrelsy. This is an explicit reference to recent real-life incidents of white college students throwing similar parties on campuses around the country that involve all manners of blackface and stereotypical props and behaviors.

Issues of black idedear white peopel 3 samntity formation amongst the upwardly mobile protagonists are woven into the story as each character wrestles with the tides of who people perceive them to be and how they see themselves and their desires in this microcosmic social bubble. The film’s effort to critically address whiteness, racism, and black identity in the span of a 108-minute satire will inevitably disappoint some cultural critics as it struggles to substantively undermine all the social ills and racial tropes it approaches.

There are many valid critiques of the film in the blogosphere including commentaries on the centering of whiteness and the undercutting messages about black women’s agency throughout the film. DWP tries to cover a lot of ground – touching on microagressions, colorism, white privilege, black respectability politics, homophobia, sexuality and desire along with a myriad of other topics. However the film’s narrative resolve offers little depth to viewers by not moving far beyond the naming of the problematic dynamics both the white and black characters engage in at this particular institutional site. Infused with more critical insights and imaginative interventions and models, perhaps this film and media like it will be more helpful than harmful in getting people to meaningfully engage in actionable and reflective ways of dismantling oppressive systems. As one of the first millennial era black filmmakers to make media that openly seeks to provoke discussion about race, the temporal significance of Simien’s work must be considered.

Reflecting BlackBlack creative projects with the potential to spark dialogue about the pervasive effects of systemic oppression while reflecting a multiplicity of black experiences are highly needed. Since the era of black cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s, mainstream waves of black media have become highly apoliticized and dehistoricized. Spike Lee, along with other filmmakers of the time that delved into sociopolitical issues, dared to stimulate discussion about race during a highly “racially repressive era” (Dyson, 25).

In an essay titled, “Spike Lee’s Neonationalist Vision,” Michael Eric Dyson, dissects the strengths and pitfalls of the film Do the Right Thing. In this essay, Dyson discusses the difficulty of complexifying black identity in film representation and also delivering mind-opening social commentary to a widespread audience that could encourage the development of a mass critical consciousness around issues of present-day race relations. Simien faces similar challenges in DWP. The film has been hailed as refreshing, setting itself a part from a sea of black media that either inscribes idealized black middle class identities or plays into a hyperbolic performance and commodification of the “authentic” blackness of poor and working class communities. Simien devotes many quips in his film to calling out mainstream mis-representations of blackness, from the minstrelsy of reality TV to Tyler Perry’s film franchise.

Much like Lee, Simien is trying to “decenter prevalent conceptions of racial behavior” while also revealing the workings of structural and institutional systems that keep those conceptions at play. Dyson argues that Lee’s use of “black [neo]nationalist sensibilities and thought” limits his work by flattening his characters and depths of his analysis in not addressing the roles of gender, class, geography, sexuality, etc. in forming racial identity and confronting racial oppression. In contrast, Simien’s sensibilities spring from a pop-cultural criticism that tends to float on the surface of the intricacies of identity politics. Discussions about racism in popular media and celebrity culture that permeate through social media, blog posts, and internet news media websites often amounts to what some call a reactive anti-racism.

Dear White People ushers onto the big screen a hip cultural awareness of race that contains all the digestible talking points of a Buzzfeed anti-racism guide. Simien’s road to making this movie is paved with the viral-making machines of Twitter, Facebook, Indiegogo, and Youtube. In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Simien explains that Dear White People is a postmodern social media baby. Springing from the following of a twitter account and a crowd-funding campaign, the film acquired a mass following of people eager to see their perspectives and experiences of race relations reflected on the big screen. Much like a series of videos that jokingly reverse the tides of microgressions towards white people, DWP’s marketing campaign before and after the film’s release extended into small satirical vignettes about black identity titled, “The More You Know About Black People” and “DWP One-Offs.”

dearwhitepeoplebookIn addition to all this buzzing online conversation, the film also has a companion satirical handbook titled, Dear White People: A Guide to Interracial Harmony in “Post Racial” America. Although full of valid points and arguments there is something concerning about the simplistic packaging of these efforts to address race and privilege. Some of the videos in the playlist above unwittingly reproduce sexist and classist cultural behaviors that go unchecked in the humor of the sketch.

It is necessary to cultivate media that starts to direct people beyond “Easy as 1,2,3” know-it-all understandings of the mechanisms of oppression. Simien’s first film project and the images and symbols surrounding it make it clear that we must get more imaginative and critical in our calls to consciousness. I heard a great quote this past weekend that goes something like this, “oppression is complicated, and therefore our strategies for liberation have to be just as complex.”

Some Questions:

  1. Is there space for meaningful interventions and interrogations of racial politics in mass media production and criticism?
  2. How can liberal popular culture’s musings on racism, sexism, privilege and other social issues bring forth a deeper engagement with these topics beyond essentializing interpersonal solutions to “not being a ___ist” towards more radical formations of liberatory politics?