Yesterday, the ubiquitous “Book of Faces” (FB) and other social media were all atwitter over something the well-known author and theorist bell hooks said at a three-day event about race, gender, and body-image hosted by The New School in New York — everyone’s favorite pop star diva Beyoncé a terrorist?… A terrorist?!?!… Bloggers from wannabe-hipster gossip sites such as Gawker to fashion magazines such as Elle to feminist sites such as Jezebel immediately jumped on the bandwagon, probably hoping that the provocative headline would gain for them that ever-so-ethereal cyber audience.
Before I had a chance to actually read the blog-o-story, when I first saw the headline, I wrongly assumed that bell hooks was giving Beyoncé a compliment, as I immediately thought of Beyoncé’s video: “Run the World (Girls)“:
One might think of other videos of hot feminist badaaasssery such as Beyoncé’s “Superpower” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” which all present images of women kicking ass and taking names, Pam-Grier style. So, this is what I thought bell hooks was talking about, and I was all, like, “hellz yeah!!!”
But then I started to read the articles, and apparently that’s not at all what bell hooks meant (oops, my bad!) Rather, she was raising questions about Beyoncé’s style of feminism and her tactical deployment of a hyper-sexualized body as potentially damaging to the self-image of young girls (specifically in reference to Time Magazine’s featuring her in a bathing suit on the cover of their issue about the world’s 100 most influential people.) In other words, what I think bell hooks was referring to is the very real “terror” that young girls feel when confronted with bullying from their peers regarding the way they look. I did not finish reading any of the blog posts because they were all so shallow and mean-spirited, and they all reminded me of the SNL skit about the government Beygency that hunts down a poor schmuck for committing the party foul of admitting he didn’t love everything about Beyoncé:
Can I admit that I don’t love everything about her either? But I do think she’s pretty awesome. And I also think bell hooks is awesome. So, given that I think both women are awesome, instead of reading the blog-o-crap any further, I skipped ahead to the video of the actual conversation (the “actual” always being so often remarkably different from what bloggers and journalists say to get a rise out of their audiences), and my wife and I had a very enjoyable evening listening to four awesome women — bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman — discuss among themselves and with a very engaged and intelligent audience a variety of complex and personal perspectives about gender, sexuality, race, violence, body image, and “what a body can do” (as the philosopher Judith Butler famously put it, in contrast to the essentializing pigeon-holing approach of traditional philosophy that asked “what a body is.”) You can all watch it too by clicking [here] or below:
The conversation among themselves and with the audience was full of humor and mutual respect as well as serious critical thinking, concern for the well-being of others, and deep personal involvement as they worked toward imagininng an alternative to the sort of media imagery that objectifies black women’s bodies and presents impossible standards of beauty. They discussed the movie 12 Years a Slave, SNL comedy, and — most of importantly — the work of the panelists, such as the movie Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch, the memoir Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and the novel Po’ Man’s Child by Marci Blackman as well as their personal experiences as politically active, queer, transgender, and black women. I was so impressed that I began to imagine my teaching an entire course syllabus around this one panel event. One woman in the audience was in tears sharing her own experience as well as her gratitude to the panel for the support and safe space fostered by the event. Noticeably, in contrast to the blog-o-sphere and social media, not a single person in the audience during the 50 minutes of Q&A seemed the least bit concerned by bell hooks’s comment about Beyoncé. So, considering how her image and her style of feminism was discussed and debated in complex, thoughtful ways among the four panelists and the audience, it is interesting how the safe, supportive space of the panel discussion was transformed into bitchy nonsense by social media.
But beyond the confines of that singular event and its commodification by the blog-o-sphere, the question of Beyoncé’s feminism interests me, in part because as a teacher I find her extremely useful in the classroom for drawing students into debates about feminism, challenging their stereotypes about feminists as man-hating ugly women, and pushing students to think about why they enjoy what they enjoy. For example, because this semester I was teaching the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I played for my class Adichie’s lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” as well as Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” that samples a full minute from that lecture (practically one fourth of the song):
The conversation among my students last month was similar to the one brought up by bell hooks, Janet Mock, and one of the members of the audience: how do we negotiate the positive work we see Beyoncé doing for feminism and women’s empowerment and the negative commodification of her body and debilitatingly impossible standard of beauty it presents to young girls? The “Flawless” music video, it seems to me — rather than being naive or unaware of this dialectic of opposing ideas — very deliberately and self-consciously puts this dialectic in play for us to work out. The song and the video puts the question back on us, for us to imagine ways to be authentically awesome.
But what do you all think? Thoughts?
Occasionally, I bring my Pocket World In Figures to my classes to begin the hour with a few “fun facts.” I get this nifty little book every year through my subscription to The Economist magazine, and on those rare days when I remember to bring it to class, the students and I enjoy playing a guessing game for a few minutes before the real lesson. The first half of the book is rankings of various sorts, such as biggest producer of copper (Chile), highest education spending per person (Cuba), most consumption of beer per person (Czech Republic), and most people in jail (United States). The answers are sometimes surprising, and offer what we college professors like to call “teachable moments” because students will usually guess according to their stereotypes, and often the real data will contradict those stereotypes. For instance, they always guess Ireland to have the most beer consumption per capita, but it’s not even in the top 25. (The United States is 7th, and Ireland is actually 16th for wine consumption.) Also, the data will reveal very interesting things about current events, such as the top ten largest companies in the world being all oil and automobile companies with the exception at the number two spot being Wal-Mart. And the two countries in 2008 taking care of the largest refugee populations from other countries are not the United States and Canada, as my students always guess, but Iran and Pakistan (i.e., the two countries that border Iraq and Afghanistan.) Like I said, teachable moments. Sometimes the answers are somewhat obvious, but sometimes I’m just as surprised by the data as my students are.
The second half of the Pocket World In Figures — and the reason for this blog post today — are country-by-country profiles. So, if you want to quickly find out Germany’s population, biggest exports, unemployment rate, health-care spending, etc., this is where to go. Now, here is where my story really begins and why I’m writing this blog post. Right as I was leaving my office to head over to the very last day of my class on Caribbean literature and theory, it occurred to me to bring this book and have a little fun. I hadn’t brought the book to this particular class all semester because it didn’t seem relevant, but on this last day doing a few “fun facts” about some Caribbean countries seemed like a good idea. Anyway, I headed to class curious about what we would discover, but I was very unpleasantly surprised when I discovered that not one single Caribbean country is included in the “Country Profiles” section. Not one!
And that’s the reason for my rather absurdly provocative newspaper-style headline for the title of this blog post.
So much for the fun facts game in class that day, but nevertheless, it was still a teachable moment. After all, the students themselves had already experienced this blind spot when their parents said to them, “Um… you’re taking a class on… what?!?!… I didn’t know there was such a thing as Caribbean literature and theory.” My students and I heard this kind of thing a lot over the course of the semester, despite the fact that the Caribbean can boast two Nobel prize winners (V. S. Naipaul and Derek Wolcott), a few people who probably ought to win the Nobel prize (e.g., Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Maryse Condé), one of the hottest young authors in the world writing today (Edwidge Danticat), the most important pop musician of the twentieth century (Bob Marley), and some of the most influential and world-renowned anti-colonial political theorists of all time (e.g., Aime Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, etc.) Moreover, looking back in history, from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Caribbean islands were by far the most economically profitable and productive colonies the European empires had. So, why are people so surprised that my course exists? And for sure this cultural blindness to the Caribbean is exactly one of the reasons I taught the course…. But it still begs the question, why this blind spot?
Now, to be fair to The Economist, clearly they can’t include all 192 countries, because the book would be too big. It is a “Pocket World” after all, not the whole world. But in this case, the book strangely excludes an entire geographic region from its world — no Jamaica, no Haiti, no Trinidad and Tobago… not even Cuba. Now, we also know that The Economist tends to be somewhat neocolonialist in its attitude towards the world, a bit racist at times, and almost always smugly chauvinistic in its tone when describing any culture not Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps, so far as The Economist is concerned, the islands in the Caribbean are not really separate countries at all, but just extensions of the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. And technically, many of the islands really are under the formal dominion of the United States (e.g., Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands), Britain (e.g., Montserrat, Cayman Islands), France (e.g., Martinique, Guadaloupe), and the Netherlands (e.g., Aruba, Curacao), but most of it is politically independent. However, as Éduoard Glissant observes in his Poetics of Relation (an observation also made by Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place and by the movie Life and Debt), nominally independent is not the same thing as really independent. Economically, they are still in many ways controlled primarily by the United States (who has tended to invade countries that didn’t obediently fall in line with its political and economic interests, e.g., multiple invasions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic over the course of the twentieth century as well as the invasion of Grenada.)
Culturally, this neocolonialist relationship that much of the Caribbean has with the United States and Europe can be seen in the images Americans tend to associate with the Caribbean. Typically, if you ask someone what images come to mind when you say the word “Caribbean,” they think of beautiful beaches, spiced rum, and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies (the most financially successful film series of the past decade.) In other words, in this cultural imagination, the Caribbean isn’t a real place; it’s just entertainment.
What I think my American students most enjoyed about our class is that the Caribbean gradually became a very real place to them, a place where ordinary people are born, grow, learn, and express themselves. The politics are complicated, the economics even more complicated, and if any one culture could be truly called a “world culture” it is the diverse and varied cultures of the Caribbean (as theorist Glissant implies in his complicated explication of the word “Creole” and as Tiphanie Yanique illustrates in her recently published book of wonderful short stories.) Perhaps The Economist magazine’s Pocket World in Figures doesn’t include profiles of Caribbean countries because the Caribbean is itself the whole world in microcosm. Or perhaps the editors of The Economist just need a spanking.
Last night I went to K’Naan’s concert at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, and it totally rocked. Seriously, it was so much fun. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple years and don’t know who K’Naan is, he’s the Somali-Canadian rapper from Toronto whose song “Wavin’ Flag” became one of the official FIFA theme songs for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. The rather tame World Cup version of the song has been peformed by artists around the world in 22 different languages, but of course fans prefer the more edgy and politically significant original. K’Naan himself has performed concerts in 67 countries, including his homeland Somalia. When I was travelling in Ethiopia this summer, I noticed that some people’s cell phone ringers were the “Wavin’ Flag” song. At the concert last night, I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd, including African immigrants not just from Somalia but from a variety of countries, African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Asian Americans, etc. A couple of white men standing near me in the audience (age mid-20s, I’d guess) seemed to have memorized all the lyrics and were vigorously singing along the entire show. The overall vibe in the room was intensely positive, and several people had brought their own flags, heralding a variety of countries, so during the “Wavin’ Flag” song, people actually waved flags, dramatizing the internationalism of the event.
An amazing coincidence is that even before I knew he would be performing in Minneapolis, I had actually assigned K’Naan to my first-year seminar for last week’s lesson. I was inspired to create a new unit for my class on the Hmong and Somali in Minnesota after several incidents of racism against Somalis close to where I live last year (and which I blogged about [here].) I decided to assign K’Naan to show a different side of Somali culture as it manifests itself in Diaspora than what they will get from the history book we’re reading together — a side of Somali culture that the students can better relate to. The past couple years, I’ve noticed that in almost all my classes, there is at least one student who is a K’Naan fan, and because of the World Cup almost everyone is familiar with the “Wavin’ Flag” song even if they don’t know who its author is. During a brief discussion in class last week, my students observed that we often think of the American flag as a symbol for freedom, which reflects our bias as Americans, but that K’Naan’s song wisely makes the case that any flag, from anywhere, can be a symbol of freedom.
So, do I have a theoretical point to make here? Not really, but I’ll try to make a few simple gestures. First, recently colleges across the country have become interested in teaching “intercultural competence.” Usually, these programs, such as the “Intercultural Competence Assessment“, have emphasized the recognition of cultural difference. But I have some serious disagreements with such programs, as I’ve blogged about before [here], but before I explain my disagreements, I want to reveal why most students also will never be convinced by that model. When I brought up the question of diversity and cultural difference in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class last year, several of my students told me about an episode of The Office entitled “Diversity Day.” Most of our students watch this show and seem to know this particular episode which actually makes fun of precisely the model of intercultural competence being promoted on college campuses today — a model that I call the “business school model” since that’s where it originated.
And the TV show makes fun of it for good reason. By emphasizing arbitrary differences such as clothing, handshakes, and marriage ceremonies, “diversity day” ignores the political and economic issues that really affect people’s lives and interests. In other words, as my students easily recognized, it gives you cultural difference without the possibility of real difference — without the possibility of having a different opinion that might conflict with policy or with a general business model. (By the way, a great novel recently published on this theme is Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which Hamid surprisingly reveals in the middle of the novel that the fundamentalism he’s referring to is not Islamic fundamentalism at all, but the economic fundamentalism of Wall Street.)
As theorist Slavoj Zizek wrote a couple weeks ago for The Guardian [here], the kind of vapid multiculturalism promoted by the intercultural competency assesors and satirized by The Office gives you difference without real difference, like decaffeinated coffee or sugar-free drinks. Interestingly, the World Cup version of K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” is kind of like decaffeinated coffee — the controversial lyrics removed in order to celebrate a global unity. Fortunately, none of my students or the fans in the audience are fooled by the Coca-Cola-ized World Cup version of the song and prefer the original which rather explicitly debunks the false promises of global unity (see the lyrics [here] for yourself.)
Moreover, what K’Naan’s global popularity suggests is that the arbitrary cultural differences that the administrators and assessors of intercultural competency wrongly believe are so important aren’t quite so important after all. Focusing on such arbitrary differences misses the point entirely. No matter where you are in the world, people like to have fun, want to be free, want security, fall in love, etc., as K’Naan says explicitly in his song “Dreamer” — a tribute to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What we have in common is our struggle in an imperfect world rife with poverty, economic exploitation, and violence.
So, what’s the upshot here? Reflecting on the K’Naan concert and all the various things my students have told me (such as when they recommended I watch the movie “Good Hair” that I blogged about a few weeks ago [here]), I think our students are already pretty smart about intercultural competence, and we as teachers can learn a lot from them. The problem as I see it is when administrators and assessors don ‘t recognize the skills and knowledge our students already have and instead impose a rather simplistic (and rather silly) model of “intercultural competence” upon them. In other words, intercultural competence isn’t all that hard and doesn’t require a lot of theoretical sophistication so long as we begin with some rather obvious facts about the world we live in — the fact of the K’Naan concert, for instance. What I mean by “fact” here is that it happened. In contrast, notions of “difference” are not facts; they are notions and conceptualizations. So we can ignore the model imposed upon us by the “assessors” not only because it actually does more to obscure reality than it does to explain it, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t recognize what our students already know, and what they already know might actually be smarter and more in touch with reality than what the assessors are advocating.
Last week, I assigned my first-year-seminar students the new documentary by Chris Rock, Good Hair, which explores the multi-billion dollar “black hair” industry. He begins the movie perfectly with an anecdote about his child asking him why she doesn’t have good hair, and the question that logically follows is “why would she (or any black woman) think that about herself?” His documentary is thorough, including interviews with scientists, hair-care professionals, actresses, and even people in India where a lot of the hair for weaves comes from. Chris Rock has done his homework, and he tells an entertaining story full of hilarious wit. The movie was actually recommended to me last fall by some students in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class when we were reading Toni Morrison’s classic novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which explores the double-standard of beauty that has historically been so psychologically damaging for black people’s self-image in America. So, upon my students’ advice, I watched the movie last spring, enjoyed it immensely, and decided to show it in my first-year-seminar class this fall.
However, watching the movie a second time, I’m not so sure this was a good decision, so this blog post will actually try to imagine something better than Good Hair (pun on “better” and “good” intended.) But before I explain the reasons for my doubts, check out the trailer for the movie:
The problem with Chris Rock’s documentary is that it focuses almost entirely on how wacky the hair industry is. Some might easily misinterpret the movie to be suggesting that black women are a little crazy for spending so much money on their hair and for subjecting themselves to potentially dangerous chemicals. The two typical reactions among white students are “oh, how weird” and “I wonder if my black friend’s hair is real.” This is not exactly the reaction I was looking for. If I were showing this movie alongside Morrison’s novel, then the students might have a better context for it, but this year I’m teaching Elizabeth Nunez’s Prospero’s Daughter (2006) instead, and it’s just not as good of a novel for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into today.
So, let me break down my two issues with Chris Rock’s movie. First, it gives very little information about the historical context and the possibility for an alternative. Only a few seconds are given to the “black is beautiful” movements of the 1970s that valued more naturally black hairstyles such as the Afro and dreadlocks. There was a time when black magazines such as Jet, Ebony, and Essence and other black-owned companies promoted a more positive image of black people, but most of those companies have been bought out by larger multinationals who no longer seem to care about positive cultural work for their communities.
Second is that it focuses on the symptoms of the situation rather than the underlying social structure that produces those symptoms. Now, don’t get me wrong, Chris Rock does talk about the underlying social structure (he’s a pretty smart guy, after all), but just for a few seconds, in contrast to the hour and some minutes that he devotes to the wacky-ness.
We might contrast Chris Rock’s movie with the Souls of Black Girls documentary that actually does focus on the underlying racist social structure that leads to “self-image disorder.” Check this clip out:
To give an example of the image of blowing hair and sex appeal that the Souls of Black Girls documentary is talking about, here is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s well-known “Crazy in Love” music video. It is not surprising that Beyonce’s videos (especially “Single Ladies“) have won so many awards. They are totally awesome and utterly mesmerizing. (Kanye West was right about Beyonce’s videos being the best — I mean, come on, let’s be honest here!!!) And it’s also not surprising that of all the members of Destiny’s Child the one whose facial features and skin color are most European is the one who became the superstar — I don’t think it wasn’t Beyonce’s voice.
However, though I appreciate what the Souls of Black Girls project is doing, I’m still not completely satisfied. For instance, they focus mostly on teenage anxieties about self-image, without thinking ahead to the realities adult women face after high school. For instance, the job market. Many black women believe that their chances of getting a good job improve if they have European-style hair. And unfortunately, in most cases they are probably right to think that. Similarly, we all know what would happen if Michelle Obama ever showed up to a public event with natural hair; the mainstream media would throw one of its ignorant hissy fits (which is just one reason among hundreds of other reasons why we shouldn’t pay any attention to the mainstream media.)
And so, I think we can see that often hair is not just a cultural issue. It’s policy. For example, click [here] to check out an MSNBC news story from last week (OK, sorry, so I guess sometimes we should pay attention to the mainstream media, but only if we do so critically) about a young man barred from his high school’s homecoming dance because he had dreadlocks. The school’s principal actually instituted a “no dreadlocks” policy, which is (in my opinion) simply racist because everyone knows that dreadlocks are actually healthy, and straightened hair isn’t. Apparently, America is still afraid of “black hair” (or perhaps just afraid of its political implications.)
But at the end of the day, I’m not satisfied with any of the things I’ve just talked about. Chris Rock’s movie is too mocking and lacks historical depth; the Souls of Black Girls focuses too intently on the negative; and the MSNBC story has (not surprisingly, since it’s MSNBC) nothing intelligent to say. And none of these stories acknowledge the good reasons why black women (or people in general) do what they do to their hair. Anyone will tell you that fake braids are not just stylish and cool looking, they are also healthy and make hair easier to manage. And Afro’s may be natural, totally dope, and mad sexy, but they can also be a pain in the ass to care for. And at the end of the day, what’s wrong with trying to make ourselves look cool, sexy, or just interesting? The point is not to simply contrast “natural” with “un-natural.” We’re talking about hairstyle, so “natural” has nothing to do with it. It’s not like we walk around naked, right?
I think what I like more than the mockery of Chris Rock’s documentary or the angst of the Souls of Black Girls project is this music video by India.Arie “I Am Not My Hair.” It beautifully deconstructs the racist social structure that affects black women’s self-image, but does so in a positive way that nurtures a different way to be — a way to be that’s “better” than “good.”
So, that’s all I have to say, but to conclude this blog post, I want to give a shout out to my friends M—, D—, H—, and N—– (you know who you are) for all the information that helped me write it.
This post is coming a couple months late, but oh well. In April this year, Chuck D — arguably the intellectual and political leader of hip hop at the close of the Reagan era — released a new single protesting Arizona’s bill SB1070. This bill is still very controversial. As the New York Times reported [here], the bill appears to legalize and encourage the racial profiling of Hispanics in order to seek out and deport all illegal immigrants, and Chuck D’s song “Tear Down That Wall” not only attacks the bill but also goes after the entire system of exploitation that the recently constructed wall between the U.S. and Mexico represents, including sweatshop labor. You can read the lyrics and Chuck D’s public statement to this effect [here].
Chuck D’s new song might remind us of an earlier historical moment: his group Public Enemy’s role in successfully reversing the Arizona government’s opposition to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1991. Back then, Public Enemy’s song “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” together with their refusal to perform inside Arizona, supported a broad-based protest movement. And did so successfully. And so, in my view, Chuck D’s efforts in 1991 and his work now speaks to the power of art and music to achieve positive political action.
But Chuck D is not the only artist to protest Arizona’s bill this year. For instance, so have younger artists such as Kanye West and Talib Kweli, as Chicago Now reported here. And perhaps more important than the world-famous artists heralding from hip hop capitals such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there are also local Arizona hip hop artists who all unified against this bill. It is important to pay attention to the local as well as the national level. As one of my fellow bloggers Amy noted last year [here] and [here], important new voices in hip hop have emerged from cities such as Minneapolis and Toronto, so the old East-Coast-West-Coast hegemony has been superceded. Phoenix hip hop and Arizona beats have grown, and they have also produced a terrific song in response to SB1070.
What impresses me is how fast and how furious hip hop’s response to the bill was. Indeed, the artistic reaction was almost instantaneous, and I think this speaks to hip hop’s emergence as one of the dominant and most relevant art forms today, though we should also strongly acknowledge the decades of work on this issue by poets, novelists, painters, etc. What all this reveals is one of cultural theory’s basic arguments — how interconnected art and social organization are. Art emerges out of socio-economic relations.
But one important question for us as cultural and literary theorists might be which of the many artistic statements will be most remembered. In other words, which song will make it into the “canon” of classic hip hop? As my fellow blogger Amy might rightly ask, will it be the big-name Chuck D (just as before when Public Enemy’s protest against Arizona in 1991 became the signature song of a much larger movement) or will it be the local Pheonix artists? And given that the big name artists are clearly supporting the local — just as national organizations have supported local political resistance to Arizaon’s bill — this raises important theoretical questions about the relationship between the national culture and the local.
Recently, I was reading some scholarly books and articles that, among other things, respond to Paul Gilroy’s thesis in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, first published in 1993. In that book, Gilroy basically theorizes that we need to understand the enlightenment tradition and the modern world in which we all live as a hybrid pheneomenon that began with the violence of the transatlantic slave trade and emerged out of the commercial and cultural exchanges across the Atlantic ocean, including the cultural contributions of Africans, Caribbeans, Europeans, Native Americans, etc. It’s a complicated book, and I don’t have time to go into its argument in my blog. Instead, while I was reading, I came across two very contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book that I found very curious. One of them calls Gilroy’s book a history, and the other says that it’s nonhistoricist. How could the same book look like a work of history to one person, and look like the opposite to another person?
So, first I’ll show you the two contradictory quotes that I’m talking about, and then I’ll attempt to explain that contradiction. That contradiction might help us understand what this thing called “theory” is.
In her fascinating book, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, published in 2009, Susan Buck-Morss, wrote about the work of “historians like Paul Gilroy, whose attempt to grasp the diaspora of Africans across the black Atlantic led him to argue that no identifying concept of race or nation is adequate” (p.111). Buck-Morss is a professor of political philosophy, and her book convincingly demonstrates that the famous philosopher Hegel conceived of the “master-slave dialectic” as he was reading about slave revolts and the Haitian revolution in newspapers and magazines. Notice that when she refers to Gilroy’s book, she calls him a historian.
But a few years earlier, in 2001, Ronald Judy, a professor of English, published a review of Gilroy’s work in issue 28:3 of the journal Boundary 2 where he says that Gilroy “strove to present a nonhistoricist account of modernity that recognizes protocols for living in the world today in the supposedly marginal expressive forms (most particularly music) of what has come to be understood as African Diaspora culture…” (p. 210). Notice that when he refers to the same book, he calls it a nonhistoricist account.
So, is Gilroy’s Black Atlantic historicist or nonhistoricist? Is this purely a difference of academic disciplines? Perhaps what looks like history to a philosopher such as Buck-Morss may look like something else to somebody who specializes in history or literary history such as Judy. And what (academically speaking) is “real” history supposed to be anyway? Certainly, real historians are meticulous about thoroughly checking archival data in order to figure out what really happened, and Gilroy’s book (which just focuses on a few famous texts) is not that. But I don’t know if I’d call his book “non-historicist” either, since he does consider the movement of history and the relationship between books and historical forces. After all, later in his article, Judy himself calls Gilroy’s approach a “conceptual history of modernity” (p. 211).
So… apparently… it’s a nonhistoricist conceptual history…. Huh?
What’s also obvious, and perhaps important to point out, is that Gilroy’s many books are getting read and discussed by people in a lot of different academic disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, sociology, political science, etc. But apparently they all have different senses of what Gilroy’s work is and what his work means for them…. Or do they? Maybe the difference between them is less important than the similarity. All of them have changed their approach to their own academic discipline in the same way — taking Gilroy’s point about the “black Atlantic” as the originating locus for modernity and the enlightenment tradition instead of Europe. And likewise, they all now see the black Atlantic as the starting point for thinking about freedom and democracy instead of the United States.
Still, even though scholars from a range of disciplines are all taking up the same basic and groundbreaking point at the end of the day, what do we make of the two contradictory statements about Gilroy’s book? Let’s take a brief detour into the work of another theorist — we might imagine similar contradictory statements being said about a couple of well-known books by Michel Foucault that you may have encountered in your introduction to theory class: Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Philosophers and literature professors often treat Foucault as a historian, but historians treat him as a philosopher. This ambiguity and the interdisciplinary nature of Foucault and Gilroy’s work gives us some insight into what “theory” is. Theory is not philosophy, though often courses in literary theory will read philosophy. And theory is not history, though it often thinks very hard about history and talks about historical contexts. Theory is always in-between disciplines because its project is to change the way people think within those disciplines. Foucault was very clear about this in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” where he explains his project as one of genealogical critique. What does this mean? Roughly, following the famous Friedrich Nietzsche’s example, Foucault means that his goal is to open up new possibilities and new ways of thinking about and acting in the world. His method for doing this is to critique how certain ways of thinking and acting have been repeated, enacted, institutionalized, and developed over time. Once one can expose these habits of thought (or habits of philosophy) as contingent rather than necessary, one can liberate oneself from the shackles of mental habits and academic disciplines… and think beyond them.
Then how does literature relate to theory? In some ways, the projects of literature and theory are similar. They both seek to open our minds to alternative ways of thinking about the world, and in that sense, they are allies. But in other ways, literature merely repeats mental habits and often simply repeats the conclusions of academic disciplines such as history and philosophy that the author may have read in school, so theory is a tool that can expose literature’s complicity with hegemonic power. In other words, literature is also part of a genealogy of ideas and institutions, and therefore theory can critically expose its place within that genealogy.
Coming back to Gilroy, he suggests that we read literature from the 17th century to the present as part of a “black Atlantic” context instead of as part of an “English” or “American” or even “African-American” context. How might Gilroy’s conceptual reframing of history, literature, and philosophy change how we read literature by such famous figures as John Milton, Walt Whitman, or Jane Austen as well as how we read literature by arguably more important figures such as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison? If we look at things from a black Atlantic perspective instead of from — let’s say — a British perspective, who appears to us to be the shining luminary figure that epitomizes the “best that has been said and thought” in our world? Perhaps English departments should all be requiring students to take a course on Frantz Fanon and Bob Marley instead of requiring a course on William Shakespeare?
About two weeks ago, Minnesota Public Radio did a story [here] on rising racism and anti-Somali feeling inside public schools. Specifically, some students at one high school created an “I hate the Somalians at Tech High” FaceBook group. As I mentioned in my blog before [here], the population of Somalis in Minnesota has increased dramatically since the beginning of the civil war in Somalia in 1991. I myself noticed this when, a couple years ago, I did some volunteer tutoring at a local chicken processing factory where about a third of the employees are Somalis, a third Mexicans, and a third southeast Asian (mostly Vietnamese and Hmong) — some of them recent immigrants with limited ability in English. A few of my former students are now student-teaching in the public high schools and have told me about their experiences there, and in addition many of my first-year students have also told me about the new popularity of the Confederate battle flag on the backpacks, blue jeans, and binders of their former classmates. Meanwhile, almost immediately after a study [here] revealed discriminatory lending practices in Minnesota’s banks in February 2009, the Minnesota Bankers Association produced a resource guide [here] for why and how bankers can better reach out to the African immigrant population.
This situation is complex and difficult, and I don’t want to pretend I have an answer. Many of the Somalis are still recovering from the trauma of the protracted civil war, gang violence, and long years in refugee camps, so some have trouble adjusting. Schoolyard fights are just as often Somalis fighting Somalis as they are white Americans fighting Somalis, though it needs to be admitted that the vast majority of Somalis do adjust, so the problems of a few shouldn’t be made to represent the whole community. Meanwhile, at the same time, racist feeling among whites in America has been exacerbated by high unemployment and recent debates about taxes and health care. But despite the complexity and my own lack of knowledge about the challenges of administrating public schools, I do want to offer a suggestion based on my short experience as a high school teacher many years ago and on my experience as a college teacher now.
My suggestion is admittedly simplistic but potentially effective and not hard to implement: public schools need to include some instruction about the history and cultural achievements of the immigrant populations they serve. Perhaps I’m being naive and overly hopeful here, but I think this will go a long way to reduce racist feeling among whites and foster the integration of immigrant populations. Few Americans seem to understand why the Somalis are here. They aren’t aware that the United States was itself partly responsible for the civil war that began in 1991 like so many other civil wars in Africa after the end of the Cold War. They aren’t aware that Great Britain, Italy, France, the United States aggressively conquered Somalia earlier in this century. Yes, there is always a reason why immigrants come to the United States and Europe — very often it’s because the United States and Europe were over there (and not just because America is the mythic land of opportunity as so many journalists and teachers constantly repeat over and over again.) The United States continues to meddle with Somali affairs, and not too long ago recruited the aid of one of Somalia’s enemies, Ethiopia, in bombing the country.
So, what might teachers teach? Do we teach narratives of recent immigrants such as the book The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees? Or what about a history book about the more than one thousand years of Somalia’s rich heritage? Or what about hip hop artists such as the Somali-Canadian K’Naan, who has recently become a global celebrity? Or how about novels by the critically-acclaimed and world-famous Somali author Nurrudin Farah? It doesn’t seem like it would be terribly difficult to include a short unit on Somalia or a Somali novel in history and literature courses. My point here is that so far, it seems to me that while school administrations are worried about how to teach Somali students, they should also be worried about how to teach white students — and even more importantly, how to retrain some of their teachers. This might cost some money in the short run but save some money in the long run. It is clear that the Minnesota economy needs Somalis, Oromos, and Hmong (as the Banker’s Association indicates), in part because demographic data suggests that white Minnesotans aren’t having enough children so if it weren’t for immigrants the population would actually be in decline. And so, learning about the cultural achievements of its population is simply pragmatically useful for the next generation of Minnesotans. Moroever, if the next generation of white students grows up familiar with such cultural achievements by Somalis, they might be less likely to spit on them at school.
We can make a useful parallel between Somalis and Hmong. I think the Hmong have been more successful at getting their story out than the Somalis and other African groups such as the Oromo in Minnesota. For instance, educational material such as Chia Vang’s Hmong in Minnesota and Lillian Faderman’s I Begin My Life All Over are very accessible, but I was not able to find a similar book by the Minnesota Historical Society Press focusing on Somalis or Oromos. More recently, the memoir The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang beautifully articulates the emotional experience of Hmong refugees in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States. Quite a few college classes (including my own) taught Yang’s memoir last semester.
It is perhaps these stories that inspired Clint Eastwood’s recent movie Gran Torino about a white Korean-War veteran in Detroit who gradually overcomes his own racism as he befriends his Hmong neighbors. I appreciate the cultural work this film does for race relations in the Midwest even though I personally have a lot of problems with the film. To briefly outline my problems, first, just like movies such as Avatar (about which I’ve blogged extensively [here]), Gran Torino is yet another classic case of a film about a white male saving the poor non-whites instead of them saving themselves. Strangely, not a single adult male Hmong person ever appears in the movie — since if such a person were present, then Clint Eastwood’s character would not be able to become the paternalistic surrogate father to the cute Hmong girl and her brother. And finally the event that first sparks genuine empathy and understanding between the white racist and the Hmong girl is when he saves her from some black men. Hence the movie uses one racist stereotype in order to overcome another racist stereotype. My Hmong students have also told me that the movie makes a few mistakes in how it represents Hmong culture. Yet, despite all the problems I have with the movie, I think it was perfectly pitched toward a conservative and mostly white Minnesota audience and perhaps did some positive cultural work in shifting attitudes towards the Hmong here. And for sure, it is a much better movie than the stupid and dehumanizing Black Hawk Down — a movie about the Somali civil war that made no effort whatsoever to understand that conflict. Someone watching that movie would leave the theater knowing less about Somalia than he or she knew before watching it. It’s one of those films that, like much of network news today, actually makes you more stupid and more ignorant.
In my opinion, scholars such as myself should collaborate with Oromo and Somali intellectuals and scholars to produce books and movies to tell their story — the kind of books and movies that would be of use to elementary and high school teachers. Nuruddin Farah has already attempted such a thing in his novels and in his book of non-fiction Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, but in his journalism Farah tends to talk over the people he interviews, and his convoluted, allusive prose style is far too high-brow for a high school student. I personally have had some success teaching Ethopian-American Dinaw Mengestu’s novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.
Moreover, another problem is that the Hmong story is easier to tell than the Somali or Oromo story. The Hmong people were allies with the United States during the Vietnam War and fought many covert battles in Laos and Cambodia. Since they were financed and trained by the United States, they became targeted by the Vietnamese and Laotian governments after the war was over. Hence, the U.S. owes them since it is clearly our fault that they have to leave Laos and Vietnam in the first place. The Oromo and Somali never allied themselves with the United States in this way; they were instead simply victims of European colonial projects in the late 19th century, Cold War politics in the late 20th century, and the anarchy of globalization that proceeded after the end of the Cold War. Another thing that might make the Somali story harder to tell is that many of the Somali women are strict Muslims. So, while in Gran Torino what enables the white racist to overcome his racism is the flirtatious relationship he forms with a pretty Hmong girl, such a scenario would be harder to film in the case of veiled Somali women, though movies like Outsourced and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Body of Lies suggest possibilities. I am usually cynical about these kinds of romantic plot lines just as I am critical of movies such as Gran Torino, but I recognize their utility given the current context of racist hostility at schools and on the streets.
In sum, a lot of attention has been paid to the Somali problem and what teachers should do with their Somali students, but perhaps the problem is not just a Somali problem but a white problem. It is a problem that needs to be addressed quickly and decisively. But it also can be addressed subtly — just a little bit of content in a world history class here, a novel or memoir in a literature class there.
I’m happy to report that the fourth issue of Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora has been released on the internet just in time for Christmas. The new issue almost instantly got some play on Gadaa.com [here] and [here]. It kinda rocks.
And as always, it reminds me of some theoretical questions. One of the things in this issue is a review of Dinaw Mengestu’s recent novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. I’ve taught this novel a few times in my classes, and as far as I know, the review in Ogina is the only one that says anything critical about it. Why is that? Why has no other magazine or newspaper criticized that novel?
It’s impossible to say for certain why. For one thing, it is a really well-written novel, which is why it has won awards, and consequently reviewers will tend to praise it. Mengestu has got some skills. For another, there are very few African immigrants publishing novels with the major publishing companies, and so, at this particular moment of literary history, reviewers want to nurture this talent, not squash it. But I think the real reason has to do with the critical perspective and the location of the reception. Since the novel was published by one the largest British-American publishing companies, most of the reviews likewise take place in the mainstream American and English media, so for them, this is an immigrant story — contributing to the diversity of these nations and supported institutionally by a variety of academic associations including MELUS and MESEA. From this perspective, Mengestu’s novel is superb, despite a few aspects of the plot that are a bit improbable (aspects that, as the Ogina editors point out in their review, the predominently middle-class readership might not notice.)
But Ogina has a different critical perspective than the mainstream media and academic institutions of the United States and Europe. Its perspective comes from a transnational politics — Oromos maintaining their affiliation with Oromos around the world and back home in Ethiopia (or, in Oromia as they might say.) Many of the contributors were born in the Oromia region. So, its review of a novel published by a major British-American publishing house (Penguin) appears alongside interviews of Oromo pop-musicians, artworks both traditional and contemporary, poetry in the Oromo language, and an essay about how art is a tool for political resistance. The difference between a review appearing in the NY Times and one appearing in an Oromo publication is pretty obvious. For a webzine like Ogina, art is not just about some multicultural identity politics; rather, as Demitu Argo’s essay about resistance intelligently discusses, it’s about struggle — a struggle that is sometimes violent.
There is quite a lot more to say about these different perspectives, and I have blogged about them elsewhere [here]. There is especially more to say about the question of violence. But I defer both of these questions to another time.
I’m guessing that everyone who reads this blog is aware of two news stories from yesterday: the one that dominated the television networks for hours and hours about the boy who turned out not to be in the balloon floating 7000 above the earth, and the other that dominated the alternative internet sites about the judge in Louisiana whose policy it is to deny interracial couples a marriage license. My guess is that most would see these two stories as opposites — one the kind of hyped bizarre-ness common on Fox News, the other the serious, social issue addressed by the progressive Hungtington Post. But are they really so different?
This morning, NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! show’s criticism of the balloon-boy episode was predictable — the oft-repeated criticism that networks devote hours and hours of air time and labor to this absurd story and ignore all the important news such as in-depth analysis of the American economy or the on-going crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’ve written about this standard lament about journalism before [here]. Of course, nobody would be saying this if it turned out that the boy actually were in the balloon and died. It’s only the emptiness of the balloon that symbolizes the emptiness (and “hot air”) of the stories that the media tends to chase and the consuming public tends to eagerly follow. And who can blame the networks since their ratings went up as all of America together chased this empty balloon? Hipper-than-thou indie-rockers everywhere must be penning lyrics about it as I write this.
In contrast, the websites about the racist judge all express almost unanimous outrage that something like this could still be happening in 21st century America. One can imagine someone saying that this is the kind of important news that the TV networks should be covering instead of the balloon boy. And one can also imagine Northerners muttering under their breath the standard stereotypes about the racist South — a stereotype that my fellow blogger Dr. J has worked hard [here] to complicate and dispell. After all, in support of Dr. J, it’s clear from the Associated Press report that Louisianans themselves are just as outraged at this judge as other people in the country. And where was the national outrage when swastikas appeared in the dormitories of St. Cloud State U. in Minnesota or the lives of black student leaders were verbally threatened at Penn State?
The issue of race and racism in American continues to be important, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Being in an interracial relationship myself, this is something I care about. But the media does not really cover race — even when it pretends to cover it. Instead, it chases empty balloons, easy appeals to the mass public by presenting the judge whose extreme racism we can all define ourselves against. What I want to point out here is that the Associated Press never mentions what legal precedent the judge might be applying to this case. In the judge’s own mind, his policy is not only reasonable but also supported by the local black community. And we probably ought to assume that the judge — being a judge — had some legal principle in mind. Based on the judge’s answers to the journalist’s inquiry, my guess is that he is applying the “best interest of the child” rule that guides all no-fault divorce cases, and I will speak more about that in a moment.
In my opinion, the journalist should have mentioned what legal standard was being applied here, but doing so would have forced us to think about the legal system at large rather than just the racism of the individual judge. It always surprises me when journalists fail to do their homework, though I suppose it shouldn’t. I remember being interviewed once, and I discovered that the journalist only wanted a one-sentence statement of how I felt about the issue. I told the journalist that if he just looked at this publicly available website he could find all the documents and evidence he needed to expose the truth about the situation he was covering. He said he wasn’t interested in that, just in my feeling. He was obviously a young journalist, just a year out of college, so I pressed him why, and he said that’s what he learned in journalism school — to find the human angle…. the empty balloon.
Back to the “best interest of the child” rule. Although the judge is clearly applying that rule innappropriately, it is a rule that (when appropriately applied) might seem perfectly reasonable to everyone. In the case of divorce, the judge has to decide which parent the child should be with, and so the judge generally decides what’s in the best interest of the child. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But, as Jane Juffer discusses in great detail in chapter five of her book Single Mother: The Emergence of a Domestic Intellectual (2006), feminist lawyers have for years challenged the rationality of this rule by demonstrating how “best-interest” is a culturally constructed notion that tends to be merged with notions of what’s normal. In other words, judges everywhere have tended to use this rule to discriminate against ambitious women, women in interracial relationships, homosexuals, and even women who choose to live in cooperative arrangements rather than in the “normal” nuclear arrangement with the white picket fence and dog in the back yard. The belief that guides this rule is that “normal” is better for the child, and lawyers can easily find simplistic sociological and psychological studies to back them up. In such studies, other sociologists and legal scholars have discerned an inherent bias — that the very standard of “normalcy” is the stumbling block for parents and couples, not anything unnatural about their alternative choices. More methodologically rigorous sociological and psychological studies present a more complex picture and suggest alternatives to a narrowly defined normalcy. We should be thinking critically about how to change our society and live better lives, not just thinking pragmatically about how to follow the given cultural codes, which remain racist as well as nuclear and individualistic. And while the judge appeals to his “black friends” who he claims agree with his policy, we should have the courage to (1) challenge his black friends for buying into a racist culture and (2) recognize the diversity of voices and successful lifestyles within any local community. Such standards of normalcy usually reign (hegemonically) wherever we are, especially within the liberal, academic community that imagines itself to be more open but in reality is not.
My point here is that the story about the racist judge and the balloon boy are both empty balloons that trigger emotions and may even address an important issue but ultimately allow us to avoid dealing honestly with our own anxieties and with the systemic injustices within our society.
I just showed Lone Star, written and directed by John Sayles, to my English class. I remember when I first watched it in the movie theater in 1996, back when I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler detective novels. Back then, two things about the movie really struck me. First, what a cool idea it is to use the noir detective genre to explore the history of race relations. After watching the movie, I began to read African-American detective novelists Walter Mosley and Barbara Neely, who also do this really well. Second, that Elizabeth Peña is one of the sexiest actresses of all time. (Hey now — I know this is a theory-teacher blog, but I’m just saying what I was thinking as a young guy thirteen years ago.)
That was 1996, but last year, as a teacher, I was reminded of Lone Star because the Coen brothers’ movie No Country for Old Men won so many Academy Awards then. And here’s why I can’t help but make the connection between the two movies, and why I can’t help but think Lone Star is the movie that most clearly demonstrates what a load of crap No Country is. Both movies are about the Texas-Mexico border. Both movies can be categorized as noir. (Noir is usually defined as hardboiled and morally ambiguous crime fiction.) Both movies feature a supernaturally evil villain. Both movies were nominated for a lot of awards.
But those similarities make the differences all the more striking. Lone Star actually developes white, black, and Hispanic characters in some depth, whereas in No Country, the Hispanic characters hardly speak at all, which is kind of messed up considering that its main character Llewelyn Moss spends some time across the Mexican border. In other words, in No Country, Hispanic characters are more symbolic than real, and the movie is somewhat racist in the way that, symbolically, their presence in the story is always associated with drugs, violence, and the moral degredation of society. In contrast, as one of my students pointed out in class a couple days ago, Lone Star actually has black and Hispanic poeple in it, who talk and think like real people and whose lives are cross-culturally entangled the way real peoples’ lives are — in other words, they aren’t some assinine Hollywood stereotype or a plot device or shorthand symbol for violence. You can tell Sayles put a lot of thought into his movie (as you can see his interview about it [here].) To put it another way, we come away from watching Lone Star with a better understanding of the Texas-Mexico border than we came in with, but we come away from No Country with a worse understanding than we came in with.
Second, Lone Star features many conversations among characters of different backgrounds (not just cultural backgrounds, but also professional backgrounds) and uses the cinematic form of the noir detective story to bring their inter-connectedness to the surface. In contrast, the only lengthy conversations we see in No Country are either between a couple of old, white sheriffs moaning about the good old days or between the psychopathic killer and his victims. While the noir structure of Lone Star encourages us to develop a more complex ethical vision, the noir structure of No Country merely excites and titilates us. Now, against my argument, I suppose someone might point out that the absurdity of No Country — along with its unresolved, troubling ending — deconstructs our nostalgic sense of law and order, and I would grant that that’s true… but so what?
Finally, the evil villain in Lone Star is the white sheriff who stands in as a symbolic figure for the systemic violence of racism and who must be overthrown by a collaboration among black, white, and Hispanic characters, but the evil villain in No Country is an unbelievably omniscient psychopath who stands in as a symbolic figure for the arbitrary randomness and senselessness of criminal violence. Curiously, this villain’s ethnicity is vague — all we know is that he is somehow foreign, a foreigness which is used by the Coen brothers to augment his evilness. It is curious that a character who is meant to symbolize the monstrosity of pure evil has to be not just somehow foreign, but indeterminately foreign.
In my view, John Sayles is one of the most ethical writer-directors of all time, and many actresses and actors have said they love acting in his movies because they feel like they are performing real characters. Especially women have noted that his female characters actually have some depth and aren’t just a projection of a male writer/director’s fantasy about, desire for, or fear of women. This is especially true in his beautiful movie, Casa de los Babys. To be fair to the Coen brothers, most of the time, I think they also do a wonderful job in their movies, just not in this one.
But here of course is the kicker. While Lone Star was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay, it didn’t win. In contrast, No Country was the Coen brothers’s most successful film of their careers, nominated for eight Academy awards with four wins, including best screenplay even though the movie was merely adapted from the novel. (And if you’ve read the novel, which I have, you’ll see that the Coen brothers didn’t do much with the story. Their cinematography was excellent, for sure, but best screenplay?) In other words, the Academy Awards was stupid and unethical in 2008 just as it was in 2009 for giving all the awards to Slumdog Millionaire. (About that movie, see my blog post [here], and also go to your local Barnes & Nobel or Borders bookstore and get the current issue (#78) of CineAction, which features a terrific analysis of Slumdog… as well as, I’m not too modest to mention, my own essay about James Bond, which was originally conceived in this very blog!) However, in spite of the lameness of the Academy Awards, I won’t despair because all of the critial and scholarly essays that continue to be published about Lone Star assures me that it will endur as a classic, while No Country will fade as a cinematic novelty.