Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Common Language of Music in James Baldwin's Seminal Short Story "Sonny's Blues"

Sonny, in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” is a deeply sympathetic character precisely because of his desire to pull away the layers of denial and defense mechanisms black people have been forced to put on in order to survive in a racist society. His need to listen to what no one else is listening to comes from an artistic urge, but it also comes from a need to “experience” life rather than hide from it. Baldwin, in his essay “Autobiographical Notes,” writes that “[O]ne writes out of one thing only -- one’s own experience”, then goes on to state that “[T]he difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely...” Sonny’s desire to listen to the pain, joy, anger, fear, love, and hate felt by a people comes out of this need to embrace those experiences rather than hide from them. His difficulty is not in just “listening” to those experiences, but in finding the appropriate language to express them. If black people, as Baldwin states, have been denied the right to express those experiences honestly, they have also been denied the language with which to express them.

Language and literacy have always been an issue within the context of African American history. When slaves were brought to the States they were stripped of their native tongues, and then were denied the right to read and write in a society where literacy determined one’s ability to survive within said society. But African descendants were able to find other means of expression -- through the arts or crafts -- to find a language that expressed their unique experiences. Sonny’s use of music, and to a certain extent even drugs, to find a way to not only “listen” to those experiences, but to “express” them, places him within a tradition of African American survivalist instincts. Sonny’s desires are so strong that they are self-immolating, and yet he is a character neither to be pitied or loathed. His need to bring together the black community by searching for a language in which they can collectively express “that storm inside” not only makes him sympathetic, but heroic as well.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

One of the most defining features of American life centers around race. Even today, some ten years after the Genome Project unveiled what we already suspected---that race is a social construct rather than a biological one---race continues to dictate the ways in which we define who is and isn’t an American. This also determines who is deserving of the benefits and social entitlements that come with being a citizen. This became more evident during the 2008 presidential election, when then Senator Barack Obama, became the leading Democratic contender for the White House. It was evident in the dialogue between Obama and Clinton supporters, in the way black voters initially rejected Obama because they thought he didn’t have a snowballs chance in hell to win (at least until his win in majority white Iowa surprised even the most studied political scientists); in the way the media covered the primaries; the way Rev. Jeffrey Wright, Obama’s former pastor, became a lightning rod during the campaign because of his statements concerning whites; in the notion that Obama’s run signals an era of post-racialism; and the way even after Obama’s win his citizenship came into question by Tea Partiers and the most virulent racists who refuse to believe that a black man can have as much right to occupy one of the most important seats of power in Western civilization. Since then, we continue to witness such issues from conservatives targeting groups like ACORN and the New Black Panthers for spurious accusations of voting fraud to the faux outrage concerning edited comments by Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the Department of Agriculture, regarding what was perceived to be racial comments directed toward a white farmer whose farm she actually help to save. What it all comes down to is the question of who and what is considered American, and clearly, throughout this country’s history, black people surely ain’t it.

Yet, in Nell Irvin Painter’s thoroughly researched book The History of White People, published last year by W.W. Norton & Co., the question of what it means to be a true American was always shaped around the idea of what it meant to be white, a preoccupation that even predates American history. Painter presents a telling historical survey of how “whiteness” was shaped and defined over the course of world history based on little more than the personal prejudices and insecurities of the people and the times. Pseudoscience played an important role in validating these beliefs, so it is perhaps ironic that it would take real science to debunk many of them. Painter does a thorough job of showing how these “researchers” often used shoddy methodologies or contradicted themselves even in their own work to hammer home conclusions that served more to flatter their own ideas of racial superiority. What is most surprising, however, is how significant figures in American history helped push along the meme that “whiteness” can be exclusively defined by an Anglo-Saxon/Nordic/Teutonic heritage. Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings, was one of those figures, which is hardly surprising. But I was thoroughly disappointed that philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was also one of those figures who pushed this false premise (Emerson is noted for his antislavery beliefs).

What’s even more surprising is how so many “so-called” white ethnics who arrived in this country as immigrants were likewise excluded from definitions of "whiteness." Eugenics projects, IQ tests, cephalic indices (the measurements of skulls from various ethnic/racial groups), and the like were all used to validate notions of race tied to intelligence, character, and morality and used specifically to divide Europeans into three distinct races: Anglo-Saxon/Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean, with the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic race being the most superior. Race geneticists, which included amateur scientists in the fields of economics, philosophy, theology; as well as anthropologists and social scientists who carried on the work that preceded them, often changed their views about whether Germans or Teutons could be considered white based on personal prejudices. For example, Germans or Teutons were included and then excluded from the race (WWI definitely ruled Germans outside of that exclusive circle, and Hitler’s own use of eugenics in the genocide of German Jews became an embarrassment to those pushing forced sterilization on America’s poor women), a clear enough indication of what race geneticists were really peddling.

The very racial attitudes directed toward blacks (who, along with Native American Indians, Asians, and Latinos, were largely ignored during these early racial classification projects) were also directed toward the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Slavs, and Russians during the great waves of European immigration throughout the 19th and early 20th century America. In fact, the notion of family degenerates---that biology indicates poverty and social pathology rather than class and environment---began with sociological studies on white European immigrants and poor white Southerners. These studies led to bogus IQ tests that limited European immigration and forced sterilization, not to mention defining popular cultural attitudes toward these groups of people. Since the 1960s, however, such attitudes have been solely applied to the sociological study of blacks in the inner city, beginning with the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 study “The Moynihan Report,” which roughly blamed the effects of social pathology at the feet of single mothers, while ignoring issues of class, race, and social economics. The effects of these studies still shape how the general public views poor people of color and is what lays at the heart of the thirty-year dismantling of social programs designed to aid them.

Painter does a superb job of following this thread of “whiteness” from its early beginnings in Greek antiquities to present day America, and how race geneticists not only affected the way America came to define itself and how current events, from the housing crisis to the collapse of the economy and the hostilities bubbling just above the surface of American society, owes a great deal to their nefarious works. Of course I’m projecting a lot of current day America into Painter’s work, but it isn’t hard to come to certain conclusions. In The History of White People, Painter fills in the missing dots that has been missing in much of our retelling of American history. The broadening definitions of “whiteness” more than anything helped those who would otherwise have been excluded from the American dream, while at the same time continued to deny those who were definitively denied inclusion. So when some Americans cry out that “they want their country back,” you cannot help but draw the conclusion that what they really mean is that they want a return to the ideas of this myth of American-ness based exclusively on “whiteness,” an exclusivity which ironically at one point limited their own ancestors to the margins of American society. Perhaps the anger they exhibit is due to the harsh reality that that myth never had any currency to begin with, and in the end, those who are now suffering from the economic collapse no longer have the bulwark of “whiteness” to protect them from its damaging effects.

Painter’s writing, I think, should be noted here because she does have a very engaging style that is scholarly and informal. Painter is never hyperbolic in writing about the race geneticists of the past, but lets the reader know where she stands with them in very subtle terms. She is also appropriately generous and empathetic toward those who suffered greatly from these racial classifications, either through mob violence or forced sterilization, opening up ways in which race can be truly and openly discussed in a nation that would otherwise sweep such discussions out of public consciousness. After all, if in the past white ethnics suffered as much in this country from racism, then it reveals how America is less defined by racial differences as it is by class, a fact, since this country’s beginnings, that has always been denied. This doesn’t mean that the racial dichotomy since the 1960s, which roughly divides itself between black and white, doesn’t still hold sway and continues to affect millions of people under its clutches regardless of socio-economics and class. But it does open up the possibility of moving past race by revealing that, even in the throes of this Great Recession, all Americans who have not benefited from being rich and white, have a stake in making this country as inclusive as the Constitution suggests it ought to be. Nell Irvin Painter’s wonderful book is simply one step down that road that will hopefully lead us toward a true America.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee’s latest novel The Surrendered is aptly titled. The story is about a surrender to the powerful grip that love, death, and hope have on us all. But more than that, the novel has a powerful grip that forces the reader to surrender as well. Diving into this brutal tale is like surrendering to the forces of time and movement, a drifting away on currents that take you across the span of memory and place. I surrendered quickly.

This is not to suggest that Lee’s novel is entirely successful. In fact it is flawed. And yet there is something quietly powerful about his tale of three lost souls who are drawn obsessively together  against the backdrop of war and death.

The Surrendered begins with a journey. In fact the whole novel is about journeys, both of the physical and emotional. June Han, Hector Brennan, and Sylvie Tanner are three disparate souls whose lives cross at an orphanage following the Korean War. All three are victims of war, but more than that they are also victims to their own self-immolating desires which literally consume them whole until both June and Hector are left to live with the consequences. The Surrendered is more than a typical war novel, but it does reveal the ways in which war infects the mind and body.

Lee’s prose is the most successful part of the novel. His writing really does sweep you further into the story. I could not put this book down. Though there are times when he strains with the metaphor, he does so with an artful ambition that thrusts you into the very maw of these characters’ emotions. Such moments are enlivened with his prose:

When he looked down at his feet, like a boy greatly relieved, she surprised him with an embrace. He felt his heart might collapse. He instantly took her up and held her against him. Her face was turned but his mouth and eyes were pressed against her ear, the soft plate of her cheek, and the more tightly he held on to her the more she seemed to give way, to cave, as if she were made of loose, dry dirt.
Yet the strength of Lee’s writing does not detract from the more flawed aspects of the story. For instance, Sylvie exists purely as a type, a figure to which June and Hector focus their erotic desires. Though Rae-Lee does delve into her personal history, and is quite forceful in the way he reveals how her parents, missionaries in 1930s China, meet a brutal end at the hands of Japanese soldiers, the character loses a sense of spark or dynamism once she is placed within the context of the Korean War orphanage. The wife of a stern and unyielding minister who now looks after the local orphanages, Sylvie has succumbed to a drug addiction which leaves her listless and weak throughout much of the book. She is a mere a shadow, a symbol onto which Hector and June concentrate their emotional baggage and sexual awakening. Hector, as a character, is in many ways implausible (he has the luck of a man who has cheated death only to watch death reap its toll on others around him), carries his guilt like an albatross, blaming himself for the death of his father, who got drunk at a bar and drowned in a river on his way home, while Hector was fooling around with an older war widow; or loses his lover in a freak accident that is every bit as implausible as it is melodramatic.

June Han is by far the most powerful character in the story and her tale gives the novel its fierce heart. An orphan by fourteen, she witnesses the death and disappearance of her parents and siblings, either by the brutal hand of war or by freak accident. She wanders about on the road, eating mud to survive, when she meets Hector, who sweeps her away to the orphanage. By then she is already a brittle but fragile waif, refusing to let anyone, except the vulnerable Sylvie, enter her world.

Though the significant events in these characters' lives occur at the orphanage, they are in fact memories. The novel concerns the present (in this case 1987), in which a now dying June enlists the much older Hector to help find their missing son in Italy. The fact that June and Hector share a child might seem just as equally implausible, but the connection they share, mainly through the now deceased Sylvie, would have been tenuous otherwise. Clearly the journey both June and Hector undertake before they cross paths again and travel through Italy frame their memories. The novel's time frame jumps back and forth as the events of what occurred at the orphanage and why both June and Hector carry their guilt well into the future, become clearer. In The Surrendered, Lee has composed a novel that despite its obvious flaws is about the surrender we all make to life in all its horror and beauty, and is as tough and flinty as the uncompromising anti-heroine who gives it its raw power.