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Books

It’s a Man’s World: The Politics of Black Masculinity

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in November 2007.)

Works dis­cussed in this essay:

  • Our Liv­ing Man­hood: Lit­er­a­ture, Black Power and Mas­cu­line Ide­ol­ogy by Rol­land Mur­ray (U. of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2007, 168 pages)
  • Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black Amer­i­can Intel­lec­tual by Robert F. Reid-Pharr (New York U. Press, 2007, 208 pages)
  • Man­ning the Race: Reform­ing Black Men in the Jim Crow Era by Mar­lon B. Ross (New York Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004, 498 pages)

Back in June, while wait­ing in O’Hare Air­port for a flight back to New York from Chicago, I picked up and thumbed through the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times and I was struck by an edi­to­r­ial titled “Pull up Your Pants, Lift Up Your Head,” by one Bill Maxwell. In the arti­cle Maxwell takes aim at the hip-hop fash­ion phe­nom­e­non known as “sag­ging,” which has been in the news in recent months because sev­eral Amer­i­can cities have begun to pass ordi­nances mak­ing the style ille­gal. Maxwell argues that this par­tic­u­lar fash­ion has its ori­gins in prison, where a low slung waist­band is a sign of one’s sex­ual avail­abil­ity (he cites television’s Judge Greg Mathis as the source of this insight­ful infor­ma­tion). He goes on to sug­gest that young black men would cease to wear their pants in this style if they knew its ori­gins. In effect, Maxwell’s argu­ment seems to sug­gest that if only black men embraced a more homo­pho­bic ethos all our cul­tural prob­lems would be solved.

Part of me rec­og­nizes this arti­cle for what is: just another dis­pos­able piece of reac­tionary con­ser­v­a­tive arm­chair soci­ol­ogy. On the other hand, I also find it instruc­tive for its atten­tion to gen­der in the polit­i­cal dis­course on black mas­culin­ity, and for its steep, abid­ing nos­tal­gia for a sta­ble past when, as Archie Bunker would say, “goils were goils and men were men.”

I men­tion the Maxwell arti­cle because it illu­mi­nates three par­tic­u­lar uni­fy­ing themes in the books reviewed here. For one thing, all three books reviewed here seek to his­tori­cize black man­hood to con­front pre­cisely this sort of nos­tal­gia that Maxwell pro­duces. Unlike Maxwell, how­ever, Ross, Reid-Pharr, and Mur­ray all demon­strate that ideas about appro­pri­ate black man­hood (not to men­tion ideas about authen­tic black­ness itself) have always been in a con­stant state of nego­ti­a­tion and re-negotiation through­out Amer­i­can his­tory. Sec­ondly, all three books are clearly invested in dis­man­tling homo­pho­bic ide­ol­ogy, but they move beyond the sim­ple plat­i­tudes about the black homosexual’s exclu­sion from the black com­mu­nity to exam­ine how same-sex desire is a fun­da­men­tal part of all mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy and nation­al­ist projects, black or otherwise.

Lastly and most impor­tantly, all three books actively insist on the idea that black men have been more than just pas­sive vic­tims in their own pre­sen­ta­tion. In mak­ing that claim these authors rec­og­nize they are tip-toeing through a rhetor­i­cal mine­field, where con­ser­v­a­tive ide­o­logues wield ideas about “per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity,” reject­ing victim-hood, and “just get­ting over” injus­tices of the past as a way of triv­i­al­iz­ing the struc­tural inequal­i­ties of Amer­i­can racism and favor­ing a pro-corporate, anti-government pub­lic pol­icy based on myth­i­cal notions of mer­i­toc­racy and indi­vid­ual achieve­ment. And yet, I find it com­pelling and inspir­ing that these intel­lec­tu­als are will­ing to take the risk, know­ing that any change in the con­di­tions and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black man­hood must come from the real­iza­tion that black men have had an active hand in those representations.

While Robert Reid-Pharr is the only one of the three who explic­itly (and I believe, appro­pri­ately) frames this con­cept as a philo­soph­i­cally exis­ten­tial mat­ter, the theme of an exis­ten­tial recla­ma­tion of agency runs through­out all three books. As Reid-Pharr boldly sug­gests in the intro­duc­tion to Once You Go Black: “the Black Amer­i­can has not only had a great hand in the cre­ation of Amer­ica and thus the world but also and importantly…the Black Amer­i­can, quiet as its kept, has had a sub­stan­tial role in the cre­ation of himself”.

Man­ning the Race: Reform­ing Black Men in the Jim Crow Era is an ambi­tious intel­lec­tual his­tory of black man­hood reform in the New Negro Move­ment, dat­ing roughly from the 1890s to the 1940s. Ross is a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, but he goes against the dis­ci­pli­nary grains, sur­vey­ing a broad range of intel­lec­tual pro­duc­tion in this period includ­ing race tracts, pho­to­graphic race albums, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, nov­els and soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies. Since it cov­ers such a mas­sive amount of ground, Man­ning the Race can be a dense read at times, but it rewards a patient reading.

Ross exam­ines what he calls the “dou­ble para­dox of Jim Crow dis­en­ti­tle­ment,” a con­cept that explains the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges of New Negro man­hood reform, but also res­onates in con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal dis­course on black man­hood. He writes:

“The more black men attempt to man the race through a fit mas­culin­ity pat­terned on dom­i­nant gen­der norms, the more they risk emu­lat­ing the white rul­ing men whose Jim Crow racial/sexual codes unman them. At the same time, the more that African Amer­i­cans resist the gen­der norms set up by the Jim Crow color line, the more they seem to lack the resources of man­hood power and influ­ence to man the race for a defeat of the very Jim Crow regime that unmans them.”

Accord­ing to Ross the work of mod­ern­iz­ing the Negro is dom­i­nated by three gen­res of writ­ing in par­tic­u­lar: 1) new-century race trea­tises and antholo­gies, such as race tracts and race photo albums, 2) New Negro per­sonal nar­ra­tives, includ­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy and fic­tion, and 3) pro­fes­sional soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies – most sig­nif­i­cantly W.E.B. DuBois’s pio­neer­ing study, The Philadel­phia Negro, and the work of soci­ol­o­gists Robert E. Park, E. Franklin Fra­zier and oth­ers of the so-called Chicago School of Soci­ol­ogy based at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago.

What sets Ross’s work apart is his atten­tion to mat­ters of sex­u­al­ity in the con­struc­tion of black man­hood dur­ing this era. The spec­ta­cle of black sex­u­al­ity has long been a part of racist dis­course in Amer­ica, and it was often invoked as a sign of inher­ent dif­fer­ence and racial infe­ri­or­ity. But a curi­ous thing hap­pened around the turn of the cen­tury as anthro­pol­o­gists began to embrace ideas of cul­tural rel­a­tivism and Freudian con­cepts began to fil­ter into intel­lec­tual artis­tic and cul­tural prac­tice, call­ing into ques­tion the sanc­tity and san­ity of bour­geois Vic­to­rian sex­ual mores. This became shaky ter­ri­tory for black intel­lec­tu­als because it cre­ated a space to cel­e­brate the healthy vital­ity of black sen­su­al­ity, but it could also rein­force stereo­types of black infe­ri­or­ity. The lit­er­ary work of the New Negro/Harlem Renais­sance cer­tainly illus­trated the advan­tages and pit­falls that a focus on black sex­u­al­ity could cre­ate for the black intel­lec­tual. Ross looks at the vari­ety of strate­gies for black reform­ers in this era and sees them engaged in what he refers to as “unsex­ing, desex­ing or resex­ing” the race. At times these var­i­ous strate­gies would over­lap, employed by the same indi­vid­u­als in a simul­ta­ne­ous yet con­tra­dic­tory fashion.

The theme of mobil­ity was among the most impor­tant for the New Negro. No longer would the black major­ity be located in the Amer­i­can South, as urban migra­tion to the indus­trial North began to hap­pen around the turn of the cen­tury. That white suprema­cist edict that Negroes should “stay in their place” was not just a fig­ure of speech, but spoke to the very real anx­i­eties about the New Negro’s mobil­ity. That anx­i­ety wasn’t just the province of Negro­pho­bic whites, but was also held by black race lead­ers them­selves who were try­ing to make sense of both the excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and poten­tial dan­gers of this new mobility.

Focus­ing on the theme of mobil­ity, Ross the­o­rizes from abstrac­tions about race down to the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the black body. For instance, he sees a pro­found anx­i­ety in the found­ing of inter­ra­cial polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions such as the NAACP where black and white per­sons, specif­i­cally black men and white women, would share the same spaces as equal par­tic­i­pants in a racial uplift organization.

Cer­tainly the South has its pecu­liar his­tory of close prox­im­ity para­dox­i­cally com­bined with rigid social stric­tures, but this New Negro phe­nom­e­non of edu­cated, self-determined Negroes shar­ing space on equal foot­ing with whites, and doing so in mass num­bers was some­thing alto­gether dif­fer­ent, and not all were happy about it. Ross cites a pas­sage in the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of W.E.B. Du Bois where Du Bois writes of his dis­taste for one of the NAACP’s founders Oswald Gar­ri­son Vil­lard, who mar­ried a white South­ern woman from Geor­gia, and adopted her strin­gent racial codes about not allow­ing any blacks (and prob­a­bly not any Jews either, Du Bois spec­u­lates) to set foot in their home. As DuBois writes, “I knew the rea­sons for this dis­crim­i­na­tion, but I could hardly be expected to be happy over them or to be his close friend.”

This is but one exam­ple of the cross-gender and cross-racial ten­sions of the period, and there is much to chew on in Man­ning the Race. Ross brings fresh analy­sis to a vari­ety of piv­otal moments and state­ments of the era such as Booker T. Washington’s writ­ings and speeches, Robert Park’s soci­o­log­i­cal career and his infa­mous apho­rism that the Negro is “the lady of the races.” Ross also makes some inter­est­ing com­ments on philoso­pher Alain Locke’s self-presentation as an effete high-brow aes­thete and how other intel­lec­tu­als, namely Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, responded to his image by try­ing to assert their own man­hood as artists of “the people.”

Ulti­mately Ross pays close atten­tion to the self-production of black intel­lec­tu­als, and this is what sets this work apart as impor­tant schol­ar­ship on the study of black man­hood. He ends by recount­ing how some col­leagues of his ques­tioned why a nearly 400 page book on the topic of black mas­culin­ity was nec­es­sary when a mere peer-reviewed arti­cle might suf­fice. He also calls into ques­tion the over-reliance on con­tem­po­rary pop cul­ture and scan­dal in dis­cus­sions of black man­hood. “By insist­ing on the com­plex­ity, intri­cacy, sub­tlety and rich­ness of black manhood’s cul­tural his­tory, I hope – at the least – that this book also resists this long-standing ten­dency to reduce black man­hood iden­tity to the shock of the lat­est fad in cloth­ing or the pruri­ence of the most recent racial scandal.”

One of the great flash­points in the his­tory of black Amer­i­can mas­culin­ity was the period of the 1960s and 1970s that included the Black Power Move­ment and the Black Arts Move­ment. Rol­land Mur­ray eval­u­ates the lit­er­a­ture of this period in a lean, but scrupu­lous book, Our Liv­ing Man­hood: Lit­er­a­ture, Black Power and Mas­cu­line Ide­ol­ogy. The title is a ref­er­ence to Ossie Davis’s famous eulogy for Mal­colm X, one of black America’s most vis­i­ble and inspir­ing sym­bols of black manhood.

Mur­ray sur­veys black lit­er­a­ture of the 1960s and 1970s pay­ing atten­tion to how the asser­tion of black man­hood became the focal point of the move­ments of that era. He begins the study with a look at James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972) in which Bald­win wrote on the Nation of Islam and the Black Pan­ther Party respec­tively. Baldwin’s rela­tion­ship to Black Power is of course one of the most vex­ing parts of his intel­lec­tual legacy as many feel he acqui­esced to the homo­pho­bia of the move­ment instead of chal­leng­ing it. How­ever, despite the fact that Mur­ray sees Baldwin’s cri­tique of Black Power as “incom­plete” he acknowl­edges that “Bald­win allows us to begin telling an alter­na­tive story about the evo­lu­tion of nation­al­ism, one in which the instan­ti­a­tion of racial sol­i­dar­ity rooted in the mas­cu­line also pro­duced its poten­tial undoing.”

Here Murray’s cri­tique builds upon the con­tro­ver­sial and ground-breaking work of Michele Wal­lace, whose 1978 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Super­woman was a scathing and scan­dalous air­ing of dirty laun­dry. In it Wal­lace sug­gested that the black power move­ment was more about the recla­ma­tion of the black man’s right­ful place atop the patri­ar­chal black fam­ily and the black man’s revenge on the sanc­tity of white wom­an­hood than it was about the uplift and self-determination of the black com­mu­nity. As she infa­mously put it, the objec­tive of the male-dominated move­ment seemed to be “a white woman in every bed and black woman under every heel.”

Mur­ray seeks to add to Wallace’s work by empha­siz­ing that there was per­haps more of a cri­tique of the mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy of mid-century black nation­al­ism going on dur­ing the move­ment than we pre­vi­ously believed. Nat­u­rally, Mur­ray had to address Eldridge Cleaver’s nasty depic­tion of James Bald­win in Soul on Ice. He points to Baldwin’s response to Cleaver in which he tries to dis­tin­guish between his own homo­sex­u­al­ity and the forced homo­sex­u­al­ity of the prison expe­ri­ence. Bald­win wrote in No Name in the Street, “I was con­fused in his mind with the utter debase­ment of the male – with all those fag­gots, punks and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison must have made him vomit more than once.” Mur­ray sees Baldwin’s for­mu­la­tion here as an attempt to reassert his own mas­cu­line author­ity to speak for the race, albeit a faulty and eva­sive one.

Mur­ray goes on to sur­vey some nov­els of the 1960s and 1970s that inter­ro­gated mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics. His choice of genre is sig­nif­i­cant. The Black Arts Move­ment priv­i­leged the gen­res of drama and poetry as more authen­tic forms of black resis­tance and more effec­tive means of get­ting the mes­sage to the peo­ple than nov­els. Thus, Mur­ray finds that some black male writ­ers, par­tic­u­larly John O. Kil­lens, John Edgar Wide­man, and Hal Ben­nett among oth­ers, used the longer sus­tained form of the novel to carry out a cri­tique of the mas­cu­line excesses of Black Nation­al­ism. Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970) pro­vides one of the most damn­ing cri­tiques of an overem­pha­sis on patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics and the black church, as well as an aston­ish­ing cri­tique of the cul­ture of racism in Amer­ica as a whole. (In fact, I stum­bled on to Murray’s book while Googling for more infor­ma­tion on Lord of Dark Places.) I was delighted to see that Mur­ray paid atten­tion to what I believe to be one of the more impor­tant and under­ap­pre­ci­ated satir­i­cal nov­els in black lit­er­a­ture. The main char­ac­ter of the novel, Joe Mar­ket, is the best embod­i­ment of James Baldwin’s idea (quoted ear­lier in Murray’s dis­cus­sion of Bald­win and Cleaver) that “straight cats invent fag­gots so that they can sleep with them and not become fag­gots them­selves.” Mar­ket is a hus­tler in the clas­si­cal gay sense of the term, pimp­ing him­self out to men for money, all the while main­tain­ing his own staunch het­ero­sex­u­al­ity. The porno­graphic satire that Hal Ben­nett cre­ates includes a cri­tique of the sex­ual hypocrisy and eco­nomic cor­rup­tion of the black church, the con­de­scend­ing fas­ci­na­tion of white lib­er­als with black sex­u­al­ity, and the sex­u­ally charged nature of the cul­ture of racial seg­re­ga­tion in gen­eral. Unfor­tu­nately, Murray’s analy­sis of Lord of Dark Places is too brief (for my tastes at least), but it is encour­ag­ing to see the novel slowly being reap­praised by lit­er­ary critics.

Last, but cer­tainly not least, is Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black Amer­i­can Intel­lec­tual by the GC’s own Robert Reid-Pharr. In Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties, his famous study of nation­al­ism, Bene­dict Ander­son sug­gested that a “Coper­ni­can spirit” is nec­es­sary to dis­rupt and dis­man­tle nation­al­is­tic think­ing. Reid-Pharr takes up that chal­lenge with Once You Go Black by tak­ing aim at some of the most sacro­sanct notions in Black Nation­al­ist thought. Chief among Reid-Pharr’s inter­ven­tions is a direct con­fronta­tion with the idea that mod­ern black Amer­i­cans are essen­tially the same per­sons as those black Amer­i­cans who were enslaved under chat­tel slav­ery. Instead, Reid-Pharr insists upon his own moder­nity as a black intel­lec­tual, as well as the moder­nity of the con­tem­po­rary black Amer­i­can com­mu­nity as a whole. Suf­fice to say you won’t find appeals to repa­ra­tions or “post-traumatic slave dis­or­der” in this book.

One of the most provoca­tive chap­ters in the book is “Saint Huey” an eval­u­a­tion of the life and career of Huey New­ton, co-founder of the Black Pan­ther Party. The cover of Once You Go Black is adorned with a strik­ing domes­tic photo of Huey New­ton stand­ing in his apart­ment, shirt­less and look­ing well-chiseled and buff, wear­ing white pants, hold­ing a copy of Bob Dylan’s High­way 61 Revis­ited. The photo is meant to be a jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion to the more famous image of Huey New­ton (one that has adorned many a black col­lege dorm-room wall) seated on a huge wicker chair decked out in black leather jacket and beret with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. In the chap­ter Reid-Pharr effec­tively argues that any seri­ous analy­sis of the Black Pan­ther Party’s sig­nif­i­cance must take into account the care­fully crafted self-presentation and images of the orga­ni­za­tion. Newton’s dash­ing good looks were a cul­tural cur­rency uti­lized by the Party, as were their famous images of defi­ant black­ness rep­re­sented by black sun­glasses, black berets, black leather jack­ets and afros.

This empha­sis on “style” in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics became even more preva­lent in the 1970s when “black con­scious­ness” entered the Amer­i­can main­stream. Nowhere was the power of style seen more clearly than in the so-called blax­ploita­tion films of the 1970s. In the last chap­ter, “Queer Sweet­back,” Reid-Pharr ana­lyzes Melvin Van Peebles’s ground­break­ing film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). This film, like much of the blax­ploita­tion cin­ema that fol­lowed it, was all about style and spec­ta­cle, and Reid-Pharr makes much of the fact that the main char­ac­ter, Sweet­back, only speaks six lines through­out the whole movie. While Reid-Pharr doesn’t spend much time dis­cussing con­tem­po­rary hip-hop, one can see how hip-hop’s defi­ant pos­ture evolved out of blax­ploita­tion era film by way of the black power move­ment, and thus we end up with a pop­u­lar cul­tural art-form that is almost all style and emp­tied of much of its polit­i­cal sub­stance. Per­haps my favorite rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this phe­nom­e­non was Pub­lic Enemy’s quick-stepping drill team which adopted the look of the Pan­thers (sun­glasses and berets) and the intim­i­dat­ing pose of the Nation’s Fruit of Islam, but with none of the actual self-defense skills and train­ing. They are clearly trained dancers on stage for show. While I find some gen­uine cre­ativ­ity in Pub­lic Enemy’s sound and I respect Chuck D’s polit­i­cal sin­cer­ity in recent years, it’s hard to take “Fight the Power” seri­ously when one knows the rights to such a song are owned and dis­trib­uted by some multi­na­tional media con­glom­er­ate. (And, need­less to say, the embar­rass­ment that is Fla­vor Flav pretty much speaks for itself these days.)

It is worth not­ing that two of the reviewed authors here, Reid-Pharr and Ross, are self-identified gay men who have announced them­selves as such in their work. (I can assume that Rol­land Mur­ray is straight, from the acknowl­edge­ments to his wife and chil­dren in the book, but that is only an assump­tion.) Read­ers famil­iar with other works on black mas­culin­ity stud­ies will notice a pre­pon­der­ance of works in the field by and about gay men. The GCs Africana Stud­ies Group recently hosted a suc­cess­ful con­fer­ence on Black Mas­culin­ity in 2005, and I heard through the gos­sip grapevine that the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of openly gay men in the con­fer­ence did not go unno­ticed by some detrac­tors. This brings up one of my own pet peeves about the polit­i­cal dis­course around black mas­culin­ity, that it seems no black achieve­ment is con­sid­ered legit­i­mate unless it is car­ried out by het­ero­sex­ual black men. Sure, there is con­cern when we see high incar­cer­a­tion rates and lack­adaisi­cal atti­tudes toward black father­hood. But too much of the rhetoric around the sta­tis­tics that more black women grad­u­ate from col­lege than black men strikes me as so much Moyni­hanism, and it unfor­tu­nately triv­i­al­izes the gen­uine achieve­ments of black women. Like­wise, we would also do well to acknowl­edge that the black pool of genius has been pop­u­lated with many les­bians and gay men and that their con­tri­bu­tions shouldn’t be marked with an asterisk.

Near the end of Once You Go Black, Robert Reid-Pharr writes, “We should not con­tinue with the logic in which there is no dis­tinc­tion between the enslaved body and the body that now par­tic­i­pates in the writ­ing of these lines.” Clearly, such a state­ment is fraught with trou­bling impli­ca­tions and I sus­pect it will be met with a great deal of resis­tance as the book makes its way through aca­d­e­mic cir­cles. One of the real chal­lenges of the book is that Reid-Pharr’s rejec­tion of victim-hood sounds dan­ger­ously sim­i­lar to the rhetoric of cul­tural con­ser­vatism. (Case in point, the title of Bill Cosby’s lat­est screed: Come On Peo­ple: On the Path from Vic­tims to Vic­tors.) Yet, what I find most com­pelling about Once You Go Black is that it is a deeply local and deeply eth­i­cal book and Reid-Pharr is will­ing to risk the mis­un­der­stand­ing in order to insist on the impor­tance of black polit­i­cal agency. There is a refresh­ing hon­esty in the way Reid-Pharr directs his com­ments toward read­ers who are most likely to pick up the book – aca­d­e­mic and non-academic intel­lec­tu­als who are con­cerned with black and queer stud­ies – rather than pos­tur­ing toward some myth­i­cal mass audi­ence of street-corner read­ers. Like­wise, Reid-Pharr is con­cerned with announc­ing his own posi­tion – as a pro­fes­sional aca­d­e­mic intel­lec­tual, as a black gay man, as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen – as hon­estly as pos­si­ble. Reid-Pharr uses the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the black Amer­i­can intel­lec­tual con­di­tion to sug­gest pos­si­bil­i­ties for a more pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tual prac­tice at this crit­i­cal polit­i­cal moment. Once You Go Black is very much a post-9/11 book, par­tic­u­larly in Reid-Pharr’s analy­sis of “inno­cence” in polit­i­cal dis­course, con­sid­er­ing that “America’s fas­ci­na­tion with its own pre­sumed inno­cence has become part and par­cel of the many appa­ra­tuses with which our coun­try jus­ti­fies and enacts its dom­i­nance and vio­lence.” What is at stake in his book, and in the oth­ers reviewed in this essay, is a reeval­u­a­tion not just of the his­tory of black mas­culin­ity and Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics, but of the ethics of intel­lec­tual prac­tice itself.

Categories
New York

Ft. Greene

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn this week.  I am leading a tour of Ft. Greene for the first time tomorrow and I’ve been scrambling to get up to speed on 200 years of history and architecture in the past two weeks.  Sometimes I feel like I put more way more time into this job than its worth.  But I hate the feeling of giving a bad tour, so for the sake of my own sanity I always try to do the best I can each time out.  Its been a struggle to stay focused on this one.  Its a tour that I probably won’t be giving very often, and I’m having to psyche myself up for giving a damn about all the minutiae.

Studying for this tour was a good excuse to revisit Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it, and I finally watched it again last night.  Much of the film was shot in and around Ft. Greene.  The flag for Spike’s 40 Acres and a Mule production company still hangs on the building where it was once headquartered.  It is a scheduled stop in our tour script, so I’ll say a word or two about it.  Here’s one of the most distinctive scenes of the film, shot next to the Prison Ship Martyr’s monument in Ft. Greene Park.

Next week its back to more academic fiction and the university.  I’ve got a couple of items in the queue I’ve been wanting to write about (including the dreadful news of Wal-Mart getting into the for-profit college industry).  Its been interesting learning about Ft. Greene, and its about time I finally led a Brooklyn tour, being a Brooklyn resident and all.  But I’ll be glad to be done with this so I can get it out of my head and get on to other things.

Categories
Books New York

The Sport of the Gods

“After it is all over, after he has passed through the first pangs of strangeness and homesickness, yes, even after he has got beyond the stranger’s enthusiasm for the metropolis, the real fever of love for the place will begin to take hold upon him.  The subtle, insidious wine of New York will begin to intoxicate him.  Then, if he be wise, he will go away, any place, – yes, he will even go over to Jersey.  But if he be a fool, he will stay and stay on until the town becomes all in all to him; until the very streets are his chums and certain buildings and corners his best friends.  Then he is hopeless, and to live elsewhere would be death.  The Bowery will be his romance, Broadway his lyric, and the Park his pastoral, the river and the glory of it all his epic, and he will look down pityingly on all the rest of humanity.”  – Paul Laurence Dunbar The Sport of the Gods (1902)

The above quote appears in Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods, just as young Joe Hamilton and his family have moved from their home in the South and settled in New York.  The passage instantly became one of my favorite literary descriptions of what it means to live in New York, and how the city has a way of insinuating itself into your bones.

I had never read Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods before a few days ago, and had never seriously read Dunbar at all.  (I know, I know, shameful for someone getting a PhD in English and specializing in black literature.)  William Andrews provides an informative introduction to the novel in the Signet Classic edition.  I didn’t realize that this was Dunbar’s last work, or that he had died so young (at the age of 33 from tuberculosis in 1906).

The novel is a captivating story about the Hamiltons, a Southern black family who suffers a grave injustice when the hardworking devoted family patriarch, Berry Hamilton, is accused of stealing money from Maurice Oakley, the white landowner for whom they worked.   When Berry is thrown in jail, the rest of his family is shamed and ostracized from their community, and unable to  find any work because of Berry’s conviction.  Eventually they give up and decide to move to New York City and start a new life.

Sport of the Gods is in itself an early document of the “great migration” of blacks from the South to Northern cities beginning around the turn of the century.  As a novel about New York, it is a compelling snapshot of  pre-Harlem black life.  It is set in “the Tenderloin,” the district of Midtown Manhattan where some black New Yorkers settled in the mid to late 1800s.  As a naturalist novel it illustrates the legal and cultural grip that white supremacy had on the lives of blacks in the North and South, and shows how racism polluted the consciousness of black and white America alike. And in its darker moments the novel foreshadows the plague of violence and despair that would riddle black inner cities throughout the 20th century.

I’ve avoided Dunbar’s writing in the past, mainly because dialect writing has never really appealed to me.  I’ve found it laborious to wade through all the phonetic representations of black English.  (That’s one reason why I’ve never been all that fond of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God either.) However, reading Sport of the Gods I can see why Dunbar is considered a master of the style.  I could recognize some of those country pronunciations from my own Southern upbringing, and I was impressed with his ability to convey them into written English.  That said, I wonder how the book would read to someone who does not have that context.  (This is always a concern for the teacher of literature.  How will students respond to a text without the cultural background and/or extensive reading experience that makes novels pleasurable for us as literary scholars?)

All in all, I’m glad I took the time to knock this “classic” off my embarrassing list of books I should have read a long time ago.

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Books New York

Dark Reflections

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate, September 2007.)

 

darkreflections

Dark Reflec­tions (Car­roll & Graff, 2007)

Samuel R. Delany’s lat­est novel Dark Reflec­tions is a beau­ti­ful, heart­break­ing book writ­ten by one of the most pro­lific and con­sis­tently engag­ing Amer­i­can writ­ers work­ing today. Though no longer writ­ing in the sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy gen­res in which he made his name as a young lit­er­ary prodigy, Delany (now 65-years old) con­tin­ues to turn out cap­ti­vat­ing fiction.

One of the most con­sis­tently “fan­tas­tic” ele­ments of Delany’s early Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fan­tasy nov­els and sto­ries was his pen­chant for plac­ing artists in esteemed posi­tions in their respec­tive soci­eties, wher­ever their loca­tion in time and space. Dark Reflec­tions, how­ever, gets down to “real­ity” as Delany fol­lows the strug­gles of Arnold Haw­ley, a black, gay poet (and, it bears men­tion­ing in this par­tic­u­lar organ, an under­paid adjunct writ­ing teacher) in his 60s liv­ing in the East Vil­lage of the early twenty-first cen­tury. The novel tells Hawley’s story in three non-chronological parts. The first sec­tion, “The Prize,” finds the aging poet in New York work­ing on an eighth book of poems as the twen­ti­eth cen­tury slips into the twenty-first. The sec­ond sec­tion, “Vashti in the Dark,” is set in the 1970s and tells the story of his dis­as­trous, short-lived mar­riage to a young white street girl he meets in Tomp­kins Square Park. The last sec­tion, “The Book of Pic­tures,” goes back to explore Arnold’s col­lege days in Boston where he begins his first adult homo­sex­ual explo­rations with a black deliv­ery boy. In the dev­as­tat­ing con­clu­sion of the novel, when a coin­ci­dence forces him to revisit that (aborted) encounter in Boston, he real­izes things were not as they seemed and is forced to reckon with a life­time of missed opportunities.

Though Delany has never pub­lished any poetry of his own, he is an accom­plished poetry critic (his essay “Atlantis Rose,” in the col­lec­tion Longer Views, is among the best crit­i­cism on Hart Crane), and his won­drously ecsta­tic and exquis­ite prose style often bleeds into the poetic. Dark Reflec­tions finds him putting his knowl­edge and love for poetry to fine use in telling the story of Arnold Haw­ley.

Delany is metic­u­lous in the socio-historical details sur­round­ing Arnold Hawley’s life, and Haw­ley seems to have a knack for miss­ing out on the momen­tous events and move­ments of his life­time. He is in touch with the black poetic tra­di­tion, but unmoved by the mil­i­tancy of Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics, and when he becomes a teacher he is increas­ingly irri­tated by his stu­dents’ pig-headed insis­tence on cap­i­tal­iz­ing the word black. Arnold does hang out with some friends at the Stonewall Inn when he moves to New York City (before the 1969 riots that made the bar famous), but he remains indif­fer­ent to the gay lib­er­a­tion move­ment, see­ing it as a cel­e­bra­tion of the embar­rass­ing and unsa­vory aspects of gay life. In the 1980s he never fully par­tic­i­pates in the com­mu­nal griev­ing and out­rage of the AIDS epi­demic. (It is only by acci­dent that he dis­cov­ers a for­mer friend of his died of AIDS.) Even the rit­ual bond­ing over the trauma of Sep­tem­ber 11th is lost to him: he doesn’t own a tele­vi­sion and spent the day at home by him­self, not know­ing any­thing was out of sorts until the next morn­ing when he goes out to the cor­ner bodega.

If that descrip­tion sounds like Arnold is a lonely man, he most cer­tainly is – in his per­sonal and his artis­tic life. He does have a few friends, but Arnold has pur­pose­fully resisted being drawn in to any par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal camps or artis­tic move­ments in the name of artis­tic indi­vid­u­al­ity. As Delany puts it, “his lonely and ascetic prin­ci­ple was: art is the one human enter­prise in which, when you are doing what every­one else does, you are doing some­thing wrong” (278). Arnold is also extra­or­di­nar­ily sen­si­tive to crit­i­cism. His overly pro­tec­tive atti­tude towards his book-length prose poem, High Toned Hom­i­lies With Their Gun­wales All Sub­merged, bor­ders on the tragi­comic. Arnold pride­fully counts the pub­li­ca­tion of this chal­leng­ing, exper­i­men­tal work as a styl­is­tic coup, but he is wounded by two unsym­pa­thetic pub­lished reviews and a cou­ple of harm­lessly mis­guided com­ments at pub­lic read­ings and soon gives up on try­ing to pro­mote it. Arnold’s frag­ile ego even begins to beg the ques­tion; how did some­one so sen­si­tive to the wounds of crit­i­cism and rejec­tion last even this long? Delany doesn’t force a firm moral judg­ment on Hawley’s deci­sions to remain iso­lated, but there’s no ques­tion that Arnold’s timid life is full of missed opportunities.

More­over, when he does take risks things seem to go wildly awry. The mid­dle sec­tion of the novel, “Vashti in the Dark,” tells of Hawley’s dis­as­trously short-lived mar­riage to Judy Hain­del, a young white street girl he meets in Tomp­kins Square Park, where Arnold goes from time to time to sit, read, and write. Judy knows Arnold is gay from the start and she actively encour­ages him to go out and exper­i­ment with men. How­ever, the impul­sive mar­i­tal exper­i­ment ends trau­mat­i­cally, and their rela­tion­ship is among the most mem­o­rable sequences in the book. For Arnold, the whole affair inspires one of his more suc­cess­ful poetry col­lec­tions (also titled Dark Reflec­tions). The last sec­tion of the novel is a return in time to his col­lege days in Boston. One day Arnold meets a mus­cu­lar young black deliv­ery boy named Slake Bow­man who tries to seduce him. Arnold rejects his advances, but later tracks Slake down again to resume the encounter. Arnold is shocked by what he finds when he finally meets Slake and his white lover Joey, and it causes him to lit­er­ally run away from them. Later in life, and near the end of the book, he comes across a bit of stray infor­ma­tion linked to the two men, and the sledge­ham­mer of a con­clu­sion forces him to recon­fig­ure his inter­pre­ta­tion of Slake and Joey and recon­sider the deci­sions he has made over the course of his own life.

Arnold Haw­ley is among Delany’s most reserved main char­ac­ters, defy­ing the usual expec­ta­tions of porno­graphic excess and brazen sex­ual explo­ration in Delany nov­els. In par­tic­u­lar he stands in stark con­trast to John Marr, the black gay phi­los­o­phy stu­dent in The Mad Man (1994) who dives head­first into Manhattan’s sex­ual under­world of pub­lic parks and porn the­aters. Arnold is so timid that on my first read­ing of this novel his naiveté seemed almost implau­si­ble. On the sec­ond pass I real­ized that he was, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons here and there, just all too will­ing to retreat from con­fronta­tion and explo­ration out of fear, which is usu­ally jus­ti­fied by the belief that one is pre­serv­ing a sense of com­fort and safety. Arnold is also, like so many pre-Stonewall gay men, a vic­tim of the gross mis­in­for­ma­tion about homo­sex­u­al­ity in his time. (When he is young, a doc­tor tells him that at most, one in five thou­sand men might be stricken with the “dis­ease,” and that there are no doc­u­mentable cases of Negro homo­sex­u­al­ity at all!) The best thing we can say about Arnold is that, unlike David in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, at least he isn’t cruel, self­ish or manip­u­la­tive in his sex­ual uncer­tainty. I wanted to write “con­fu­sion” to end that sen­tence, but Arnold isn’t really con­fused about his sex­u­al­ity. He knows, and even­tu­ally accepts, that he is gay, but he has resigned him­self to also accept the social lim­i­ta­tions that come with it

Delany’s pen­chant for mate­ri­al­ity is always at work in his writ­ing, always present in his razor sharp atten­tion to the mun­dane eco­nomic details of life (no doubt attrib­ut­able to his old school Marx­ist lean­ings). You never lack to know where his character’s meals are com­ing from and how their rent is get­ting paid. For Haw­ley it is only an untenured adjunct teach­ing job at the fic­tional Staten Island State Uni­ver­sity that keeps him afloat. In fact, when con­fronted with the pos­si­bil­ity of los­ing that job, and hear­ing about the death of his Aunt Bea (who raised him after his par­ents died in a house fire), Arnold has a ner­vous break­down that finds him spend­ing four days in fright­ened, naked abjec­tion on the rooftop of his East Vil­lage walkup, not want­ing to suf­fer the mis­ery, shame, and humil­i­a­tion of being evicted from his apart­ment. Haw­ley, con­tem­plat­ing that break­down later says, “A poet under thirty crack­ing up had a roman­tic tinge. (Isn’t that what Plath and Sex­ton had lived – and died – off of?) A pudgy black man, well over sixty, los­ing his grip for a cou­ple of months, even if he had pub­lished seven books of poems, was pathetic” (53).

Dark Reflec­tions is, among many other things, a novel about the expe­ri­ence of grow­ing old. We are wit­ness to Arnold’s dete­ri­o­rat­ing body in a vari­ety of details. He is plagued with assorted pains and ail­ments, and is grow­ing more self-conscious about how his age is recon­fig­ur­ing his social life, phys­i­cal mobil­ity and artis­tic ambi­tions. We observe his increas­ing emo­tional and phys­i­cal fragility when he twice finds him­self cry­ing, once from the emo­tional sting of an awk­ward encounter with a hot-shot young poet, and once from a cough­ing episode on the sub­way that causes his eyes to water and forces him to sit down and even­tu­ally miss his stop. As he col­lects him­self and leaves the sta­tion one stop beyond his des­ti­na­tion he says, “it isn’t fair. When you get this old, every lit­tle thing makes you cry. It just isn’t fair…” (99).

Lest this all sound too somber and fore­bod­ing, there still are moments of plea­sure and joy in his life as a writer. When he is able to work on and com­plete poems it puts him back in touch with the love of lan­guage that led him to poetry in the first place. Arnold is an astute lit­er­ary scholar and bib­lio­phile, and Dark Reflec­tions is full of delight­ful moments of cul­tural and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. At the end of the day he is a work­ing poet, and despite the poverty and the paucity of crit­i­cal atten­tion, he can at least rel­ish the vic­tory of hav­ing made a life for him­self in the world of poetry, which is no small matter.

Delany’s nov­els always bear some points of con­tact with the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Char­ac­ters, loca­tions, episodes, and themes in his fic­tion often over­lap with the exten­sive and copi­ous mem­oirs, anec­dotes, open let­ters, and auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essays he has pub­lished over the years. (And yes, the novel does con­tain the stan­dard descrip­tion of char­ac­ters’ hands and bit­ten nails, one of Delany’s own well-documented fetishes.) Delany’s con­stant self-representation in his work, like a lit­er­ary Woody Allen, feels wholly unique and unprece­dented in Amer­i­can let­ters. He is every bit as poignant and exhil­a­rat­ing describ­ing the quo­tid­ian life of an old poet as he was describ­ing the lives of ambi­tious young artists and intel­lec­tu­als in his ear­lier fic­tion. It is only fair to spec­u­late that he is draw­ing on expe­ri­ence in his pen­e­trat­ing depic­tions of aging, com­ing to terms with mor­tal­ity, and the sticky ter­ri­tory of “lit­er­ary reputation.”

Delany has often repeated the apho­rism, attrib­uted to Robert Graves, that “all true poems are about love, death or the chang­ing of the sea­sons,” and the quote fit­tingly re-appears in Dark Reflec­tions. Delany doesn’t offer up any easy solu­tions to Arnold Hawley’s dilem­mas. He sim­ply describes, with inten­sity, com­pas­sion and unflinch­ing hon­esty, the con­tours of one man’s life, love, pas­sions and regrets.

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Black Man in the Cosmos

“If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!” – Jonathan Swift

Welcome to Black Man in the Cosmos.  This is a little blog I decided to set up to share some of my writings and works in progress.

I have tried blogging before, mainly through livejournal, but for various reasons it just didn’t stick.  However, over the last couple of years I have been collecting ideas for how I wanted to set up my own online presence.   I’d like this be a venue to post writings that I have already published in other places, and to share original essays that I am working on.

Props where props are due:  A big inspiration for this blog is Steven Shaviro’s wonderful blog The Pinocchio Theory.  Shaviro’s writing has encouraged me to think more about the convergence of digital technology, pop culture and political economy.  I also think his blog is exemplary in the way he has used online writing as a supplement to the painfully slow and outmoded process of traditional academic publishing.

One of the things that has irritated me about blogs is that older posts and conversations tend to fall off into oblivion and are difficult to retrieve through cumbersome archive or calendar functions. It was important to me that my blog be searchable for easy access to older posts.   My hope is that people who come to this blog will find things of interest here whether they were posted that day or six months ago.

As for the title:  That’s from Sun Ra.  A few years ago I watched the documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, and have been swept up in Mr. Ra’s Cosmo Drama ever since.  In 1971 Sun Ra was invited to teach a course at University of California-Berkley and called it The Black Man in the Cosmos.  Between my interest in Sun Ra, avant-garde jazz, science fiction and academia it just seemed to fit.  Maybe I’ll feel differently and change it somewhere down the road, if this thing works out.

So my plans for the future:

I think I will start out by posting some previously published articles I’ve written, particularly several that have appeared in the GC Advocate, the student newspaper at the CUNY Graduate Center.

I also plan to post short reviews of things I’ve been reading for my dissertation which is about academic novels, and the history of American higher education.

Alright, so that’s enough in the way of introduction.  Let’s just get this thing started.  More to come soon…