“Why have black women so often stood at the forefront of such protests? Behind this history may be the lingering legacies of the sassy Sapphire and the mouthy Mammy. These stereotypes, historically used to justify our oppression, cast us as angry, loud, pushy and overassertive. Part of the work of black feminism has been to reclaim these negative attributes and reframe them as positive sources of women’s autonomy and empowerment. Black women can reinterpret “pushy” as “one who speaks truth to power” and use it as a source of strength.” —Ms. Blog, Barbara McCaskill
Posts tagged race.
“I don’t see myself as a black woman artist, but I am an artist who is a black woman. There are moments when I feel political injustice, and I express these feelings in my art. And I have other moments when I’m not angry, when I’m thinking about my family, about my daughter or my lover or God. Or I’m trying to work out the logistics in my own personal life. I don’t see one subject as more important than the other, but even that’s political, isn’t it? Personal politics? Sexual politics?”
—Pat Ward Williams, in an interview with Moira Roth and Portia Cobbs
Within critically-conscious circles the issue of humor is always made salient. Generally, humor has the power to be transformative and redemptive: by providing an alternative way of addressing, understanding, and looking at the manifold issues we encounter in our day-to-day lives, humor possesses the qualities needed to raise-awareness to and subvert the status quo. It allows us to critique and assess problems and questions in easily-digestible, less-aggressive an overt ways—in ways that defy traditional and colloquial notions of activism and political revolt.
David Foster Wallace, in an interview on his novel Infinite Jest, talks about the role humor plays in literature. He quotes Lichtenstein who believes that “the most serious and profound problems and questions and issues could be addressed only in the form of jokes.” In “U.S Lit,” Wallace notes the tradition of “black humor,” sardonic, dark, almost sinister humor. Dark Humor as a literary tradition has the power of forming subversive critiques of dark and serious issues by highlighting the extreme, severe nature of injustice, pain, and agony, rendering them down to something laughable, and forcing us to grapple with the inherent dissonance between the two feelings and responses. Across the literary canon we can see this tradition in action, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, etc., etc. Creating this dissonance or disjunction between the in the way in which we address negative experiences and problems is most colloquially known as irony, “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Irony can be used to effectively highlight the way we cope, process, and deal with hardships—it provides temporary relief from the burden of internalizing one’s negative conditions in serious, solemn ways, and shrouds social critique under a veil of jocularity.
My problem with lazy deployments of irony and Dark Humor strongly mimics Wallace’s. In the same interview, Wallace notes “a strange situation [in the U.S] where in some respects, humor and irony are political responses and redemptive. And in another sense, particularly in popular entertainment, irony and dark humor can become a way of pretending to protest when it really isn’t”—as Wallace expounds, “the song of a bird that has come to love its cage; and even though it sings about not liking the cage it really likes it in there.” As he resolves, “it can be both a wake-up call and an anesthetic.”
Websites like Stuffwhitepeoplelike.com are hilarious in the way they expose how staples of many socio-economically stable, white, suburban cultures and their commodities rest on white and class privilege, while never once providing an alternative to the culture and ideology it supposedly critiques; whitewhine.com, similarly pokes fun at the gratuitous indulgence in problems manifest out of social privilege while never exposing how this privileged experience came about, nor how its existence is detrimental to others. This ironic critique of one’s privilege is problematic in that it’s rooted in the assumption that these issues of class, race, and gender disparity are so passe as to be mockable, and that the people mocking these issues are genuinely critically and socially aware, and concurrently, that people actually oppressed, under-resourced, and suffering should be equally comfortable relishing in the absurd socio-economic and social disparity between them and dominant classes. Effectively, this shallow, meta-ironic expose of one’s privilege disservices more than it subverts and transforms; it strips humor of its possible political function and couches it in a masturbatory self-indulgent context, and dictates to marginalized, disserviced, and oppressed the ways in which we ought to critique structural divides in our society, which, more often than not, are perpetuated most strongly by the dominant classes; it renders humor a buffer that protects us from having to critically self-reflect both on ourselves and society.
I strongly disagree with the idea that the people largely responsible for perpetuating negative mythologies about the inner-workings of oppression and manipulated discursive power (i.e: white, upper-middle class, male, cisgender, straight people) should have sole license to dictate the terms under which their oppressive regime should be addressed and understood. How about we empower the people who’ve historically been denied the right to challenge their experiences to lambast the structural divides that silence, marginalize, and oppress them, and create a climate in which it’s equally acceptable to do so through humor, anger, critique, and genuine dialogue. Let’s not let the dominant class yet again control the ways language can be used and understood; let’s provoke actual social change by a genuine—or at least fully responsible reflection and attack on the status quo.
(For Wallace’s Interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ggtt7cODZd0)
Every aware black person who has been the “only” in an all-white setting knows that in such a position we are often called upon to lend an ear to racist narratives, to laugh at corny race jokes, to undergo various forms of racist harassment. And that self-segregation seems to be particularly intense among those black college students who were often raised in material privilege in predominately white settings where they were socialized to believe racism did not exist, that we are all “just human beings,” and then suddenly leave home and enter institutions and experience racist attacks. To a great extent they are unprepared to confront and challenge white racism, and often seek the comfort of just being with other blacks.
Despite civil rights struggle, the 1960s’ black power movement, and the power of slogans like “black is beautiful,” masses of black people continue to be socialized via mass media and non progressive educational systems to internalize white supremacist thoughts and values. Without ongoing resistance struggle and progressive black liberation movements for self-determination, masses of black people (and everyone else) have no alternative worldview that affirms and celebrates blackness. Rituals of affirmation (celebrating black history, holidays, etc.) do not intervene on white supremacist socialization if they exist apart from active anti-racist struggle that seeks to transform society.
Since so many black folks have succumbed to the post-1960s notion that material success is more important than personal integrity, struggles for black self-determination that emphasize decolonization, loving blackness, have had little impact. As long as black folks are taught that the only way we can gain any degree of economic self-sufficiency or be materially privileged is by first rejecting blackness, our history and culture, then there will always be a crisis in black identity. Internalized racism will continue to erode collective struggle for self-determination.
Masses of black children will continue to suffer from low self-esteem. And even though they may be motivated to strive harder to achieve success because they want to overcome feelings of inadequacy and lack, those successes will be undermined by the persistence of low self-esteem.
A culture of domination demands of all its citizens self-negation. The more marginalized, the more intense the demand. Since black people, especially the underclass, are bombarded by messages that we have no value, are worthless, it is no wonder that we fall prey to nihilistic despair or forms of addiction that provide momentary escape, illusions of grandeur, and temporary freedom from the pain of facing reality. In his essay “Healing the Heart of Justice,” written for a special issue of Creation Spirituality highlighting the work of Howard Thurman, Victor Lewis shares his understanding of the profound traumatic impact of internalized oppression and addiction on black life. He concludes:
“To value ourselves rightly, infinitely, released from shame and self-rejection, implies knowing that we are claimed by the totality of life. To share in a loving community and vision that magnifies our strength and banishes fear and despair, here, we find the solid ground from which justice can flow like a mighty stream. Here, we find the fire that burns away the confusion that oppression heaped upon us during our childhood weakness. Here, we can see what needs to be done and find the strength to do it. To value ourselves rightly. To love one another. This is to heal the heart of justice.”
We cannot value ourselves rightly without flrst breaking through the walls of denial which hide the depth of black self-hatred, inner anguish, and unreconciled pain.
I’ve recently found myself reinvesting in my engagement with Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based experimental and afrofuturist hip-hop collective led by Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets. My re-interest was sparked by their recently released music video for the song “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt),” which explores the ways in which our responses to feelings—physical, emotional and intellectual—are overshadowed by a repressive culture. In the first verse Butler raps, “my body traveled/ my mind waits behind the music,”—the physical way in which he engages with the world takes precedence over the way he can intellectualize and abstract it—and later on he states how an “Old school cat from way back” asked him “how he float[s] all sharp and always [has] a fresh one/ and seem to know the answer to the most proverbial questions,” to which Butler replies, “I find the diamonds underneath the subtlest inflections/ Aw, dude/ the spicier the food/ when you chew, fuck they roofs/ it’s a feeling.” Butler articulates the ways his poise, praxis and ideology come from a deepened appreciation and indulgence of his emotional processes. Undercutting the song itself is a bass-driven pulse; in the music video, synchronized with this bass-line, are quick flashes of bright, kaleidoscopic patterns, images of flowers and colors, all evocating the pulchritude of life manifest in isolated, framed bits and daily drama. Butler’s harnessed that pulchritude and made it his own, both as an act of political, but also artistic, social, and cultural rebellion. Whittling away the bullshit exigencies of modern life—anxiety-inducing time-restraints, the capitalistic drive to succeed and materialize a parochial, goal-driven self, pressures of conformity and depersonalizing communalism—is a herculean feat of which Shabazz exudes complete and total mastery—a mastery of emotional expression. It’s the ubiquitous pulse of the tactile and visceral—the blood surging underneath the concrete and spurting to the surface to reach your feet when your bare soles press against the burning hot asphalt—made aural and sonic. His integrity is admirable.
A few weeks ago, a friend who I hadn’t seen since returning from holiday and I had dinner, shared a drink, and caught up. We reminisced and dwelled on a mutual state of weirdness. Our fairly large friend group, though still physically intact, is symbolically fractured; we’re both braced for winter; our workloads are on one hand engaging, and on the other completely alienating and uninspiring. No longer is either of us interested in pursuing the same kinds of enjoyable yet completely emotionally and intellectually unsatisfying relationships we felt pressure to maintain last term. With the isolation of winter vacation came introspection and a healthy bit of metanoia, a concomitant of being both an angst-ridden, educated teenager as well as a critically engaged citizen. With freshness comes breaking away from the old: “Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.” Our cages are the stifling limitations of a pseudo-liberal intellectual environment, the yoke of defying racial stereotypes, the expectations of our parents, the expectations we place on ourselves. Expectation loaded with cultural stigma is the progenitor to self-doubt: its motive is neutralizing, anesthetizing, and, further, silencing.
This isn’t news. The manifest realities of systems of oppression are and have been—at least on their most cursory levels—hammered into the minds of most moderately educated liberal youths since the post-Civil Rights era. The lingering effects of those systems of power persist through the day to day interactions I and my friend have with our peers, from subtle micro-aggressions to flat-out confrontational and heated debates about the role of subversion in humor, what constitutes a genuine friendship, what true respect looks like. The casing of a seed that houses inequity and feelings of exclusion can’t benefit growth inasmuch as it can engender feelings of neglect and displacement. The prospect of breaking through that casing in the hopes of maintaining some strong sense of self uncompromised by fear is as feasible, in a depersonalized respect, as ridding one’s self of other poisons and hindrances like cigarettes for addicts and excessively checking locks for obsessive-compulsives. But we know it’s not that easy and Augustinian. Our feelings precede our desires to intellectualize at the risk of alienating. We can’t depersonalize and objectify our feelings and thoughts in the same we that any non-sociopathic person can willingly shut off their emotional or cognitive registers. We are not only empathic, but deeply felt creatures; feelings, of all kinds, resonate throughout our ontology.
And that itself is the rub: the burning itch of emotionality. The underlying politics and implications of that idea are harrowing. If I myself have been bruised by the confines of my surroundings, both internalizing and harboring their affects and impacts within me—my gait, visage, as well as my general disposition—how can I not bring a politicized emotional intensity to everything with which I engage? To what extent is it healthy to maintain and cultivate an identity that is, by its very nature, alienating? And to what extent is that sort of ontological intimidation simply an easy excuse to preventing multifarious forms of relationships and experiences? How is it that I, a black male of non-normative gender expression and behavior, who is, for all extents and purposes, politically aggressive, and who is, on the same hand, deeply connected to the people and world around me, am both repulsed by the idea of denying myself an emotional and intellectual integrity for the sake of ingratiating myself into a dominant, normative ranking, and horrified by the reality that such a praxis necessitates that I alienate and necessarily dispossess myself from others? How to fit within a paradox: to both dismantle the casing and allow the seed to grow from within, as well as outside of it.
“If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they probably will not survive.”
A week ago, for Martin Luther King Day, a friend and I organized an event for my dorm floor in which we discussed and addressed issues of race, inequality and discrimination, both in terms of their historical narratives as well as their modern day relevancy. The aim of the night was to observe the legacy and influence of a man and movement that fashioned a positive trend in America’s racial relations.
Framing the discussion were reminders of the rebarbative nature of micro-aggression, white privilege, and oblivion to the historically informed gravity such a day has as part of an ongoing narrative in American discourse: the casual way in which one floor-mate reduced the potence of King’s effectiveness down to what she called “a day for black people”; how the floor of one dormitory across campus concocted a celebration of the day by eating chicken and waffles; how one peer remarked on how she may have transcended the need to learn about, discuss, and challenge her own preconceptions about race because she grew up in a liberal, though remarkably racially and socio-economically stratified city; irreverence fashioned by arrogance. It had hardly peaked 1PM and the day had rasped at my consciousness. I was reminded of the role of loaded-for-bear, militant, one-man salvo I felt obligated to assume as a tenth grader coming into consciousness of pervasive manifestations of oppression and discrimination, from the more blatant and obvious displays—a black vehicle carrying a car of strangers who spat, at a confused teenager definitely too old to be trick-or-treating but chose to do it anyway, with as much as vitriol as they could muster, all the bite and verve they could accurately slew in my direction while driving thirty-five miles per hour, the word that floated in my unconscious as a specter of a not so distant past of hatred, but one that often haunts, “Nigger”—to the more subtle and structural. All racked within less than six hours.
The day was another notch in the genealogy of my coming-into a positive racial identity. It brought me back to Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” No expectations. No threats of claims of affirmative action. No burden of representation. No diffidence masquerading as self-confidence. What it means to be black—Black. Not black-wan-lusterless like faded jeans, obsidian, coal-stones, the shat entrails of a carbon life that once was. But black like cosmic, vast, the unperceivable darkness that exists at the far-corner of an unlit bedroom, black like the vacuum of space, sharp, unfettering, infinite like absence. Pellucid. Unmistakably sharp and clear like a fricative “eff” segued into intent “fuck you.”
I recently read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech entitled “This is Water.” Crudely boiled down, it’s about the extent to which our default registers of perception worship a reality that sets us up to fail, to feel disappointed, to feel unfulfilled, to, as Wallace tacitly suggests, die a multitude of deaths before we’ve been buried. We can free ourselves from that reality, we can choose to prioritize attention and awareness and discipline, to “care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” We can choose to, in Wallace’s terms, “de-center ourselves.” And at those times when I can feel myself casually reclining into my desk chair and simultaneously into a mild fit of sadness—when I feel a splitting headache creeping in—a deeper recline—overwhelmed, distant, eyelids sagging, head tilting back—I can choose to imagine and construct a time and place and world in which the kaleidoscopic light emitted from the Swarovski-crystal ornaments on the living room end tables of my Aunt’s country estate refracts inimitably against the brass neck of the table’s lampshade, then splays itself deliberately against the windows at the back end of the living room—a bricolage of light and color: the soft-fulvous underside of a ripe peach, opiate-violets, the tawniness of worn-in leather, assaulting yellow, ingenuously optimistic blue, maternal green, colors too often suppressed under the lithesome choux-film threshold between the perceptible and unperceivable register. Or perhaps a world in which the facial tick of one of my best friends—the beautifully subtle way the right side of her upper lip tweaks upwards when she smiles, a simper comprised of what could be the prototypical definition of naif exuberance suffused with post-coital jolly—is magnified and always salient. A world in which the air is always lightly salted.
It is always there, innocent prisoner to a numbness that mantles. I can sit here, eyes now fully closed, lost in Panglossian infiniteness—the quiet comfort of the not-present—let out an acrid, resolved sigh, and indulge in a humbled state. I can choose that—this—reality.
Dr. King and Lorde encourage us to recognize and value, much like Wallace, the fact that we can choose our own terms, that we can fashion our own reality, manifest promising futurity, a new consciousness, a race-positive identity; I can choose to de-center, to not be a naive, parochial drone. To be, fully, unendingly, unapologetically, conscious. To cultivate an existence limned by the often ignored though beautifully remarkable prospect of a brighter something.
“…the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood. Any movement for the Negro’s freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried. As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The Negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents, and now I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.” Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, “I’m black , but I’m black and beautiful.” This, this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
- 1: the thing about white dudes is that there are too many of them
- makes it hard to stand out.
- 2: [laughs] I guess. But I think there's a willful determination to sublimate into the normative gender/racial category.
- 1: why is there a determination to do so? to avoid alienation? to find a lover?
- 2: Both I think. It's the whole phenomenology thing. Sharing likeness with other white guys solidifies and confirms their identity. Paradoxically it's insecurity used as a means of security
- 1: hence the making fun of each other. but everyone does that. white people are just more marketed to. the biggest consumer base, most susceptible to advertising.
- that's an oversimplification but certainly a cause
- you empathize with others based off the images you have a common, yet constructed and abstract stake in. ie what a hipster is/does.
- 2: Right. I mean as far as humor goes the poking fun of their white maleness phenomenologically solidifies their identity: by poking fun of that which makes them see more stereotypically white and male they deconstruct the categories (sorta) but simultaneously activate them.
- Like it on one hand challenges but only ultimately reaffirms. It also establishes a local parameter distinguishing whether or not you're "in" or "out"
- 1: it's a defense mechanism though.
- 2: Right: by establishing a local parameter that inherently alienates people who differ they create security
- 2: Out od the insecurity and fear they have of facing difference
- 1: all true. it's ironic too. self deprecation. it's a joke with no punchline. hero to zero.
- 2: Right. What's "funny" is that they've put you outside of the parameters through simply acknowledging their existence.
- 2: It's also just an example of privilege and power
- 1: sort of. on that last point maybe the SL does that and is conscious of it thru their awareness of their own white guilt. I mean it's like everybody wants to be great but we are conditioned to strive after certain ideals of greatness. artist, intellectual, etc.
- 1: thing is you don't have to compete with other white dudes.
- 2: You lost me in terms of sequence.
- 1: but that depends on what you want. if it's girls then maybe. if it's white girls then definitely.
- nope the points were not connected.
- 2: Okay. Right (I think)
- 1: for me. it's funny because I can define myself doing things tied to the identities of white male stereotypes (like being a music guy) but it isn't so much a part of my identity as it is for T (I can presume).
- 2: Yeah they're reliant on "external goods" to develop identity rather than primarily experience/felt things
- 1: but it's hard to be soft bro.
- 2: What?
- 1: it's hard to open up and be vulnerable. especially when you're told not to.
- 2: Yeah but I have little tolerance for people who don't see the benefits/necessity of being open and developing openness
- 1: yes. agreed. though it takes time and can be expressed through different means, like discussion or physical intimacy.
- 2: Absolutely
- I do need to go and finish this paper. Maybe we continue this later tonight?
- 1: definitely. just lemme know.
- 2: Will do.