4 June 2017
"D'Artagnan Motherfucker!", "I like the way you die boy", Academic Book, Alexander Dumas, Broomhilda, Calvin Candie, Candy Land, D'Artagnan, dehumanization, Django Unchained, Dr. King Schultz, Fairy Tale, Film, film review, German Legend, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Historical Accuracy, history, Human Body, humanity, Humor, Jaimee Fox, Jane Tompkins, John Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mandingo Fighting, myth, mythology, N-Word, Nigger, Politics, Quentin Tarantino, race, Race relations, racial slurs, racism, Revenge Story, Satire, Siegfried, slavery, The Gaurdian, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns
I’m pretty sure John Wayne would hate Django Unchained, but only because Jaimee Fox looks fine-as-hell in those glasses. John Wayne could rock jeans and a bandanna…and that’s pretty much it. Sorry John.
The first image or memory I have of Django Unchained was seeing it opening day, which was Christmas. Apart from the snowstorm that damn near killed me as I drove home in my piss-for-shit 95 Ford Truck that had no heater at the time, I distinctly remember being the only person in the theater, apart from a family of African Americans to my right, who were laughing. I just remember that family laughing because most of the rest of the theater were white people who gave me nasty looks as I was walked out of the theater. I just couldn’t help it. There’s something about watching a group of white men complain about not being able to see through their hoods that’s just pathetic and hilarious.
And because I’m feeling indulgent, why not just quote the scene directly. Big Daddy a plantation owner, and part-time Colonel Sanders impersonator, has tracked Django and Dr. King Schultz with a posse of men to lynch the pair of them. Before they ride in to attack them they plan their attack and the conversation eventually takes place:
Big Daddy: [instructing raiding party] Now unless they start shooting first, nobody shoot ’em. That’s way too simple for these jokers. We’re gonna whoop that nigger lover to death! And I am personally gonna strip and clip that gaboon myself!
[puts on bag]
Big Daddy: Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing.
Unnamed Baghead: We ready or what?
Big Daddy: Naw, hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eye holes.
Big Daddy: Oh. Oh, shit.
[takes off bag]
Big Daddy: Ah, I just made it worse.
Unnamed Baghead: Who made this goddamn shit?
Other Unnamed Baghead: Willard’s wife.
Willard: Well, make your own goddamn mask!
Big Daddy: Look. Nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did.
Unnamed Baghead: Well, if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!
Other Unnamed Baghead: What about you, Robert? Can you see?
Robert: Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good, more or less. But when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over, and I – I’m ridin’ blind.
Bag Head #2: [rips bag] Shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?
Unnamed Baghead: No! Nobody brought an extra bag!
Unnamed Baghead: [raiding party is discussing their bags] Do we have to wear ’em when we ride?
Big Daddy: Oh, well shitfire! If you don’t wear ’em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!
Unnamed Baghead: Well, I can’t see in this fuckin’ thing! [takes bag off] I can’t breathe in this fuckin’ thing, and I can’t ride in this fuckin’ thing!
Willard: Well fuck all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I can hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!
Big Daddy: Now look. Let’s not forget why we’re here. We gotta kill a nigger over that hill there! And we gotta make a lesson out of him!
Bag Head #2: Okay, I’m confused. Are the bags on or off?
Robert: I think… we all think the bag was a nice idea. But – not pointin’ any fingers – they coulda been done better. So, how ’bout, no bags this time – but next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia.
Big Daddy: Wait a minute! I didn’t say ‘no bags’!
Bag Head #2: But nobody can see.
Big Daddy: So?
Bag Head #2: So, it’d be nice to see.
Big Daddy: Goddammit! This is a raid! I can’t see! You can’t see! So what? All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!
These scene in particular drew the most laughs, and thinking on it later I wondered why the only people laughing was that family of black people and myself. But reflecting on it I suppose I understand. There’s a lot of dialogue which surrounds the film Django Unchained and a lot of it has to do with history.
If the reader has never seen Django Unchained it’s a film about a former slave who is rescued by a mysterious German dentists named Dr. King Schultz who is in fact not a dentist but a bounty hunter. Schultz saves Django because the man used to work on a plantation where three of his bounties used to work as well. The pair of them track the men down, kill them, escape the afore quoted inept posse, and during a conversation they decide to save Django’s wife who’s been sold, as they discover, to one of the largest plantation owners in Mississippi Calvin Candy. The two men draft an elaborate plan to rescue her, which ultimately fails, and costs Schultz his life. Escaping chains once again Django fights through and slaughters everyone in his path and finally saves his wife from Candyland.
When the film was released Quentin Tarantino suffered all manner of bad press for the free and prolific use of the word nigger in the film. Spike Lee made his usual appearance on the “Fuck Tarantino” program, and people on Facebook got into really nasty arguments about who’s allowed to use the word “nigger” and when and in what context and then someone said “reverse racism” and everybody who liked their brain left the room before that bullshit polluted their frontal lobes. And when the issue of Slavery and historical accuracy was thrown down, I like most people tuned out. Not because there wasn’t an argument to be made, but because I had already assured myself that this interpretation was the best reason to enjoy the film. I enjoy Tarantino movies period and will regularly defend the man’s work. But since I’ve seen the film around ten times since it came out I’ve realized more and more than this argument can only go so far. Tarantino movies tend to be hyperbolic in terms of violence and persona and sometimes plot structure, and within the film there is another, and I’d argue far more interesting, analysis that few people really discussed.
Django Unchained is a fairy tale about racism.
After Django and Schultz have defeated the Brittle Brothers and Big Daddy’s posse, the two men are having coffee and beans in a rocky valley, and while they talk Django mentions his wife Broomhilda and Schultz tells him the story of Siegfried:
Dr. King Schultz: Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
Django: What she do?
Dr. King Schultz: I can’t exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Django: Broomhilda’s on a mountain?
Dr. King Schultz: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Django: Does a fella arise?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Django: Does Siegfried save her?
Dr. King Schultz: [Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire… because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Django: I know how he feel.
Watching the movie for the first time I failed to see how Tarantino was using this scene. I simply chocked it up to the man’s recent fascination with Christoph Waltz. Inglorious Basterds for me was a bit of a let-down the first time I watched it, but that was only because I was a Tarantino Junkie and had heard his original idea for the film. In place of a quad of black commandoes fighting across Europe I got a two-and-a-half-hour dialogue piece complete with film and lots of subtitles. Still, the redeeming element of the film was Waltz and his performance of Hans Landa. When Waltz returned in Django, it was just a continuation of the German aesthetic.
But like I said before there’s more to this passage because it ultimately reveals the creative goal of Django Unchained, which is to create an American fairy tale about slavery.
I think it’s a mistake to make the argument that Django is “historically accurate” as a film. There are numerous elements which satisfy historical reality (such as the headwear slaves were sometimes manacled with and bullshit eugenist views which I’ll talk about later), however people in the past typically didn’t bleed explosive corn syrup. The regular splash and sploosh of blood erupting in geyser like quality is Tarantino’s usual hyperbolic cinematic style and reveals his love of B-movies. But the main reason I reject this argument as the sole interpretation or defense of the film is that it limits the plot by history which often can be anti-climactic to narrative structure.
The reason Django becomes the character he does is because Tarantino is making
a Western, and as I’ve explored that genre before in numerous other essays, it’s important to understand how Westerns operate. I’ve said it once before, several times, but Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a wonderful book because it lays out the skeleton of the Western genre, how it operates, who established it, why it continues to appeal to audiences, and finally what is the creative goal of it.
In an early passage she explains the general outline of the western:
First of all, in Westerns (which are generally written by men), the main character is always a full-grown adult male, and either outdoors—on the prairie, on the main street—or in public places—the saloon, the sheriff’s office, the barber shop, the livery stable. The action concerns physical struggles between the hero and a rival or rivals, and culminates in a fight to the death with guns. In the course of these struggles the hero frequently forms a bond with another man—sometimes his rival, more often a comrade—a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the emotions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action—usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (38-9).
Now I can anticipate the reader’s reaction immediately: Django doesn’t exhibit any of these last qualities. In fact he doesn’t even die. This is a fair point, however if you observe the quote in it’s entirety you’ll see that Tarantino’s movie matches this skeleton because ultimately Django is a physical creature who isn’t defined by his introspection. Django Unchained seems to break this structure because he’s principally motivated to save his wife Broomhilda, however Tompkins notes that women typically receive this treatment in westerns when she notes:
Westerns either push women out of the picture completely or assign them roles in which they exist only to serve the needs of men (39-40).
Broomhilda never really manifests much of a personal character other than the fact that she’s Django’s wife. And while this certainly means Django Unchained fails the Bechdel test, it simply follows that it is in fact a Western. Django fights through the power structure and bodies of Candy Land in order to save his wife, literally spraying the white walls red with blood, until he’s overpowered and sent back, temporarily, into slavery. All this death only further Tompkins arguments about westerns:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and anti-feminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of male violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted (28).
But that just leads me back to my original argument.
Tarantino movie is remaking the genre of the western by blending it with the fairy-tale, myth, of Siegfried. Fairy-tales, much like myth, are stories that are purposefully hyperbolic in order to explain phenomena in the world. Zeus and Thor are non-scientific means explain lightning, and likewise the story of Siegfried is designed to explain the absurd state of being in love. One of the best examples of the fairy-tale is George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm which, when it first published, had the subtitle of “A Modern Fairy Tale.” In Animal Farm Orwell was using the structure of the fairy tale to tell a modern story about the terrors of Stalinism, but also of political corruption in general.
In Django Unchained, the fairy tale is exploring the history of violence and race, but instead of simply reminding the viewer about the travesties of slavery, the story is told so that instead of remaining victims of oppression black people overcome the violence by becoming the hero of a traditionally white genre.
Django becomes a mythic, or fairy-tale hero, charging into the fire that is the Candy Land plantation, pretending to be a black slaver, watching a slave named D’Artagnan being ripped apart my dogs, listening to Calvin Candie’s long lecture about the mental feebleness of blacks, killing dozens of field hands in Candy Land being captured, killing his captors, and returning to kill every last living member of Candy Land before blowing it up. While all of this is the usually Tarantinoesque hyperbole it follows point-by-point the struggles of Siegfried’s struggle.
The Dragon may be a slave owner with bad teeth who believes in eugenics and drinks rum from a coconut, but the hero faces it nonetheless because, as Dr. King Schultz noted before, Broomhilda’s worth it.
And then just a final note about one crucial element of the film. Consistently in Django Unchained, there are shots of white surfaces being sprayed with blood. First it’s the cotton of Big Daddy’s farm being sprayed with Ellis Brittle’s blood, Big Daddy’s white horse being sprayed with blood, and finally the white walls of Candy Lands interior being sprayed with blood of the various field hands who die trying to kill Django. As before I’ve heard arguments about how this is historic symbolism for how “white power” was “stained” by the blood of Africa Americans. I like this argument, and I stand by the idea that in the humanities you can make any argument you want as long as you support it with evidence. However, as I’ve noted before, Django Unchained is not historically accurate the way 12 Years a Slave was. The Tarantino factor has to be accounted for.
There is certainly a gratuitous element to it, but I’d argue that this constant staining imagery is just another way of building the “fairy-tale.” Often myths and fairy-tales pay attention to the body, blood, organs, etc. And so blood being such a precious fluid that it is, it’s being used to demonstrate what the hero is willing to perform and sacrifice in order to get back to his wife.
I didn’t get a chance to use it in the review, but this small exchange between Dr. King Schultz and Calvin Candie remains one of my favorite dialogue pieces simply because it made me realize a fact about an author I’ve loved all my life and never knew:
Calvin Candie: White cake?
Dr. King Schultz: I don’t go in for sweets, thank you.
Calvin Candie: Are you brooding ’bout me getting the best of ya, huh?
Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.
Calvin Candie: Come again?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas. He wrote “The Three Musketeers.” I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?
Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.
Maybe it’s indulgent on my part, or cathartic, but there’s something about watching Django burst into the house of the slave catcher’s shouting “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” And shooting them all.
Although I’ll also note there’s just something about watching a former slave whip the field hands that made him watch as they whipped his wife with their own whip before shooting them that is just…well it’s just fun to watch.
While I was polishing this essay I found a review from The Gaurdian of the film. Enjoy:
Finally I just wanted to leave the reader with some extra material. Here’s an interview with noted African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr and Quentin Tarantino shortly after Django Unchained was released. Enjoy:
Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Alice Walker, Black Sexuality, Black Woman Sexuality, Black women's narratives, Breasts, Celie and Shug, clitoris, Description of the Female Body, Everyday Use, Female Masturbation, Feminism, Hermoine Didn't Masturbate and Neither Did Jane Eyre, Homosexuality, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Masturbation, Novel, Personal Development, Poetry, Purple, race, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Sexuality of Women in Literature, The Color Purple, Women in Literature
My first thought was why the hell did it take me so long to read this wonderful book? My other thought was that the rain was probably soaking into my coffee, but momentary discomfort was worth it.
I had known about the existence of The Color Purple ever since I was in the sixth grade and had to do a book report over a biography of Steven Spielberg. I delivered my report in my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap and I still remember being the only kid who went ten minutes over the required time. While mostly reading about the films Jurassic Park and JAWS, which tended to interest me far more than any of Spielberg’s other movies, there was a brief mention of the film The Color Purple. That was it for a few years until eventually I arrived in eleventh grade and got into American Literature. It was there that the book made another passing appearance because we read Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use. Somewhere during the lessons on the short story there was a brief biography of Alice Walker and mention that she had published a book which was banned. When asked why the book was my teacher carefully explained that the book was about, or contained, lesbianism. Given the fact I was a teenage boy that should have been enough for me, but again, for whatever reason Miss Walker’s book remained background noise to real concerns like memorizing every episode of Family Guy and beating my friend at Smash Bros. For the record I achieved only ever the first task.
In the end my wife and tweed became the way I finally got around to reading the novel. My wife, for some accurate reason, thought I would good in tweed blazers. Being a poor man, Men’s Warehouse is out of the question and so I get most of my blazers at Goodwill which also usually has a book section. To be fair most of its crap Christian inspirational books, but sometimes you’ll find a real treasure. Having grabbed a nice blue blazer with elbow patches I spotted the novel tucked between Sarah Palins crap memoir (I can’t even remember the title) and a Chicken Soup for the Soul was a clean, crisp paperback copy of The Color Purple.
On a nice rainy day I sat out on my back porch in a fold out lawn chair with my pile of books and a cup of coffee, and in between the long periods where I would just watch the rain soak into the grass and dirt, I opened Walker’s novel and disappeared.
Walker is poet, and that’s not just a cute metaphor for her abilities as a writer, she’s actually a published poet and her prose benefits from this ability. Reading The Color Purple, even though it is written first hand as a series of letters, is like reading a novel written purely in poetry. Some of that might simply be the fact that her characters write in a southern dialect, but I believe the main reason for the beauty of the book is the fact that, the protagonist Celie, as she experiences one heartache after another, writes plainly and honestly about her emotional being so that her story becomes a song. Celie is raped by her father, essentially sold to her new husband, receives beating after beating, and eventually falls in love with a woman named Shug Avery, a jazz singer who actually defies her husband and who manages to help Celie find her own spirit and sense of self-worth.
The relationship between Celie and Shug is what lasted after reading The Color Purple for me, partly because it was a lesbian relationship. My regular reader will remember, as if I’d let them forget, that most of my reading and writing explores human sexuality, and while most of the time that is centered on sex between men, I try to balance it by reading stories of women so I’m not lop-sided. I’m not sure if that metaphor works, or if it’s a metaphor at all. Point is, while reading the novel I focused my attention on the queer relationship between Shug and Celie because it lied at the heart of her personal transformation.
Walker’s writing is still impressive for the fact that she doesn’t hold back when describing sexuality. Unlike other authors who try to veil sex beneath metonymy and color descriptions of flowers “opening,” Walker presents a woman feeling her desire in her body. In one passage Celie is watching the men watching Shug and noticing her own reaction:
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (81).
This continues later on when Celie narrates the first morning after she and Shug make love:
Grady and Mr. ______ come staggering in round daybreak. Me and shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can’t hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel shug’s big tits flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ______ at all. (114).
Speaking of breasts, I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend most of my life surrounded with women. There was a dark period when puberty started where I couldn’t speak with them without mumbling, drooling, and/or generally speaking in tongues, but over time I got over this. To this day I work mostly with women, and most of the people I regularly interact with are women. Because of this I’ve become aware a strange fact: women tend to describe and talk about their bodies differently than men describe them. I believe the word “duh” is appropriate after this statement. The word “suds” and “flop” demonstrate this. When women describe their breasts, either in conversation or writing, it’s almost always different than when men do it. Male writers often use pretty words like “slope” and “rise” when describing ripe, perky breasts or “bubble-boobs” if you prefer. Whereas Walker as a woman describes breasts as “suds” that “flop,” and while a male author might use such language to describe flaccid and therefore grotesque breasts, Walker still manages to present a genuine eroticism.
I don’t want this essay to be nothing but discussion of breasts, but when the opportunity arises, well, I’m still pathetically male.
Reading this brief passage I was struck by how honest Walker paints the body, and how while reading Celie seems to find some kind of happiness in her life. It’s not simply that Celie enjoys having sex with Shug, it’s that the love making and the conversations they share as women help her develop into a more mature person who is more aware of her body and what it can give her.
No passage reveals this as much an early exchange between Shug and Celie when they discuss sex with men and Shug gives Celie one of the most important gifts one woman can give to the other:
She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why Miss Celie. You Make it sould like he going to the toilet on you.
That what it feel likem I say.
She stop laughin.
You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy?
Never, I say.
Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin.
What?” I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter ad then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work.
Button? Finger and Tongue? My face hot enough to melt itself.
She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it have you?
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Them my pussy lips be black. Then inside like a wet rose.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe. (77-8).
This is a long passage, but necessary because it was a moment that I had never experienced before while reading any “literary classic.” Oliver Twist never discovered the joys of self-love with his friend Master Bates (that name is real by the way, look it up). Hamlet never touched himself. And looking at other women in fiction there’s a pronounced absence of self-discovery. Jane Eyre never masturbated. Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Neither did Jo March. And neither did Hermoine Granger. I understand that each of these women were working with different times and paradigms governing women’s body’s in literature, but looking at the literary tradition I was raised on what becomes obviously missing from it to the point of being galling is sexuality. Specifically, exploring sexuality in order to become a more well-rounded person.
Celie, from her experiences with Shug, begins to recognize her own innate strength enough to challenge her husband and discover that he has been hiding her sister’s letters from Africa from her. This discovery prompts the next wave of her emotional development, but this could never have happened if she hadn’t learned to even look at her vulva.
This last act assumes great importance to my reading largely because I’m a guy. If the reader doesn’t realize it, and I’d be terribly sad for them if they didn’t, men and women are different anatomically speaking. Because the penis is on the outside of the body boys never grow up not knowing what their genitals are or what they look like or how to navigate them. Because of this, boys eventually develop into men who are able to master their sexual exploration far easier than women. Put it simply, I never as a boy had to worry about whether I had anything down there because I had been using mine since before I could walk.
But this also creates a real ignorance about women’s anatomy and physiology. Being a boy you don’t recognize that some women struggle to find their clitoris, or that some women can go their entire lives without ever having an orgasm. Reading this passage was illuminating because it was one of the first real instances of a woman discovering her body, and it’s joys, in a real literary novel. As I noted in the previous list women like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermoine Granger, and Jo March were women I knew from my literary training, and while they all are wonderful characters with great personalities, they’re all, for the most part, sexless creatures.
I’m not saying that we need to read about Jane’s masturbatory habits or Hermoine seeing her vagina for the first time for a novel to be truly great. The Harry Potter series is wonderful, and Pride & Prejudice is one of the most beautiful novels in human history. But Celie’s story remains an important opportunity for women’s literature to grow and develop because it explores a new territory by introducing a real sensuality that isn’t just veiled or hidden behind pretty words.
The Color Purple is a novel that shows a woman discovering her body, and seeing her sex for the first time Celie can use words like “pussy” and “button” and still leave the reader with a feeling that they have read a beautiful passage about self-discovery. When I finished The Color Purple I realized that I had finished a beautifully written novel, but I had also read one of the few fictional works that was willing to honestly and unashamedly portray a woman’s personal discovery that her sexuality was not simply a procreative act, it could be, in the worlds of the nameless philosopher, “a bit of fun.”
Lesbianism and female masturbation are still new and developing territories in fiction, and so when a novel like Walker’s comes around which manages to explore the territory and make it beautiful is the reader’s time.
Though it should be noted that Pride & Predjudice & Vibrators should be held off until the reader’s taken the time to figure out the position Maryanne and Ginger. Google it.
All passages from The Color Purple were taken from the Harcourt Paperback copy.
While researching this article I found this small blog post which briefly explores how the lesbianism in this book helps shape Celie as a woman. Enjoy.
And, because this it the person I am, I decided to look up some articles about women, sexuality, and masturbation.
Finally, on one last note, shortly after finishing this essay I checked the Poem of the Day for PoetryFoundation.org, and I found this gem which made me think about the nature of purple and thus reflect back on Alice Waker’s beautiful novel. Hope you enjoy:
Academic Book, Academic Libraries, Black Colleges, Book Review, books, Cleopatra, Frederick Douglass, history, Jim Crow Laws, Julius Caesar, Libraries, Library History, Library Philosophy, Library: An Unquiet History, Lighthouse of Alexandria, literacy, Matthew Battles, My Fair Lady, Politics, race, race inequality, racism, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Rex Harrison, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Why Libraries Matter
We get it, my reader says before I start. Libraries matter, let’s move on to something else. Like when are you going to start that multi-part review of The Sandman Series? And why isn’t there a review of Lolita yet? You keep talking about Christopher Hitchens’s book god is Not Great and yet you haven’t written to B—– to discuss why that book is so flippin important. And why why why haven’t you sat down yet and written your review of The Martian Chronicles, A Contract With God, Middlesex, and the second half of Gay Macho? Huh? Tell me that?
Well before I begin I probably should say it’s unusual to object to my reader before I’ve even started, but kudos for demonstrating initiative. And for the record all of these arguments have great merit. There is a large pile of books to my left which haunts me daily because it’s a reminder that I haven’t been writing many reviews lately. You see the last six months have entailed me realizing that I don’t want to be a teacher (I had one semester and it just about broke me), a long period of nervous break-downs which almost cumulated in a suicide attempt, a deep and profound existential crisis, a return to editing a novel I wrote when I was 19 years old, and the sudden appearance of a job at the library which, if I can be dramatic, has literally saved my life and inspired me to live life and actually enjoy myself.
That’s a long way of saying I apologize to your initial rebuttal, but libraries really do matter. But not simply because working at one kept me from shooting myself.
My wife tells me I need to stop saying things like that. Sorry wife.
I’ve written over the last few months about what social function libraries play in society and culture, and what libraries have meant to me personally. Ever since I was a kid I loved going to the library and disappearing into books and being in a nice quiet place where I could read, and now that I work at one (I’m technically not a librarian because I don’t have an MLS degree, I’m an Information Access Associate) I realize that the library remains a vital hub for the community and for literacy. Because I’ve covered so much ground already of what libraries can mean, it may seem pointless to discuss it any further. However, a book like Library: An Unquiet History comes along and adds a new dimension I hadn’t really considered while I was wandering through my romanticisms.
I bought the book while I was still teaching a college class. A few of my friends worked at the library, and so I began scrolling through books on Amazon about libraries (their history, their theory, their social function) working out some unconscious desire on my end to join them in that happy space. The book had good reviews, and a fair number of the people writing said reviews had nothing but good things to say and so I plucked it up. I wish I had a better intro story about this book, but that’s what it is. My mind was looking to escape into the idea of the library to save itself from my current reality and I guess it worked, eventually.
Matthew Battles, the author, is a fellow at the Berkamn Center of Harvard University where he also worked as a librarian. His initial experience is a beautiful lesson which, I’m sad/happy to say, I’m repeating myself:
When I first went to work in Harvard’s Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books. (3)
The reason for this mistake is the fact that, as he explains later, contemporary human beings armed with processors, blogs, texts, tweets, online messages, and, of course, actual published books produce more written material in a day than has existed in the entire collected history of human beings. The problem then facing a librarian is: what do we keep? This question yields to a far more important question: what exactly is the role of a library, and what is the philosophy that governs it? These aren’t simple questions because a quick analysis yields to problems.
I’ll run a quick hypothetical:
Do you only keep religious writing, and then how do you define religious? Would you include materials written by Atheists or Muslims or Hindus? If the answer is no, and you decide to only service Christian writing how do you define Christianity? Do you include a Joel Olsteen beside the writings of St. Augustine? And if you decide to only keep work published by a particular denomination of Christianity how do you define your library because at that point you’re almost certainly not a public institution, nor are you really an academic one?
These questions are ultimately like a hydra’s head for the moment one is answered new ones spring up and so Battles’s book manages to chronicle how humans have shaped the idea of the library to fit the various models.
He continues in his introduction saying:
Each sort of library is also an argument about the nature of books, distilling their social, cultural, and mystical functions. And what the Word means to society—whether it is the breath of God or the Muses, the domicile beauty and the good, the howling winds of commerce, or some ambiguous amalgam of all these things—that is what the library enshrines. (9).
This is the end of the Romantic history and Philosophy for my review because I’ve covered this idea in previous essays and reviews. Battles’s book is first a history of libraries around the world, and through his narration he manages to demonstrate how libraries lie at the philosophic and historical heart of societies, and for this reason they have tended to suffer for it. In fact, let’s be clear, sometimes the library been outright abused for its very existence.
Battles begins with the famous tale about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The tale goes that a Muslim conqueror by the name of Amr, heading the will of a Caliph Omar, burned the library of Alexandria and the thousands of scrolls contained there because these writings did not reveal the nature of god and were nothing but pagan trash. As such the library was destroyed. This is a story I had heard before, on numerous occasions, even once in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and so I was rather surprised when Battles points out that this story is rooted mostly in folklore. He writes:
When Julius Caesar came to the aid of Cleopatra in her war against young Ptolemy III in 48 B.C. (by which time the libraries were already nearly three hundred years old), he burned the ships in Alexandria’s harbor to prevent his enemy from taking the city by sea. According to Seneca, some forty thousand books were lost in the ensuing conflagration, though other authorities hold that only a few books, stored in the warehouses awaiting shelving, were burned. (23-4).
I’m tempted here to raise my first and shout, “Damn Damn Damn Damn, Damn You Rex Harrison!” But I doubt many people would get that I’m making a My Fair Lady reference and a Cleopatra reference at the same time, so instead I’ll just note that in typical fashion that Julius Caesar remains a dope.
Battles does an excellent job in his book of correcting numerous stories like this, explaining the early history of libraries, how the concept of private and public libraries developed to prominence during the Renaissance and later Neo-Classical period, how Dewey established the Dewey decimal system and created the “ideal” of the library that currently exists, and finally ends with the rise of industrialization and how the mass production of books created new implications for libraries in general. And all of this, it should be noted, is written in readable language. Rather than taking a theoretical or “academic” approach Battles’s aim is always to simply educate the reader and tell the story of how libraries have changed and altered over the course of their existence, while also highlighting how the society that entertains them and establishes them comes to think of them. It may seem strange to observe that, but the way a society views libraries matters a great deal to how they operate.
My title alone suggests this. Despite the flag-waving, and calls for liberty that takes place within the United States, one of the most consistent public battles is literacy, specifically what should the populace be literate about. Topics like global climate change, the history of slavery and abuse of native Americans, queer identity, and evolution are consistently viewed as suspect and certain powers object to books relating to this topic existing at all in the library. And of course there’s Nazis, but more importantly, Jim Crow laws.
Battles at one point discusses the history of Nazi Germany and the book burnings that take place there, but honestly one of the most horrific stories told in Battles’s book is not the atrocities of Nazi’s, but in fact libraries in the United States.
Destroying a library, however, is merely the crudest form of editorializing. Libraries left intact can become tools of oppression and genocide, too, since they offer canons that reflect the conceits of mystical nationalism and the will to purity. As Richard Wright relates in what is perhaps the climactic scene in Black Boy, his wrenching autobiography, libraries in the Jim Crow South not only deemed some books off-limits; they supported the notion that some people were unsuited to be readers. If the new library offered great progressive hope, so could it deliver unbearable pain in withholding that hope. (180).
This is a side of libraries that most people, particularly in this country, probably would like to ignore, or else pretend didn’t exist. And because of this impulse I find it’s far more important to discuss it than what took place in Nazi Germany. Growing up I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and being told stories of World War II, and learning of the Holocaust and the travesties of book burnings, but growing up I never really learned much about the real travesties facing African Americans. I learned about slavery, I read some books about Jim Crow, but no one had ever taught me about the fact that even libraries could deny people access to books. It seems ridiculous now that such a practice would be allowed to exists, especially in a country that prizes freedom of the individual above everything else, but this idea of open literacy is one that has been noted before.
In his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass relates how the mistress of the plantation that he worked taught him to read and write. The scene has become iconic in its own right, and the passage remains one of the most powerful portions in the book, for amidst the physical pains slaves were expected to suffer through, Douglass notes how powerful was the punishment of illiteracy. His master discovered these lessons and noted:
“Now,” said he, “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. (338).
Reading this passage, I was reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa explains to Homer why intelligence is making him sad. She simply says, “As intelligent increases, happiness tends to decrease.” This same idea was expressed in an episode of SpongeBob where Patrick’s head is accidently replaced with brain coral and he becomes hyper-intelligent. While these are both cartoon examples they still feel terribly relevant as I look over Battles’s book, and this small passage from Douglass’s memoir. Moving past the cartoon reality towards our own the lesson does remain valid. Reading regularly makes one aware of the world and how it operates. It’s unfortunate but true that when one educates oneself, one begins to learn that people in society can cruel, apathetic, and lazy in general. That knowledge can sometimes make one feel isolated, and isolation is one of the roads to depression.
Battles’s doesn’t exactly help as he points out further:
Black colleges often had made their library resources available to the community, and they sometimes trained librarians for public library service. But even in those states most amply furnished with libraries, public accommodations of blacks was nearly nonexistent. George for instance, had fifty-three libraries in 1936, only five of which served blacks; out of forty-four public libraries in Florida, blacks could use four. (183).
My reader may at this point wonder why they should bother with the book. If it’s nothing but a long history of the terrible things that have happened through libraries, along with the history of how libraries have grown and changed over time, why they should they care? This is an age of e-books, blogs, facebook, twitter, and reality television. What relevance does a library have?
This is a fair point, especially given the fact that I’m writing for a blog. My writings here will almost certainly never appear in print, so how or why should somebody care about a library?
To this question I answer, from my own experience working in a library, that even if society is moving to a paperless milieu, that society will still require some means of organizing, compiling, and arranging those materials in such a way so that the common public can access them. And Battles himself argues such:
The bibliographer of the digital age returns to the revelatory practice of her medieval forebears. Librarains, like those scribes of the Middle Ages, do not merely keep and classify texts; they create them, too, in the form of online finding aids, CD-ROM concordances, and other electronic texts, not to mention paper study guides and published bibliographies. Digital texts have followed the same deeply grooved arc of other forms of writing. […] Already we call our databases and online catalogs “digital objects”—a reflection, perhaps, of our nostalgia for the dusty physicality of our books[…]. (211)
Rather than leave the reader with some sentiment about the idea that books will last forever, or that there will always be some kind of physical record, my lasting impression of Battles’s book was the idea that libraries exist to ensure there is a space where human beings find information. The library is not just a dusty building full of books, but as Battles’s books demonstrates it’s a highly political space where the negative actions of human society, whether it be war, genocide, racism, sexism, classicism, etc. can all, and very quickly, usurp the space polluting the original idea of what that space was supposed to be.
And, if I can play with the abstract a little bit here, Battles’s book is a highly readable history about the idea of what libraries actually were. What were their focus, how did technology change their approach to collecting and gathering information, how did power and economics influence these decisions, how have they survived and protected information in the face of political and physical violence towards their space, and finally how do the people who subscribe to the idea of the library try to defend and shape that space to their own ideals?
Library: An Unquiet History may sound at first like an abstract, academic book but that’s only because I’m a shit writer who gets wrapped up in his own head when he writes. This book was good, damn good reading, because even people who couldn’t give three diddly fucks about the history of libraries could come away from the reading with a bounty of information and something to give a passing shit about. In an age when we have to defend the very existence of the libraries themselves it speaks to the power of a book, and its writer, that it could pull off such a miracle.
All quotes from Library: An Unquiet History comes from the paperback W.W. Norton Edition. All quotes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass comes from the Signet paperback copy of The Classic Slaves Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Banned Books, biography, Black Women, Black women's narratives, Book Review, censorship, Dead Poet's Society, Elmo Saves Christmas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Language, Literature, Maya Angelou, memoir, Novel, Poetry, race, Rape, Sesame Street, Sexuality, Shadows in the Sun, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, trauma, Weldon Parish, Writers, Writing
The first story Maya Angelou ever told me was how Elmo saved Christmas. My little sister was part of the Elmo generation, I was more of a Cookie Monster guy myself, and so when the special came out on VHS my parents had to buy it to add to their still impressive if outdated collection of Christmas Specials. To this day we’ve never updated, and so the brick VHS tape of Elmo and Lightning the reindeer remains part of the Canon of the Smith Family Christmas. Being a young kid I asked who the elderly lady was who was narrating and Mom, or Dad, told me her name was Maya Angelou and that she was a poet.
That was it, and life went on.
Maya Angelou would return to my attention in my Junior year of high school when my teacher gave us a “recommended list” of books to read before the AP test. These books exemplified the standards of that bullshit exam, but while many of my friends and classmates simply threw the handout away immediately I became entranced. Lists are always a challenge and to this day I still have my near shattered copy of that list, with several of the titles of novels highlighted in lapis blue. Maya Angelou was on the list, and the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would haunt me through the years. I wanted to read it desperately but no book store ever seemed to carry it, and when I found out the book was often banned this only fueled the flame.
Despite this, life went on.
Maya Angelou died while I was on my honeymoon. May 28, 2014. I remember driving home, actually my wife was driving us home I wasn’t allowed to drive her car, and while we were enjoying the “Continental Breakfast” I spotting her face on a newspaper in the hotel, or was it motel, those eight hour drives are all a blur honestly, and I picked it up recognizing the face I had watched time and time again on the Elmo Saves Christmas special. I read the article, mourning a woman I had never met, had never read, and known of only through reputation and references.
But, again, life went on.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings seemed like a songbird that lands near your feet and then flutters away in a panic when you try to touch it. Angelou’s book constantly escaped me until one of my weekly “Coffee with Jammer” meetings with a friend, I think it was my Mom actually but she’s a friend too, that I finally found a paperback copy of the book. A black bird soars up from an unseen unknown territory while a yellow sun paints the world four different shades of yellow-orange. I picked up the book, and I admit this to my great shame, part of me wondered if maybe I shouldn’t wait on it and simply buy something else. My mother encouraged me to buy it though, and like so many of the amazingly selfless actions she’s made in her life, actually bought it for me. The book was finally mine, but I had grad school and cats and work to worry about, and a novel by Faulkner which wasn’t going to finish itself and so I passed on the book to Mom who started it first. I admit this part with great shame however, I eventually took the book back from her because that songbird had sung for too long.
Reading just the first few pages I recognized Angelou as a voice I had heard only a few times in my life. She describes in the opening passage dressing up for church:
Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten? My light blue eyes were going to hypnotize them, after all the things they said about “my daddy must have been a Chinaman” (I thought they meant made out of china, like a cup) because my eyes were so small and squinty. Then they would understand why I had never picked up a Southern Accent, or spoke the common slang, and why I had to be forced to eat pigs tails and snouts. Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother, who was understandably jealous of my beauty, had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil. (5).
On the next page she offers a condenses sentiment:
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens her throat. (6).
It’d be fair to say, and I’ve said it before in previous articles, that the voices of African American women tend to be shunned or silenced when it comes to the American Literary Canon. The best example being that I couldn’t read or be taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, however writers like Virginia Wolfe and Jane Austen were free game. I did manage to read Their Eyes Were Watching God as part of the curriculum and I’ll forever thank Ms. Wilson for giving me that wonderful book, but something that has bothered me about my education, and by extension the education of millions of American students, is the pronounced lack of “minority” voices in the texts we read. Part of this is simply the reality facing many teachers. By the time a person leaves High School they’re supposed to have read at least a few of the “classics” so that they can be prepared as citizens. This would not be so much of a problem were it not for the fact that American literary products are steadily diminished by curriculums and British authors, who typically tend to be white, receive favor or precedence by teachers and administrators. Growing up in a predominantly white environment, and going to a mostly white school also tended to keep me in a bubble where the realities of black people were either nonexistent, or else an abstract cartoon painted harshly by conservative voices and pathetically by liberal voices.
Reading Maya Angelou cuts through everything because she doesn’t spare her reader any of her pain, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a song of pain. The novel/memoir is about her growing up in a small southern town where her family operates the only negro owned general store, dealing with her conflicted identity as black rather than white, and learning the rhythms being black in the South. Midway through the book however her mother returns for Angelou and her brother Bailey and they all move to California where her mother works as a singer and actress. Her boyfriend, a man by the name of Mr. Burnham watches over the children while their mother is at work, however Burnham assumes a malevolent significance in Angelou’s life for the novel describes the rape she suffered by him. Burnham is eventually found out, but the remainder of the novel deals with Angelou overcoming this trauma and deciding she will never speak again.
Angelou accounts this decision shortly after the trial that has seen Mr. Burnham free but eventually killed by the community:
I had sold myself to the Devil and there could be no escape. The only thing I could do was to stop talking to people other than Bailey. Instinctively, or somehow, I knew that because I loved him so much I’d never hurt him, but if I talked to anyone else that person might die too. Just my breath, carrying my words out, might poison people and they’d curl up and die like black fat slugs that only pretended.
I had to stop talking.
I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. (85-6).
The rape in question is the predominant reason I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often banned from school reading lists, and on some level I understand this. Rape as a topic is not fun to discuss, let alone even think about, and teenagers existing in the environments they do many teachers likely keep a book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings off the list because it describes and presents the act so plainly and vividly. I’d like to think that this is the main reason why the book has been banned, but the problem is stories like The Fall of the House of Usher and To Kill a Mockingbird both deal frankly with the topic of rape and those books, apart from being authored by white writers, are required reading in schools. As so often happens the reasons for lifting a book from course curriculum comes not from teachers who are just trying to introduce students to topic and issues about the real world in the safe environment of the classroom, it’s the parents who are terrified that their child will be exposed to shocking or harmful material, most of it material they have already learned about through television.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most banned books in America, falling behind Captain Underpants, and Maya Angelou herself has been one of the most banned authors falling into the top 10 list of banned authors over the last two decades at least. Part of this is the frank presentation of rape, however it should be noted that it has also been banned for the frank presentations of sexuality, and while this is never on the list, for the honest presentation of the thoughts and feelings of many young black women.
The first quote I provided should demonstrate that Angelou’s book tackles the issue of the self-esteem problems she suffered from as a young woman, and while this was certainly because of her body type, it was clear she had compartmentalized the idea that white skin, or at least paler tones, were not only more attractive, but truly beautiful. A few years back I worked alongside a woman who confessed to me that she received a lot of flak from other black women because of her complexion. She had what is sometimes referred to as Honeydew skin tone, where the individual is African American, but their skin appears lighter. This is in itself is not a problem for skin tone is varied and can assume, literally, millions of different varieties. The reason for her pain was an embedded Eurocentrism that exists within the black community that lighter skinned women are perceived as more attractive than darker skinned women. This was another one of those little realities that escaped me because as a white man I don’t really think too much about skin tone and how important it is, or the way it can effect they way you live your life.
Angelou touches upon this later in the novel when she says:
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.
The fact that the Adult Negro female emerges a formidable character is often met with amazement, distaste and even belligerence. It is seldom accepted as an inevitable outcome of the struggle won by survivors and deserves respect if not enthusiastic acceptance. (268).
At this point the reader may interject and ask if the book is one long examination of the troubles of African American women? There’s nothing wrong with that, but I keep calling it a novel. How do you form a novel around mundane cultural and racial problems? This is a fair point and I realize I may be focusing on the negatives more than I should.
Maya Angelou was a poet first, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings demonstrates that in the way she describes how important language became to her. After she was raped and Mr. Burnham met his fate Angelou sequestered herself in her own mind, refusing to talk to anyone but her brother until she encounters a woman named Mrs. Flowers who teaches her the value of language. Mrs. Flowers says:
“Now no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need tome to think about it.
“You grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed to valid and poetic. (96).
It’s passages like this that abound through the novel/memoir that remind the reader of the power of Angelou’s narrative and life and what role it plays in literature. Many people will never read Angelou’s work and the tragedy of that is not just the missed chance to read a wonderful story about overcoming pain and trauma, the real tragedy shall be that the reader will miss the opportunity to see how important the work of a writer really is. Writer’s do more than simply connect pretty words together for the sake of making them pretty, and Weldon Parish, Harvey Keitel’s character in film Shadows in the Sun, expresses the sentiment far better than I could.
Weldon Parish: Anyone can use words. It’s called talking. But writers arrange them in a way so that they take on a beauty in their form.
Angelou’s book is a song dedicated to a life and existence that was defined by its time and place. Whether she’s describing her and her brother Bailey hiding her uncle under a pile of onions from the Klan who never show up, or else describing the joy her and her community felt when Joe Louis became the first black Heavyweight boxing champion, Angelou pours her soul into her language so that these moments become more than impressions of her life, they become music sung by the deepest part of her being to the person she was and the people she’s a part of. This melody and song can only exist through language and by singing it the way she does the reader is left with more than just an autobiography.
Looking near the end of the book there’s one last passage worth observing here. It’s her own reflection after deciding she will find a boy, have sex, and finally become fulfilled as an individual. After the sex which is awkward and meaningless she realizes that nothing has actually changed:
At home I reviewed my failure and tried to evaluate my new position. I had had a man. I had been had. I not only didn’t enjoy it, but my normalcy was still a question.
What happened to the moonlight-on-the-prairie feeling? Was there something so wrong with me that I couldn’t share a sensation that made poets gush out rhyme after that made Richard Arlen brave the Arctic wastes and Veronica Lake betray the entire free world? (278-9).
On one hand this passage is important because it demonstrates a fact that often gets missed by the narratives that reach young men which is that young women don’t always find satisfaction in the loss of their virginity. Some women in fact feel that the act leaves them dissatisfied and nothing has in fact actually happened. This passage also reveals an important fact connected to the very titles. Maya Angelou is always detailing, discussing, describing, and deconstructing her experience as a young woman of color, as a young woman, and simply as an individual and the impression that’s left is that she is dissatisfied. She feels often that she is trapped or contained and that little or anything will ever truly free her from this feeling, and looking at it from afar this is a beautiful expression worth reading.
Those of us living in this impersonal Pseudo-Modern age are often trapped in the various avatars and masks that can in fact become a cage. Rather than mourn this lack of freedom Angelou find hope and freedom in poetry which is ultimately song. If I can quote Dead Poet’s Society:
John Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.
Maya Angelou lived with passion and made it her life’s work. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is not just an autobiography, it’s a poetic song dedicated to what language can do for one soul caught in a self-constructed cage. In life there will be non-stop attacks on individual’s passions, and it falls upon them to fight through it.
Birds may sing because they’re trapped in cages, but ultimately music and language transcends such petty limitations and bird songs fly ever upward.
I’ve included links to a few articles about the banning of Maya Angelou’s books and works. Enjoy:
Alton Sterling, Black Lives Matter, Bloody Sunday, Blurb, Dallas Shooting, Diamond “Lavish” Renyold, Ferguson, Mass Shooting, Michael Brown, Othering, Philando Castile, Police, Political Apathy, Political Discourse, Politics, race, Race relations, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, The Other, Wackadoodles
Be Wary of Wackadoodles.
If you don’t know what a Wackadoodle is, I’m afraid you’re mistaken because they’re everywhere, you just try to ignore them because seeing them and recognizing them is unpleasant. Much like a pimple, or a mole on your arm that keeps growing, you try to ignore it, or else you try to lance/pop it which tends to leave you in pain. Wackadoodles are obnoxious creatures, but what makes them so damn frustrating is the fact that they blend in with those people who are actually trying to do good things and just make sure that everybody is okay.
This Morning in Dallas Five Police Officers were gunned down by a lunatic who wanted to kill white people during a Black Lives Matter march. Earlier this week at least three black men were shot by police. These are tragedies and just about everyone on the face of the earth recognized this…almost everyone.
Before Alton Sterling was even cold, and before anybody could bother to ask whether or not Diamond “Lavish” Renyold’s daughter was okay, or as okay as a four-year-old child could be after watching her mother’s boy friend get shot by a police officer less than a foot away from her, people, Wackadoodles, were already screaming All Lives Matter. Some Wackadoodles were also shouting out Blue Lives Matter. Likewise before these men were given a chance to be recognized a victims of tragedy their names were already being sullied by News media outlets (both liberal and conservative) as petty thugs who criminals and so therefore not worthy of the bullets that killed them.
The Wackadoodles in this instance were the people who wanted to label the Black Lives Matter Movement as the ones responsible rather than the actual police officers who fucked.
This morning in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter march, a lone gunman shot five police officers because he hated white people and because he felt the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t violent enough for his taste. Before the cops were even named Black Matter became a paria and the talking heads at once began to draw sides.
The rest of us were trying to breath.
It’s been a rotten week, a rotten month, a rotten year, and Wackadoodles are having the time of their life.
It’s important to differentiate between the Wackadoodles and normal people however, for right now the struggle is to sift through the bullshit and find what’s real. I’m an unapologetic supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, but before I can continue half of the readers have labeled me a “cop killer sympathizer” and probably somebody who spits on cops and calls them “pigs.” This attitude reveals the extent of the damage Wackadoodles. There are many sane, competent people in Black Lives Matter who want only, and I repeat only, to make sure that when black people are victims of tragedy and violence that real justice can be done and that they are no longer disproportionately profiled by police forces.
There are Wackadoodles however, that actually want to kill cops. The problem is Wackadoodles are often chameleons. A great example would be the feminist movement. Despite the naysayers feminism is first and foremost the idea that men and women are equal philosophically, economically, individually, politically, etc. The feminist movement was started because even in the 1960s there wasn’t any law on the books to handle issues like wage disparity or marital rape. Women began to protest to try and acquire real civil liberties. While they were doing so the Wackadoodles joined their party. The Wackadoodles that call themselves feminists typically scream about the abolishing of all male roles and call for a woman led only society. This is often a cartoon character pulled out by news media and political pundits and bad political satirists. Because the Wackadoodles are camouflaged by the word “feminist” however, the women who genuinely care about making sure everybody’s equal are permanently damaged by the association. As such when a woman says she’s a feminist, the Wackadoodle parasite poisons her argument before she can even begin.
Black Lives Matter began not long after Michael Brown was gunned down by the police. While he was not innocent of any crime as we later found out, he was still an unarmed man who deserved a fair trial by jury. He didn’t deserve to be shot. Since the fires of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter has become an important and controversial political movement in America because they are no quiet about it. The Black Lives Matter movement has been infected by Wackadoodles however because like feminists before them, the Wackadoodles camouflaged into their ranks.
A few individual citizens, who possess more anger than other, have assumed the mantel of representatives for Black Lives Matter and called for the death or attack of police officers. Because film editing is easy, and because nuance is no longer part of public vocabulary, these Wackadoodles become the face of the organization while the good people who want to make sure that cops do their jobs right are left defending their movement rather than being able to actually do anything.
Wackadoodles are good chameleons, entering every political party, social club, book club, D &D click, etc. and eventually they entered government. Wackadoodles thrive in politics because two party systems allow for othering, the process of treating people as if they aren’t human, and Wackadoodles devour this kind of rhetoric and attitude the way most of us inhale lobster or shrimp. But beyond the surface level of government sometimes Wackadoodles infect the acting aspects of government including law enforcement. This creates problems. Following Bloody Sunday, the Rodney King beating, Michael Brown’s death, Tamir Rice’s death, and now most recently the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Police have become the familiar monsters that people need to blame problems on.
I won’t deny that police have, in the past, always freaked me out but that stems more from my childhood and the developed lack of trust I have concerning authority figures. No matter what, I will never condone the murdering of police officers for it is a cowardly and despicable rhetoric that only further divides us. Part of the reason I live where I do is because I live next door to two police officers. Nice people who always smile and talk to me when I say hello, and the thought that someone could hate them simply because of their uniforms is repulsive.
Wackadoodles have infected the police force, and because people cannot differentiate between Wackadoodles and regular people, cops become the enemy that only leads to further violence like Dallas.
Wackadoodles are not going anywhere, and they will never completely disappear. It’s ridiculous to ask people not to be angry, just as it’s pointless to ask people not to react to violent atrocities. In moments of tragedy however Wackadoodles work their hardest to hide their work. Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Cops are killers, Cops are heroes, this divisional rhetoric serves only to fuel rather than soothe emotion. People are people, and people are hurting, and people will continue to hurt. In these moments however giving into anger, rather than crying and processing grief for those lives lost is only proof that Wackadoodles are good at their job.
This essay reeks of self-righteousness I know, but my effort as the writer isn’t to tell people how to live, it’s simply to act as a kind of cold shower. People are dead, or dying, but already I’ve heard the tones and read the Facebook posts and listened to pundit after pundit tell me that X person represents everything that Group A stand for, and rather than hear somebody speak up and remind this person that life is about nuance and details and sometimes there are just Wackadoodle assholes, the people who are trying to do good work in our world, like the Black Lives Matter supporter who just wants to make sure people get justice, or the cop who doesn’t have a bad mark on her record and just wants to help her community, these people are getting screwed.
Be wary of Wackadoodles, because the impulse to join them, or believe that they honestly have any other agenda other than violence, is what got us here in the first place.
Absalom, Absalom, Academic Book, Barack Obama, Book Review, Larry Wilmore, Light in August, Mark Twain, Merrium-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, nigger v. nigga, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Political Discourse, Politics, Public speech, race, Race relations, Randall Kennedy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Nightly Show, White House Correspondance Dinner, William Faulkner
“Don’t re-nig 2012.” Imagine reading that.
I’ve written before, on several occasions, about issues of race often using my experience of East Texas as my example. I feel this is unfortunate for my reader who begins to assume that Texas is a state filled with racist bastards who do nothing but listen to Toby Keith on repeat but only the second half of that sentence is true. Texas is a state of fine people who, while they may at times seem cartoonish in their eccentricity, are possessed with a quality that evades description. Texas is a beautiful state and the people are unlike any the reader is likely to meet in their lifetimes, but this essay isn’t about defending my state, because alas while I love it and live it I do have to suffer the presence of a few assholes.
I watched the words through a kind of haze. The bumper-sticker was on the back window of a White Toyota and was just a white background with Black Impact font. I was used to the “One-Big-Ass-Mistake-America” stickers as well as the “NO” that used the cloudy “O” from President Obama’s first campaign. Living in Texas you get used to such rhetoric because Obama is a Democrat and democrats, like communists and liberals, are ghoulish creatures that emerge from the black pit of Washington D.C. to come and devour our children, freedom, health-care, businesses, and, if we’re especially unlucky, our guns too. I wasn’t bothered by the partisan bullshit because every asshole believes expressing his individuality through a bumper-sticker makes him part of the discourse.
I was outraged by the fact that the driver was white and seemed completely apathetic to the fact that there’s a difference between calling the President an idiot and being a racist.
It wasn’t this bumper-sticker however that lead me to Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. It was actually William Faulkner.
This semester I received my second chance to read Faulkner in Graduate School, and given the fact the last book was Absalom, Absalom I was nervous as fucking hell. I only in the last few weeks have completed the exhausted physical and psychological recovery of such a long painful affair that left me stimulated and devastated intellectually. Light in August however was actually an amazing read, and true to Faulknerian style, the book was ultimately demonstrating the atmosphere of the post-Civil War south as a scene of internal corruption mixed with the complicated nature of race embodied in the character of Joe Christmas. Faulkner and nigger tend to go hand in hand (he was a white man writing in Mississippi, it was gonna happen) and the first real recognition of the word struck me. Christmas is an orphan who steals into the orphanage’s dietician’s office to grab some toothpaste when he is interrupted. The dietician, a 26 year old woman, begins to have sex with a man until she hears Christmas coughing and when she finds him she says:
“’You little rat!’ the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!” (LIA 122).
It would have been enough to just say the dietician was a white woman from the south therefore she’s racist, but I needed a paper topic, as well as a viable excuse for spending my parent’s money on yet another book. My father’s keeping a tab. He denies it but I know he is. One of my other professor’s had introduced me to the book, and given my background attending a lily-white private Christian school, and then attending a public university where most of the students and faculty are white I was curious about Nigger.
Kennedy is an academic, specifically a law professor at Harvard University, and before the reader believes that that means Kennedy’s book in one of the many dense unreadable texts produced by academics I’m happy to disappoint them. Nigger is readable and written in a way that anyone with the ability to read can approach the book and come away secure in the knowledge that they have understood the material. Part of the reason for this is Kennedy’s careful strategy of approaching the word with curiosity along with agenda. He says in one opening passage:
To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.
Let’s turn first to etymology. Nigger is derived from the latin word for the color black, niger. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, it did not originate as a slur but took on a derogatory connotation over time. Nigger and other words related to it have been spelled in a variety of ways, including niggah, nigguh, niggur, and nigger. When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as “negars.” A 1689 inventory of an estate in Brooklyn, New York, made mention of an enslaved “niggor” boy. The seminal lexicographer Noah Webster referred to Negroes as “negars.” […] No one knows precisely when or how niger turned derisively into nigger and attained a pejorative meaning. We do know, however, that by the end of first third of nineteenth century, nigger had already become a familiar and influential insult. (4)
Kennedy later goes to list how the word Nigger has become a fluid term and an almost unifying form of insult as the Irish are sometimes referred to as the “niggers” of Europe, and arabs, when described casually by bigots, are sometimes referred to as “sand-niggers.” These are just two of the numerous examples Kennedy provides and that itself is revealing enough about the potency of the word.
Kennedy’s book is vital reading to any and all who are left puzzled to the nature of the word nigger, specifically whether or not they are really allowed to say it. Before the reader thinks I can answer that question, allow me to clarify: I CAN’T. I am a white man writing a review of the book and not in fact commenting on the existence of the word or my freedom to use it in public. I don’t use it in public but that is only because I’ve read this book, as well as commentary and testimony by numerous African Americans, and realized that it just doesn’t hold any relevance or usefulness in my lexicon.
That, and I try to avoid being a dick to the best of my ability.
I myself recognize this conflict for writing this review is in fact a form of cowardice on my part. A white man verbally dissecting the complexities inherent to the use of the word nigger is a needfully careful, and let’s be honest, tricky as fucking-fuck dance that leaves many impaled on their own good intentions. Writing the word however allows some buffering, but even so, my regular use of the word can and should be questioned. The conflict of being white is a guard against the potency of this word, and growing up surrounded by privileged white rich kids I became painfully aware of this fact. I would hear the word from time to time, always in purely white environments, and it was clear that as long as black people couldn’t hear nobody would mind, and the larger problem was there wasn’t a word to refer to us that had the same level of bite. Some would protest pathetically that “honkey” or “cracker” was just as bad as nigger but this fell flat and even the regular abusers of the word would recognize that that shit didn’t fly.
For the record, the only contemporary word on record that can sting a white person is the word “racist.”
Kennedy’s book doesn’t try to account or explain methods to eliminate this conflict, for ultimately the book aims to follow the use of the term in popular, cultural, and historical record. The book is divided into three sections: the first tries to establish the history of the word, the second section observes how the use of this word has become entangled with legal arguments, and finally the third and final section covers the public fight against the use of the word and the attempted eradication of it. It is in this third section, aptly titled “Pitfalls in Fighting Nigger: Perils of Deception, Censoriousness and Excessive Anger,” that Kennedy tackles two public instances of the word and the fight around them: the inclusion of the word in the Merrium-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and the regular arguments surrounding Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
In the first case he explains the significance of the inclusion:
Deciding whether to not or how to define a deeply controversial word is an inescapably “political” act, and claims to the contrary are either naïve or disingenuous. The issue, then, is not whether editors shape the substance of their dictionaries. Of course they do. The issue is the substance of the choices made. Some of Merrium-Webster’s critics have condemned the editors’ decision to include any reference at all to nigger. […] That tack, however, is glaringly wrongheaded. Many terms that are absent from dictionaries are nonetheless pervasive in popular usage. Moreover, so long as racist sentiments exist, they will fund linguistic means of expression, even if some avenues are blocked. There are, after all, numerous ways of insulting people. (108)
Kennedy follows this paragraph with a smaller summation in the last line of the subsequent paragraph:
Nigger should have a place in any serious dictionary. The word is simply too important to ignore. (108).
After this Kennedy addresses a conflict that is about at least a century old at this point: the use of the word nigger in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There have been entire books written about this subject, and rather than list out every position taken I’d rather just quote Kennedy because he speaks much clearer and with less pathetic attempt at humor. Addressing the argument that Huckleberry Finn proliferates racism by using the word nigger frequently Kennedy contends that:
That interpretation, however, is ludicrous, a frightening exhibition of how thought becomes stunted in the absence of any sense of irony. Twain is not willfully buttressing racism here; he is seeking ruthlessly to unveil and ridicule it. But putting nigger in white character’s mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites. (109).
Many authors both black and white have argued this position effectively and the scores of activists that have attempted to censor the novel have often been left revealed as people who don’t get the joke. Having read and studied Mark Twain in depth, and having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this entire argument is hilarious to watch. Yes white men use the word nigger ad nauseum (fancy-pants way of saying too much) but if you observe many of these white characters they tend to be crooks, thieves, bloodthirsty murderers, idiots, or just genuinely ridiculous fools. It would be one thing if Twain had his intelligent characters, or morally virtuous characters spouting that word at length, but when the individuals using that word tend to be morons it becomes a dubious proposition to argue that white’s using this word demonstrates Twain trying to argue for genetic or innate superiority of the white race. Simply put, if a murderer is using the word nigger then it becomes difficult to romanticize that vocabulary choice.
Kennedy concludes this argument later when he notes:
It is undoubtedly true, moreover, that regardless of Twain’s intentions, Huckleberry Finn (like any work of art) can be handled in a way that is not only stupid but downright destructive of the educational and emotional well-being of students. (111).
Having taught myself I understand this position because the classroom is a fragile space. The possibility to lose students to emotion or ego is a careful balance and when teachers sacrifice the opportunity to foster real growth by relenting to the idea that something is difficult therefore not worth my, or the student’s, time then a great tragedy has ensued.
It’s at this point though that the reader may be wondering what relevance any of this has to their life. Nigger is just a bad word and so we shouldn’t talk or write about it because it will either just make people angry or else jeopardize people’s careers. What good does it do talking about it?
The conflict with this position is that it is defeatist, but more importantly it’s just not practical given the current political and cultural climate. It’s been barely two years since Michael Brown was shot, and in that space of time the United States has suffered more and more tragedy and the conversation about black/white relations in America has become a more pressing subject. In our current atmosphere where conservatives are telling jokes about Black Lives Matter groups, and self-hating-self-aggrandizing liberals are bashing cops on twitter hoping they can be “cool” it’s easy to lose track of what the real problem is, and a perfect microcosm of this is Larry Wilmore’s half hour appearance at the White House Correspondent’s dinner.
Willmore is the host of the program The Nightly Show, the half hour political comedy program that takes place after The Daily Show, and since he took over Stephen Colbert’s spot Wilmore’s humor has tended to focus more and more on the political atmosphere for African Americans and perceptions of race in media at large. At the White House Correspondence dinner he was introduced by the President and made a few jokes, some funny, some not so funny, but it was the last line of the evening that broke the media because before he left the stage he placed his fist to his heart and called President Obama “My nigga.” There was laughter, some horror, but then also the President doing the same and embracing Wilmore before the man left. NPR did a small article covering the affair and in it Wilmore laid out his artistic choice for using the word:
I’ve been called that word in my lifetime — the “-er” version — and I made a distinction between the use of “nigger” against us and the use of “nigga” that we’ve used with each other. On [The Nightly Show Monday] night, I said we conjugate the slur. …
The one in “-er” is unmistakable — it’s an attempt by white people to dehumanize and denigrate and demean black people, to make them less than human.
When we turned it around, it was our way of having camaraderie with each other, of taking the power out of that word, stamping [out its] ability to dehumanize. It isn’t always the easiest thing to translate to people who aren’t in that experience. … And not all blacks agree with that, and I acknowledge that. … I understand why people would be upset about it. I have no quarrel or criticism of that. … But part of it is a generational thing, and it is possibly a different way of just viewing who has the power to say what. Who has the right to be in charge of the narrative? Who gets to control what’s being said about us or how we get to say it?*
While I initially focused on the difference between nigger and nigga, rereading this article I focused more attention upon the last paragraph. The ultimate problem with nigger is not just that white people use it, for I like some people have been in situations in which a white person may have said the word in the presence of a black person and there wasn’t a conflict, and likewise there have been moments where you could slice the tension with a knife. It’s not just that white people use the word, it’s the way white people have used the word often to craft a rhetoric in which they are in a position of power. This manifested in the past as whites, whether they were rich or poor, using nigger to remind black people that they were socially inferior. In the environment of Post 1960s Civil-Rights the method of whites exerting power of their race over blacks has now morphed and often the idea of “reverse racism” has been employed to treat whites as “victims” of the real racism and that using that word really isn’t that bad. Wilmore received criticism from both black and white commentators for a score of reasons, but like many scrambling to alight Twain’s Huckleberry Finn on fire, most of these critics were people who just didn’t get the joke.
Kennedy’s book is an important read, and while at times his style is a bit tedious and he spends lengthy passages listing off offenses rather than digging into an analysis of them, it is still a vital read to any and all people approaching the complicated nature of race, particularly how rhetoric of said races are constructed using language.
I understand that many are bothered by the word, and many will be left more confused about the nature of the word, but the sanest way of understanding this conflict is not by refusing talking about it, or being self-righteous about it. The best means of beginning to understand and empathize people’s emotions is by talking it out and really listening to each other.
Kennedy’s book is a must-read and he concludes it by saying:
For bad and for good, nigger is thus destined to remain with us for many years to come—a reminder of the ironies and dilemmas, the tragedies and glories, of the American experience. (139).
Nigger isn’t going anywhere, nor are stupid, racist bumper stickers.
If people give up talking and really listening however then the issue will continue to inspire bad memes, shit emails your uncle sends you, and more unnecessary violence. Kennedy’s book goes the long way of just starting the conversation, and books like that are worth people’s time because often the fear of asking questions leads to only further ignorance. Nigger will remain on my bookshelf because as a white man I cannot possibly comprehend the emotion that word inspires, and so rather than trying to ignore the problem, or protest that one doesn’t exist, I can do only what I have always done: read the book, and try to consider another’s perspective.
I’m a white man, as such my job isn’t to tell anybody what to feel or what to think about this word. My reality is to listen and try to understand so that when other people express confusion or anger I can try and communicate what I’ve read and heard. Kennedy’s book goes a long way then to getting the conversation started.
Below is a link to the NPR article concerning Larry Wilmore’s use of the word nigga at the White house Correspondent’s dinner in case you would like to read the whole thing:
**Writer’s Second Note**
If you’re still wondering if you’re allowed to use the word nigger in conversation or in public if you’re white the best answer I have is…No.
Just don’t use it.
If you believe that isn’t fair remember that it wasn’t fair that your older brother got a car for his birthday and you got a computer, and I know that isn’t a great metaphor but it’s simpler than the argument that because you’re white it will be seen that your character is immediately suspect in which case as a potential employee, friend, employer, etc you pose a risk because you’re using language that racists tend to use and nobody wants to work or be around racists except other racists and so job opportunities go out the window because you’re seen as unprofessional, your wife leaves you, and your kids think you’re a racist prick, but really the only reason you should need is that for the most part because everyone in the world doesn’t know who you are you’re just some random white guy saying the word nigger, so the nuance that might be able to help you will be ignored and you’ll be left looking like a gigantic douche.
If you’re still bitching about the fact that that isn’t fair remember the Grandfather in The Princess Bride who played Colombo for years: “Well who said life is fair? Where is that written?”
Before you use the word ask yourself an important question: Do you really need to use the word? If so why, and is that a legitimate reason to use it?