Monday, August 20, 2012

Fables of Identity, European and American

Judging by a remark in the final paragraph, I wrote “Beyond Oppositional Trickeration” sometime during the O. J. Simpson trial and published it in Gravity within a month or two before “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology.” The tone is conversational, a bit hip, but without the Lord Buckley embroidery of “Fore Play.” As I recall “whiteness” was being discovered at the time and, though I never read any of the books resultant upon that discovery, I read certainly articles and interviews. Could hardly miss them, they were thicker than snow at the North Pole. The influence of those ideas is obvious.

Were I to develop these ideas more formally, I would devote considerable effort to delivering on this informal observation, which I make early on: we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood. What I had and have in mind is that, to the extent that we are aware of human history, we must situate ourselves within it in some role that gives us some place in history. By identifying with some ethnic, religious, or national group, we make contact with history through the role that group has played in history.

One can argue that such identifications are ideological formations, that they organize history and culture into patterns owing more to stance and desire than to fact, but such unmasking does not in itself eliminate the need for such identities. Nor does it provide alternative means for satisfying that need. Perhaps we should devote some effort to understanding just why human brains and groups and humans need such fictions. But that's rather more than I attempted in this piece and certainly more than I am now prepared to undertake.

This piece offers sketches of whiteness and blackness and how their opposition is more than mere opposition. There is a psycho-cultural dynamics at work that is rather independent of reasoned argument. For what it is worth, when I wrote this piece, I had no intimation that, a decade later, America would trick itself into fighting a nebulous "war" on terrorism, and thereby wage a real and hopeless war in Iraq. But the mechanism of "oppositional trickeration" I describe is what drives that nebulous war.
Note: This piece was originally published in Meanderings, which became absorbed by Gravity. It was one of the first sepia-toned joints on the web, and remains so to this day. Thanks, Cuda! BTW, here's Cuda, that's Cuda or Cooter Brown, a nom de plume for a most distinguished gentleman who shall remain nameless (dig the digressions!) writing about his star-struck youth. Very intense. Very.
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Beyond Oppositional Trickeration: American Identity in the 21st Century, a Just-So Story

White folks weren't always white. By this I don't mean only that, like everyone else's, white folks' ancestors were from the African continent. That is true, but we don't really know what that signifies colorwise.

The fact is, we don't know what colors the original humans were. All we know about them is what we can deduce from some bones, pot shards, flaked stone tools and weapons, remains of fires and other assorted bits and pieces of stuff. None of this speaks to the issue of color. Those originals might have been mocha java, hazelnut, lion tawny, watermelon pink, eggplant purple, lilac lavender, tulip red or speckled striped blued and tattooed. Who knows. I'd like to think that, in fact, their color was like Satchel Paige's age:
What color would you be if you didn't know what color you was? That's what color I am.
And this brings us back to the question of white folks. There was a time when they were the same color as the rest of humanity, no color and all colors. They changed all that during their Renaissance, a word which, you may recall, means rebirth. They rebirthed themselves and came out Christian, European, and white.

This essay is about identity, about how Europeans created their collective identity, and how African America responded in kind. Needless to say it's about time for us to move beyond the pale and into the multi-hued savanna of new civilizations.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: In this essay I follow a ubiquitous, if not universal, convention of talking about black and white, African American and European American, and so forth, as though these terms have simple and obvious meanings, as though they designate homogeneous and mutually impervious groups. I know better than that and so do you, so please, don't start dogging either one of us on that score until you get far enough into this piece to see where it's going.

Home and Identity

Who and what we think we are, our identity, starts at home and in the neighborhood. We are the children of our parents, the grandchildren of their parents, we are brothers and sisters to our siblings, and them to us; we are parents of our children and grandparents of theirs, aunts and uncles to the children of our siblings, and cousins to the children of our parents' siblings. We are friends or enemies to those who live near us, and to those who live near them. These relatives and neighbors are the people we relate to. We share meals with them, sleep under the same roof with them, play on the streets or lawns or fields or vacant lots with them, work with them to keep the neighborhood safe and clean. We quarrel with them and make up as well. They are involved in our lives, we in theirs. All these relationships we have with them, in blood and in acquaintance, in amity and enmity, that variegated web is our identity.

Or, more precisely, that's where our identity begins. And, for some people, that's about all there is to it. People living in primitive cultures don't do much traveling, or, if they do, the travel tends to be confined to established routes. Children don't go to school, where they might meet up with children from other neighborhoods. Adults don't have jobs in the sense that adults in our culture do. Young girls grow up to become women and do whatever it is that women do in that culture and young boys become men and do men's things. Neither enters into a work world that brings them a set of social relationships beyond those of family and neighborhood. Many people in more advanced cultures lead similarly circumscribed lives. Lots of people in many times and places have lived very circumscribed lives and their sense of identity is similarly circumscribed.

At heart we too are like that. We live in a world made by the people we know and interact with. However, we do go to schools which widen our world beyond our immediate neighborhood and later on we take jobs and thereby gain a wider circle of acquaintance. Some of us may serve in the military, and that too broadens our experience. Beyond this direct experience there is the world we come to know though the mass media, TV, magazines, newspapers, radio, and through education. This broader experiential reach requires changes in our identity. For we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood.

These broadening institutions and media were poorly developed when the European peoples began to pull themselves out of the Dark Ages. At that time those peoples lived very local, very circumscribed lives. What we need to understand is just how those very provincial people came to think of themselves as European, as white. Where did they get the experience which forced such identification on them?

Oppositional Trickeration: Europe Invents Itself

The European Dark Ages were, as the name implies, dark. Over-extension and internal sloth coupled with complacency led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. With the major exception of Moorish Spain, most of the European tribes had reverted to barbarism. Few people had any identity beyond their local village or town. No one thought of themselves as French or Italian or German or Swiss or English and so forth, for those polities didn't exist, not even in the imagination of ambitious aristocrats. No one thought of themselves as European. Europe was just a name on a map and not many could afford to own a map or had any use for one.

However, many people did think of themselves as Christian. While those various tribespeople didn't simply give up on their own religious beliefs, a good many of them did become Christian and manage some compromise between Christianity and their beliefs in Faeries and Norns and such pagan creatures. As John Hale notes in his account, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, threads of Christianity crisscrossed the continent and formed the basis of the 1st identification which linked people beyond the 5 or 10 square miles which defined their daily routines. As the decades ticked off these various peoples began to think of themselves as Christendom.

Christianity is deeply imbued with oppositional spirit. The ancient Hebrews were nomads and captives. They had no homeland to which they could attach an identity. Instead, they took their identity from a jealous god who forbad that they put other gods before him, who promised to lead them, his chosen people, to a new land. Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, with the holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, tossing the money-changers out of the temple and urging resistance against those leaders who urged compliance with the Romans. Christianity is a religion of resistance, of opposition.

Thus it was inevitable that European Christians, especially the nobility, saw themselves in opposition to the infidels, primarily the Islamic peoples who held sway in Spain and around the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea. Christian peoples of Europe traded with these folks, warred with them, were more than a bit taken aback at the superiority of Islamic civilization to their own, and managed to recover some of the ancient Greek and Roman past through contact with these more civilized folk. Out of this rich range of contacts and interactions came the so-called Renaissance, the rebirth of ancient learning on European soil. These peoples began to forge new states, god-fearing Christian one. Then came the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Christendom was now irrevocably shattered. European peoples then found it easier to think of their difference from others as matter of being European rather than being Christian. Protestants and Catholics may have had grave doubts about one another's Christianity, but they were sure that they were European.

As we continue on, we need to keep these two things in mind:
1. These various European civilizations had hybrid cultures, drawing on accomplishments of a wide range of peoples in Africa and Asia in addition to various indigenous European cultures.

2. The concept of Europe is inherently oppositional. Part of the point of being European is that one is not a savage, barbarian, infidel, one is not dark-skinned. One is white.
Europeans used their navigational and naval technology to travel to the ends of the earth, where their military technology helped them subdue the peoples they encountered. Wherever they went they worked hard at maintaining a sense of difference from other peoples. And not only of difference, but of moral superiority. However much they were fascinated by and desired the spices of India, the silks of China, however much they admired the noble savages of the New World, they insisted on difference-from and superiority-to. Europeans invented their whiteness to justify their imperial activities.

The fact that these people, for the most part, were able to succeed in this far-flung enterprise suggests that their sense of superiority was no mere ethnocentric illusion. Their technology, on the whole, was superior to that of other civilizations, and their methods of social organization more effective in large-scale economic and military enterprises. But, whatever justification it may have had, their sense of superiority had destructive underpinnings. As sociologist Talcott Parsons noted in his classic 1947 article on “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World,” Europeans project many of their aggressive impulses onto other peoples so that, in attempting to dominate those peoples, they are, in a psychological sense, attempting to attain mastery over themselves. By defining “European-ness” in opposition to other cultural identities in which they secretly hid part of themselves, Europeans yoked themselves to the never-ending task of conquering other peoples. Because the European psyche evades responsibility for some its own actions by hiding those impulses in others it cannot find satisfaction for its desires. No matter how thoroughly it may dominate others, that domination brings no final satisfaction because it rests on a debilitating denial and fabrication.

At this point the mechanisms of European identity have gone beyond the simple oppositionality inherent in the Judeo/Christian tradition. Now oppositionality has become psychological trickeration. The European rebirthing enterprise required tremendous emotional repression. Some poured their repressed emotional energy into work-I'm reminded of Max Weber's classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism-while others turned their repressed emotional energies against people of other nations and, above all, of other races. Europeans came to punish others for their own sins. Imperial domination and economic exploitation become intertwined with the need for self-control and discipline, a confusion documented in great detail in Peter Gay's The Cultivation of Hatred. For the white man, taming “brutal savages” became a defense against the brutality of the savage elements in his own heart.

The weakness of this oppositional psychology becomes evident in a recent statement made by Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, in The New York Times Magazine (March 19, 1995):
The Second World War as the last time that this country believed in anything profoundly, any great single cause. What was it? They were evil; we were good. That was Tojo, that was that S.O.B. Hitler, that was Mussolini, that bum. They struck at us in the middle of the night, those sneaks. We are good, they are bad. Let's all get together, we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family, the idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War.
This is an extraordinary statement by an astute politician, uttered with no apparent sense of irony. What kind of dissension afflicts this American family if it can find deep unity only in battle with an external enemy? What happens to that unity when the enemy is defeated or simply collapses?

The mechanisms of oppositional trickeration became intensified in the United States of America where advanced ideals of democracy and universality came into conflict with chattel slavery, and with the cultures of African peoples. The enslaved black population served many Americans as an “internal” enemy against which they could unite. Blacks also served as a standard of comparison against which “whiteness” could be defined and elaborated.

Made in America

In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led
to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence-one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness.
That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans. While literature is not the whole of a culture, it is not a trivial bit of decoration on the national cake. Literature has historically proved to be one of the means through which a people forges a national identity.

Racial matters have certainly been important in American literature. Early on we have James Fennimore Cooper's fascination with Native Americans. In the middle of the 19th century Harriet Beecher Stowe would write a book which was second in sales only to the Bible; that book was Uncle Tom's Cabin. That book was so influential that Abraham Lincoln referred to her as the woman who started the Civil War. Characters and scenes from the book became a central part of popular culture and they were played over and over again in the minstrel shows and later on in early movies. Late in the century Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would move to center stage in the national consciousness. Coming into the 20th century movies and radio become important entertainment vehicles and race figures deeply in those media. Is it any accident that the first major feature-length movie was a racist myth about the white South, The Birth of A Nation? Is it any accident that people would schedule their day around a radio show in which a pair of white men imitating black men named Amos and Andy? It is not simply a matter of literature; it is the whole culture. Whatever else has had the attention of the White American Mind, that Mind has always been concerned with matters of color.

For some reason it was easier to define white identity in opposition to black identity than to define an identity independently of color. Part of the reason, no doubt, is to be found in the diversity of the white immigrant population, a diversity which increased considerably in this century as large numbers of people migrated from southern and eastern Europe. Whatever differences they may have had with one another, whatever problems more established Americans may have had with them, they were all white, as in NOT black, NOT slaves or the descendants of slaves. Deeper even than this, though, is the emotional trickery inherent in the deepest forms of racism, those which go beyond ignorant prejudice to active hatred. In this regard white Americans were more “fortunate” than the various European peoples, who either hated one another, which they did quite well, or hated the native peoples of far flung and distant colonies, a rather abstract hatred, one not so abundant in its cruel satisfactions as hating African slaves who were under your thumb.

Of course, the flip side of this emotional trickeration was the opportunity to learn from these Africans and their descendants. The culture of Britain was only weakly influenced by the cultures of India, the crown jewel in the British Empire. The French did not take the impress of those peoples they colonized in Africa. But America was deeply impressed with and by the cultures of those Africans they enslaved. In America we had the widespread and intimate CULTURAL cross breeding of peoples from Europe and from Africa (as well as, of course, Native Americans, and Asians as well).

Freedom Over Me

The various African peoples who were forced to come to the Americas underwent a process of identity formation similar to that undergone by Europeans and Americans as they discovered themselves to be white. The original slaves were not generic Africans. They were women and men of the Akan, Ga, Bantu, Fon, Wolof, Mandingo, Yoruba, Bakongo, Igbo peoples and many others. Only in America did they come to see themselves as Africans.

Imagine that you are a first generation slave back in the early nineteenth century, born in Africa, whipped and beaten in transit, and worked in the fields of the New World. Being of philosophical mind you tried to make sense of your situation. You knew your name, and longed to hear it spoken by another of your people, someone calling you to a feast, a ceremony, perhaps a day in the fields or on a hunt, or just a friendly evening conversation. But Africa was fading fast, and with it the sound of your natal tongue, for you had no fellow tribesmen on the plantation. The other Africans all spoke strange tongues; African tongues, not European tongues, but still, strange. You also knew the name by which your owner and master called you, an even stranger tongue. This was a name you wanted to escape, it was not you, but it was being forced into you, even being whipped into your skin. So, who are you? Which name is real? How will you name your children?

And who, in this New World, are your people? What is the name of your new tribe? In Africa your people were independent and proud, a heritage generations deep, a heritage you could hear recounted by the griot. Here you would have to be your own griot. But what is a griot without a people? To accept this new land, these new people, you would have to accept your servitude. If you were an American, then you were a slave, hardly human, merely an Aristotelian featherless biped. To be a tribesman of America was thus hateful. That identity would deprive you of all human dignity and eliminate all hope for the future.

You struggled to remain an African, to create a new African identity in this strange white world, to wear America as camouflage to protect you, however ineffectually, from your master's capricious whims and wants. But how would you protect your children? How would you give them African souls, teach them that their home was elsewhere, that America was just a shroud?

Thus, through a process described by Sterling Stuckey in his study, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, the many different peoples of Africa discovered themselves to be Africans, as in NOT white, NOT of the Master's race. Their need to survive in a situation of common oppression overcame whatever differences and antipathies their peoples may have had on the African continent. African Americans created a potent American subculture built around elements of African expressive and social practice transported transmuted transformed and transubstantiated into the New World.

Unfortunately, an element of oppositional trickeration persists in some versions of African-American identity. The fact that African-Americans have been and continue to be the objects of racist bigotry does not justify nor extenuate black racism and anti-Semitism. And all too often Black Pride is created in part by putting a negative sign in front of the attitudes, practices, and accomplishments of self-styled Whiteness. As Cornel West notes in Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times:
. . . if you are concerned about the degradation of things African by Europeans, then you don't simply want to degrade non-African things in order to make Africans look good. That would be imitating the worst of European civilization. If you are concerned about promoting mature forms of self-love and self-regard, it means that we have to come up with way [sic] of promoting self-love and self-regard without putting down others. And I think we have paradigms for that. Jazz is one paradigm. . . . you see Charlie Parker didn't have to worry about whether he thought his music was linked to Africa, linked to monuments or linked to Europe. He just played his music and people listened. Because it was building on a tradition that didn't put whiteness on a pedestal, nor did it put whiteness in the gutter. He actually believed that white people were simply human beings like everybody else. You see, for oppressed people that is hard to admit. Because the propensity is to demonize or deify. If you have a narrow assimilationist position, then you deify. . . . the flip side is to put whiteness in the gutter . . .
As necessary as it is, the move toward a free and unfettered identity such as West calls for is more difficult in the implementing than in the suggesting. As long as white racism persists, blacks have no choice but to dig into the African mine to carve out new realms of black identity, a process Nelson George has discussed in his brief account of African-American popular music in the 20th century, The Death of Rhythm and Blues. Like Tar Baby, oppositional trickeration is a sticky creature who ensnares all who contact it, willfully or by accident.

The only way out of this quagmire is for both blacks and whites to help one another to end the creation of identity through oppositional trickeration. While I do not know how we are going to get there, I am sure that that is where we must go if we wish a better world for future generations. The world of oppositional trickeration cannot ever be one of peace.

What Can America Become?

The question of American identity presents a choice:
Do we attempt to struggle on as the Western Division of Western Civilization (with Europe as the Eastern Division), or do we move decisively into a new cultural era, one in which Western Civilization recedes into history and leaves its finest achievements to the common good of human kind in consort with the finest achievements of other peoples?
It is clear that the majority sentiment is in favor of struggling on with “the West,” if only because the possibility of pushing the West into the dustbin of history has not been clearly articulated. It's high time that we begin articulating that alternative, not as a fundamentally aggressive or destructive act, but as a creative act.

For that majority sentiment is hopelessly misplaced. During the 1950s America was indeed the leader of Western civilization. Prosperity reigned, and so did Senator Joe McCarthy. America rebuilt Europe and engaged the Soviets in a Cold War. And Rosa Parks and Elvis Presley stepped into this triumphant oppositional trickeration and set forces in motion which would upset these best laid plans of mice and men. The Civil Rights movement once again called America to account for its racism. Rock and roll, like ragtime, blues, and jazz before, once again allowed some African magic to touch the souls of whites. From this came the counter-cultural chaos of the 60s only to be followed by the economic comeuppance of the 70s. The Arabs upped the price of oil and Japan took over a large part of the automobile market.

Since then the pride and joy of the West has been dazed and confused, looking for a role to play in a world which will no longer be dominated by Europe and its ex-colonies. On these grounds alone an American continuation of the Western Dream has become implausible. To this we must add that, in point of ACTUAL PRACTICE if not IDEALISTIC PRINCIPLE, America-as-a-Western nation has not been kind to its Citizens of Color. It is time to move on. It is time to create a new national mythology, one in which the claims of African Americans and Native Americans and Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans are honored along with those of European Americans. For only in the context of such a mythology can we move beyond hyphenated identities.

On this we must be absolutely clear. For it has often been argued in debates about multiculturalism that only the West has been able to create societies tolerant of dissent, that the very existence of such multicultural debates is a testimony to the strength of Western institutions. Yes, America's toleration of dissent has given more scope to oppositional voices than perhaps any other nation on earth. But, that is not good enough. Those ideals were founded in the European Enlightenment with its valorization of Reason. If human life were governed entirely by such Reason, racism would have disappeared long ago. The tragic fact of the matter is that the evils of oppositional trickeration have gone hand in hand with the pursuit of reason. They belong to the same culture, the same social mechanisms. It is time to count our winnings and our losses and move on to a new game.

America is an unprecedented experiment in cross-cultural pollination. Our history is rich with material for such a mythology and, of course, many have begun the work of creating it. Just how, for example, will we rethink the herohood of Christopher Columbus? His voyage to America required imagination, courage, discipline and tenacity. It was an extraordinary achievement with extraordinary consequences. One of those extraordinary consequences was the decimation of Native Americans and the creation of an arena for enslaving African peoples. If America is to embrace all its peoples, then it must come to terms with such divided legacies. To do that it must come to terms with the tragic and liberating complexities of human nature.

Perhaps the complexity of this diverse legacy is behind our current fascination with the trial of OJ Simpson. How is it that one man can be a great athlete, a winning and affable celebrity, a mediocre actor, and an abusive husband, both a symbol of human excellence and an example of human frailty? Which of those is the “real” OJ? The answer, of course, is that all of them are real. When we live in a culture in which it is a simple and routine matter to accept such division within ourselves, when we live in a society where an OJ Simpson can be tried with the privacy and dignity such a grave event requires, then we will have escaped the limitations of the Western imagination. Then we will be in a new world. We aren't there yet. The question remains: Is that where we are headed, or are we going to lapse back into the worst barbarities of oppositional trickeration?

1 comment:

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