Saturday, February 20, 2010

Afrika Solo

Biking home from work, I was fuming over the discussion and hoopla about Avatar and District 9. Irritation does indeed warm the muscles.

I had just taught a class (at Smith College) on Afrika Solo, a play by Caribbean-Canadian playwright Djanet Sears. The play is a performance piece based on the author’s journey across Africa in search of home. Invariably some of my (mostly women) students worry that they just won’t be able to relate to Djanet and her journey.

Most students know diddly squat about Africa, its many cultures and peoples, its histories, geography, economy, or relevance to their lives. The Dark Continent is a black hole in their minds—the event horizon is crisis or thuggery—starving babies squatting in a wasteland or warped dictators/gangsters preying on hapless victims. Nothing much else gets through.

Some students fear that the gulf of race or ethnicity between Djanet and them will be too wide; they won’t be able to find pleasure, meaning, or insight in her story. Some students steel themselves for attack; guilt gripping them at the title—maybe they’ll be identified with the “bad guys” in Afrika Solo.

If given a choice, my students might not read or see a production of Afrika Solo. However, since the play is required reading, they bravely press on! Despite these initial misgivings, most survive. Indeed, it seems Djanet didn’t know much about Africa either, until she walked across its deserts, rain forests, and grasslands; until she haunted its cities and ancient universities; until she spoke with people, ate food and sang into the night with them. When the goggles (fashioned from TV, Film, and other Media foolishness about Africa) come off, Djanet is finally able to experience Tunisia, Benin, and the Ituri Rain Forest as something other than an episode of Tarzan.

A few students always express astonishment that the play is so accessible! They immediately connect to Djanet’s character and her struggle to fashion and perform an identity for herself in this complex world we inhabit. She’s a geek who loves SF & F—and they feel at home with that whatever else might be “different” about Djanet. They are very excited that she finds and enjoys a prince, but doesn’t marry him to live happily ever after. At the end of the play, Djanet continues her journey of discovery—which is what my students hope to do.

These same students don’t express trepidation about being able to relate to white male heroes and any journey they might undertake. They don’t (seem) to worry about finding pleasure, meaning, or insight in “his” story—even if they later critique such stories as ludicrously racist or insidiously sexist.

I have been teaching this play for almost twenty years with similar results.

I didn’t quite know how to conclude my thoughts, but this morning I read the Hey Clare-What Gives? thread.

Rebecca Ore in a comment wrote:
I have a gut hostile reaction to people who try to judge art by morals and values that aren't esthetic. Art is joy, not pedagogy. No pleasure, no value, and some pleasures are dark or complex.


Unfortunately I believe that some of the dark, complex pleasures have been to make colonialism a thrilling adventure and Africa and its multitude of peoples, cultures, histories a black hole in our imagination. European male culture is the enjoyable, universal center. That’s the entertaining pedagogy still running through District 9 and Avatar.

Art is complex. It is joy and pedagogy. It's morals, values, and aesthetics. Craft depends on insight. Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying--is learned. Artists sometimes delight us with what we think we know that is not so. Afrika Solo is that sort of journey.

24 comments:

mouseworks said...

I found a piece of urban African writing that didn't use obvious African names and threw it at my students, who weren't Smith College students, but rather mostly white lower middle class students at a basically engineering school, the people who'll never run things bigger than an IT or accounting department. When asked to identify the country or continent, they guessed everything except Africa. My chairman, who was from Africa and an African-Studies specialist, of course, recognized the writer immediately and was both amused and dismayed in a not surprised way.

I had a year of African history at Columbia University with a man who'd taught at the University of Ghana, so the complexities aren't news to me.

We do have some real issues in how Americans see Africa (I've applied for a job with Palavahut). The West African diaspora, with all its complications, is part of American Southern culture, with all its guilt.

I think we will always have our politics in our work (we don't need to strain for effects and lectures), but I don't think political work is primarily done in art. Reading Malaparte and Celine didn't turn me fascist -- it helped understand the dynamics. Talking to Martin Clark about the mill owner's grandchildren who sold the mills to live on their investments didn't make me think they'd been good or wise, but did help me understand things from their perspective.

One African writer studying in the US wrote fiction based on her family. Her presumably white writing instructor ding her on not portraying the misery and suffering and exoticness.

We can, if we're not careful, end up with something that's rather like a pornography of suffering (the play you taught sounds like it's very much not, so this isn't about you). Faulkner's best book was Satoris before he realized his audience was Yankees who wanted to groove on the exotic Gothic isolated South. The characters in Satoris lived in an American South I could recognized. The later books were in some imaginary country that I didn't recognize, but which most New Yorkers I knew felt must define my experience.

Me, I got tired of being Appalachian for the Yankees and I know that I wouldn't like being lesbians for the straights much better.

Rebecca Ore

Josh said...

Being a lesbian for the straights? Doesn't Lady Gaga already have that job?

I wunna say, Andrea, teaching in a very different institution, I've had feminist students who were quite convinced they'd be unable to get pleasure, meaning, or insight from certain white male authors. Not quite the same as identificatory heroes, but still, it raises different kinds of problems.

"Repetition is meaning," whoa. I think I'll cite your brilliant final paragraph in my essay-in-progress.

And speaking of Smith College, Andrea, are you in touch with Mecca Sullivan? She still speaks very warmly of you.

Timmi Duchamp said...

About a month ago I read a draft of a paper written for an academic journal devoted to pedagogy on the subject of the problems the author had been having using two sf stories in her graduate-level women's studies course on post-colonialism. (A non-lit course, by the way.) The stories in question were Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild" and my own "A Question of Grammar." The author had been using the stories to illuminate feminist post-colonialist theory. But the students ignored the aspects of the stories that would have made that possible and constructed readings that avoided challenging their own (comfortable-with-postcolonialism) politics.

They read "Bloodchild" as so many sf readers do-- as about race & slavery (even though the instructor assigned them the afterword Butler wrote insisting that the story wasn't about that); and they came up with a truly bizarre reading of "A Question of Grammar." In short, they imposed their political preconceptions onto the fictions rather than reading the political subtexts their instructor had assumed they'd perceive. Screening out the parts of the story that would lead them into the places where Butler & I were clearly "quarreling with ourselves" is of course typical of the way most people read. & certainly it's typical of the way a lot of people read all my fiction. My point, I think, is that not only is the politics of consciously political art usually not didactic, but that consciously political art can't be easily used to teach students to think in ways they aren't already familiar with-- it likely requires teaching the students to be readers more aware of how their own politics prevents them from reading all of the story that is actually on the page.

Andrea Hairston said...

Rebecca, I think a lot of political work is done in art. How we experience the world, the narratives we believe in, the stories we tell tell us how to be and shape the actions we conceive of taking. I am not speaking of lectures or overt political persuasion, although that can be present. Who we can imagine doing what is a major component of social/political action. So the understanding you describe is critical to political action--even if it isn't direct action.
Timmi--what you write in your final paragraph is what we spend most of the class doing. The students are on an experiential journey from self to other and back again. And although as Josh points out, many people may have difficulty finding pleasure, meaning, or insight in certain white male authors, enough people accept and support work by white male authors/playwrights/filmmakers that they dominate the field and create the narratives of Africa and the rest of the world.

Josh, I have not been in contact with Mecca Sullivan.

mouseworks said...

Andrea, the British and French did quite sophisticated work on the cultures they were attacking. Being able to really understand another culture isn't a guarantee that the understanding won't be used destructively.

Timmi, Anne Waldman met women who wouldn't read William Burroughs because of the sexism. She worked with Burroughs, Ginsberg and others and felt that they were complex men who couldn't be reduced to simple sexists.

I think what bothers me about most propagandistic art is the tone of it, the sense that we the artists get to teach those people the non-artists, uneducated. William Burroughs said to people who were bitching about best sellers that the people writing best sellers thought they were doing great work and weren't faking it (I have met a few people who said that they were cynical hacks but they're rare). He said no matter how stupid the mass audience might be, few humans intelligent enough to read missed when they were being condescended to. It's not a matter of promotion.

The pedagog sets up or is set up as an authority on something that the students should know. The artist brings the work to an audience of peers or superiors and is at their mercy.

Politics requires certainty, clarity and compromise. People who can't work out solutions with people who don't agree with them can't do politics. Art seems quite orthogonal to that. They may be opposites, with politics about knowing that people aren't like me and art assuming that I contain multitudes.


Rebecca Ore

Josh said...

But Rebecca, what we see on the movie screen usually isn't made by artists, in the sense in which what we read on the page or see on the stage is: it's made by corporations. Which are also, in different ways than they were fifty forty years ago, behind the decisions as to what artistic work appears where. So I'd modify Andrea's "enough people accept and support work by white male authors/playwrights/filmmakers that they dominate the field" in a couple of ways, one of them being to add some adjective or other in front of "white" that says more about what kinds of white male artists get the bulk of the acceptance and support. Just to refine our understanding of what the dominant order is allowing out there.

I think "politics" and "pedagogue" are being used differently by different parties to this discussion. You don't have to be an individual "commander of children" to be engaged in pedagogy. Although as I've indicated, my interest is disproportionately in the classroom, the realm where I feel I have a little agency.

Burroughs and Ginsberg are interesting because it's only in our tiny milieu that people wunna write them off on feminist grounds: the greater public sphere wants to condemn them as filthy pervs. Straight male artists telling more conventional stories can get away with Burroughsian misogyny and become major culture heroes.

I don't know about the Whitmanic model of The Artist. Flaubert thought he contained multitudes, but did Baldwin? Piercy? Paley?

mouseworks said...

Josh, academia shapes what acceptable for non-artist reasons, too. A corporation, after all, would sell you Steal This Book or any number of things it doesn't agree with if the audience was large enough.

I agree with Burroughs, even about corporate art, even television. They do think they're doing good things, and most of the people watching think so, too. They're more concerned with pleasuring the public than in anything else, even when those pleasures are simplistic. Technology has made it possible to do very complex visual narrative these days, so it's possible to do quite sophisticated narratives that unfold in rewatching the way complex novels unfold in re-reading.

I haven't seen Avatar, but what I've read on The Valve suggests that it may not be as simplistic as Late Colonial Adventure.

My attitude toward academia may be sour grapes, but at my age, I just don't care. I might feel differently if I could get a one class a semester gig that was patronage for my writing, but I failed to take that path decades ago.

I don't see academia as being in opposition to corporations or the military. Anyone in these institutions must accept rank assigned by others, which may or may not be based on actual merit (the military is possibly closer to being a meritocracy than academia because if it screws up, people die, but between wars, it can be as non-meritocractic and nepotistic as any other institution). Most people in these institutions expect their rank in them to extend to relationships outside them, which I find utterly unacceptable at best. I think you agree with me about my standing as a writer compared to the people who had more rank than I had where I last taught.

Corporate agendas are more straight forward. They want to make money by appealing to as many people as possible. They can be stupid about this, but Harper Collins would have published me cheerfully for decades if I'd made them good money, regardless of what I had been saying.

And Timmi can't publish me unless I make her back her costs, so there's a minimum audience to stay in the game unless one is paying to be published (first book by one of the faculty where I used to work was a vanity press book and he was allowed to teach creative writing based on that).

Neither Harper Collins nor Aqueduct tried to turn me into something I couldn't do well or was uncomfortable with. I can't say the same everyone I've worked with in the last twenty years, but I think my problems with academia are more institutional than matter of personalities.

Meanwhile, I'm writing a fan fic script since that appears to be what my mind wants to do (Timmi's comments made me give up and go with this). See my LJ for more details. It's too ridiculous for here.

Andrea Hairston said...

Rebecca,
Given that I have read the British, French, German, American work on the cultures they savaged, I would hesitate to say they (as a monolithic group) “understood” the cultures they sought to suppress or destroy. And I said understanding is critical for political action but I am not speaking of guarantees or absolutes. I also don’t bitch about bestsellers simply because they are bestsellers written by well intentioned people. Capitalizing on systems of oppression has been a strategy of individual artists and corporate entities in film from Birth of Nation & Squaw Man, to Jazz Singer, Gone With the Wind, King Kong, and Avatar to name a few. Parallel Editing, Sound, Technicolor, or CGI have not guaranteed more sophisticated narratives about Africa or more women film directors, or more stories from a Native American POV for example. I have seen Avatar and find it to be a popular melodrama like the mid 19th century blockbuster: Octoroon, written to by an artist hoping to make money capitalizing on the titillating topic of interracial love. In Avatar, the evil buzz cut general and soulless corporate weenie compare to the nasty plantation owners who abuse their slaves. Not particularly complex, easy to hate—who in the audience could imagine behaving like them?
I agree that profit is prime value/motivator for Corporations and that they can be stupid about it and that Academia is in no way immune to problems of our society. But of course that is true of Corporations as well. I am not persuaded that capitalizing on oppression is okay if it is profitable. Considering our current economic turmoil, climate change crisis, and political unrest, it would seem that our institutions need revision.


Josh,
Since you referred to “certain white male authors” I was basing my further comment on the author group you had brought up. And I do agree that "politics" and "pedagogue" are being used differently by each of us. All art is propaganda from my perspective.

mouseworks said...

Form and rhetoric. The form of a lot of the anti-colonial, anti-priviledge discourse is authoritarian. What makes this glaringly obvious to me is the denial that white privilege evaporates and even becomes minus privilege if a white person is obviously from poor or working class, or particularly Appalacian/Southern roots. Greg Benford said that you lose 30 IQ points in the estimation of non-Southerners when you speak with a Southern accent.

The intense refusal to admit to this strikes me as proving that we can only recognize bigotry when we're seeing through it or when it's other people's bigotry. We don't recognize bigotry when we believe the signifiers we're reacting to mark real defects. White failure is considered personal, not a problem in the system.

"Birth of a Nation" became every cowboy movie (when I saw "Birth of a Nation," I discovered where every western movie trope came from). Cowboy movies became "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Form subverts the content.

Shakespeare is only fifty years before the English Revolution. (Tillyard was obviously wrong, see The World Turned Upside Down for details). We are now further from Ezra Pound than Shakespeare was from the Diggers.

As for what technology can do for visual narrative, the gear isn't quite on the ground yet, but with the fall in prices of the gear, producing work won't depend on corporate funding, just as now producing music is becoming removed from corporate funding (I think it was Truffaut who said that movies wouldn't be an art until everyone could afford a movie camera).

YouTube is obviously the commodification of amateur art, but I've got a small collection of amateur vids that never were on YouTube.

An audience that does the art too is harder to con and the recruitment base for real skill is broader than an audience that accept myths of talent and genius are rare and set their holders apart from human norms.

Some of what we criticize about Imperialism seems like temporal elitism, we know better. A finer grained study of some of the more egregious episodes show that at least some white men, and often many white men, were opposed to those adventures. And the British Empire failed.

The stupidness I've seen in corporations was anti-mission. One guy at Doubleday turned down sub rights for the Literary Guild to All Creatures Great and Small because "animal books don't sell." Tor tried to market me to Star Trek readers and teenagers.

DeMille was extremely influential, but he failed to make the country more racist. The moral idiots in the "Death to the Klan" rally in Greensboro didn't understand the dynamics of the culture they were working in and got themselves shot. Pulling rhetoric on people who don't read the Bible allegorically and then pulling an almost rhetorical gun, a derringer, on men armed with rifles got them killed. Only one black person died in that shootout, the woman who brought them into the black community. I think that main factor that kept the Communist Workers Party from making racism worse was the intelligent working class blacks and whites were at that time beginning to realize that elites (black and white as one black person said in a Charlotte NC city council meeting) had been playing them against each other. The CWP was another case of white elites playing was all.

Those expensively educated people would have been more useful to the world had they stayed in medicine.

Rebecca Ore

I Speak said...

Part 1
Your pieces strike me as defensive and they do not address Hairston's points even remotely. I don't know whom you are accusing of "denial that white privilege evaporates and even becomes minus privilege if a white person is obviously from poor or working class, or particularly Appalacian/Southern roots." (Are you referring to annoyingly brainy Black people? Snotty academics? The great glob of northern meanies entirely?) I can tell you this - Black and poor white experiences, like everything else in America, are unequal. Because poor whites suffer, this does not mean they cannot be wildly racist. To exercise racism on the bodies and lives of Black people has been a privilege that white people of all stripes have held for themselves in this country for 500 years. But we want to deny it - and one of the ways to deny it is to cry poverty as if this erases privilege. It does not. White people, even the poorest, have never gone without white privilege. To trumpet that notion is to erase history. Let's just start with something basic: the lynching rope. In our bloody history, this tool was employed against Black people (in particular,) by all classes of white Americans, the poor as well, or even especially so, with a nod and a wink from the upper crust. Lynching was used to dominate, terrorize, and subjugate Black persons, male and female, for well over 150 years. (Not counting all the atrocities committed in slavery days.) I'm sorry, I've yet to see, hear of, or know of the thousands upon thousands of whites hung from trees, burnt alive, and castrated, as was done to Blacks, particularly in the south, and with impunity, for generations. White people, poor people included, perpetrated this violence and got away with it. In fact, it was not until 2005 that congress deigned to apologize for failing to enact laws designating lynching as a federal crime. Lynchings of Black people occurred right into the 1980s. It took decades for laws to be passed against it and the solid south voting block derailed attempts at creating a federal law for decades on end. White people have exercised their racist privilege in this country for hundreds of years - and lack of money never kept them from doing so most flagrantly - from stealing Indian land, to burning Black and non-white owned homes, businesses, and towns, to raping Black women and hanging Black men and women from trees at will. And then they tried to rewrite history to cover it up - are still doing so. Witness the recent right-wing doctoring of childrens' text books in Texas. (NYT article: How Christian Were the Founders.)

There are people in this world who paid in blood, generations long, for the 'expensive educations' you so bitterly deride. Without it, Black people in America died, and they continue to die with it despite our denial of the fact that blatant racism still lives and operates in America. We incarcerate more people than any country but China - and most of the incarcerated are Black and men of color. And their crimes are crimes born of poverty - the kind of poverty that comes not just with deprivation or lack of gainful employment, but from hundreds of years of violent subjugation, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to the denial of voting rights to rampant discrimination in employment and in every other arena, to profound and nonstop racial profiling, to abandonment and erasure in our institutions of education, 'justice,' etc. The violence done to people of color - BLACK PEOPLE - in this country has been unrelenting in its horror and in the deep, wounding pain it has caused. In addition it has been notable for how easily, how blithely it has been forgotten, how blithely it is denied and whitewashed with tales of personal resentment such as yours. And yes, the poor of EVERY color have suffered in this country - no doubt - but the poor have also committed their crimes, and when white, have gotten away with it because they have and have always had WHITE PRIVILEGE. It is hatred that makes people stupid.

I said...

Part 2
And Cecil De Mille, smart in film tech but stupid in his heart, was a propagandist for racism and he most definitely made racism worse in America. If a Black person had made such a film with whites portrayed as devil perpetrators he or she would have been shut down at the least or much worse, more probably. White privilege: the 'right' to narrate 'others,' caricature them, trivialize them, and yet, still get taken seriously, make a bundle, and walk into history with a halo around you - your formal innovations and fat box office supposedly excusing your destructive narratives.

You on he other hand, southern and all, have gotten yourself published and employed by 'corporations' while being incapable of advancing a coherent argument or writing a grammatically correct sentence. This is something Black people are not able to achieve because they have to be a million times better at everything than whites to get anywhere at all. They do not have white privilege. You do.

If you are mad cause you feel like you have not had your 'day in court' then write your own blog about the experiences of Appalachian white people. But when a Black woman talks, don't try to derail a reasonable and legitimate discussion (that makes you uncomfortable because you have not interrogated your own racism,) by advancing a smoke-screen of hostile arguments which are designed to shut her up. In no place does Hairston say that her experience of institutional/systemic racism is the only experience that counts. Nor, by expressing her dismay at the state of things, does she claim that your pain does not exist.

You are the one engaging in denial - and this is something that white people do all the time. I see it constantly.

We hear somebody Black speak of their experiences and instead of listening, we go all imperialist and try to take over the discourse - screaming about our pain as a way to shut up the sound of Black pain - to which we almost never deign to listen at all because we can't bear to admit we are racist and complicit in that pain. We would rather advance racism and 'make it worse' by pretending it is no part of us, than create a moment where healing and understanding could occur. How could healing occur? By actually listening to what is actually being said and actually responding to that instead of to our own bruised egos. White people constantly police Black people's speech in this way. Our 'discomfort' is just SO important, more important than growing, or learning, or history itself.

What ON EARTH does Andrea's blog have to do with your white person pain? Investigate yourself.

P.S. I have to add, your comments about the Greensboro massacre are appalling. Talk about morally bankrupt. "They got themselves shot," you wrote. Wow. How do you whitewash the fact that the police were NOT PRESENT when this violence occurred? And that NOBODY was prosecuted... What were those people with their 'expensive educations' supposed to understand about the 'culture' in Greensboro? That white men go heavily armed and shoot at will when it is about Black rights? Did the 5000 or more Black people who were lynched in our country "get themselves lynched, too?" (And those are just the ones we counted...) Do people actually deserve to get lynched when they fight back? And what does 'only one Black person was killed' mean? If you were her mother there would be no 'only' about it. I am appalled by the Cold Mountain/Gone With the Wind rewriting of American history where Black people and Black experiences are erased by white people who are drenched in denial - and who then accuse others of the same. (Orwell called that Double-speak.)

mouseworks said...

Check the death rate for indentured servants (70 to 80 percent). Unlike with people you owned, keeping people alive that you only had for seven years apparently wasn't economically worth it. Slavery was nastier because you couldn't run as easily, but if you were an indentured servant and you didn't run, odds on surviving to the seventh year weren't with you.

Most of the people still stigmatized as redneck are descended from people who ran from that institution before they died.

We have very little witness for the indentured servants because they were sold individually, and they were criminals, so what happened to them didn't matter. It's only been in recent years that anyone has looked at the data.

The Old Bailey data suggests that most of them were economic criminals and about half were women. (It's available on line and I've looked at it).

And that class does go to prison -- 43% of our prison populations. Middle class white people are a completely different matter, and I'll agree with you there.

Most of the people I knew who'd been to prison went up on drug charges, or murdered their girl friends but were also involved with drugs. And all of them but one were from that class (the one middle class kid I knew who went to jail was a cocaine dealer in his teens and the cops waited until he turned adult to bust him and he did serve time but had connections/skills/white male privilege or whatever and became a computer programmer).

Slavery was worse for blacks, but it was bad for everyone who wasn't a slave owner.

Josh said...

Andrea, thanks for the clarification. I wasn't disagreeing with you on anything, I think; just muttering on the periphery of your points in the hope of getting a better understanding of some issues concerning marginality and intelligibility. And trying to figure out what to take from your classroom experience.

It's not good that I (and others) keep having to be reminded that, in 2010, the strictures on what images of African (and African-American, and African-Canadian, and Asian-American, and South Asian . . . ) experience that cultural gatekeepers will/can promulgate are still appalling. But the work that does such reminding (and I've seen a lot of it in the SF blogosphere) not only documents such strictures but powerfully analyzes its causes and effects. And the possibility of its application to other kinds of marginalization and stereotyping continues to interest me, as I prepare for the ninth time to lecture on "What Can the Disability Movement Learn from Du Bois?"

Just got a Freshman Comp paper from a young woman who writes, "Sometimes even I find myself persuaded by Hollywood clichés about Africa, and I'm from Ghana!" Witty way to make a point about hegemonic pressures.

mouseworks said...

If I had to pin myself down, I'd say that art was finding or making grace out of an imperfect world (which includes finding grace in our quarrels with oneself). Politics is orthogonal to that.

Left politics tends to breed despair because it sees the world as so imperfect that only radical change will help it, so loses or kills the moments of grace we can have for what I suspect is impossible perfection in the future. Life is more likely to bumble along with small to medium scale course corrections than to be radically transformed. The 20th Century played that game and lost. Academically privileged leftists are particularly wrong when they misuse the term petit bourgeois.


I always liked R.A. Lafferty better than some of the minor leftist s.f. writers of the 1970s. I don't agree with Lafferty's politics all that much, but his writing is wonderful. I also like Victor Sawdon Pritchett.

When I go to art, I want it to transcend the imperfect world we live in, even to find grace in the imperfections.

Nothing I've read here has done anything other than make me more certain that dragging left wing or libertarian politics or any fixed ideology into art will make flaws in the art, and is basically condescension to audiences.

I can't teach you anything you don't already know.

Rebecca Ore

mouseworks said...

Second comment:

As far as I know, Aquaduct is a feminist press, not a black woman's press, and this is neither Hairston's blog nor mine, but our publisher's.

If Hairston wants to disagree with me, I get to disagree with her back. Basically, I think the idea that people can have their minds changed by art to be really rather too optimistic to take that seriously especially in the light of the damage political preaching does to art. Hope vs. experience, here. Nothing I've seen as counter argument has changed my mind, but has given me a handle on what political writing too often is -- another form of kitsch.

More on my own LJ.

I said...

You are still doing it.

In Andrea's article she did not say that white people did not suffer. She said that her students are not able to deal with a Caribbean- American protagonist. She did not even say what color her students were. You never listened. You went straight to avoiding a Black-centered discussion of institutional racism to advancing the spurious notion that your particular white pain is equal to Black pain and therefore we don't need to acknowledge Black pain or address it or listen to it. This is racism in action.

(By the way, Josh, same thing. The fact that Black narratives are so scarce, and racism so rampant that students fear to read work by Black authors is not the same issue as feminist students not wanting to read white guys. (They may be well sick of reading white guys their whole lives, for example.) One case sounds like a preference - and does not indicate the institutionally reinforced silencing of an entire people. I leave it to you to know which is which!) And why should Andrea include such in her discussion? Again, why can't Black people just talk about their experiences without being ordered to include everybody else's issues? Because we don't want to hear it, that is why. And this is wrong.

As to your particulars, mouseworks, when you look at the size of the white population in America, the number, '43% white folk in prisons' actually shows that white people are UNDEREPRESENTED in our prison system. When you look at the size of the Black, Native, and Latino populations in America vs. the size of their representation in prisons - you are looking at a genocide in action.

And yes indentured servants had a hard way to go - though they did not have their children sold down the river and they were freed 'if they lived.' But that is not the point. The point is, why are you even bringing it up?

When somebody says to you, my mother died, you listen - you don't immediately launch into a discussion of your headache.

If you want to talk about indentured servants do so, but do not police Black speech in order to avoid your own racism.

White people grab our privileges and we indulge in them all day long. We have our all white movies, our all white books, our all-white clubs and places of employment. Most of the time we don't even NOTICE. Yet when a Black person tries to write about Black life we scream that they should include us. But we never include them - and we allow them no space or airtime when they need to speak about their own specific issues. We get all hot under the collar and horn in on the discussion in a hostile manner. We try to dominate, erase history, and deny our complicity in the racist project of America by indulging in a litany of our own woes. It is nothing but a smokescreen for unexamined racial discomfort.

Please just open your ears and LISTEN.

mouseworks said...

I simply think that the privilege bingo omits noticing real privilege and is just another ruling class divide and conquer tool. We're all squabbling about things that have no real power in the world while people with real power continue doing what they want to do, which has become pretty damned ugly in recent years.

Getting the non-powerful to fight among themselves was genius.


Artist, outside institutions, can't command an audience, have to earn one, and are not superior to their audiences in anything other than craft, in the ability to make art out of the common beliefs, to reflect the community back to itself.

No doubt this can make the community cohere more, see itself more clearly, but it doesn't create the community, and the clarity of the art can help others analyze the community, to spot its flaws.

Rowling's fictionalization of English class tensions show some dangerous thinking is very popular with children who believe in their superiority. If she hadn't written the books, though, those class beliefs and their more or less toxic variants would still exist.

I said...

Of course you can disagree with anybody you wish - but you did not disagree with Andrea, you simply ignored her.

By the way how is a 'feminist blog' 'NOT a Black woman's blog'?

I find it interesting that you think 'left-wing politics breeds despair.' By doing what? Revealing what is? Honest, sharp inquiry breeds hope when you are being oppressed, and in fact is necessary to sheer survival.

People speak their reality in their art every time they make art - no art is politically 'neutral.' In this world, anytime you picture or narrate anybody, any person, any time, any place, you are engaging in the act of creating realities based on your own sense of what the world is. That is pedagogy whether you like it or not. The form of your story contains politics whether you like it or not - who you include in your stories and who you don't, who you center, who you assume is 'normal' or not, what sort of voices you lend to your characters, what sorts of dilemmas you consider important. And the issue of who is published or heard is also drenched in politics. Certain white authors believe that their stories are politically neutral because they believe that their reality IS reality, rather than one version of it, albeit the version that is shoved down everybody's throats. They think for example that an all-white world is 'neutral' or 'the norm.' It is not, and that view is politically charged in a huge way. The 'politics' in Black writing becomes highly visible to those sorts of people because it destabilizes their sense of who is normal, who is visible, what voices are to be heard - what stories are central in this world. If you have not examined your racism and racial discomfort you will think you are being 'preached to' when you read a Black person's story - when in fact, that writer is simply writing their world and their experience as they see it just as you do. But that world has not been allowed to live fully in this society, and so you think it is some sort of 'exception to reality.' You think it is 'freighted with politics' or that it is preachy or kitschy, and that your writing is not. In fact your work is equally freighted with politics, thoroughly so. To be able to get away with pretending it is not is part of your white privilege. And to call the writing of writers of color or of anybody who chooses to see a world beyond our racially bounded, limited Western one 'KITSCH' is very questionable thinking. And to me, highly disturbing.

mouseworks said...

Anonymous person, the death rates for indentured servants aren't spurious. I don't know how they compare to the post-landing death rates for slaves, but they are as they are pretty horrific.

If anyone claims that white privilege is one thing, I'm going to continue to believe I'm listening to someone who likes to do the divide and conquer game, and I'll also wonder if they're white, which I suspect you are. Seen the divide and conquer game before, recognized it in a new form. As hypocritical as ever.

I said...

If you read my posts you would see that when referring to white people I consistently and continually and with total openness used the word WE.

Nobody said indentured servant deaths were spurious. I will sum up every single thing I said and then I will sign off.

1. When a Black person speaks about an issue specific to their experience as a Black person in America... talks about their reality, their day, their observations, their way, it is productive to LISTEN instead of jumping in with self-defending tales of how your own people's suffering is 'equal to, or nearly just as bad as theirs' (in order to avoid acknowledging your complicity in the racist project of America, or in order to create a smokescreen for your racial discomfort in the face of a Black centered conversation.)

2. Black people and people of color do not have to include you and your issues in their conversations about their issues just as feminists do not have to include men and man pain in their conversations about their issues. And a Feminist blog is as much a Black woman's blog as anybody's (so who is trying to do the dividing and conquering thing here?)

3. All art is political even when the artist pretends it is not. If your story or storytelling exists within the dominant narratives then it may appear that you are not 'political' and you may pretend that you are not, but you are.

4. Some artists MUST be pedagogical in their work because they are telling stories that have been ignored or silenced and if they do not do some teaching within the work, then they often do not get published. I have experienced this ad nauseum with close friends. Publishers think the work is 'obscure' and will not 'appeal.' (To white people.) Or, readers get confused and angry because they are meeting characters they have never seen before and therefore do not know how to read the narrative.

Or the work seems threatening because it decenters the white world and this is new to them and it makes them hostile instead of curious. Unfortunate but true. We live in a racist country. We are all part of it.

To label all art that seems political TO YOU 'kitsch' is needlessly dismissive and hostile. And it does not help to change anything. But perhaps, since you think 'leftist politics breeds despair' then maybe you just don't care.

I said...

If you read my posts you would have observed that I mentioned numerous forms of white privilege, not only one.

Only in a racist society do people believe that knowing somebody's race means that you know anything about the person.

In any case my race is irrelevant to this discussion from which I will now remove myself.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Thanks, I., for commenting as much as you did. You showed uncommon restraint and perseverance in the face of derailing, racist response.
It's the sort of behavior Rebecca is perpetuating that creates deep suspicion that feminism is an inherently racist movement.

Josh said...

I Speak wrote, "The fact that Black narratives are so scarce, and racism so rampant that students fear to read work by Black authors is not the same issue as feminist students not wanting to read white guys. (They may be well sick of reading white guys their whole lives, for example.)"

Of course it's not the same: hence my "It raises different kinds of problems." I'd say that the difference in the experience is that there's a basis in reality, as you note, for a feminist reader to feel wearied or threatened by the attitudes in an Updike (Not that he's an author I would use in the classroom: I was thinking more of Henry James).

Indeed, one of my points was that Student Resistance, while always frustrating, is not a reliable indicator of what hegemonic forces are doing to people. Granted I made that point very badly . . .

Andrea Hairston said...

Wow. A lot has been going on while I was busy with my students. I read through the 23 comments and I appreciate all the thought that went into everyone's responses to my post. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, brave, and fierce. As a live theatre artist I often find the disembodied nature of internet dialoging disconcerting. But we do the best we can.

I must confess Rebecca, that I’m not quite sure of the exact nature of our disagreement. As Josh pointed out, we define terms such as "pedagogy" and "political" differently. As I said (and I-SPEAK more fully and clearly enunciated), I view art, culture, politics, and pedagogy as a non-linear system. We produce art. Art is a reflection of what we already think, believe, feel, and do, but art also produces us. People expect the world to mirror their stories and act accordingly.

I think you disagree with that, but mostly you spoke to other things.

I profoundly disagree with you that I-SPEAK was being divisive. You in fact seemed defensive and very divisive.

You say:
“I can't teach you anything you don't already know.”

This statement suggests that you think human beings are fixed entities.
But I am not really sure because you also argue against any rigid ideology.

I don’t believe that seeing one piece of art will NECESSARILY alter people at the core of their being, although I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility. But most of what we know, we have never experienced directly. To know the world, we rely on stories, on a feedback loop of cultural narratives. Every language, system of signs, system of performed meanings parses what we call reality differently.

So why do some people think folks with a Southern accent have a -30 IQ compared to folks with a Chicago accent? Certainly babies in San Francisco don’t believe this at birth. If most stories they see, hear, read show this, they’ll drink it in with everything else they’re learning from the cultural narratives that form their view of the world.

This process is on-going. At 57, there is much in the world that I don’t already know. Many artists have taught me things that I could never have thought of. They have shown me worlds and possibilities that I could not have imagined. They have changed the way I think about the world and about myself. The actions I take now are possible because of the insights I have gained from their work and are not simply a matter of my pre-knowledge of the wisdom, beauty, and grace in their work.

So you could teach me something I don’t already know.
I think that perhaps is our most profound disagreement and what has made this exchange so challenging.

I return to what I said in my original post:
Art is complex. It is joy and pedagogy. It's morals, values, and aesthetics. Craft depends on insight. Repetition is meaning. What we hear endlessly, goes without saying--is learned. Artists sometimes delight us with what we think we know that is not so.