Strange Fruit: Some comments

Lillian Smith. Image found here; Wikipedia entry here.

I’ve just finished rereading Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, a novel that, though still in print, I suspect not many people read today. That’s a shame, really. Given its title’s origin (the Billie Holiday song), its setting (early Depression-era rural southern Georgia), its chief subject (an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman) and the time of its publication–not to mention the fact that it was banned in some places when published–Strange Fruit is brave in ways that better-known Southern novels whose big subject is racism finally aren’t (To Kill a Mockingbird, good as it is (and happy 50th anniversary, by the way), comes to mind here). Which, after all, is braver for a Southern novelist in the pre-Civil Rights Act South to do: to show us as we’d like to think of ourselves as being, or to show us as most of us in fact are–and why we are the way we are?
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New World babies as articulations of cultural difference

Note: This is heading in the direction of a preface or introduction to the book project. The image below is its starting place, at any rate. Would reading this make you want to read more? Comments welcome and encouraged.

detailfromriveramuralatnationalpalaceDetail from a panel of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City. Click to enlarge. Photograph by the Mrs.

In a panel filled with figures, most appearing in full or partial profile, all going about the business of colonizing/being colonized, this infant, suspended in a plain rebozo from its mother’s back, its skin slightly lighter than its mother’s, slightly darker than that of the soldier I assume is its father, gazes fixedly at something just above and beyond the viewer’s left shoulder. It is difficult to say what accounted for my standing in front of this image for some minutes when my wife and I visited the palacio (Mexico’s national capitol building) back in October: whether it’s that the baby is the only figure in the panel’s foreground looking in the viewer’s direction yet not quite returning the viewer’s gaze; or the color of its eyes–two tiny stones of aquamarine in a sea of reds and browns and yellows. Or both.

Though I did not have this image in mind when I worked on my dissertation, in a sense it is precisely because of what we see in it that I chose that dissertation’s subject: an attempt to discuss historical and fictional narratives of consensual miscegenation as tropes of New World culture more generally. It is not merely that individual mestizos, métis, and mulattoes are, to borrow Joel Williamson’s phrase, new people; it is that the culture that has emerged in this hemisphere is also, I argue, something demonstrably different from the European, African and indigenous cultures that contributed to its creation. Analogous to the baby’s not quite gazing directly at the viewer, New World culture is simultaneously familiar and strange–and, moreover, not one fully explained by most mainstream critical theories of culture.

As an example of what I mean by that last statement, here is a passage from the introduction to Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, coincidentally published in the year I defended my dissertation:

The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organizational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions–of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation–that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world. What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood–singular or communal–that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining society itself.

It is in the emergence of the intersticies–the overlap and displacement of domains of difference–that the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between’, or in excess of, the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender. etc.)? How do strategies or representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable? (1-2, emphasis mine)

Readers of Bhabha will recognize in this passage an implicit articulating of the concerns at stake in his concept of hybridity, an idea that has great resonance–and potential pitfalls–for the citizens of the Western Hemisphere1, and one I am largely sympathetic with. But, the bolded passage strikes me, a citizen of this hemisphere and someone who attempts to understand and write about its culture, as not quite speaking to our cultural condition. I would argue that it is precisely in “those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference”–phenomena that Bhabha calls on critics to examine so as to be “theoretically innovative and politically crucial”–that we find the New World’s “narratives of original and initial subjectivities”: the very sorts of texts Bhabha argues we “need to think beyond.” To put this in terms of the baby in Rivera’s mural, Bhabha’s stance is that we already know where babies come from. I contend that, in this hemisphere, we’re still trying to figure out how to articulate where this particular baby comes from–and what those origins tell us about ourselves as a culture.
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The Book of the New World–some preliminary comments

To begin with, this passage from George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880):

Resolved, in other words, without being [Joseph] Frowenfeld the studious, to begin at once the perusal of this newly found book, the Community of New Orleans. True, he knew he should find it a difficult task–not only that much of it was in a strange tongue, but that it was a volume whose displaced leaves would have to be lifted tenderly, blown free of much dust, re-arranged, some torn fragments laid together again with much painstaking, and even the purport of some pages guessed out. (103)

Passages such as this occur with some frequency in miscegenation narratives: references to literal or, in this case, figurative books the understanding of whose contents demand patience and care on the part of the reader. In Go Down, Moses, there are the McCaslin plantation ledgers that Ike must come to terms with; in Jorge Amado’s Tent of Miracles, a main character writes a genealogy of Bahian families in part to demonstrate just how miscegenated ostensibly “white” Brazilian families in fact are; etc., etc. At one level, there’s no need to push this too hard. Such scenes occur in novels from throughout the Americas that have little or nothing to do with the theme of interracial relationships; I have mentioned here before that Roberto González Echevarría’s Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Literature could, with a bit of tinkering, serve as a useful way of thinking about the origins of the literature of the United States as well. But at another level, there’s a difference to be gotten at. Whereas González Echevarría’s book argues that the literature of the Americas has its origins in the imaginative rewriting of colonial-era records and histories of the region and therefore is an early version of (to appropriate a title) the empire writing back, in the case of narratives of miscegenation these Books either contain or cause a resistance to comprehending them even as they seek to serve as recordings, however oblique, of the facts of miscegenation.

Sorry for quoting myself, but: I tried to say something like this within the context of a post on casta paintings:

Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

It can be discomfiting to talk about the emergence of a new people, especially when they are the by-product of an institution about which there was already considerable discomfort and when they serve, in the eyes of many, as an implicit condemnation of that same institution. Yet, those new people are the the subject of this particular Book of the New World.

More on this, sooner rather than later (I hope).

Black people in Faulkner’s world: Some passages from Faulkner, Mississippi

William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, his home outside Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Photograph by Martin C. Dain. Image found here.

I’ve just finished having a look at Edouard Glissant’s book, Faulkner, Mississippi (you can find some preliminary comments over at my other blog). Short review: I don’t know if he’s right (see below), but he’s a thoughtful and provocative reader of Faulkner.

Back in a 1992 summer institute at LSU, I had the privilege of hearing Glissant, so his notion of Faulkner as a Caribbean writer–within the context of Glissant’s trope of the Plantation–which he explores in Faulkner, Mississippi, was not entirely new to me. But what I didn’t remember him discussing at LSU is his take on the place of black people in Faulkner’s vision of the South. What follows, then, are some passages that I hope will serve as a fair summation of that view.

For what it’s worth: Glissant genuinely admires Faulkner’s refusal to look away from his central theme of “the human heart in conflict with itself” as that theme applies to the South’s tragedy; even so, I think he also makes clear why many African-American readers have real troubles with Faulkner’s depictions of black people–though not, perhaps, for the reason(s) they or Faulkner’s white readers would offer by way of explanation for their ambivalence toward him.

In this hidden inquiry into origins (of the county and its maledictions), to which his works always give (or rather propose) answers that are postponed (into the infinity of Time and Death), Blacks are and represent the unsurpassable point of reference, those who remain and who assume.

Here, we find that the extended African family has no claim to constitute a family lineage. So it never meets with failure [. . . .] On Faulkner’s agenda, the only means of change for Blacks would be miscegenation: the advent of hte mulatto, some sort of genetic and cultural Snopes. That, at least, is what we read between the lines. (59-60)

More below the fold.
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A reading of a casta painting

(Note: This post, crossposted here, is part of a larger interest of mine in identifying the characteristics of visual and textual rhetorics of interracial mixing and seeing what larger conclusions we can draw from those characteristics.)

Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Yale, 2004). Amazon link here. Image found here.

Posts both at my other blog and at this one on the genre of casta painting continue to draw a fair amount of traffic, so as a follow-up to those posts I thought I would post some brief comments on Katzew’s book and offer up not so much a reading of a painting as a kind of wading-into of the various social codes casta paintings participated in.

Here are some things I hadn’t know before reading this book that seem to me of significance: First of all, casta paintings are apparently exclusively a Spanish colonial–more precisely Mexican–genre (though Katzew notes the existence of one known casta painting set from Peru). This was surprising to me because the French Caribbean colonies likewise had worked out elaborate nomenclatures for various racial combinations–though theirs involved black-white combinations, and the New Spain system carried within it an implicit didactic element for its audience, about which more later. The other thing I didn’t know was the extent of these paintings’ popularity: Katzew notes that there are 100 known complete sets of these paintings (a set usually consists of 16 paintings; some depict up to 19 racial combinations) and any number of paintings belonging to now-incomplete sets. The other sign of their popularity is that, similar to but stricter than the guild system for painters in Dutch and Flemish culture, the Spanish crown regulated the licensing of artist workshops and who could paint what subjects in the colonies. Specifically, the Crown determined through examination who could paint religious and royal subjects and how to paint them, but no such regulations governed casta paintings; Katzew politely suggests that this lack of regulation accounts for these paintings’ “wide range of quality” (9).

If you have more than passing (no pun, about which more later) interest in this subject, look for this book. Katzew’s book is exemplary art history, with the emphasis here on the “history” part. But though there is lots of history, it serves to provide much-needed context for what would otherwise be rather enigmatic paintings. But neither does it skimp on images: there are 265 of them, most of them in color, not counting large closeups of some of the paintings. Moreover, many of the paintings included here are held privately and published here for the first time, thus adding to the book’s value.

Reading Katzew’s book reassured me that for the most part I hadn’t just been talking through my hat in those earlier posts regarding these paintings’ ambiguities for their audiences. Because her book is a work of art history, as opposed to criticism, she does not in the end argue for a definitive way to think about them. Rather, by so firmly establishing their cultural and social and legal contexts, Katzew makes clear that a far safer way for us to think about these paintings is that how they were understood in the 18th century depended on a whole complex of issues. They are part American exotica for primarily Spanish consumption, part visual codification of class and racial codes (and, thus, reassurance for Spaniards that everything is under control) . . . and yet, something about the very necessity to create a casta system in the first place would lead to its eventual (partial) deconstruction in the form of the wars for independence in the first quarter of the 19th century. The title of Katzew’s conclusion pretty much sums it up: “A genre with many meanings.” It’s outside the scope of her book to do so, but I would push that conclusion harder: Given that these series of paintings are intended to be part dictionary of racial types, part social code, and part visual cabinet of curiosities, I tend to think that their audiences, if they thought about the correspondences between the paintings and the realities of New Spain, could not escape the uneasy feeling that a social order founded on racial difference would eventually become untenable–especially given that part of these paintings’ very point (and whether this point was intended or not is difficult to determine) is that those differences were becoming ever harder to discern in real life. These paintings end up implicitly depicting their own inadequacy to depict the very thing they’re intended to depict–another version of something I was trying to get at in this post with regard to American literature.

Imagine if the King of Ambiguity in American literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, had instead been a painter in 18th-century colonial Mexico. I think you’d have a pretty good sense of the complexities casta paintings presented for their immediate audiences–and, for that matter, for us.

An example of what I mean is below the fold.
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Initial response to “Miscegenation” post

[Update: some obvious errors corrected; some phrasing now (I hope) a little clearer]

I’m truly appreciative of the thoughtful, thorough, and challenging responses to my previous post. You have given me much to think about and re-think. I’ve been quiet on this end in part because of teaching duties but mostly because I needed some time to think through your comments and compare/contrast them to my own intentions and assumptions, examined and otherwise.

What’s meant here, then, isn’t a rebuttal but more like a sketching out of what I’m thinking about now in response to your critiques–and, of course, how my project can best be informed by those critiques.
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“Miscegenation” as (a) “domestic issue”

It seems felicitous that I’m beginning this post on April 14: 180 years ago today, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. I say this because the word “miscegenation,” whose usage in these pages I’ll be discussing here, is in every sense an American word. More about that later.

I’m writing this post partly out of necessity–one of its concerns is, after all, the vocabulary of its subject–and partly in response to some questions asked of me by Jennifer and a commenter, cvt, over at Jennifer’s blog, Mixed Race America. Each wanted to know whether my choice of the term miscegenation when discussing racial admixture is a conscious one, and Jennifer has a post in which she asks her readers to comment on the efficacy of using loaded language and words and phrases with difficult and painful histories.

Here are the questions Jennifer poses:

Can loaded words and contested terms be rehabilitated? Can they escape, in the case of “concentration camp” the tragic and overwrought associations with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? Can we use a term, like “miscegenation” to simply mean “inter-racial” without invoking its etymological roots in race baiting and its historic use as a word associated with negativity, rancor, and hatred (because whenever “miscegenation” was invoked in the mid to late 20th century it was usually done in the context of “anti-miscegenation” laws, ie: laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, or white racist Southerners invoking the fear of “miscegenation” as a rationale for school segregation.

I suppose a few more questions to consider are:

*Why is this loaded word or contested term being used in current, contemporary usage?
*What is the purpose of this rehabilitation?
*Who is trying to use this term and for what purpose?
*Is there another term that is as accurate/precise in its meaning as the contested term? Why is it important to use the contested term rather than the less loaded word?

My response is below the fold.
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