On Writing What Needs to be Written

I was asked to write an essay for The Atlantic reflecting on Jane Austen’s bicentennial, and I was so glad to do it. I have a complicated relationship with Austen, but I’ve made my peace with it, primarily because I read her with such great students. So, I’m happy with her and about how she’s been celebrated. What I’ve not been so happy about is the trajectory of my research agenda. I started two book projects at once—a collection that turned out to be Written/Unwritten and a book on the history of the novel. Written/Unwritten found a publisher first, but it also felt more urgent. When I finished it, I planned to turn back to the book on the history of the novel, but that work felt perfunctory, like a performance of what I thought I should write back when I was a graduate school.   I gave it a year, but I kept saying I was writing the book on the history of the novel but then giving conference papers on British abolitionist lit. My thought was that I’d write the book I was supposed to write and then write the book I wanted to write, one about abolitionist literature, genre, sugar, motherhood, amelioration, and sugar some more. I wanted to write about sugar bowls and gender and kept looking longingly at these tantalizing books on the subject.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written…”
–Madeline L’Engle

There’s no one thing to point to that ended up with me in an administrator’s office explaining that I wanted to use a research grant to look in different archives for different stories about England in the nineteenth century.  Seeing my students ask more questions than I have answers for in my abolitionist literature class is part of the reason.  I also know the energy it takes to get a book done, and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take that on without totally invested in the project. It also feels like I can do more to make my research matter if I take up the questions I’ll explore in this book. They haven’t gone anywhere in centuries, and now seems like the right time when more and more people are seeing what a lot of black folks have always known about race, racism, and racial violence.

It’s scary. I was sitting in an archive in April, feeling slightly nauseous about the work ahead of me.  And I don’t want to be a person who quits a project half way through. I’m trusting that what people who know me well say about me is true—I’m not quick but I am very persistent. I’m also trusting that I’m a clearer writer and thinker now than I was when I planned the other book.

Of course, the moment I started working on the book proposal, all of the research I’ve been doing was relevant to this project but in a new way. And at least one of those former book chapters is on its way to being transformed into a journal article—where I suspect it will actually have more impact. Somewhere between the conference-length essay and the 9,000-word chapter draft is a stunning, erudite consideration of Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Genre, and Byron. I’ll find it. People have been interested in seeing me write more things like this Emma piece in the Toast, and I’m working on that too. It’s hard in a different way, but it’s a good struggle, and I feel lucky to have people waiting to help me get it done.

This means I write more than I used to. I’ve spent most of the summer writing (that and walking off two years of stress and anxiety), reading, and putting together a research agenda that makes sense. I’m this close to finishing what will be first big journal article on British abolitionist lit, co-editing a cluster issue on abolitionist lit with Manu Chander (it’s gonna be GOOD), and balancing two different kinds of book proposals. So we’ll see. If you’re a praying person, pray for me. If you’re not and you see me in a café or bar writing, buy me a drink.

“The Subtlety” with Friends

with love to Jennifer, Kim, Janet, and Sam

“A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” is my third encounter with Kara Walker (also my fourth, fifth, and sixth).   This time around, I a) knew who she was b) knew a little more about what to expect from her work, and c) was eager to see this homage to workers past and present.   My mother is reading The Cost of Sugar and we are both, in our own way, processing our January visit to Suriname and our brief stop at Onoribo, the plantation we’re tied to. She wouldn’t use the word “process” and I probably shouldn’t either. That suggests something deliberate. I just know that its existence hovers over me with an inchoate sense of connection that I’m curious to see develop, perhaps into something more concrete. I really don’t know.

I had no idea I would visit “A Subtlety” so many times, and I didn’t know how protective I would end up feeling about it, particularly the sticky, haunting statues of children that greet visitors as they enter the factory and hang out in their own little spaces on the path to the Sphinx. I didn’t intend to write about the exhibit because I didn’t know how much it would spark echoes in me in pretty much all of the things I’m working on right now, mostly a lecture I’m preparing for Spring 2015, a chapter of my book on the history of the novel, and the course I’m teaching next semester on British Abolitionist literature. I didn’t expect it to remind me of “Belle” or “Saturday Night Live” or that it would confirm that I’ve been working out my third book project without knowing it. I thought I was just going to see what Walker was doing now, in a space a half-hour walk from my apartment in Bed-Stuy.

My first encounter with Walker’s work was at a keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Narrative. I can’t remember the year or even what paper I gave (I’m sure it had something pithy with “narrating” in the title and a colon and then some theory-heavy prose), and I only have a vague memory of being one of the only people of color in a room full of white academics discussing images that I found fascinating and provocative. I’d never even heard of her before that conference. It was before I’d visited the plantation worked by mother’s people and before I understood as fully as I do now the uniquely horribly way that white academics can treat their black peers. I was too taken by the images to pay attention to the argument. Because I encountered Walker in this white, heavily theorized space, I didn’t know that her work offended some black people. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would. This is, in part, because I grew up several times removed from the immediate impacts of American racism. My mother is from Suriname and a devoted citizen of Holland. She grew up knowing American racism was located in two places: Little Rock, Arkansas and Biloxi, Mississippi. She knew the lowest (slavery) and highest (Tubman, Parks, and King) moments in American history, but the structures of racism that weigh heavily on many African-Americans was not her burden, and I wasn’t raised to know that it was mine. My father is American but grew up in a pocket of New York populated by a rising black middle class (his childhood church was, and still is, on a block in Harlem called “Strivers’ Row”). As I got older, I heard stories of the bigotry he faced, but growing up as an Air-Force brat I lived in this odd cultural bubble that was, by design, integrated. I’m also on the lighter end of the color spectrum, and like all light-skinned (or, rather, light skinneded) people I have enjoyed an invisible privilege that has made it structurally easier for me to navigate predominately white spaces. What this has meant as an adult is that when I saw Walker’s images, I saw them as depictions of the past that happened to other black people and so engaged with them intellectually, primarily from a theoretical distance.

My second encounter with her work was in a completely different context. When I moved to Brooklyn, without realizing it or planning it, fell into a group of readers, writers, and artists. And so I ended up a guest of a guest at a dinner party out on Sag Harbor and the hosts were avid art collectors. Their summer home was so full of different pieces, in different rooms that it took me several hours to realize that I had been sitting next to and staring at a Kara Walker. It’s one of the few times I’ve experienced what Benjamin talks about as the aura of the original work in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The truth of it was that I didn’t know I was in art collector’s home until I recognized the Walker piece and the effect of it—both the piece and her reputation—helped me see what I had mistaken for old posters and old chairs as a rather fascinating collection of art and art objects. Even still, I was more “oh how cool!” than reflective about the piece. I don’t know how I would have felt if the owners of the piece had been white (they’re African-American), and I still considered the work removed from the history it offers. It has taken me a few years to appreciate the juxtaposition of seeing a Walker piece, in an enclave of black privilege, while socially shucking corn and chatting with a woman who I later learned was a person of some consequence (I’ve since forgotten who she was). As exciting as it was to have been in this personal space with her work, it didn’t have much of an impact on me personally but was one of a string of accidental encounters I had with art and artists when I first moved to New York and bounced from cultural event to art opening as sport and leisure more than anything else.

This time with Walker was different.

I saw her work with Jennifer Williams. I wasn’t sure that I would get to see it with Jen (she’s a busy woman), but I knew I wanted to. She writes about Walker in a serious, sustained way, and I was lucky enough to hear her give a paper at the College Language Association conference earlier this year where she discussed Walker and Corregidora by Gayl Jones. The only time I’ve seen Walker in person I was with Jennifer. She’d taken me to an art event where people were eating caviar off of a naked woman and Walker showed up.

We wanted to see the exhibit as early as possible, so we walked from my apartment to a part of Williamsburg neither of us was very familiar with.

photo-87 It was early May, and I’d just seen “Belle” and seen the Leslie Jones performance on “Saturday Night Live” that hurt me deep in my bones to watch. I hadn’t really connected the two, but by the time I left the Subtlety, they were linked to one another and my recent reading about Sarah Baartman brought them all together. I ended up seeing these three modern representations of black womanhood on a continuum that reduces brown female bodies and makes spectacles of us. The “us” here is important because whatever gap there has been between me and the images I first saw in Walker more than ten years ago has shrunk in ways I’m still figuring out. Here’s what I jotted down in my writing notebook after my first trip to the exhibit: In each of these moments—the small t.v. screen, the independent movie screen, and the almost cavernous space of the Domino Sugar Factory—a moment that honors and celebrates also forces us to confront the spectacle of exocticized black women’s bodies.

I was thinking of just how perfect and respectable Belle is in the movie. There’s a scene where she and her white cousin are both playing piano for a group of potential suitors. Her cousin’s performance is perfectly fine, but, even before she starts playing, you know Belle’s will be sublime and that it will prove to her detractors that she is not only just as good as they are but better. She has to be in order to prove her worth. And it still won’t be enough. She knows this and when she sits in her room alone, staring at herself in the mirror I see her coping with the same question Leslie Jones does in her “Saturday Night Live” debut about what it takes to be truly desired. It took me three or four times to get through that Leslie Jones sketch. I wasn’t as offended about the slavery rape joke as other people were. I could hear that it was offensive, but I didn’t feel offended by it; it’s possible that I couldn’t feel offended because I could only feel pained by the cost of admission Jones paid to write for “Saturday Night Live.” Tressie describes what Jones is doing as she tries to find a place for herself as desirable:

…she transitions into tropes about the value of big, tall, black female bodies like hers as valuable during slavery. By a different beauty measure, i.e. utility, Jones is saying she can hold her own against white beauty norms and the equally unattainable black exceptions that are made about once every popular culture generation (Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Diahann Carol, Pam Grier, Beyonce, Lupita, etc.). The punchline is that with her big bodied utility to white slave-owners she would have been guaranteed to have a man back in the olden days (emphasis mine).

…or, the horrific attentions of a white one. Dido Elizabeth Belle is a product of rape and no amount of nineteenth-century female accomplishment can erase that. The story goes that the historical Belle was the daughter of a navel officer and a slave. This is the same backstory that sets the events of the movie in motion. Her body is the path to inheritance for impoverished white men, but her skin is the obstacle that keeps her from being desirable. I don’t know if the screenwriter read A Woman of Colour; A Tale, originally published in 1808, but the story of a bi-racial woman, the daughter of a slave and her owner has a similar set of themes to those in the movie: marriage, inheritance, and nineteenth-century notions of ideal womanhood. In the novel, Olivia Fairfield (get it FAIRfield) negotiates the same terrain that “Belle” does in the movie and faces the same crude comments, questions, and exoticization. They are objects of fascination and disgust, and, to my mind, live on the same spectrum as Sarah Baartman. They bring the the spirit of the exhibit of Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, into English parlors and courtship culture. Walker puts that culture right in your face.

I’m talking, of course, about the Sphinx’s vulva.

Roberta Smith’s review of the installation is the best one out there (even better than Hilton Als’), but it was important to me not to have anyone else in my head when I went to see it, so I didn’t read it until after I got home. It’s also why I went on the first day and Jennifer and I were among the first public group to see the exhibit. It’s why I didn’t know about the vulva.   I should have known, of course. This is Walker we’re talking about after all, but Jennifer and I wandered around the factory taking it all in, slowly making our way towards the Sphinx. I was instantly enthralled and more interested in what I call the sugar babies, those little boys carrying baskets, with round brown cheeks similar to the ones I see on black folks everywhere. At the first one, I was very interested in the mini-lecture a white woman gave to explain what precisely “ a subtlety” was and how the desire for sugar contributed to slavery. Except she didn’t say “slavery” or “slaves” but used the word “servant” in its place. She lost me completely after that and I thought, “servant? bitch, please. ‘SLAVES’ is what they were!” I’m pretty sure that phrase appeared in a bubble above my head as I listened to her because folks started eyeing me warily.

I’d seen pictures of the Sphinx, though they could in no way capture the sheer size and aura of her, but the sugar babies were the most surprising thing to me.

Until I saw the vulva.

I was not part of that whole look-at-your-business-in-a-hand-mirror movement. Even when my dearest friend had the sex talk with me, the-real-unvarnished-sex talk, I never used the hand mirror she eventually mailed me. My favorite Angelou line might be, “I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” and the truly fabulous poem mocking male poets for skipping over the “quim beneath a smock” in their poems praising female beauty used to be a staple in my “Man and Woman in Literature” class when I was a graduate student, but beyond making sure everything is working right, I was never much interested in pulling a Charlotte York and toppling over with a mirror in my hand.

Jennifer and I were shocked to see it, and my first thought was “oh, I get it! I can see what lesbians and straight men get so worked up about” and I thought it was beautiful. And then I remembered the poem “Cywydd to the Quim” that asks:

Why the sudden, boyish qualm
When it comes to praise the quim:
Beneath a smock, hairy splice
Split with a delicious slit?

People want to compare the Sphinx with Baartman (see here, here, here, here, and here). I can understand why; in fact, the working title of this blog post was “Hottentots and Sugar” (I realized the minute I walked past the gate that I would write about the exhibition at some point). Calling forth the spectre of the Hottentot Venus is the shorthand we often use when we see certain black female bodies on display, but I wonder how much of this is our unease with seeing those bodies outside of “respectable” spaces. The thing about the horrific exhibition of Baartman was that she was depicted as grotesque because her body type was different, viewed without her consent, prodded, dissected, and caricatured. Her bottom is depicted as disproportionate to the rest of her and her labia was reported and depicted as long and loose (called the “Hottentot Apron”) and those things are considered abnormal. The Sphinx evokes this but the difference are important. Yes she is prone and exposed but so large as to be invulnerable and impenetrable. She can be seen and photographed but not touched at all. The sheer size of her gives her agency Baartman could never have and far from grotesque I saw her oversized everything as beautiful, dignified, majestic. Seeing all of her toes so perfectly rendered and perfectly proportioned humanized her for me. They also made me giggle. There is something endearing about them.

I went back three more times after that. Jennifer went back too and we texted one another images of the changing exhibit.

photo-88My second visit was with Kim Hall, who is writing a book on women, race, labor, and the sugar trade. A lot of her work focuses on the seventeenth century, so my visit with her came with its own history lesson. The sugar babies (they are officially called “banana boys”) had started to decompose. In some instances they were falling apart. One little boy’s arm was broken and Kim explained how, when the slaves’ arms were caught in the machinery they would simply be cut off. The second time, because I knew the vulva was there, I wanted to see Kim’s reaction to it. Her eyes widened and then we were too distracted by the pictures people were taking to be much more than appalled and annoyed. Unable to touch the Sphynx, folks contented themselves with miming sexual acts. Kim noted the footprints in the sugar marking how close people tried to get to her.

When I spotted an Asian-American woman wearing a Creative Time badge I asked her what kind of pictures she saw folks taking. I’m embarrassed to say I only approached her because I assumed we would have some common, racialized response to these interactions with the installation. It was presumptuous of me to assume anything about her politics and, when I approached her with that knowing-black-lady-expression she was visibly annoyed and was quick to tell me that a whole black family took a picture posed at the rear of the Sphinx. I was incredulous and she admitted that they may have just “focused on the lower part.” She then went on to show me some great pictures about the prototype for the Sphinx and talked about how the exhibition was changing over time. She explained that brown sugar was being sprinkled on the banana boys and how some of them never made it to the exhibit. Kim being Kim meant that even in a part of Brooklyn she’d never been to she ran into friends and colleagues and between taking pictures of her own talked about the process with other academic types their for reasons similar to ours.

A brief word on irritating white folks being irritating and irritating me and every irritated black person I know

I said to Jennifer as we stood appalled at the sight and sound of white people treating the exhibit like a Disney World attraction, “this is the same reason they feel like they can touch our hair.” Not all of the white people I saw at the exhibit seemed blissfully unaware of the history that formed those images. The more I went, the more I learned about the exhibit and would talk about it with friends as we walked around, and there were always white folks nearby carefully listening. They were outnumbered by white folks in Tom’s shoes posing in ways you can easily find on the internet, but there were white people there who wanted some information about the exhibit, and they were happy listen to whatever knowledge I had. The space was mercifully uncurated. In other words, there was no docent there to talk to anybody about any of it. There were volunteers to answer questions and to keep people from touching the statues (and to warn people “step carefully, that sugar on the ground is very hard”). The title on the side of the building tells you what the piece is about and a directive not to touch but to take all of the pictures and to post those pictures on the internet is all the guidance we’re given.

It was foolish of me to expect people NOT to pretend to pinch the Sphinxes nipples or to make crude gestures about an oversized statue’s bottom. But it distracted me and my friends from our experience with this work.  I didn’t expect (or even want) somber silence, but, I don’t know…

My frustration is about the reaction to the exhibit, but it goes beyond that. I’m so tired of white people who don’t get it, tired of people wearing blackface on Halloween, Native customs on Thanksgiving, and appropriating language and movement from those who developed that language and movement as a way to survive.

Karl Steel, a medievalist I know via twitter gently offered a counternarrative to some pictures I posted on twitter to show how I’ve seen white people interact with the installation. He does not dismiss the idea that I’m offended but argues that people who behave like jackasses are proving at least one point that Walker is trying to make with her work. He writes:

Had they been more familiar with her work, they’d know that by pretending to pinch the sphinx’s nipples or to stick their tongues in her vagina, by pretending, in short, to assault this defenseless yet gigantic woman, they’re just behaving like the creeps and racists that rampage through Walker’s work. They complete Walker’s Sphinx, because without that assault, we don’t have the kind of art that Walker normally makesedit – what I mean to say here, because I want to make this as clear as possible, is that Walker, by design, has ensured that many of the visitors would make themselves living examples of exactly the kind of pervasive racism that her work rightly excoriates.

It’s an interesting view I hadn’t thought of, though my friend Ben tweeted the same idea to me at some point. I didn’t think of it in part because my engagement with Walker is limited to a conference and a dinner party but also because I wanted to engage with the work with a certain kind of audience.   We had a brief discussion about it on line made all the more interesting because it’s a tricky thing for a white man and a black woman to talk about a black woman’s feelings about a representation of black womanhood…on the internet…where everybody could see. It was the kind of dialogue I think I was hoping for. More specifically, I think I wanted to be in that space with a diverse group of people who could get the piece as I did, like going to a movie where everyone chuckles or sighs with you and then you argue afterwards about what it might all mean.  And I’m frustrated because even though I should no better, I know that’s not going to happen, even here in Brooklyn—perhaps especially here in Brooklyn where people are so sure of their liberal bonafides that they rarely consider how they perpetuate racism. After all, the whole purpose for the exhibit pays homage to a lack of integration in this hip and happening borough.

I would have been happy if there had been more of the kind of people I saw the exhibit with my third and fourth visits.

My third time I went with my favorite colleague Janet and her fabulous, wonderful husband Sam. I’ve known Janet for ten years (she co-chaired the committee that hired me), and when I first joined the English department, she would take me on these rambles and show me some part of New York I needed to know about and that was also fun. Of all the colleagues I have, she is the one who comes closest to what I hoped it would be like to be a professor. We are not limited to maddening department politics; in fact, we have visits when all we’ve talked about is make-up and movies. I still remember her taking me to her brother’s office so I could see an arerial view of The Gates in Central Park. Her real-world politics are inspiring. I’ve often said that there are white folks I know who would be sad (so sad with their fee-fees) I had to sit at the back of the bus and there are white folks I know who would burn the bus down until I could sit up front. Janet and Sam fall in the latter category. I wanted to see the exhibition with them because they are smart, fun, and interesting, but it was also way to show them a part of Brooklyn they don’t know so well. It was also a kind of thank you for introducing me to the City.

Janet teaches film, but brought up Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” poems as we talked about the banana boys. With her and Sam, I got to engage with the work differently than I did with Jennifer and Kim. Jennifer and I were so awed by it, and Kim and I were there on a busy Friday with so many people that it was difficult to concentrate in any real way (we went to a café after and each did a bit of writing before we had dinner). In between being appalled by irritating white folks being irritating, Janet and I talked about how the decomposing sugar looked like blood (her observation), we talked about how the light hit the statues. We talked about the heartbreak of seeing the banana boys crumbling. Sam is a photographer, so he took pictures with Janet’s phone until the battery went out and then when with my phone. One of them, maybe Janet, explained that this same kind of disregard for history and suffering was on display when people visited concentration camps (that image left me speechless for a moment). Sam noted a woman having her friend take a picture as she bent over pretending to lick one of the banana boys as if he were a lollipop. He also noted a little black boy staring up into the face of another banana boy. It never occurred to me to take pictures of folks behaving badly, but I’m glad that Sam did. I don’t just mean that I’m glad I have the pictures because someone took them, but I’m glad that Sam is the someone who did. I don’t know why yet.

photo-89He took a lot of wonderful pictures, but this is my favorite.

While we were there two Latino men covered in tattoos strode in and one said loudly, “I wanna see the slit!” His friend looked around nervously. Perhaps because I was one of the only few black people there but, I suspect, because my disdain for this behavior was a palpable thing and he could feel my glare before he saw it. Oddly, enough however, I was the least offended by these two guys. At first I thought it was because they were men of color, but ultimately I think I was rather amused and pleased. The idea of two men standing for an hour or more in the hot sun to see a huge naked woman cracked me up. I imagined the conversation and the debate that must have happened while they waited to get in. 90 minutes in the middle of summer is a long time to wait to see a thing you can view in under a minute. You can see it on the internet, so why bother to wait in line to see it in real life? It made me wish I were a poet or a proper writer so I could pretend to get inside their heads. If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have found a way to talk to them, not to preach or scold but to have a conversation, a chat, about what they thought. I might have pulled up the whole poem that teases men for avoiding “the slit.” (I’ll only quote the beginning here):

Every boorish, dullard poet
Who knows how to drink and prate,
(I will never give them board
Knowing I am better bred),
Prattles on in plaintive praise
Of girls’ assets without pause,
All, by Christ, incompetent.
Day in, day out, incontinent
Crawlers out to cadge a girl
Praise her hair as if the Grail
Was tangled in it. Lower
Down they go, and now glower
Over her eyebrows: her frown
Is bliss. Thus to the breasts, round
Between the arms, fit to burst,
And her hands, folded and blest.

I hate that I didn’t get to talk with them.

My final visit was on the second-to-last-day of the exhibit. I went by myself. I hadn’t planned to go again, but I heard that Free University had organized to have writers and other artists in the space to offer a different engagement than the one that seemed to be dominating the exhibit. It was the longest I’ve had to wait to get in (almost an hour and a half), and I was less interested in the exhibit at this point and more about watching the people engage with it. The space that was empty when Jen and I were there the first day was crowded with people.

photo-90

I was curious to see what would happen to the spaces with voices of color deliberately raised. Creative Time put space aside for the Free University and I stood and listened to Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish part of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo” I don’t speak Spanish, but hearing it there nudged me out of my myopia.  When Tracie Morris started with what was listed as “original sound poetry,” I’ll confess I moved away. I don’t have a lot of patience for spoken word poetry, by which I mean have no patience for it. I was also more interested in what would be like to be at the exhibit with so many black people. The other times I’ve been there the crowd had been overwhelming me white with pockets of black people here and there. Saturday it seemed like at least half of the people there were black. Parents brought their children, daughters were there with their mothers, and lovers were there holding hands. I saw black kids and families posing in front of the figures, and it didn’t bother me. Although I should know better by now, I’m sure I was projecting my own black experience onto the families, but mostly I couldn’t really concentrate on how other people were seeing the exhibit.  Morris’ voice was clear and strong and it carried through the space. When I ran into her later, at the back of the Sphinx, I thanked her and explained that even thought I couldn’t hear what she was saying precisely, I could hear her voice and people responding to her and it pushed out whatever offensive nonsense I’d heard and seen in my earlier visits. She had disrupted the irritating. I paid attention this time around to the smell of sugar. It had been growing stronger the more we got into summer, but this time I noticed specific spots where it was particularly strong, almost suffocatingly so. I tried to see why, looking for vents or spaces to explain the difference. I had to step carefully, the melting sugar babies made it dangerous to move around easily. In some instances, they had fallen in such a way and melted to such a degree that it was almost impossible to get close to them. That seemed fitting.

photo-92Part of me wishes I was important enough to go back one more time, when Walker is there to oversee the dismantling. I’ve grown attached to the space and its current occupants and I’d like to see them again. I suspect that seeing the installation taken down would just upset me and make me cry. I can see myself standing there in that sticky mess crying and making it all messier.

My mom told me the other day about reading The Cost of Sugar and recognizing the names in the book as places from her childhood. She’s affectionately amused at my curiosity about “our” plantation. I still have no idea what to do with information I wasn’t seeking in the first place. I know they grew sugar in Suriname, but I think our plantation might have been too small to grow it. Maybe they grew it in Commewijne a larger plantation where my cousin now lives. I really don’t know.

 

“Belle” in Context

If you’re me, and you’ve spent the last 15 years or so reading and writing about nineteenth-century British literature, the release of “Belle” does more than just provide a moment of personal joy. The cinematic rendering of a real figure from the 1800s represents a moment when the ivory (ahem) tower and popular culture intersect to produce a film that, even with its flaws, is set to change the way we read, understand, and, more importantly, imagine the period. I didn’t choose to study nineteenth-century British literature and culture in order to think about race and representation, but my work to understand the ideologies behind and underneath canon formation led me there, and in my book project that thinks about how women’s bodies function as the site for ideological debates, black women’s bodies have popped up so often that I decided they needed their own chapter—right there between a chapter about Jane Austen’s courtship novels and a chapter on Mary Shelley’s indictment of imperialism. In other words, I’ve been thinking and writing about all of those invisible Belles that do not yet have their own narratives. And, as someone who brings pop culture into her classes so often that terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are practically useless, I’ve been particularly curious about why we had Zombie Austen before we had Black Austen.

BelleWhile “Belle” has not marketed itself as an Austen adaptation (Amma Asante describes it as a “Jane Austen-style period romance”), the film brings to mind Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Asante’s film tells the story of a young woman who could easily have been Fanny Price’s doppelgänger. Dido Belle Lindsay is a young woman with ties to the wealthy and the landed and, like all of Austen’s heroines, is wending her way through the marriage market towards a suitable and companionate marriage. She’s beautiful, charming, and feisty. She’s also black or, more specifically, bi-racial—the daughter of a slave and a navy admiral, and in the film her very presence in the household of the Earl of Mansfield is the spark behind his ruling on the Zong Massacre. What this means is that in addition to selecting the right mate, she has to do so while walking a tightrope of race and gender and the respectability politics that prompted Kelli Goff (bless her heart) to forget that this is still at it’s heart a film that holds up white supremacy and patriarchy, even at the very end.

In the trailer for the film, we see the young Belle transported from a port town to a large estate in much the same way that Fanny Price is transported from Portsmouth (a slave port) to an English estate that relies on the products of the slave trade. Belle faces a stern benefactor, but Harold Pinter, who portrays Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” has been replaced with Tom Wilkinson, who Austen fans might recognize from his turn as a dying Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The questions that Austen’s heroine Fanny faces about her place in the family (somewhere between servant and sister) are here in the film. Belle, like Fanny, has to choose between two men—a moral man with virtually no social or economic capital and a man whose view of her is, let’s just say, problematic.

This is not to suggest that “Belle” is simply a remake of Rozema’s adaptation or Austen’s novel. Misan Sagay’s screenplay is its own beautifully crafted narrative and Asante’s direction shows the kind of restraint necessary for a story that could so easily slip into the sentimental and overwrought. Seeing this movie was like watching an essay in moving images. More than considering it an Austen adaptation and/or a period film that paints by the numbers, I see it as a true palimpsest that reminds us of the Austen we know while inviting us to understand what she only hints at in her novels. It presents relationships between women of color and white women that are both tense and affectionate. It draws explicit connections between the marriage market and the slave trade, something Mary Wollstonecraft does in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It offers a lesson in how inheritance laws trapped both women and men. It shows the limits of sentimental progressive politics. And it does so by placing the fate of a woman of color at the center of its narrative to reveal the limits of picture perfect perfection.

We’ve seen alternative narratives that shift the focus from white main characters to a person of color (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargosso Sea, the prequel to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and its multiple film adaptations come immediately to mind), but Austen’s world has remained white in the public imagination, even though, in Emma and Persuasion, the issue of the slave trade is not entirely invisible. When we do encounter people of color in Austen’s world they are in contemporary adaptations. The most popular are Amy Heckerling’s almost flawless “Clueless,” set in a modern high with a multi-racial student body, and Gurinder Chada’s much less successful Bollywood Adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” (full disclosure: In the bottom of some filing cabinet sits my own attempt at a modern adaptation of Austen I co-wrote while driving across the country one summer. It’s called “Emma Jones.” Everyone in it is black. It’s not very good. Let’s leave it at that). To even introduce race and slavery into Austen is such a tricky prospect that Rozema had to prepare audiences for her Mansfield Park by making explicit that her intention was interpretation not fidelity.

Those who defended her film from critiques and rants of Austen purists did so from a place of well-intentioned but historically inaccurate indulgence, accepting that Rozema is projecting late twentieth-century politics back onto the nineteenth. But an adaptation likes “Belle” makes clear that what we now know allows us to re-imagine a world that Austen would have known but that would not fit into the courtship rituals she always satirized and sometimes endorsed. The specter of a racialized body in Austen’s world of manners would change the social alchemy of her novels. If her goal was to satirize courtship rituals, slavery didn’t lend itself to a lady’s humor or wit. It’s worth remembering, however, that British white women wrote about slavery and abolition during Austen’s time. In fact, depicting the horrors that slavery visited upon women and children in particular became rather fashionable among women writers of the time. They weren’t poking fun at its practitioners and defenders; instead they either went towards the completely sentimental (see Hannah More) or the pragmatic (see the interracial marriage in the first edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda). We can count Mansfield Park as Austen’s contribution to that conversation and “Belle” might well complete it. As I often remind my students, Austen chose to make explicit what makes life at Mansfield Park possible.

Of course, people of color have been present in British prose from at least as early as the seventeenth century, but on college syllabi and in the public imagination they are far and few between: Othello (1604), Oroonoko (1688), Equiano (1797), and Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (1848). In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives. In his new edition of the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale Lyndon Dominique lists 50 long prose fiction and plays from 1605 to 1861 that include characters of color, roughly half of which were published during Austen’s time. We have been seeing new editions of some of those stories at a steady pace. The 1994 edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda shows a black servant on the cover. Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick for Oxford University Press, it presents the original novel with the interracial marriage of Juba an African servant and Lucy an English farm girl (Edgeworth was pressured to remove the marriage). In 1999, the same year of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” Oxford University Press released a new edition of Adeline Mowbray a novel published in 1804 which features a West Indian woman and her son as saviors and companions to the title character. In 2002, just before I finished my doctorate, the Broadview edition of Wuthering Heights issued. I was planning my history of the British novel class and when arrived it had a Moor on the cover; not the desolate landscape of my well-annotated Norton edition but an actual Moor and I remember writing a colleague: “When did we go from Laurence Olivier to Laurence Fishburn?” The cover of the 2008 edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is a detail from a painting in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield. The painting is titled “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray”—the two young women in Asante’s adaption. In the novel, “Dido” is the name of the heroine’s black servant.

Austen adaptations have remained in a liminal space similar to the one Fanny occupies when she can’t return to the squalor of her home in Portsmouth but can no longer remain at Mansfield Park if it means adhering to her uncle’s wishes. They have stayed somewhere between the all-white period adaptations and the modern multi-racial ones—more Gwyneth than Lupita. But “Belle” marks an important change. It makes clear that while it’s certainly possible to go on pretending there were no black people, at least in the background, of Austen’s world it’s no longer interesting or even a nuanced representation of the time. The “dead silence” of Mansfield Park is filled with questions, speeches and declarations, and if you know the history of the abolitionist movement in England you know that beyond happily ever after, Belle’s presence represents concrete social change that echoes in a twenty-first century Britain that is paying more and more attention to its history of slavery. Much of this national self-reflection has been prompted by the fact that 2007 gave England a chance to think about the abolition of the slave trade. In 2006, The Church of England apologized for benefitting from the slave trade. The International Museum of Slavery opened in Liverpool in 2007. In 2013, The Independent reported the results of a study that showed in stark terms how much slaveowners were paid during and after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first black Marchioness in 2013 prompted a series of articles making clear that the peerage has a multi-racial legacy.

The storytellers are either catching up or leading the way. Despite Heathcliff being described as a “‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” he had always been cast as white in film versions of the novel until 2011 when he was portrayed by the black British actor James Howson. Then there’s Longbourn by Jo Baker . It turns its attention to the servants who make the lives of the gentry in Pride and Prejudice possible. In this representation of those beneath the stairs, Baker introduces the kinds of characters we might meet in “Belle,” and her portrait of those figures is compelling and clearly informed by a post-abolitionist reading of Austen and her world. To present social change as the work of a young woman of color, to have the body of a British woman of color as the fulcrum for legal pronouncements nudges us to reconsider race and gender in the nineteenth century and perhaps even in our own. I mean that literally. The first black marchioness who caused a bit of a stir last year? Her first name is Emma.

Suriname, Part the First: Roots

I don’t really think of myself as having “roots” and I don’t know that I’ve missed them. In theory, I know I have roots. Everyone does, don’t they? But I didn’t grow up thinking about them. It’s part of what comes with being a third-culture kid. You move around as much as I did (Tinker AFB, Amsterdam, Cheyenne, Guam, Minot, Abilene, Okinowa, Biloxi, Angeles City, Bossier City, Natchitoches, Amherst, Montclair, Brooklyn*) with a mother from a tiny country most people have never heard of and a father “from New York” and the overall feeling is more about being regularly uprooted or, rather, transplanted on a regular basis than having roots.

It’s not been an unpleasant life at all. I was an extrovert as a kid, so while leaving was never easy, new places meant fresh beginnings and opportunities to reimagine how I might move through the world. When I started high school in the Philippines, there was no one to remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in the sixth grade in Mississippi. And when I left the Philippines, I could invent an entire narrative about it for my college friends in Shreveport. Moving was so much a part of my life that after four and a half years of college, even though I had no plan, I thought I was supposed to leave Louisiana, to uproot myself, and move someplace else (Evanston/Chicago) because my average tour in any state or country was 18 to 24 months.

The other term for third-culture kids is global nomads, and I would say that this feels like a better fit for me but only because it describes my opposition to a nomadic life. Right now, my greatest desire is to stay in one place and read and then write about what I’m reading. I don’t even like to travel to Manhattan. I’m not kidding. I teach in New Jersey and the sense of relief I feel when I drive back to Brooklyn is not simply about putting space between me and the messiness of academic departments, and it’s not even about the growing need I have to write more and more. I think it’s that I feel rooted in Brooklyn. I’m not from here (I’m not from anywhere), but it’s home, and I feel myself rooting in here, in this borough with nomads that move in and out of my life.

When my mother announced last year that we should take a trip to Suriname, my ambivalence ran so deep that I forgot to tell people I speak with all the time that I was going away at all. In fact, until a few hours ago I didn’t even realize I was going to spend time in Trinidad (just a few hours) along the way. I’ve mocked myself as friends looked oddly at my flat announcement that I was leaving frigid Brooklyn for warm Paramaribo, but I’ve also admitted that, for the last few years, I’ve lost interest in traveling. I find it exhausting, and I feel like I’ve traveled enough for a lifetime. I meet these people who are excited about some trip, and I listen to them and ask questions and I’m very happy for them, but in my head I’m thinking “Good Lord, that sounds exhausting.”

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that I’m stressed about this trip because January has traditionally been a good writing month for me, that I’m going up for promotion and have a file to get together, that I hate packing. But the truth of it is I’m tired and the more I write the less I want to move around other people. Pleasure for me right now means days of quiet with a book or three and a legal pad scratching out notes.

But this trip has me thinking about roots. I was last in Suriname when I was 11 or 12. I learned to drive that trip. I sold watermelons with my uncle to people riding by his house. I drank coconut milk through a straw right from the coconut, immediately after my uncle commandeered it out of a tree. I went to French Guyana with my uncle for the day, and I visited with my oma who spoke virtually no English (my first language was Dutch, but I lost it decades ago). Is that what it means to have roots? To have memories from childhood? I don’t feel Surinamese or Dutch. In fact, I remember an unfortunate chapter in my life when I kept insisting to my mother, loudly, “I am an AMERICAN.” I’m a military brat, and more than anything else I’ve been I’ve always been AMERICAN. I don’t really know what that means. I do know I’ve never even bothered to apply for dual citizenship, though I know that’s something I should care about.

Once, a very nice, elegant southern gentleman (the kind with a single letter in front of his second and third names) said to me, “Tell us, Tricia, who are your people?” I replied, “that’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t really have people.” I do, of course, more than I can count (my mother has six siblings all with kids and grandchildren, and my father has three with kids who also have kids), but we traveled so much I only knew them from infrequent visits and letters (I remember one year that one of my birthday gifts was a long-distance call from the Philippines to New York so I could speak to my grandmother).

But each time I’m with my cousins, my Dutch and/or American ones, I discover some common thing, and now I wonder was that a root?

My mother said casually last night that I would be seeing my Uncle Arthur, and for the first time it seemed worth packing up and trekking to the airport at ass o’clock in the morning (3:30 am, to be exact). I blurted “Oom Artur!” with a perfect Dutch accent. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, but when my dad was sent to Vietnam, a month after I was born, my Uncle Arthur took care of my mom and me. I don’t remember much, but my mother said that, among other things, he used to hold me on one knee and his daughter on the other (apparently I fought the poor girl over him, insisting he was my father). I don’t remember what we ever did together (he is not the uncle who taught me to drive), but I do remember how I always felt around him (happy and at home), and I wonder if that’s a root.

For my first solo trip abroad, I went to London. It wasn’t such a great trip, though I was happy to spend the day in Canterbury and glad I got to visit Marx’s grave. I had plenty of surreal moments, including an encounter with a white couple from Oklahoma who, upon discovering that we had a similar last name (they spell it with an “s”), said cheerily, “Oh, that’s because our ancestors owned your ancestors!” They said this with an astonishing amount of joy. I know I’m supposed to think of that as a root. I’m black; someone once owned someone in my family.

Later that trip, I was kind of lost near some square or another. It was kind of foggy and/or misty, and a tall, dark man (obsidian came to my mind immediately) appeared and announced, “I am Nubian.” He sounded exactly the way you would think an obsidian man would sound, especially if he appeared out of nowhere. He said, “where are you from?” and I was suddenly so tired of having to give my usual, convoluted answer (it begins, “well, my dad was in the military, and my mother is from Suriname…”) that I simply said I was from Louisiana. He said again, “I am Nubian. Where are you from?” And then I knew what he meant and was relieved to have an answer I thought would satisfy him. “St. Kitts.” He nodded, and then he disappeared.* My lack of curiosity about this fact about St. Kitt, a fact that I only know because my godfather did our family tree years ago, has never bothered me. When you’re not from anywhere at all who has time to think about where you are from, to care about things like roots?

But I’m going to Suriname, where my mother has her roots. I have family there, and I have memories, and I’m just beginning to think that I might have roots there too—if I can figure out what the hell that means and how much I actually care about them.

*these are the places I’ve lived and not the places I’ve visited; I wouldn’t know where to begin with that list.

**I’m not just saying that to be clever; one minute he was there and then he wasn’t.

Afro-Pedagogy: The Poetry of Race and Privilege

You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.

In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.

But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.

The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.

My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:

Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”

My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:

The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)

Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time
http://www.fuse.tv/2013/10/big-freedia-bounce-music-history-twerking

Big Freedia The Queen Diva

We did not watch them in class.

We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.

I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.

The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.

Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:

1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.

2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.

3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.

4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.

5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)

6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women

And then finally:

7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?

We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.

I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.

We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.

In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:

Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.

I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.

Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.

It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.

And, for now, I call that success.

100 Days: A View from Canada

I am very pleased to have a post from a good friend from the North. We talk politics, clothes, and pop culture, and I promised her that if she wrote about the President, I’d put together my thoughts about the First Lady. She finished first…

I didn’t watch the U.S. Presidential election coverage on November 4th, 2008. I couldn’t. In fact, I was on a complete, self-imposed, media blackout that day. As a Black woman, that may seem shocking. But, the dream of an African-American becoming President of the most powerful nation on earth was too overwhelming, too tantalizing, too impossible for me to take the risk of watching that dream not become a reality. After all, this election came on the heels of not one, but two elections that took place under, shall I say, “suspicious circumstances.” That, coupled with the vitriol and hatred being spewed by Obama’s detractors, made choosing not to watch the election coverage a no-brainer. Of course, on November 5th, 2008, I watched every online video of that historic moment that I could find!

Fast-forward to 100 days later, and I feel as though I am in a dream. I’m not African-American – an important distinction that I’ll elaborate upon in a minute – but the fact that Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American man, is President of the United States of America is incredible to me. The fact that, by any thinking person’s standards (so, yes, Rush, Ann, and all your “sheeple,” this does not include you), he is doing a great job with what is – as my colleague Nicole would say – a “hot mess,” leaves me in awe… even though I’m not at all surprised. The fact that leaders around the world appreciate and respect him (even my own country’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper who, if he turned out to be a borderline sociopath, I also would not be surprised) fills me with such hope for a better political and socio-economic future for our world.

And, as someone who makes a living from researching and analyzing the intricacies of race and racism, the fact that the whole world wants to claim Obama blows my mind. Everyone…from the Trinidadians


…to the Irish

The fact that countries the world over want to claim Obama is, to me, the most telling thing about the power of his presidency. Here’s why:

As I said above, I’m Black, and not African-American. (If asked, I would identify as Canadian. If pressed, as so frequently happens, I would identify as Caribbean-Canadian.) This needs explicit mentioning because too often “African-American” is used as a catch-all term for everyone who is Black, or who appears to be so. In my view, this is mostly due to the fact that the United States’ biggest global export is their culture: their norms, values, and terms of reference. This is problematic for many reasons, but mostly because it ignores the diversity within the African Diaspora, thereby denying the specific historical, political and socio-cultural experiences of people of African descent. It sends the message that all Black people look the same, think the same, live the same, act the same… in short, are the same. Newsflash, world: we aren’t (and never have been. This explains, for example, the existence of Black Republicans).

What ties Black people together is a shared history and experience of systemic racial discrimination and oppression.

This is why, when I saw that PowerPoint presentation of the racial history of African-Americans, set to Sam Cooke’s “Change Gon’ Come,”* I could relate to it, but not identify with it: I have no actual lived experience of those events–and neither do my parents and grandparents, because their experiences with oppression took place in the Caribbean, which is a different racialiazed context than the U.S. This idea of “relating to”, but not “identifying with” is key, because it goes a long way to explaining why so many people around the world endorsed Obama, and effectively claimed him for their own.

Since he doesn’t fit neatly into conventional categories of racial difference– born to a Black African man and a White American woman; raised by a White American mother and grandparents; spent his formative years in “exotic,” non-mainstream U.S. locales; identifies as African-American–Barack Obama, himself, becomes a catch-all: in this case, for everyone’s racial hopes and desires (or, fears and horrors, but that’s a conversation for a different post). People of colour relate to him because they know that he has faced racism, yet his success signifies an end to it. White people relate to him because he gives them hope that maybe – just maybe – they’ll finally get to stop worrying and feeling guilty about racism, because his success signifies an end to it. I get that. I really, really do. I also want, more than anything, to live in a world that’s free from racism, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.

But, the significant thing about the Obama presidency is not that it’s going to usher in this post-racial utopia that we’re all envisioning: it’s that it won’t.

It won’t, unless we decide to make it happen. It won’t, unless we are brave enough to start having those difficult and painful, yet honest, conversations about how we are all complicit in maintaining racism. It won’t, unless we acknowledge that racism is connected to, and supports, the other “-isms.” And, it won’t, unless we refuse to continue making excuses for, or otherwise covering up, racism when we witness and/or experience it, in all its myriad forms.

The real power of the Obama presidency is that we now have a common point of reference from which to begin.

*

Dominique is a Canadian researcher who focuses on equity and social justice in education. So, she knows that terms like “Black”, “White”, “African-American”, etc. are not neutral and shouldn’t be used uncritically. She’s hoping you’ll cut her some slack, though, because she was trying to keep her post short.