Sunday, December 6, 2009

Playing the Queer Card

I'm thankful to Ishmael Reed for his article attacking the movie Precious at Counterpunch this week, because I had more to say about the matter of white gay racism and African-American antigay bigotry. I'd touched on Reed in an earlier post on the Henry Louis Gates Jr. controversy last July, but never finished the further post I began at the time, so I'm incorporating it here. Also on Counterpunch, Reed attacked Gates for, among other things, courting the support of white feminists and gays. (Not all of Gates's feminist and gay allies are white, of course; but that would complicate things too much.) He attacks Precious for not being friendly enough to black men, which is not an invalid complaint in itself, but also for being defended by "young black women professors ... the types who are using the university curriculum to get even with their fathers and teach courses in black women's literature, but can't identify more than three." Erm, three what? I suppose he means "black women writers", and even so I suspect he's exaggerating just a tad.

Armchair psychoanalysis of one's political opponents is good cheap fun, but it can backfire. Who's Reed trying to get even with, for example, aside from the people he lashes out at? This complaining about younger women colleagues is not just a black thing, for example; white men of a certain age are also given to griping about insubordinate wimmin. This guy, for example, my near contemporary, who explains (no permalink, dammit, but it's his first comment in the thread) in defense of his critique of a white female author that "many of the educated American women I know who came of age from about 1965 to 1980 showed signs of indoctrination. They often had unrealistic expectations about their relationships with men, what sorts of careers they should pursue, how well they could raise children, and in some cases they showed signs of narcissism, which they misinterpreted as empowerment."

Precious is based on the novel Push by Sapphire, which I read and found unimpressive, a sort of second-tier Color Purple knockoff. I loved the novel The Color Purple and hated Stephen Spielberg's movie version of it as I've hated very few movies in my life. Reed tries to hide behind the fact that Walker herself disliked Spielberg's movie, as did other black women writers. But Reed was one of the male African-American writers who attacked the novel itself for ascribing "criminal sexual offenses committed against women and children by some black men to the majority of or to all black men." This is an interesting falsehood, since most of the male characters in the book are depicted as supportive of women, good with children, hardworking family men -- Sofia's sons, for example, and her prizefighter boyfriend. Mr. _____'s son Harpo is abusive at first because he thinks it's the manly thing to do (and because Celie, jealous of Sofia's strength, encourages him), then stops trying to be a slavemaster and quickly achieves a harmonious relationship with his wife. Yes, the villains are more noticeable; is that a problem? (Uncle Tom's Cabin portrays all whites as whip-wielding slaveowners!)

As with white men who've made similar complaints, Reed seems to be complaining that violent, abusive men are being depicted as unsympathetic characters, rather than the heroes they should be. As Callie Khouri, whose Thelma and Louise was criticized in similar terms, told an interviewer, "But overall I think I am certainly not showing anything like the animals you're likely to see in a movie by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, or Oliver Stone ... You can show the most low-life, scum-fucking sicko in the world doing all kinds of violent shit to each other, or to women, and nobody says boo. But you have a woman point out that a guy is a sick fuck and blow up his truck, or have a good time with a guy they already kind of know is not on the up-and-up, and all hell breaks loose."

Just as interesting is Reed's claim that the movie has "Celie ... holding a knife against Mr.'s neck. That scene doesn't appear in the book. Spielberg put that knife in Celie's hand." First, it's not a knife, it's a razor; second, I believe this scene is in the book, pages 102-3 of the hardcover, the blade is definitely in Celie's hand, and her intent is homicidal:
I watch him so close, I begin to feel a lightening in the head. Fore I know anything I'm standing hind his chair with his razor open.

Then I hear Shug laugh, like something just too funny. ... Shug got her hand on the razor now. She say, Oh it look dull anyway. She take and sling it back in the shaving box.

All day long I act just like Sofia. I stutter. I mutter to myself. I stumble around the house crazy for Mr. _____ blood. In my mind, he falling dead every which a way.
It's true that Spielberg overdramatized the scene, as is his wont; I've only seen the movie once, when it was first in the theaters, but as I recall it Mr. _____ ordered Celie to shave him; she prepared the lather and razor while Shug went walking in the fields, then had to run back screaming for miles just in time to snatch the blade from Celie's hand. Spielberg exercised far greater license than this elsewhere in the film. As far as "sexual predators" goes, it takes serious tunnel vision to claim that Walker presents this as a black-only problem. When Celie tells Shug about being raped by her father, Shug responds: "And I thought it was only whitefolks do freakish things like that" (97). Is this a depiction of all white men as sexual predators? As I recall it there are no positive white characters in the novel, but that never bothered me. The history of white racism, like the history of violence against women of all colors by men of all colors, is not to be denied.

Now, why did Reed forget this scene? He could easily have cited it as evidence of Walker's perfidy and hatred of men (you see?! she wants all black women to cut all black men's throats!!!!); instead he seems to have erased it from his memory.

Reed can muster plenty of African-Americans who attack Oprah Winfrey, who produced the film and whom I certainly don't consider beyond criticism, but it's hard to say how much of this is the sort of criticism that any rich, power-hungry person will attract and probably deserve. Reed joins another black male writer in denouncing Winfrey for producing films that have "negative stereotypical images of black men." (So, as far as I can tell, do most films produced by black men about black men; but again, gangsters and players are okay as long as they're heroes.) But it seems that Reed's most serious complaint about Precious is that it is a "film in which gays are superior to black male heterosexuals" and "Caribbean Americans are smarter than black Americans." (As though gays are all white, and no Caribbean Americans are black.)

I'm not interested in playing the game of competitive oppression, but I enjoy pointing out to African-American homophobes that they were enslaved for only 400 years, while men who have sex with men have been persecuted and killed for 3000 years. The people I mention this to are usually Christians and appeal to Christian tradition to justify their bigotry, so there isn't much they can say in reply. (There's nothing in the Bible against Africans comparable to Leviticus 20:13 or Romans 1:26ff; on the other hand, the fact that the Bible has no objection to slavery itself is an uncomfortable point for them, but they usually try to dodge it.) True, the death toll has been far greater for enslaved Africans than for queers, but as queers have so often been reminded, we can pass and are harder to hunt down and kill. On the other hand, peoples who were thought to be tolerant of queers, such as the pre-Columbian peoples of the Western hemisphere, were often not enslaved but simply slaughtered by the European Christian invaders.

But as I say, the game of competitive oppression is as useless as that of competitive poverty. I don't think that Reed would claim that the Holocaust justifies Israeli violence against Palestine -- I certainly don't -- and I don't think that the European/American enslavement of Africans justifies antigay bigotry by African-Americans. I'll give Reed credit for criticizing Bill Cosby for his attacks on ordinary black Americans, but as Michael Eric Dyson's book on Cosby shows, you can criticize Cosby without wetting your pants about feminists and gays.

Some apologists for bigotry have minimized African-American Christian bigotry on the grounds that it's based in religion, as though most bigotry weren't based in religion. Would they defend the longstanding racism of Bob Jones University because it's religiously based? Considering how often racism in America has been justified by appeal to religion, this is an absurd claim.

It appears to me that apologists for bigotry believe, or wish to imply, that references to homophobia in the African-American community are meant to say that African-American antigay bigotry is worse, or more widespread, than antigay bigotry in the European-American community. Maybe some people think so, but I don't. I don't know of any real evidence on the question, so I'm happy to treat homophobia by blacks as no worse than homophobia by whites. But antigay bigotry by whites is normative, widespread, and terribly destructive; I don't tolerate it, let alone excuse it on the grounds that it's worse among blacks. When I condemn antigay bigotry among African-Americans, I do so because bigotry is unacceptable. Portraying gays and feminists as white or white dupes puts black gays and feminists in a doubly hard place.

Meanwhile, I happened yesterday on a used copy of an earlier book of Reed's prose, Airing Dirty Laundry (Addison-Wesley, 1993), which contained attacks on Barney Frank for being gay and a defense of Clarence Thomas, who was also according to Reed depicted as a black sexual predator by white feminists, and suffered the awful fate of being elevated to the Supreme Court of the United States as a consequence. Oh, the humanity! Much like Chris Brown, who has also attacked Oprah for failing to appreciate how much he has suffered for his beating of his former girlfriend Rihanna; and who was defended by many of his young female fans who could understand why he'd have to slap a woman around.

Looking over those older essays reminded me where I'd heard Reed's rhetoric before. It's what I heard from white Southerners during Jim Crow days: 1) don't you outside agitators come down here stirring up trouble, our colored were perfectly happy until you brought your Red propaganda down here; 2) you cage up your colored up north, yet you paint us as a bunch of ignorant rednecks. (Randy Newman skewered this trope without mercy in his classic song "Rednecks", without sparing the North.) The trouble for Reed is that white gays and white feminists went after "our own" first, and we're still fighting that war. We are not being in the least hypocritical in challenging bigotry in the African-American community when it rears its head there.

I see that I've said little about Precious here. Well, I haven't seen it yet, and besides, I don't think it's really what got Reed all riled. Uppity women and queers have been a thorn in his side for a long time.