Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Give Me a Signal When It's My Turn to Join in the Chorus

I just finished reading Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (Pantheon, 1996), a posthumous collection of fiction, nonfiction, and a long interview by Toni Cade Bambara.  There's a lot of interesting material in it, including a fine essay on Spike Lee's School Daze and another on Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. She also discusses independent African-American film, including several I want to track down and see.

But I'm writing this to quote some bits that especially caught my interest.  First, one I disliked: Bambara says that in writing her novel The Salt Eaters
... I was stretching, reaching, trying to do justice to that realm of reality that we all live in but do not acknowledge, because the English language is for mercantile business and not for the interior life. The only time you see that realm rendered is in science fiction [235].
I think this qualifies as fairly explicit racism, but I'll be nice and say it's merely a false antithesis.  The English language is not only for mercantile business rather than the interior life, certainly no more than any other language.  It's a kind of statement that has often been made by white racists about non-European languages.  Sure, English can be used for business, but it has also been used for every other kind of purpose its users have tried: poetry, oral storytelling, fantasy, philosophy.  On the other hand, no language handles very well the pre-verbal aspects of interior life, but people try anyway.  (I wonder what kind of science fiction she had in mind.)

But moving on.  In another essay she writes:
As David Mura, Amero-Japanese writer in Minnesota, has frequently said, POCs find in the cultural work of POCs what they can’t find in the Saul Bellows and Updikes, or in Descartes and Plato [177].
I'll go along with this, to a point.  It's also true that gay white men find in the cultural work of gay white men what they can't find in the work of heterosexuals.  Or that women find in the cultural work of women what they can't find in the work of men.  And so on.  It's perfectly all right to look for insights in the work of people who share one's background and experiences; it's important to stress the validity of doing so in a society which insists that only the work of members of the dominant group can have any value.  But there are two pitfalls in this statement.  One is that members of non-dominant groups will still, often, find useful material in works of the dominant group, though it is up to them to decide what has value there and what doesn't.  The other is that no group is monolithic, and differences within groups are greater than differences between them.  It's very important to me as a gay man, for example, to have available the cultural work of other gay men; but much of it doesn't speak to me at all -- though it speaks to other gay men.  This recognition has the added danger of leading to insularity, as with a gay English filmmaker who complained that all gay male films were about men who have muscles and live in West Hollywood, so he couldn't relate to them.  This was a lie, not to put too fine a point on it.  I still haven't watched his film, but I still wonder if I should, since I'm not a druggie Brit with carefully manicured beard stubble, so what could his cultural work, on his assumptions, have to say to me?  Cultural work should be about people like us, but also about people who aren't like us; sometimes those who aren't like us are members of our own group.

There's also an irony in Mura's dictum.  While the writers and thinkers he mentions are generally classified as "white", only Updike among them was a WASP.  Bellow was Jewish, and Descartes and Plato both belonged to what nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon racists would have called the dusky Mediterranean races.  They certainly weren't Anglo-Saxons, the "AS" in WASP.  Were the ancient Greeks white?  Bambara dismisses at least once the "two-race model" which divides humanity into blacks and whites (or POCs and non-POCs), but Mura seems to have fallen into that fallacy himself.  Though I wonder how specific he wants to be: can Asians learn from Africans? Can Chinese learn from Japanese, or Vietnamese, or Thais, or Indians?  Or should they stick to their own nationalities and subraces?

Mura's remark also reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet:
From the keepers of a dead canon we hear a rhetorical question -- that is to say, a question posed with the arrogant intent of maintaining ignorance.  Is there, as Saul Bellow put it, a Tolstoi of the Zulus?  Has there been, say the defenders of a monocultural curriculum, not intending to stay for an answer, has there ever yet been a Socrates of the Orient, an African-American Proust, a female Shakespeare?  However assaultive or fatuous, in the context the question has not been unproductive [51].
Sedgwick then poses analogous questions: "Has there ever been a gay Socrates?  Has there ever been a gay Shakespeare?  Has there ever been a gay Proust?" and stays for the answer: 
A short answer, though a very incomplete one, might be that not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare and Proust but that their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, Proust; and beyond that, legion -- dozens or hundreds of the most centrally canonic figures in what the monoculturalists are pleased to consider "our" culture, as indeed, always in different forms and senses, in every other [52].*
So one might retort to Mura and Bambara that there hasn't been a white Plato either.

My final quotation from Bambara:
I was always in the movie house. I liked movies, and I would sit there and rewrite them. Most of the time the stories were stupid because none of the women ever had girlfriends. I used to think, Well, no wonder. No wonder Barbara Stanwyck is getting thrown off the cliff, or Lana Turner is getting shot, or Bette Davis is having hysterics. They don’t have any girlfriends [225].
This is another independent formulation of the Liz Wallace/Alison Bechdel Rule for movies: that to be minimally interesting a movie must have a least two female characters, who talk to each other about something besides a man.  It's nice to find that so many great minds have come up with it.

*I'm not going to discuss here whether it's appropriate to say that Socrates, Shakespeare, or Proust were "gay"; suffice to say that they clearly weren't straight, as we think of it today.