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Jess Row: Native Sons

August 13, 2014

A straight white American man on loving James Baldwin and learning to write about race.

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Image from Flickr via Kal Ashraf

By Jess Row

For years now I’ve been telling people that my favorite postwar American novel—the novel that’s had the most influence on my own work—is James Baldwin’s Another Country, originally published in 1962. This gets me a lot of startled looks. Often the person I’m talking to says, “I’ve never read it,” or, occasionally, “You know, I love that book.” But the skepticism is always there, just the same: a kind of wary sideways glance, as if waiting for the punchline. They seem to be wondering, not, “Why Baldwin? Why Another Country?” but “Why you?”

Let me explain.

I’m a straight white American man. James Baldwin, as most everyone knows, was a black gay American man. And Another Country is, inescapably, a novel about racial and sexual liberation. It begins with a night-long descent into despair: Rufus, a struggling black musician who has just left a doomed and abusive relationship with a white woman, wanders the streets of New York, and finally jumps off the George Washington Bridge. His death reverberates in the lives of his best friend Vivaldo—who is white—and his beautiful and tormented sister, Ida, who fall into and then out of love; in the lives of Eric, Rufus’ male lover, who, like Baldwin, fled sexual repression to find love in Paris, and Richard and Cass, a young married couple who befriended Rufus and are undone by his death. Caught up in a kind of transfiguring grief, each person in the novel departs, in some way, from the person they’ve always imagined themselves to be. Probably the most dramatic episode occurs when the avowedly heterosexual Vivaldo falls into bed with Eric. “He seemed to have fallen through a great hole in time,” Baldwin writes, “back to his innocence, he felt clear, washed, and empty, waiting to be filled…he felt fantastically protected, liberated, by the knowledge that, no matter where, once the clawing day descended, he felt compelled to go…there was a man in the world who loved him.”

I’m always surprised that they shrink at reading Baldwin’s descriptions of interracial and gay desire out loud.

When Another Country was published—at the very peak of Baldwin’s public stature as a civil rights activist—it was taken as a document of a very small slice of the present: the Greenwich Village and Paris of the late 1950s and early 1960s, where interracial couples and gay people were able to live openly, mostly but not entirely out of the omnipresent shadow of violence. But Another Country is also an intensely prophetic book, in which Baldwin glimpses a world much more like the one we inhabit today, where overt, legal racism and homophobia is inexorably falling away, and what we have to look at, instead, is the face of the person we’ve feared and misunderstood and avoided. It’s a plural world, a world of unstable pronouns, multiple identities, and overlapping narratives. Which is not to say that anyone in the book ends up happy: this is a novel, after all, that begins with one man’s leap off the George Washington Bridge and ends with a series of betrayals—profound and petty—among his survivors. It’s out of that traumatized state, Baldwin seems to say, that the most important realization occurs: our offenses, our intertwined histories and mutual obligations, are more like love affairs than legal cases—love affairs that are never really over. “It doesn’t do any good to blame the people or the time,” one of his characters says, “one is oneself all those people. We are the time.”

When I teach Another Country to my undergraduate students—who were born in the 1990s and came of age around the same time as The L Word and the 2008 Obama campaign—I’m always surprised that they shrink at reading Baldwin’s descriptions of interracial and gay desire out loud. Something about seeing these relationships all at once, on the page, where they can’t be ironized or taken back, is bewildering to them. The word that comes up most often in our discussions is “raw”: raw like a scab picked off, raw like the worst insult, like the conversation you never want to have. That this book is more than 50 years old hardly seems to matter: they speak of the characters in the present tense, sharing their sense of newness, friction, even alarm. And every time one or two of them turn to me and ask: Why aren’t there more novels like this? This book changed my life. Why doesn’t everybody read it? How come I’ve never heard of it before?

And I tell them, hang on to those questions. Live those questions. That’s what I’ve been doing for fifteen years.

*

I was introduced to Baldwin at the unforgivably late age of 23, driving through the badlands of South Dakota on the way to graduate school in Michigan. Listening to a collection of old Studs Terkel radio interviews, I came upon a segment with Baldwin from 1961, just before Another Country was published. Speaking of his years in Paris, Baldwin says, “I began to see this country for the first time. If I hadn’t gone away, I would never have been able to see it; and if I was unable to see it, I would never have been able to forgive it.” He continues:

The country has no notion of what it has done to itself…it shows in every single level of our lives, from the most public to the most private. One of the reasons I think that our youth is so badly educated…is because education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. There mustn’t be something they can not think about. Now, there is always something in this country, of course, one can not think about—the Negro. Time will prove the connection between the level of the lives we lead and the extraordinary endeavor to avoid black men.

At this point Terkel interjects: “So we don’t even know our own names?” And Baldwin replies: “No we don’t. This is the whole point. And I suggest this: that is order to learn your name, you are going to have to learn mine. In a way, the American Negro is the key figure in this country; and if you don’t face him, you will never face anything.”

My version of Another Country would have to begin with whiteness, the unnamed, unresolved, guilty whiteness of 90s liberals, hidden under irony and subterfuge: fake dreadlocks, tribal tattoos, unconvincing DJ names. Whiteness that was doing everything possible to act as if it no longer mattered.

When I finished Another Country a few months later, I had an unwelcome, but insistent, thought: I want to write a novel like this. What did that even mean? It wasn’t as if I had any worthwhile perspective, any standing, to write a novel about race: I was a white upper-middle-class liberal child—not of the suburbs, because I’d nearly always lived inside city lines, but of what realtors still call, euphemistically, “nice neighborhoods.” While I had lived my entire conscious life in the shadow of the civil rights movement—my parents both marched in the March on Washington; Eyes on the Prize played on repeat in our house—I had grown up in nearly all-white communities, in nearly all-white private schools. My version of Another Country would have to begin with whiteness: not the earnest, hapless, guilty whiteness of early ’60s liberals but the unnamed, unresolved, guilty whiteness of ’90s liberals, hidden under irony and subterfuge: fake dreadlocks, tribal tattoos, unconvincing DJ names. Whiteness, that is, that was doing everything possible to act as if it no longer mattered, to draw attention away from itself.

What would that novel look like? I couldn’t imagine it. There were writers of color who wrote brilliantly about whiteness perceived from the outside—Baldwin, of course, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Junot Díaz, Maxine Hong Kingston, bell hooks; there was my friend ZZ Packer, who had just published her story about an agonizing black-white friendship, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” in The New Yorker—but in my MFA program, where there wasn’t a single black student, no one was speaking in those terms. As students we were all schooled in the nuances of postmodern identity politics—it was more or less the core curriculum of the first-year composition courses we all had to teach—but in the workshop, where it counted, the authors we read and discussed and modeled ourselves after were overwhelmingly white.

As a writer, I had always wanted to be someone’s golden child: a disciple, an apprentice, a protegé. I had studied with Harold Bloom at Yale and absorbed, almost without thinking, the tenets of The Anxiety of Influence, that literature was a family romance, that “strong poets wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death.” And I had assumed that my strong precursors had to be white American men; as an undergraduate, I read every one I could find, to the exclusion of anyone else. One month it was Andre Dubus; the next month Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Rick Moody, Harold Brodkey. (Packer, who was my freshman counselor, observed me reading feverishly through a stack of dirty realists and predicted my first book would be titled Men in Jail.) I’d spent one summer in college driving around the Southwest in a rusted-out Ford, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes; as an expat in Asia I’d hung out in a lot of backpacker and gwailo bars in Hong Kong and Thailand, waiting for something interesting to happen. It never did. In Bloom’s terms, I was a failure: a weak ephebe, an idealizer, an orphan. From another perspective, I was a bad actor: bad at performing versions of literary whiteness I’d somehow never quite believed in.

But disillusioned as I was, I was still stuck. I needed permission, a precedent: the one thing I knew I could not do was sit at my computer and type out a sentence that sounded like Baldwin. I had no standing. There was no way I could say that my strong precursor was a black man.

*

The conventional trajectory of influence in American culture goes two ways. On one hand, Phyllis Wheatley modeled her poetry on Alexander Pope; Hannah Crofts adapted Wuthering Heights; W.E.B. DuBois echoed Emerson; Baldwin was deeply marked by Henry James, Toni Morrison by Faulkner. On the other, white actors in the nineteenth century appropriated black traditions and created minstrelsy, beginning a recycling of black art forms into white popular culture that stretches from Bix Biederbiecke to Macklemore. High-to-high going one way; low-to-low the other. (The quotation marks are assumed). In both directions this view is a caricature and a myth: it ignores the collaborations between black and white artists that have produced some of the great monuments of our culture, like Kind of Blue; it promotes the idea that the only authentic black art forms are “primitive” ones; and it places great artists of color on a pedestal, as isolated geniuses rather than central, defining voices of the age.

“White and black Americans,” Albert Murray once wrote, “are more alike one another than they are alike anyone else in the world.”

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Baldwin was writing Another Country, much of the debate about white appropriation and black art was shaped by Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” probably the most pernicious text ever written on the subject. “The Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization,” Mailer writes, “and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks…and in his music he gave voice to…his rage and the infinite variations of joy…For jazz is orgasm…and so it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond.” He describes Greenwich Village as a place where “a ménage à trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face to face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life…the hipster [is] a philosophical psychopath, and Hip is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle.” Although Baldwin never said so explicitly, Another Country is addressed to Mailer, and more broadly to the culture at large, which saw interracial love—and black art—as versions of pathology. In response, not surprisingly, Mailer said Another Country was “abominably written.”

Although it was discredited long ago, “The White Negro” was a powerful act of reverse psychology: it’s hard to find any white American writer today who would claim a debt to Toni Morrison, even though she is easily as dominant a figure as Faulkner was at the end of his career. Morrison’s voice, particularly the voice of Beloved, is present in the work of scores of contemporary white writers, in one way or another, including mine, but it can seem embarrassing to say so. It feels like a return to minstrelsy and/or pathologizing—a kind of offensive self-congratulatory self-othering, as if we’re asking that a little of Morrison’s blackness rub off on us. White writers still think of writers of color as “of color” first and “writers” second, as if the sum total of their work is some essence of ethnicity we’ll never share. And it’s very easy to think of this embarrassment, this self-segregation, as an enlightened response, without acknowledging the arrogance that lies beneath it: essentially saying, “black literature is for black people.” No one, apart from a few of the most ardent cultural nationalists, has ever said that George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop or Philip Roth represent white literature for white people. We still assume that certain models are universal for literature because of who wrote them.

This mindset—that the best compliment we can pay to black literature, and the black experience, is to ignore it—is rooted in a more fundamental reality of the post-Civil Rights era: most white writers, like most white Americans, particularly those over 30, still feel a profound psychic distance between themselves and black people. The combined effects of white flight and suburban sprawl, the failure of busing and the resegregation of schools, and the toxic racial atmosphere of the Reagan years are all proximate causes here, not to mention the lingering betrayals of the Civil Rights era. But the defining experiences for people my age (that is, Generations X and Y) fall in the tumultous years between 1988 and 1992—the years of Tawana Brawley, Howard Beach, the Central Park Five, and the L.A. Riots0—when a furious debate over canonicity and inclusion raged in the academy, when Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton came to prominence, Malcolm X superseded MLK, when Ice Cube talked about killing blue-eyed devils, and t-shirts everywhere said “It’s a Black thing…you wouldn’t understand.”

That era seems like ancient history now, but it has everything to do with why American fiction and poetry remain relentlessly segregated spaces, even though many of our greatest and most visible artists are artists of color. For many white Americans, the takeaway message of that complicated time, consciously or sub- or un-, was like a second, post-Civil-Rights response to “The White Negro”: that for a white person to try to say anything meaningful about race, or racism, was not only ridiculous, but shameful, and also somehow dangerous. It was “a powder-keg.” It was a “third rail.” For writers, the impetus instead was to define a space of white culture that seemingly had nothing to do with blackness. It might be Annie Proulx’s Wyoming or Richard Ford’s Montana, Wallace Stevens’ Key West, or David Foster Wallace’s Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment; Prague, Thailand, the Upper East Side, cyberspace, indie record stories, Comicon, Mars. The white imagination, in my lifetime, has roamed everywhere except the territory closest to home.

There’s no novel more perversely and bitterly honest about this cultural turn than Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2004). The first two-thirds of the book describe, in excruciating detail, how it felt to be a white kid of the earliest gentrifiers (as Lethem was) in Brooklyn in the early 1970s—the daily humiliations, the beatings, lunch-money thefts, the isolation and claustrophobia of staying out of sight at all times—and the intense friendship, even love, between Dylan (Lethem’s surrogate) and Mingus Rude, his black neighbor, the son of a washed-up R&B singer. Then the novel breaks off, and Dylan and Mingus go different routes: Dylan has a brush with serious drug addiction at a fictionalized Bennington, but recovers, and becomes a semi-successful music critic, an obsessive chronicler and collector of early R&B; Mingus gets ensnared in a murder case at eighteen and—unbeknownst to Dylan—is sent to prison for decades. When Dylan finds out, many years later, he realizes how deeply he’s been in denial:

I was forced to know that Dean Street still existed. That Mingus Rude wasn’t a person I’d only imagined into being. I took a minute to be shamed and then I pushed Mingus back to where he’d been, where he always was whether I bothered to contemplate him or not, among the millions of destroyed men who were not my brothers.

Even when Dylan has a change of heart, and seeks out Mingus in prison, he sees a stranger: “I met his rheumy eyes…and could no more ask [him] who he’d become than I could imagine how to confess myself to him.”

The Fortress of Solitude is true to the experience of my generation, but it isn’t anything like the whole story. Beginning in the mid-1980s, as the impresario and “pop anthropologist” Steve Stoute writes in his book The Tanning of America, black popular culture—mostly through the mainstreaming of hip-hop as music, style, and lifestyle—became American popular culture, and then global popular culture. Out of the explosive growth of cities, the flattening effect of global capital, the breakdown of traditional cultural ties, and a sense of pervasive economic vulnerability and crisis, Stoute says, comes a common “mental complexion” that no longer breaks down along racial lines: in which sounds, images, and identities are inherently mashable, high and low culture travel side by side, everyone’s an enterpreneur, and a career, a company, a criminal enterprise, can be nothing more than one person with a laptop. Call it a dream or a nightmare, but there’s no arguing with the broader sociological picture: the younger an American is, the less important race is as a factor in her identity. Which is not to say, in any sense, that we live in a post-racial world; rather a world in which the trappings and signifiers of power, prestige, and authority are no longer exclusively white. Moreover, our intimates—in-laws, coworkers, teachers—are less likely to look like us, whoever we are. This private form of social change has happened so quickly that we’re quick to discount how significant, how transformational, it is. The mirror we’ve lived with for centuries—the constructions of race and gender invented during the Enlightenment to serve the emerging market economies of the West—may finally be beginning to crack.

In this way white American fiction is way behind the curve not just in failing to come to terms with the way racism has operated as a paralyzing, isolating, stifling force in our lives, but in failing to imagine the world that lives on the other side of the past half-century or so of white supremacy. What we have instead might be called “weak pluralism:” on a superficial level we (meaning white writers) all now affirm that different cultural and racial and ethnic traditions are valuable, but at the same time we read the fact of pluralism as something that doesn’t directly concern us. You’d be hard pressed to find a white writer who would echo Saul Bellow, out loud and in public, asking “who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus”? But you’d be equally hard-pressed to find a white writer who wants to rewrite a Zulu narrative in Indianapolis. Or a white writer reimagining Beloved. (There is, arguably, such a book already—Joan Brady’s Theory of War, published in 1994 and long since, scandalously, out of print).

*

Six years after leaving graduate school, in an out-of-the-way eccentric bookstore in the Village, I came across a paperback novel titled, in graffiti scrawl, Angry Black White Boy. The author was Adam Mansbach. It wasn’t out of print or out of date—it was published in 2005—yet I’d never heard of it.

Which is perhaps the most troubling, and necessary, idea of all: to be American is to be marked by the experience of racism, the experience of living in a divided, paranoid, unreconciled culture.

In some ways, Angry Black White Boy is the equal and opposite of The Fortress of Solitude. Macon Detornay, the protagonist, is a suburban white kid possessed by a love of hip hop and a hatred of normative whiteness; he comes to New York determined to prove himself, in the most extreme terms possible, first by posing as a black criminal, later by starting “The Race Traitor Project” and campaigning for a national white Day of Apology. Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of blackness—of course—Macon overloads the novel with invocations of African American culture, past and present, from Romare Bearden to the Watts Prophets to the Five Percenters. He’s a trickster figure, impossible to trust, impossible to dismiss; and Mansbach, as his creator, plays a similar game. Angry Black White Boy is steeped in the tradition of black satire—George Schuyler’s Black No More, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Do The Right Thing and The Hollywood Shuffle and Bamboozled—but it’s black satire only a white guy could have created.

So this is how it’s done, I thought. Not that it was a novel I’d ever imagine writing; in my view Mansbach was trying a little too hard to signify, being a little too self-consciously zany. But I could hold it in my hands. Its very un-notoriety, the fact that a book like this could happen, and get respectful reviews, traveling under the radar, like most literary novels, but not cause flights of outrage—was the permission that I, in my cowardly, hidebound heart, needed. I had to turn back to Another Country and start again. There was no excuse.

*

“White and black Americans,” Albert Murray once wrote, “are more alike one another than they are alike anyone else in the world.” Another Country matters today, as it mattered fifty years ago, because it presents us with an embryonic version of the world that begins to exist when we acknowledge that simple fact: we are inextricable from one another. In this sense it’s the best vector that we have toward one version of the novel of the future—the one that takes the side of what the critic Fred Moten calls “black optimism,” a belief that “this bitter earth is the best of all possible worlds,” that “we have what we need, that we can get there from here, that there’s nothing wrong with us.”

Moten also says that “the long chain of life and death performances that are the concern of black studies [are] horribly misunderstood if they are understood as exclusive. Everyone whom blackness claims, which is to say everyone, can claim blackness.” Which is perhaps the most troubling, and necessary, idea of all: to be American is to be marked by the experience of racism, the experience of living in a divided, paranoid, unreconciled culture. Great American writers have recognized this from the beginning—Melville, Twain, Eugene O’Neill, Hemingway, as much as Douglass, Countee Cullen, DuBois, Hurston—but, as Toni Morrison tells us in Playing in the Dark, the white treatment of blackness has so often been coded, unconscious, and tragic, possessed with a sense of a curse or stain that can’t be undone. It doesn’t have to be that way. The whole trajectory of African American art forms—which is to say American art forms, from the blues to hip hop—militates against tragedy and paralysis. Look at fiction by younger African American or biracial authors—Colson Whitehead, Danzy Senna, Victor LaValle, Mat Johnson, Martha Southgate, ZZ Packer, Paul Beatty—and you’ll find a lot of explicit recognition of race, and racism, and much of it is extremely funny. Likewise for the small but robust cadre of white writers who have insisted on keeping race in the foreground of their work over the last three decades, mostly in the margins of the literary world: Susan Straight, Mansbach, Richard Price, Madison Smartt Bell, Alan Gurganus. But look at the great body of normative white American fiction published since the Sixties and you’ll find that black people, if they appear at all, appear as solemn figures of guilt, suffering, folksy wisdom, or a kind of impossible, wispy redemption. Always on the margins, always disappearing into the wings.

Does it matter?

It’s a valid question, and one I’ve asked myself many times: if the world is full of artists of color talking about race, why do I need to get in on that action? If there’s this vibrant, rich, visceral, scary conversation already underway, who cares if white writers choose not to participate? The best answer I can give, the only honest answer a writer can give, is a selfish one: it’s interesting to me. It’s good material: the tension, the friction, the rich possibilities of embarrassing oneself for a good cause. (As the white rapper Sage Francis says of himself, “Poorly developed, yet highly advanced / the black music intertwined with the white man’s line dance.”) It’s about writing honestly and going deeper into life, yes, but it’s also just a source of happiness. You could even take a cue from Talib Kweli and call it “the beautiful struggle.” For me, it’s been a relief, too: to realize that this bitter earth is the one place we all have standing.

Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, and most recently the novel Your Face in Mine.

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One comment for Jess Row: Native Sons

  1. Comment by Nkechi Ajanaku on September 3, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    Rumi once said: Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field, I will meet you there.
    I say: Out beyond ideas of being black people or white people, there is a new dimension/ paradigm/ field… we will meet you there.

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