Friday, April 30, 2010

Terror and Counterterror

Nicholas Lemann's survey of some of the recent academic literature on terrorism is one of the more interesting New Yorker pieces I've read in a while. Here's his final paragraph:

Long ago, great powers that had vital interests far away simply set up colonies. That wound up being one of the leading causes of terrorism. Then, as an alternative to colonialism, great powers supported dictatorial client states. That, too, often led to terrorism. During the Bush Administration, creating democracies (by force if necessary) in the Middle East was supposed to serve American interests, but, once again, the result was to increase terrorism. Even if all terrorism turns out to be local, effective, long-running counterterrorism has to be national. States still matter most. And finding trustworthy partner states in the region of the world where suicide bombers are killing Americans is so hard that it makes fighting terrorism look easy.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Hilton Als makes some nuanced and devastating criticisms of Tyler Perry's Madea plays and films (which, frankly, I knew nothing about before reading Als's article—apart from seeing billboards and wondering, vaguely, if these productions were somehow related to those movies where Eddie Murphy dresses up like a fat woman), but he also tosses off this stingingly well-aimed aside about films like Knocked Up and Funny People, which other critics at Als's magazine have given undue praise, in my opinion:

The heroes of Perry's movies bear no resemblance to the young white men in search of a sense of purpose in the comedies of, say, Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler. (Madea, of course, would have no truck with the lack of faith in those scenarios, which are driven by the dual forces of white-male power and white-male sexuality, and by the exploration of a kind of freedom that the blacks in her community can't even dream of.) The white-boy comedies of the past two decades are about the grating, strained emo charm of never growing up, while Perry's films are about the necessity of growing up in a largely segregated world.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nobody But Himself

In this post from a while back, I discussed some observers' insistence upon seeing, in Barack Obama, a mysterious cipher, and I linked that apparent blindness to Ralph Ellison's novelistic concept of invisibility.

The narrator of Invisible Man, which I just finished teaching to my seniors, comes to realize that he is invisible to those around him.

When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, anything and everything except me.

But his invisibility is not exclusively a result of white eyes looking through stereotypes upon his colored face. By the end of the novel, the narrator has come to realize that he's also invisible to the people of Harlem with whom he's been working. Indeed, in the final sentence of the novel, the narrator suggests that we are all invisible, in a sense, to those around us:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Anyway, I thought of that post and Ellison when I read this very interesting review-essay about Obama and David Remnick's new book about him. The author of the piece, an African American journalism professor and former NY Times correspondent, writes about the difficulty that his father had in seeing Obama, his difficulty in perceiving this individual through the grid of his own preconceptions and personal history:

As I read The Bridge, what this most brought to mind was the puzzled response of my own father to Obama the presidential candidate. Invariably when I asked his opinion of the man, my Dad—a frontline participant in the great civil rights marches of the South, including Selma— would answer, “I just don’t know what to make of him.”

I’m certain these evasions didn’t represent a failure of racial pride, or even less a preference for Hillary Clinton. Rather, as best I can surmise, they reflected the instinctive hesitation of someone steeped in the activism of what I think of as our Greatest Generation before the studied, amorphous cool of an Obama.

One of the things I admire most about Obama is that he has evidently learned what the narrator of Invisible Man comes to learn: that he is nobody but himself, and that, ultimately, he must answer for himself the questions of identity that bedevil him and bedevil us all.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

St. Louis Baseball in Black and White

I've been working my way through Ain't But a Place, Gerald Early's anthology of African American writings about St. Louis. I just read excerpts from the autobiographies of Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, both of which are quite illuminating about Cardinal racial dynamics, as well as the economic realities of professional sports at the time.

Flood sued Major League Baseball over its reserve clause, which kept players bound for life to a single team unless they were traded. His case went before the Supreme Court, and he lost. Early notes, however, that Flood's case "was the central event that helped the players become more determined to break the reserve clause," which they ultimately did through protracted negotiation.

Flood (along with his co-author Richard Carter) paints a grim picture of a professional ballplayer's life in the pre-free agency period, a picture he says was shared by nearly every player he knew, except for mega-stars like Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

Flood's portrait of Musial is particularly amusing:

Stan was one of the outstanding players of all time. He was so exceptionally talented, popular and durable that he played for twenty-one seasons, amassed substantial wealth and became a member of the Cardinal management. As an authentic superstar, he lived remote from the difficulties encountered by lesser athletes. Like Mays, he saw the world entirely in terms of his own good fortune. He was convinced that it was the best of all possible worlds. He not only accepted baseball mythology but propounded it. Whereas the typical player all but choked while reciting the traditional gibberish of gratitude to the industry, and whereas Bob Gibson, superstar of another hue, would simply change the subject, Musial was a true believer. Gibson and I once clocked eight "wunnerfuls" in a Musial speech that could not have been longer than a hundred words.

"My biggest thrill is just wearing this major-league uniform," Stan used to say. "It's wunnerful being here with all these wunnerful fellas."

On such occasions, Gibson would hang his head in embarrassment and mutter, "Shitfuckpiss." We admired Musial as an athlete. We liked him as a man. There was no conscious harm in him. He was just unfathomably naive.

To Musial's credit (and Gibson's), Gibson notes that during spring training Musial and Ken Boyer gave up their private beachfront accommodations in order to move in with the team at a hotel in St. Petersburg in order to help break the racial segregation practiced there at the time.

Gibson (who wrote his book with Lonnie Wheeler) also relates a great story about the young Tim McCarver, who'd grown up immersed in racism in Memphis and carried his prejudices with him in the early part of his career before making what Gibson calls a 180-degree turn in his racial attitudes.

After a ballgame in Bradenton one really hot day in the spring of 1960, McCarver got on the bus eating an ice-cream cone. I was eyeing him as he sat down and then I nodded at Flood, who was sitting next to me, and said, "Hey, Tim, can I have a bite of that ice-cream cone?" McCarver didn't know what to do. He looked at me, then he looked at Flood, then he looked back at me, and finally he mumbled, "I'll, er, I'll save you some." Flood and I just exploded in laughter.

In this year when the Cardinals roster includes not a single African American, it's interesting to read of a time when St. Louis baseball was an institution where racial issues could play themselves out, sometimes even with encouraging results.

The Cosby Show and the Racial Mountain

Last night I read Langston Hughes's seminal essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), which begins with Hughes recounting an exchange he had with a promising young black poet.

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.

Hughes then speculates that this young poet seeks to flee his race because of his upbringing, in a family "of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry—smug, contented, respectable folk." Such families, Hughes asserts, tend to have an undue admiration for the white world and a concomitant disregard for people of their own race:

The whisper of "I want to be white" runs silently through their minds. This young poet's home, is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

And wealthier black families are usually no better, according to Hughes:

For racial culture the home of a self-styled "high-class" Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home.

I thought of The Cosby Show as I read this essay, a show that seems designed in response to Hughes's essay. Although the Huxtables are clearly upper-class (the father is a doctor, the mother a lawyer, the kids well-clothed and well-fed in a beautifully appointed brownstone), in explicit ways they are shown not to ape things white.

They have paintings by black artists hanging on their walls. Theo has a Wynton Marsalis poster hanging in his bedroom (as well as an anti-apartheid poster). Cliff is a huge jazz fan. The family, on occasion, choreographs lip-synched routines to tunes by Ray Charles and James Brown. Both parents attended a historically black college (and the show spends numerous episodes highlighting it, even creating a spinoff set there). The family lives in Brooklyn in the 1980s, not a predominantly white neighborhood. They send their kids to public schools, not mostly white private schools. On occasion, the grandparents come around and reminisce about getting on buses to participate in the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement. The grandchildren are named Winnie and Nelson. The show itself highlights black cultural figures with cameos by Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, and B.B. King. Although both the adults and the children have white friends as well as black ones, the kids date and marry within their own race. When Claire appears on a local political roundtable TV show, she holds her ground against patronizing white panelists.

I'm not necessarily defending the show against all criticisms that might be made of it (although I did love the show as a kid and still remember it fondly). It just struck me, reading Hughes's essay, that certain aspects of the show seem designed in response to its critique of the black bourgeoisie.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


This Kelefa Sanneh review-essay about whiteness and white people is worth reading in its entirety. Its range of reference and nuanced insights are a delight. Here's a sample:

The end of the Civil War was a perilous moment for whiteness. Roediger writes that, in America, “scientific racism”—the sort of grand theorizing that Painter chronicles—emerged “in the context of the pro-slavery argument and as a response to abolitionism.” Whiteness survived emancipation by becoming more muscular and more self-referential: where once whiteness offered a specific legal benefit—it meant that you were unenslavable, a non-“sarvant”—now whiteness had to be its own reward. Roediger writes that some poor white laborers in the South started wearing brimless wool hats, to distinguish themselves from ex-slaves, who customarily wore straw hats. (According to one contested etymology, the sunburn such laborers suffered gave rise to the term “redneck,” which conflates race and class.)

And here's another, more contemporary bit of analysis:

A tension between élitism and anti-élitism is central to white identity, and always has been. The old race theorists couldn’t decide whether the spirit of whiteness was best reflected in the noble refinement of royalty or in the rude vitality of laborers and soldiers. Often, white identity has reflected both traditions at once, as with Emerson’s beloved Scandinavian kings, who conducted themselves like drunken brigands. The “white people” in Lander’s book [Stuff White People Like] are rich snobs who view themselves as rebels, resisting the culture of corporate greed in vague solidarity with the world’s poor. The “whitopians” in Benjamin’s book consider themselves “folksy” salt-of-the-earth types, no matter how much money they have accumulated. And “The Blind Side” is a perfect distillation of white identity as anti-élitist élitism: Leigh Anne’s husband owns nearly a hundred fast-food franchises; he’s white-collar, in a blue-collar kind of way.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Fire Next Time

This weekend I read James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a swirling, Emersonian, apocalyptic, and famous essay, most of which was first published in the New Yorker in November of 1962. Near the end of the essay, Baldwin makes the following pronouncement:

Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro's situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.

Reading this essay nearly fifty years later, I find myself asking the obvious questions. First of all, have there been real changes in what Baldwin calls "the Negro's situation" in the years since this piece was written?

My impulse is to say yes—and that is also the impulse of some pretty significant African American writers.

In this piece called "The End of Race as We Know It," published in the Chronicle of Higher Education just before the 2008 Presidental election, Gerald Early ponders the implications of the possibility of Obama's victory:

The accomplishments of those people and thousands more did not indicate to many African-Americans that America had advanced beyond racism and that blacks had transcended their victimization....

Might the presidency of Barack Obama be the tipping point? Blacks may become famous authors, film directors, diplomats, CEO's, fashion models, entertainers, and physicists. But the presidency of the country, the most powerful person in the world, is the ultimate — to have authority that all whites, everyone in the world, would be bound to respect. What could mean more to a people who have endured a history of powerlessness? Black people were convinced that no black would become president of the United States during the lifetime of the baby-boom generation, not in the lifetime of any African-American adult currently living. That may change in a matter of weeks.

Early also quotes an American Scholar piece from earlier that year by novelist and scholar Charles Johnson, who declared the tipping point already to have been reached:

It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one's life is thinghood, created even before one is born.

Of course, the degree of this real change in black American life is still open to debate. I saw Cornel West speak at St. Louis University a number of weeks ago. West, who calls himself a "Socratic supporter" of Obama, cautioned his audience not to let its excitement about those at the top (i.e., the thrilling spectacle of Obama and his beautiful family occupying the White House) distract attention from all those who are still at the bottom. (Granted, he meant everyone at the bottom—not just African Americans.)

Nevertheless, nearly everyone seems to agree that some real change has occurred since the publication of Baldwin's essay. And so I come to my second obvious question: Did that change require "the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure"?

Remarkably, Charles Johnson asserts that the crucial changes occurred within a few years (and even months) of Baldwin's essay's publication:

The specific conflict of this narrative reached its dramatic climax in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and at the breathtaking March on Washington; its resolution arrived in 1965, the year before I graduated from high school, with the Voting Rights Act. Everything since then has been a coda for almost half a century. We call this long-extended and still ongoing anticlimax the post-civil-rights period.

If this is the case, that these were the crucial changes, then a few conclusions seem to follow:

1) Baldwin, in the statement quoted above, is completely wrong. The changes, evidently effective ones, were not the most radical and far-reaching ones imaginable. Nor were white Americans unwilling or unable to envision or effect them.

2) The Civil Rights Movement must be considered one of the most, if not the most, effective and peaceful political movements in human history.

3) LBJ ought to be considered as important a President as Abraham Lincoln.

Back to Baldwin, though: How should we wrap our minds around the fact that he was completely wrong? Was it simply that he was caught up in the extreme tension of the moment, despairing in the darkness just before dawn? Was his feverish and lyrical jeremiad a necessary aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, a spur to white liberals to help create the push necessary to bring about the remarkable changes of the mid-1960s?

And is there a lesson to be learned from all this? How should we respond to the Baldwinesque voices of our own time, those eloquent and stirring voices that seem at times to stray into extreme and ultimately incorrect pronouncements?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Brief History of the St. Louis Suburbs

I found this piece, by Toby Weiss of B.E.L.T., quite sensible and clearly written.

A snippet:

At the start of the 20th century, people were already leaking into St. Louis County, following the street car lines that ran out through Normandy, Maplewood, University City, Webster Groves and Kirkwood. Today, we call these communities inner-ring suburbs, but they were originally referred to as Streetcar Suburbs, and these lines would not have been developed without a financial incentive to do so.

If you pay attention to our inner ring suburbs, it is easy to observe that they closely match the density and layout of the City neighborhoods they grew from. Take a trip across the City/County border and you may have difficulty knowing when you've crossed over without the aid of a boundary marker. These new communities naturally mimicked City neighborhood layouts and architecture because that was the norm up to that point.

The suburban layouts that cause the most Urbanist derision were eventually created by two key events: The 1944 G.I. Bill and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The former granted federal subsidies for returning war veterans to buy new homes, while the latter created an interstate highway system that made it easier to get to the new communities created by the former. Both of these bills were created out of the necessity of bolstering a post-war economy and dealing with an unprecedented population explosion.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A System Not Scaled to Ourselves

***SPOILER ALERT*** Don't read this post if you don't want to know crucial plot points of The Road, The Border Trilogy, or Beloved.

Looking back through this 2006 NY Times
piece about the best works of fiction of the past 25 years, I came across this paragraph in Madison Smartt Bell's review of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. It's dead-on, I think, and also suggestive of why McCarthy may be even more closely akin to Melville than to Faulkner:

What order there may be in the world is not, Mr. McCarthy suggests, of our devising and is very likely beyond our comprehension. His project is unlike that of any other writer: to make artifacts composed of human language but detached from a human reference point. That sense of evil that seems to suffuse his novels is illusory; it comes from our discomfort in the presence of a system that is not scaled to ourselves, within which our civilizations may be as ephemeral as flowers. The deity that presides over Mr. McCarthy's world has not modeled itself on humanity; its voice most resembles the one that addressed Job out of the whirlwind.

John Grady Cole, in the Border Trilogy (of which All the Pretty Horses is the first volume), is a tragic hero because he dies rather than accept that he lives in a world that is not scaled to himself, a world in which his notions of justice and rightness do not apply.

Andrew Delbanco, writing about Billy Budd in his biography of Melville, sets some context for understanding Melville:

He was writing at just the time when, in William James's phrase, the last vestiges of "tender-minded" faith in "the great universe of God" were fading away, and the metaphor of the rainbow amounts to Melville's corollary of James's remark that "we carve out groups of stars in the heavens, and call them constellations, and the stars patiently suffer us to do so,—though, if they knew what we were doing, some of them might feel much surprised at the partners we had given them." The stars know nothing. All knowing is the work of man. And so, for Melville... our fate as human beings is to live by norms that have no basis in divine truth, but that have functional truth for the conduct of life.

In McCarthy's late novel The Road, a father journeys with his son through a dying world, facing massive and incontrovertible evidence of his civilization's ephemerality, to use Madison Smartt Bell's phrase.

The man seems to be the last one in the world who still lives by the norms that Delbanco refers to—duty, honor, hope, decency, love. As for the rest of humanity, they’re either cannibals or cannibal food. Still, he questions himself constantly and wants to give up and die. He asks himself, "Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.”

Yet later, he thinks otherwise: “I think maybe they are watching, he said. They are watching for a thing that even death cannot undo.” For him, that thing is his love for his son. He endures, though, and teaches his son to do so as well, telling him "We're carrying the fire."

The man dies in the end of the novel, yet his son survives, lending a faint glimmer of hope to this incredibly bleak story. That glimmer reminds me of a powerful scene I just read in Toni Morrison's Beloved (chosen as the best work by this same NY Times piece), in which the slave Sixo, captured in the midst of running to freedom, set ablaze by his master and soon to be shot and killed, begins to laugh and sing out, "Seven-o!"—a reference to his as-yet-unborn child in the womb of his lover, who has eluded capture.

The slaves in Beloved, of course, also find themselves in a system that is not scaled to their humanity, one as horrifying, in its own way, as the apocalyptic world McCarthy imagines.

In response, Baby Suggs, holy, an old woman bought out of a lifetime of slavery and unimaginable grief, preaches to her Negro community a gospel reminiscent of the Melvillean one Delbanco describes:

She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Musical Doodles

My friend Eric is fond of the saying, "Even a blind pig finds a truffle occasionally."

I like it, too, and it's in the spirit of this adage that I humbly present some musical doodles: around twenty minutes of music, seven songs composed and performed by me, under the title Blind Pig Truffles.

Click to go to sendspace, where you can download these tracks. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the screen for the download link.

1) Dusk