Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sullivan on Faulkner and Race

A perceptive paragraph from near the end of John Jeremiah Sullivan's piece on Absalom, Absalom!, which I read and loved about a month ago as part of what's turning out to be a year of Faulkner for me:

No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too. I found it fascinating to read the book with a president sitting in the White House who comes from a mixed-race marriage, and with the statistic having just been announced that for the first time in U.S. history, nonwhite births have surpassed white ones. Some of the myths out of which the novel weaves its upsetting dreams appear quite different, like walking by a familiar painting and finding that someone has altered it. This is a strange time to be alive in America, in that regard. Close one eye, and we can seem to be moving toward a one-race society; close the other and we seem as racially conflicted and stratified as ever. Racism is still our madness. The longer that remains the case, the more vital this book grows, for Faulkner is one of the great explorers of that madness.

I agree with Sullivan's argument that Faulkner is a great explorer of the madness of racism, as well as his acknowledgment that Faulkner himself was tainted by this madness—as, indeed, are all of us Americans.

Friday, June 22, 2012

John Cassidy and the Real Scandal

Over the past six months, in all the noise and commentary on the economy and the election, I've come to find the voice of the New Yorker's John Cassidy, on his blog Rational Irrationality, exceptionally sane, clear, and insightful.

This passage from a piece published today, stood out for me as particularly sharp: 

If you managed to buttonhole the big campaign contributors, many of them would say they are simply expressing their support for candidates and principles they believe in, and that they aren’t seeking any rewards or favors in return. In some cases, this may be true. But it would take a very credulous person to believe that there isn’t an element of quid pro quo involved. Almost all wealthy businessmen have some some dealings with the government, and some interests they would like to protect. 

Take hedge funds, a key source of donations to candidate Obama in 2008. Since then, President Obama has signed a law that forced these unregulated investment vehicles to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a step many fund managers resented. He has also promised to enact the Buffett Rule, which would force many hedgies to pay a tax rate of thirty per cent instead of fifteen per cent. And lo and behold, hedge fund employees are now big backers of Romney, who isn’t committed to the Buffett Rule.... 

All this, of course, is perfectly legal and aboveboard; that is the real scandal. In a better world, the Supreme Court would be looking at what it has wrought and reconsidering its 2010 decision, but there is no chance of that. The Justices have been too busy deciding whether it’s constitutional for a duly elected President and Congress to try and guarantee affordable health care to everybody in the country. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Rodney King and Dr. Dre

This morning on the way to work I heard an NPR story about the death of Rodney King. It was unexpectedly sweet, and moving. A few details stuck with me: He still had headaches as a result of the beating he received from the LAPD and a surgery he had afterwards in which the doctors pulled his eye out of its socket and put in a metal plate. He received over $3 million from the civil trial stemming from his beating, enough to buy himself and his mother nice houses. Even though he recognized that his plea "Can we all get along?" became something of a a joke or cliche, and some criticized him for saying it, he maintained his belief in the sentiment.

Rodney King was 47. (He was a month shy of his 26th birthday when he received his infamous beating.) A man who loved water—swimming and fishing were among his favorite activities—he was found dead by his fiancee in his swimming pool.

Poking around on Wikipedia later today, I noticed that Dr. Dre is also 47. Dre's track "The Day the Niggaz Took Over," from his 1992 album The Chronic (considered a masterpiece by some), is about as far from "Can we get along?" as one can imagine. The song is a celebration of violent rebellion and looting, interspersed with narration of the LA riots that erupted in response to the acquittals in the criminal trial of the officers charged in King's beating. Dre has gone on to a storied and highly lucrative career in the music business.

Realizing that Rodney King and Dr. Dre were virtually the same age, I found myself wondering if they ever met or talked. What did Dre think of King's "get along" comment? What did King think of "The Day the Niggaz Took Over"? Does Dre feel any differently about that track in 2012 than he did in 1992? King seems like he was a gentle, thoughtful person. I wonder if Dre would seem similar in an NPR interview at the age of 47.

Friday, June 15, 2012

For Ray Bradbury

A friend's lovely blog post about the death of Ray Bradbury caused me to stop and reflect on Bradbury's influence on my own reading life. It was Bradbury who first introduced me to the short story form in an extensive way. Since I first picked up a library copy of Bradbury's stories at the age of 14 or 15, the short story has become a big part of my life—I read stories obsessively, have a bookshelf devoted to collections of them, teach students to write them, and have written some of my own.

Truth be told, I haven't written much fiction in recent years, but here's a hundred-word story I wrote today in class after giving the hundred-word story assignment to my summer enrichment students. 

I think it has a bit of Bradbury in it.


Pierre von Staed was coming home, after 500 years.
In his spaceship, he had hibernated in a chamber that slowed his aging and woke him only for short periods to explore planets in deep space.
His mission: to seek life.
Pierre’s spaceship landed gently now. He woke from dreamless oblivion, opening his eyes upon a wasteland—hot gray skies, wrecked buildings.
He activated a device which could scan an entire planet for life. Within minutes it beeped: NO LIFE FORMS.
Pierre re-entered his ship and blasted off. His search would continue, but with a new goal: to find a home.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hip-Hop and the N-Word

For the past year and half, I've been making an effort to listen to hip-hop because I felt I needed to be able to talk about it intelligently in my African American Voices class. I spent a day on it in the class this past year, and am planning to do at least one, maybe two days this fall. I think it has been an important, even a necessary addition to my curriculum.

Some of this music I have come to like quite a bit—particularly the work of Kanye West and, to a lesser extent, that of Jay-Z. But my consumption of hip-hop has generally had to take place in private. I don't feel comfortable listening to it in my home in front of my kids—and even my wife will look askance at me at times when she hears some of the language that West, Jay-Z, and others use. In particular, the word
nigger concerns me—I don't want my kids hearing it, and I feel uncomfortable when I'm listening to the music (even a song that I consider deeply moving and beautiful, like this one) that uses that word within others' earshot (my family, my friends, my students in a non-academic context).

This situation has struck me as curious in the past—that hip-hop artists would intentionally make their music resistant to being played in certain circumstances. Reading Randall Kennedy's 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word this evening, however, I came across an analysis that made a lot of sense to me:

Roping off cultural turf is another aim of some blacks who continue to use nigger in spite of its stigmatized status. Certain forms of black cultural expression have become commercially valuable, and black cultural entrepreneurs fear that these forms will be exploited by white performers who will adopt them and, tapping white-skin privilege, obtain compensation far outstripping that paid to black performers. This is, of course, a realistic fear in light of the long history of white entertainers' becoming rich and famous by marketing in whiteface cultural innovations authored by their underappreciated black counterparts. A counterstrategy is to seed black cultural expression with gestures that are widely viewed as being off-limits to whites. Saying "nigger" is one such gesture. Even whites who immerse themselves in black hip-hop culture typically refrain from openly and unabashedly saying "nigger" like their black heroes or colleagues, for fear that it might be perceived as a sign of disrespect rather than one of solidarity.

Kennedy's argument makes me see that the word nigger essentially inoculates some hip-hop music against being made commonplace. You'll probably never hear Kanye's "Family Business" playing over the sound system in a grocery store, on a commercial for some life insurance company—or at a family party in my white middle-class home, either. And that's part of the point. This music may retain its aura, its edge, its attraction because it can't be turned into sonic wallpaper, covered ad nauseum by white artists.

The Accidental Progenitor

An interesting comment from n+1 about the place of David Foster Wallace in recent rhetorical history:

The accidental progenitor of the blogorrheic style is David Foster Wallace. What distinguishes Wallace’s writing from the prose it begot is a fusion of the scrupulous and the garrulous; all of our colloquialisms, typically diffusing a mist of vagueness over the world, are pressed into the service of exactness. To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth, as — in an opposite way — the flat declaratives and simplified vocabulary of Hemingway were for a different generation.