She was remarkably agile with her orgasms, my college girlfriend, and could match mine at will. It was fun until it wasn’t anymore, at least not for her, and she started bullying me into a new game: searching deep in each other’s eyes as we climaxed together. At first, I thought it was corny. I found it a bit Bella Lugosi. But after some time, I mean, really, what choice did I have? I tried to rationalize it as another layer of tension, considering any tension welcome in the coital tableau. It was no biggie to watch us fucking in the closet’s mirrored doors—the yin and yang we made with our interracial bodies. The mirror filtered our material presence and let the two-dimensional spectacle of us flicker, free of intention, a surplus diversion cast from our disembodied labor. The mirror was a buffer; it gave me space to mull and muse. But this new project seemed strange—the whole vis-à-vis of it. It put my eyes to a use I hadn’t considered before. By demanding my ocular attention she divided me from myself, cut me off from egoistic comforts.
“Vagal tone,” which is not a tone at all, says something about one’s capacity for making eye contact, and, according to at least one website, an “ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice.” The ability to make and hold eye contact, as well as the ear for subtle fluctuations in attitude: these are the essence of sociability, healthy relationships—the groundwork for getting along. But I think there’s something even more abstract (if not wandering or “vague,” which is the origin of “vagus,” the name of the nerve that serves the lungs and stomach and is the author of the tone, the nerve likely responsible for our gut responses to stimuli) attributable to vagal tone, something respectable scientists don’t talk about on the record. Something that has to do with star signs and mood rings. “I don’t like your tone,” we hear, reminding us that mothers—the radio telescopes of tone—can decrypt the truth-frequencies buried in our hearts.
“Fuera de onda,” says my Salvadoran mother-in-law in her hippy slang when I’m having a bad Spanish day. It’s not that I don’t know the basic grammar or that my limited vocabulary excludes me from certain dinner table conversations, but that I’m just tuned out or can’t (or won’t) pick up the wavelength that bonds the dining family in common understanding on those particular occasions.
Unaligned or inharmonious vagal tones can fuck up interactions in my own language, too. Like when I find myself, for example, staring dumbly, trying to decipher even the most banal quip of a fellow straphanger whose nameless face and faceless voice I search for some revealing stereotype with which I can render the stranger known against the general din of the subway car. Even when I’m reading sometimes I can’t pick up the rhythms, the cadence and peaks of reasoning, of the voice on the page, like if I’m reading an essay or article with an unfamiliar by line, and I have difficulty making sense of the sentences until I see a word with a British spelling, for example, and suddenly the whole thing becomes intelligible because, I later realize, I’ve begun unconsciously assigning a British accent to my sub-vocalization of the text. Sometimes it’s more personal. Sometimes it has to do with the degrees of tension the author maintains between word and idea, and how agile my tuning apparatus is to that quotient, which is as distinct as a thumbprint.
I’ve even experienced this sort of estrangement in silence, sharing an elevator, pretending not to notice a stranger, refusing her the simple grace of recognition, all the while trying to summon a comment polite and neutral enough to pretend I had been enjoying so much, irrespective of her presence, my own smugness I only just noticed she was even there. Perhaps in moments like these I fear most the ever-denuding power of eye contact.
For what is a stereotype but a drop cloth or a kind of veil? Or wait, I’ve got one more if you give me a sec: a security blanket. The sculpture of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University depicts him lifting the veil of ignorance from a half-naked former bondsman, newly emancipated and crouched on top of a plow and an anvil. I haven’t been able to figure out why the former slave is all hunched up under this heavy cloth in the first place. I don’t imagine it’s cold in Alabama. When Ellison’s Invisible Man encounters this famous statue he finds it puzzling, too. He says he can’t “decide whether the veil is really being lifted or lowered more firmly into place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.” The former slave has a book in his lap, which suggests Washington may be exposing the man’s criminal, and until now covert, literacy. Maybe it’s a fetal position he’s in and the former slave is not really a former slave but symbolic of Washington’s own homuncular former self? His id? And if so, what if Washington is actually lifting the veil of oppressive social norms in order to emancipate himself as an individual? If it’s a security blanket, however—as in “the security blanket of ignorance,” let’s say—then, in this case, ignorance would be synonymous with provincialism and Washington would be abandoning this poor, small-town fellow as if at an uptown dinner party where he would be, look at him, clearly underdressed. It’s maddening the way the sculpture resists our knowing. It reminds me of Rilke’s line, “We cannot know his legendary head…”
While many of us decry veils of identity especially when they are projected onto us—we know them like we know cold water on a sensitive tooth—some others of us embrace stereotype as a form of comfort and buffer, a way of announcing we belong somewhere, if not here.
Defending his right to populate his poems unapologetically with images he considers “true” regardless of whether or not they are stereotypical, a promising young poet said to me once, “But I do like fried chicken!” Yes, I said, and I like white women. But these are clichés (no matter the hateful inferences they bear), the rootstock of monster-making. He only means he wants to express his cultural conditioning without shame or apology, I know, which is admirable and naive. Shame is healthy. It keeps us from doing dumb shit… again. I would not put fried chicken in a poem just to thumb my nose at decorum. It might backfire and lock me into a truth-making relationship. Nor would I espouse a taste for white women in a poem unless the point was to trouble the cultural foundations on which that ideological house is built. What’s shameful, I told the poet, my words burdened with woe, is when poets, writers, artists deny culpability for perpetuating stereotypes or, worse yet, when we champion stereotypes to pander to our readers’ need to believe in a predictable, knowable world.
The vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve (in case that means anything to you), also regulates the autonomic activity of the bowels and the heart. The aggregated rhythm of this orchestra of flex is called the “vagal tone.” I still can’t help but think of this as an actual tone, a Pavlovian note or a musical figure forming a chord reminiscent of the ditty that beckoned the elected to that mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters. The very love-cry of God: Aum. But no. By “tone” is meant something more like “index.” Something more like “quotient,” although tonal frequency is nonetheless a useful metaphor. We can think of empathy as an involuntarily harmonic response to the tonal emanations of others, and vagal misalignment as, perhaps literally, plucked nerves. And perhaps there is an algorithm inclusive of some quotient of affinity by which we are moved, as if by tractor beam or hypnosis, to rasp into the moment’s vast cacophony of pulsing vagi that world-beckoning word: hello.
We met, the Orgasm Queen and me, as non-traditional undergrads—both of us in our mid twenties—returning to college with a righteous hunger for lost time, and little patience for sentimental attachments. She had been discovering Freud in print and deigned, after my wincing protests, to explain how she based the O-face game on that reading. I found it cruel (and fascinating) to deny ourselves the privacy of subjective experience by directing our focus entirely on the other, paradoxically provoking self-consciousness and forcing each of us to confront our own utter vulnerability at the same time.
I looked for where Freud writes this stuff. This may have been a mistake. After I found it, my suspicious impulses led me to cynical interpretations. Based on my reading, I determined that men are incapable of experiencing both empathy and desire at once. That the incest taboo serves as a kind of mental epiglottis preventing one function from interfering with the other. The text, as it spoke to me, said this was the case. It said male empathy was reserved for the saintly and maternal, and the incest taboo prevents sexual feelings for anyone falling into that category. Thus empathic identification was an obstacle, an anorectic to the sexual appetite. Empathy has to be cleared away to make room for desire. I realize this train of thought ran off the rails almost as soon as it left the station. It wouldn’t take me anywhere a morally responsible person could want to go.
Still, gluttonous, I kept reading. If she believed Freud, I speculated, her objective in the O-face game could have been to liberate me from a puddle of lust, and to release me into the oceanic currents of mature human attachment. Paranoia got the better of me, however, and I succumbed to my suspicion that she was less concerned with my emotional growth than she was motivated by her Freud-induced fear that, during sex, I was secretly debasing her—a sacrifice of pride her working class sensibilities could not allow, not even for the sake of the collective mission. No, if she was to submit to the moment of jouissance, then by her rules we should arrive at that moment on equal terms. She couldn’t accept the idea that sexual encounters entail an imbalance of power. And the best way to ensure neither of us was the Thesis was to ensure we were both Antitheses, in forced contrast with one another. Thus I would have to be denatured, in a sense, my attention driven away from my body (the doer, the source of my masculinity), which amounted—and I know this is a stretch—to a kind of castration. Figuratively speaking. For how else could we (she) level the field?
And when I factored in my hang-ups with race, things got really fucked up. I wondered if she only considered the conventionally gendered power dynamics in our sexual relationship problematic when she thought about our racial difference. In other words, was it the phallus or, more specifically, the black phallus she wanted to neutralize? I had no way of telling what she was like in bed with non-black dudes or with women (and I was not about to make what I am sure she would have considered a repugnant proposition to find out).
I’m going to let out a long sigh now, and consider: isn’t it most likely, after all, that the O-face game was just a game? Why couldn’t I be cool with that? Wherefore these fears of castration? Are they—the fears—a projection of guilt, my unconscious belief that I have done something for which I need to atone and surrender my humble pound of flesh? How did I get so fucked up? Might I find clues to some long-repressed trauma coded into crayon drawings of mine gathered in scrapbooks in my mother’s attic?
The philosopher Immanuel Levinas believes the face-to-face encounter is the foundation of ethics. Not just an appraisal of facial features. More than an aesthetic undertaking, more meaningful. To hear Levinas describe it there’s something of the divine revealed in the face-to-face encounter, beyond the reflection of one’s own desires and insecurities. But I’ve never been able to get there. The closest to transcendence I felt in that O-face game of my sexual youth was something approximating pee-shyness. Not so much like impotence—or the extreme of castration—but the experience was definitely arresting. The being-seen part overwhelmed me so much I couldn’t take pleasure in looking (if indeed pleasure was even the point). When I did look, I found myself rummaging for signs of betrayal as if it were a fishbone in the mouthful of flaky meat I had made of her eyes. I looked for insincerity. Opportunism. I let my paranoia play itself out until I saw reflected in her blue lagoons the craven nightmare of a black ram tupping the white ewe. Eventually the racial fantasy subsided and I found not confidence but an absence of fear enough to stand in the void, and when I did, that vulnerability, that boundless intimacy made me giddy to bursting. A smile would buck into a snort and together we’d be rolling off the bed in fits of flush-faced laughter. Sometimes my gaze became a longing as she was like the beloved from a past life come to sit with me a while and now must leave. As I spell it out here, the forms my seeing took seem broken into tidy, discrete moments, but these facets clamored all at once to produce what I would at any other time consider my coherent self.
The poet Sterling Brown numbers seven racial stereotypes forming the pantheon of false idols: These are only the ones “considered important enough for separate classification… :(1) The Contented Slave, (2) The Wretched Freeman, (3) The Comic Negro, (4) The Brute Negro, (5) The Tragic Mulatto, (6) The Local Color Negro, and (7) The Exotic Primitive.” Some of these are dated, and have passed out of the popular imagination since Brown’s writing in 1933. But numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7, would you please step forward and repeat the line, “Ayo, Ah fux wit dat on da rill, nahmean?” Thank you, you may all step back. As you see, Reader, the twenty-first century dialect of Ghostface Killah sounds as natural in these stereotype’s mouths as would that of their contemporary, Jess B. Semple, Langston Hughes’s fictional urban mouthpiece. Is this because we lack the imagination to produce new stereotypes? Or is this, as I suspect, a case of life imitating art, the cultural tropism of consensual truth? These stereotypes persist because they are culturally expedient. They do a lot of work for us no matter on which side of them we stand.
One species of stereotype popularized by Spike Lee in an interview at Yale University in 2001 purports to be relatively mint: the Magical Negro. That character whose sole function is as support staff to the virile protagonist in Hollywood narratives. But we’ve known this character for ages. In love-trouble, the MN is a hip Cyrano who stays in the shadows or waits at the bar in the nightclub, texting wildly inventive pickup lines to his boy. In battle, he is a sycophantic Patroclus, throwing his body in harm’s way. In training, no matter the discipline, he is Yoda (or Mr. Myagi—obviously, the term “Magical Negro” is open and affirming). In times of moral dilemma he is Huck’s buddy Jim. The MN is the unsexy mentor or sidekick who sacrifices his own experience of life in order to instruct the young master to whom he has been assigned by fate and circumstance, the master who has a greater range of agency because of sacrifices the MN has made. No, don’t nobody want to be that Negro.
The stereotype of the Magical Negro stands like the muddy Mississippi between African American men, particularly fathers and sons. It is a divisive paradigm because, having been forced to play supporting roles in public life for generations, a black man can be forgiven for being protective of his agency at home. Aversion to the MN stereotype is based on the presumption that there is a finite amount of agency allotted each black man in the world, and that agency must be jealously maintained by exercising it whenever possible. It is tough, then, to construct a black masculine identity that is generous and self-effacing without seeming weak or auxiliary. It is almost a cultural imperative that black men be alpha males, that we construct ourselves as the dominant centers of our respective spheres, else we place our black authenticity at risk. “I’m a grown-ass man,” we say, barking at disinterested passersby.
Around the same time that Sterling Brown announced his seven stereotypes, Vladimir Propp published his Morphology of the Folktale. Although the Morphology wasn’t available in English until 1958, and neither was Brown’s system available in Russian, Propp likewise identifies seven basic characters: (1) the villain, (2) the dispatcher who divulges the problem or “lack” and sends the hero off, (3) the magical helper who aids the hero in his or her quest, (4) the princess (or prize), (5) the donor who gives the hero a magical object, (6) the hero, and (7) the false hero who “takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.”1 I’m fascinated with this taxonomy because of how easily it maps onto what I think is a common narrative of African American masculinity found in popular culture. In the lives of (6) the Hero, i.e. black men, if it isn’t a wholly undifferentiated abstraction like “The Man,” the Villain (1) is most often some agent—teacher, cop or employer—of institutionalized racism. (2) The Dispatcher would be a galvanizing figure, like a grandmother or a single mom. In the common narrative, (3) the Magical Helper is rarely an older, mentoring male figure for the black male hero. The Magical Helper is more often a younger sibling or relative. (5) The Donor might be a music producer or an athletic talent scout, and (7) the False Hero is whoever can fulfill an adversarial east coast / west coast dynamic. We shouldn’t mistake the “ride-or-die” female companion for (4) the Princess because by definition one doesn’t compete for the devotion of a ride-or-die girl. The Princess/Prize must be perennially unattainable. For once she is attained, the story must end. A new story must begin.
Simultaneous orgasms, arrived at so easily, I tried to convince myself were proof that we were well-matched lovers. But every now and then, when I wanted to have a selfish moment I found it was virtually impossible for us not to come at the same time. I don’t know if she ever tried to go it alone, but whenever my body began to lock on target or felt hers doing it, so were our rhythms synched and we were pulled into that cosmic event no thoughts of dead puppies could avert. There was no eating alone in bed. Neither of us could hide a cookie under our pillow. Like it or not we had to share.
According to their publicists, Marina Abramovic and Ulay broke up because they felt they were stagnating as artists and collaborators, and that their creative arc had run its course. I didn’t consider why this meant they had to end their romantic relationship, too. I’d like to say I figured two performance artists couldn’t be romantically involved without everything they did together bearing the overwhelming self-consciousness of watching themselves in a mirror. But I wasn’t interested in their romantic relationship so the question hadn’t crossed my mind of what happened to them as lovers. Somewhere in the roped-off catacombs of my mind lies a belief that great art requires great sacrifice, and a hope that there are artists presently on earth capable of making such sacrifices. I wanted to believe Abramovic and Ulay were among those artists. But it turns out her decision ain’t have shit to do with art. Ulay had knocked up their translator and Abramovic dumped him, never to speak to him again. That is, after they staged an epic breakup performance piece for BBC films in which Ulay set off from the westernmost end of the Great Wall of China in the Gobi Desert and Abramovic from the easternmost end near the Yellow Sea. They walked for ninety days, nonstop, until they met to say goodbye, embraced one last time, and continued on, their backs to one another now, to complete their separate remaining lengths of the wall, some 1,500 miles altogether, a kind of cooling off period, their shadows lengthening in the evening sun, without once looking back.
Scrub forward to Abramovic’s show at MoMA in 2010, “The Artist Is Present,” and it almost seems as if the whole drama of their love was staged for this climactic reunion, all tension being good tension. For this, Abramovic’s retrospective, the artist sat for 736.5 hours, not counting when the museum was closed. That’s like an entire month of ten-hour workdays. She invited people to sit for staring contests that—surprise—she always won. Museumgoers were allowed to sit for as long as they wanted or could, and gaze into the abyss of the prophetess’s face. Most people wept. Some found God. They formed a support group on Facebook.
This was cake compared to some of Abramovic’s earlier stunts. She once stood for hours and let people do whatever they wanted to/with her body using a range of props from a table nearby. The table held “a gun, a bullet, a whip, lipstick, a scalpel, a coat, shoes, and olive oil.” The table is performance enough; a narrative attaches to each item whether she’s there or not. Does this make her happy, confronting the fact of her vulnerability, her helplessness against death? She’s the ultimate tough girl, able to withstand anything a mortal can wield against her.
Can she withstand love? When Ulay showed up at the MoMA they probably didn’t make him stand in line, but ushered him into the great room where the oracle sat. The money shot is that moment of mutual recognition, when after so many hours of delicate souls crumpling under the weight of Marina’s gravity the one person who has not only passed within her orbit and maintained his own, but tugged hers slightly into variance and wobble, sat before her to disrupt all Newtonian space and time. How could I watch that event and not feel ashamed for the paucity of love I have allowed in my life? That is to say I, too, wept.
I think of the Orgasm Queen whenever I come across ubiquitous references to Lacan—his business about the mirror stage. This is the moment at which, according to Lacan, the infant recognizes its face in the mirror and realizes something has gone terribly wrong. Until that point, the infant believed itself in union with all consciousness. The poet and literary critic Fred Moten speculates toward a racialized mirror stage, a kind of scopic castration at a primal, formative level that is made all the more harrowing for its very real (as opposed to symbolic) dimensions found in the cultural prohibition on “reckless eyeballing” (a black male of sexual maturity gazing at a white woman in a way that can be construed as desirous), that infraction for which Emmet Till, among countless others, was so famously murdered. Historically, the desiring gaze of the black male has been subject to mortal repercussions. Thus producing a disablement black males internalize along with their acquisition of other basic cultural norms (the distrust of police, for example, or the internalized logic of bureaucracy). Some of us just don’t look—especially not at white women. Some of us look, and feel ashamed for doing so (this would be the category I fall into). Still others of us overcompensate by making a show of looking at women indiscriminately every chance we get, all the while announcing that we are engaged in an act of looking with libidinal intent, half an expression of sexual prerogative, half dare for someone to object. Admirable are those black men who don’t fall anywhere along this spectrum of pathology.
I admit it is within the field of my lover’s fantasy of me that I feel most desirable. But I can’t know that fantasy, I can only know my own projection of what I think that fantasy might look like. Or what I want it to look like. Which means I beg my lover’s (reciprocal) objectification. This process is aided by the fetish value of race. In a very real sense, I employ racist stereotypes of black male sexuality in order to facilitate my own climax. That stereotype is a protective ignorance I hope to drape between my white lover and me: a modesty sheet, a security blanket. With black women and (many) Latinas, I’m just ass-out naked and vulnerable, and must rely upon the strength of a character I ain’t too sure I have. Not so with many white women.
I suffer the guilt of a lapsed Negro, self-orphaned, although that would be more polite than the truth. Not post black, not an ex-colored man. To be clear, I don’t care to be considered American to the exclusion of my African-Americanness. For the most part, I was raised black but for reasons of apathy and economics, my family simply wasn’t observant, preferring instead to derive our esprit de corps from the community of consumers with whom we’d most often gather in fellowship in the tabernacles of Macy’s and Ikea. I am not a practicing black.
There is this issue of nomenclature that many find confusing, which has always been really a kind of Myers-Briggs concern for personality type. (Are you more Negro-colored afro-punk? Or are you a neo-Southern post-soul baby? I’ve been toying lately with the combinations of Black/Yankee/Gringo with various degrees of success, some term that would indicate that my blood harkens back many generations in Philadelphia.) We should not think of these terms as representing a teleological arc of cultural attitudes echoing a timeline of American history: Negro then Afro- then black, etc., terms that call to mind period footage and documentary images Instagrammed in the popular film stock of their day. It is more accurate to think of all the modes of negritude comingling, some in more abstract, ghostly form than others, but all present and attesting to the fundamentally Freudian struggle to define black identity (American identity), each generation umbraged by the label attached to the previous, seeking to distinguish itself. Rather than imagine one label giving way to a new and universally approved categorical identity, imagine the appearance of each new term as a splintering, a faction of what has gone before. Denominations in the church of blackness.
The photo that surfaces at holiday dinners to rally our collective self-awareness shows my great-grandfather, whom we called Little Bits, blind in one eye like a mystic poet. He could easily pass for Japanese. He is sitting in a high-backed, clear vinyl-covered chair. Over Little Bits’ left shoulder is his son, my grandfather, who looks middle aged in horn-rimmed glasses, probably not much older than I am now. Over Little Bits’ right shoulder is his grandson, my father, athletic in his afro and nut-hugging jeans. In Little Bits’ lap is an infant. That, of course, would be me. Four generations of American Otherness: one colored, one Negro, one Black, and one who will struggle to define himself in a term that does not, in its bifurcation, privilege the adversarial ideology of race, the term he will grudgingly bear forward into the twenty-first century, “African American.”
Grudgingly, too, because, as Carole Boyce Davies notes in her introduction to Black Women, Writing and Identity, the “African” in “African American” is a term that “attempt[s] to create a monolithic construction out of a diverse continent of peoples, cultures, nations and experiences.” She suggests, “For the Romans, ‘Africa proconsularis’ was an administrative, territorial category... The origin of the term ‘Africa’ for colonialist, administrative reasons and its subsequent application to an entire continent ... has implications for how African peoples (particularly in the diaspora) begin to activate monolithic categories of heritage and identity, as, for example, ‘Afrocentricity.’” Davies does not speculate what those implications are, but we can surmise, given her use of the word “monolithic,” she means derivative terms like “Pan-African,” for example, terms that foster a categorical vision of the continent and its descendants, unwittingly carry intimations of Eurocentricity. This is much like the multitude of people inhabiting the Western hemisphere before Columbus subscribing, when he gets there, to an identity founded on mistaken identity: Indios. How richly ironic that our current self-designation, African American, would be derived from a bureaucratic expedient under the earliest of European empires.
We’d like to think we’re getting better at understanding ourselves, as if each change in designation signals the completion of some stage in development through which we’ve earned the privilege, like a martial arts belt or an honor badge, to name ourselves anew. But that self-naming is a differentiating act, an “X” scissoring umbilical associations.
Just as intrinsic to our cultural character as the inclination to accept the all-in-one package deals offered by stereotypes is our inclination to declare war on the previous generation by declaring ourselves altogether reborn and self-made. From Alain Locke’s New Negro (1925) to Sherley Anne Williams’s “Neo-Black” (1972)2 to Trey Ellis’s New Black Aesthetic (1989), we’ve been reinventing ourselves, in literature and politics, in opposition, primarily, to our parents.
What I do have in common with my father is that well into the 1990’s he and I would both start bouncing on the balls of our feet and shaking out our limbs when mythologizing the First Black Person to do something. We’d start shadowboxing because there were still abundant opportunities to be the FBP to do something, and we routinely imagined ourselves joining those ranks. This also means, of course, that we believed enough in a coherent blackness to believe that being the FBP could bespeak the drive and aspirations of forty million people whose primary organizing principle is the agreement that they would not have fared any better, were they ever in his shoes, than Homer Plessy on that streetcar. Otherwise winning the FBP would be trivial, pyrrhic.
We were a couple of prospectors staking claims across the untamed expanses of history. This “first fever” that we shared virtually propelled me into pastimes where I was assured some freedom from competition with other African Americans. Instead of football or basketball, I was captain of my high school tennis team. I abandoned writing rap lyrics to study blues and rock guitar (musical forms black folks had long since abandoned in the popular market, so first-ness would have to have been broadly reimagined as uniqueness). Double-edged, however, it was also an accusation of overreaching: “So what, you think you’re going to be the first black ping pong champion?” Yes, was always my unspoken answer, which I harbored like a shiv.
Google “Gregory Pardlo,” and you’d think there was only one on the planet. This is by design. With patricidal malice I omitted the “Jr.” from my public persona. Had my father’s mother Ollie not felt betrayed by her father-in-law, Samuel Pardlo, Sr. (Little Bits), for entrusting the house he built in Willow Grove, PA to her sisters-in-law instead of her husband, Sam, Jr., she might have agreed to name her son Samuel Pardlo, III. Inertia would likely have had it then, that I would be a subsequent Samuel Pardlo. The Fourth. How much different would my life have been? Maybe not at all. But I’d have had a much more difficult time disappearing three generations of men with whom I shared a name instead of only one. I’d have to accept that they were a part of me, and for my sanity construct a biographical narrative that proved me the better for it. This is how people get trapped carrying their forbears in an ectoplasmic pregnancy; ancestor worship is the survival strategy of the dead.
There is, at least, one Google return for my name that is not in reference to me. It is a letter to the editors at The New York Review of Books from an organization calling itself the “American Workers & Artists for Solidarity” of Princeton New Jersey. The letter is actually an announcement for a “Solidarity Meeting” on Saturday, February 6, 1982. It begins, “Your readers may be interested to know,” which is euphemistic for we can’t afford to pay for advertising. And it proceeds:
We invite people to explore how the democratic ideas of the Solidarity movement have relevance to the situation of workers and trade unionists in the United States. Speakers for the event are dissident trade unionists, sympathetic intellectuals and artists, and Solidarity activists. [These include]: Joseph Brodsky, Pete Camarata (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), Miroslav Chojecki of Solidarity, Toy Dixon (Harlan County UMWA), E. L. Doctorow, Alexander Ehrlich, Carlos Fuentes, Allen Ginsberg, Dick Gregory, Nat Hentoff, Greg Pardlo (PATCO), Ed Sadlowski (United Steelworkers), Pete Seeger, Daniel Singer, Dave Skocik (PATCO), Susan Sontag, Studs Terkel, Andrzej Tymowski, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Ben Zemsky (Postal Workers). PEN American Center is a supporting organization.
For years, since I began Googling myself on the regular, and before I recognized many of the names on that list, I would dismiss this search item, passing it over in favor of some blog reference to a poem of mine, or announcement from a school where I was scheduled to read. I ignored it because the term “PATCO” (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the air traffic controller’s union prior to 1981) appeared after my (his) name. Hired in one of the early if not first waves of minorities and women to join the ranks of air traffic controllers, my father belonged to the union and was an outspoken proponent of the strike that halted air travel in American in 1981 before Reagan broke the union. Yet, what stands out in my memory about this event was what time had whittled down to the one detail that mattered to my father, the shorthand he offered to pad his legend. He did not tell anybody and everybody who cared to listen. Only with me, his reluctant double, he would regale: I once shared a dais with Gore Vidal.
One of the more destructive ideas to be planted in the souls of black folks is that of the Talented Tenth. This DuBoisian concept that the preeminent ten percent of the African American population should be responsible for shattering stereotypes; role modeling behavior to foster social and economic stability, and decrease degeneracy among the rabble; and generally advancing the estimation of the race in the eyes of our global and historical contemporaries not only approves a divisive elitism already expressed through color consciousness, but it places an overwhelming burden on anyone self-possessed enough to believe her or himself even slightly above average in Darwinian fitness. In theory, the Talented Tenth is an elite club that derives its membership through self-nomination, which, as a preteen, I was inclined to do because it allowed me to reconcile my father’s arrogance with a story of genetic exceptionalism. I can only achieve this self-election to the Talented Tenth by abstracting myself from the black masses, by deciding, however intuitively, I am superior to ninety percent of the people in the very community that leases me the greatest part of my social identity. And I learned that while I was engaged in the contradictory acts of claiming affinity and pulling rank, I had to have the maturity of mind to avoid slipping into the racist logic on which everyone else in the nation has been basing this very process of abstraction for four hundred years: I had to somehow avoid the logic that my superiority was founded upon their inferiority.
Every affirmation I received as a child was taxed by the kingdom of blackness. I was reminded with each instance of acting out that the daily comforts I enjoyed—the liberty I thought mine by birth—cost the lives and dignity of untold millions. I had already concluded there was a special circle of hell reserved for black children who selfishly expressed their individuality without complying with the ethnographic imperative to represent—that great catalyst of racial advancement—and that my youth spent outside the precincts of conventional black consciousness damned me to that circle. I feel at some point I must have taken an oath not to go on strike against my blackness, that it was illegal to strike against blackness. It was inconceivable to me that I might just say peace out and go it alone. Therefore, every joint smoked, every beer, every white girl in a halter top I would, in my adolescence and young adulthood, cause to giggle and blush I would self-consciously rue as if it were a loogie hawked on the graves of ancestors who asked from me (according to the legend in my mind) only that my health, happiness and prosperity prove their sacrifices worthwhile. Double bind upon double bind, each effort to liberate myself from the obligations of blackness would redound with anxiety forcing me to seek comfort deeper in the unstable certainties of race. The result was an enshrined self-loathing which, knowing no better, my attempts to contain would have an effect similar to placing my thumb over the end of a garden hose. How does one negotiate what Sartre calls one’s “situation”: the throng of macro- and micro-narratives clamoring for priority in the construction of identity, and within which we seek homeostasis to the extent that our needs for group and self identity are equally satisfied? What part of my physiology is meant to serve this function?
In Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes that the colonized person desires to sleep with the master’s wife, preferably in the master’s bed. Detractors point to this as evidence progressive racial agendas conceal a spirit of rapine and vice. Granted, Fanon, like a mad genius, let some far-out shit get into his work, but I’m certain we are not meant to take him literally here. “The master’s wife” is more archetypal than she is real. As soon as we put a real person in her place the spell is broken. She is not meant to be an individual.
Fanon also relays, in Black Skin, White Masks, an anecdote containing more folk wisdom than fact: “a coal-black Negro, in a Paris bed with a ‘maddening’ blonde, shouted at the moment of orgasm, ‘Hurrah for Schoelcher!’” Victor Schoelcher, Fanon reminds us, persuaded the French Third Republic to abolish slavery. The “coal-black Negro” and the “’maddening’ blonde” are types. Fanon reads this obviously unsubstantiated but popular tale as evidence that the body politic of oppressed people might equate the experience of emancipation with jouissance, and Schoelcher is the Magical Helper who assists the hero in his quest for the Princess.
But can this logic be extended to the individual? Can we replace “coal-black negro” with a subjective “I”? Can the existential—if not metaphysical—experience of jouissance be conflated with and made to stand for the experience of an equally abstract feeling of social and political empowerment while still maintaining its erotic charge? Here’s a trickier question: does this jouissance offer liberation from a socially constructed identity or liberation on behalf of a socially constructed identity? Is it an instance of going it alone?
After the George Zimmerman verdict, drummer for The Roots and late-night television bandleader, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, posted on Facebook a response in which he claimed the verdict confirmed for him and for all black men in American that “Trayvon Martin and [He] Ain’t Shit.” Thompson’s post was picked up and adapted for publication in New York Magazine. The resulting essay includes an anecdote in which Questlove finds himself coming home one night and sharing an up-elevator in his luxury Harlem high-rise building with an attractive white woman. We can suss undercurrents of frustrated desire and romantic ambition. Questlove notes parenthetically that the woman was “bangin',” and that he was like, “bow chicka wowow.”
“There are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7,” and “Oscar-winners and kids of royalty and sports guys and mafia goombahs” all live in this building, Questlove reports. Nonetheless, at six-two and three hundred pounds, and sporting what he describes as an “uncivilized Afro” (in a Rolling Stone interview he describes himself as a “primitive exotic”), he says people still tend to fear him. So it should come as no surprise to us, at least not in the way Quest claims it surprises him, that when offering to play elevator operator, and even calling her “ma’am” (he asks this ostensible neighbor what floor she needs), she does not respond. According to Quest, the woman stands, shrinkingly, we presume, in a corner as he uses his security card to select his floor. Although he claims to be more interested in playing Candy Crush on his phone, he notices the rebuke enough to be offended. He is hurt. And this too is understandable. And now, as is my wont, I will write something I find offensive, but must be said: Bro. I love you, bro. But get over it. One, you live in a fucking luxury high rise. Two, it should be no surprise this woman cringes in fear, if for no other reason than that the poor thing has spent a lifetime steeped in a culture of gender violence (before we can even get to discussions of racial terror). Peeking nervously at the back of your uncivilized ’fro was probably for her like glimpsing mute oblivion. Three, you don’t actually want to sleep with her any more than you’d want to mug her. Indeed, based on your narrative, I wonder if the last thing you want is for her to look you in the eye and dispel your gender role fantasy. What frustrates you is not her lack of acknowledgement, but her resistance to the Princess/Prize type you wish to project onto her. What frustrates you is her refusal to perform even her unattainability. She resists your chivalrous overture, your desire to bear her symbolically skyward to the tower’s penthouse, and thus denies you the opportunity to envisage yourself as heroic, virile and emancipated. Like Melville’s recalcitrant scrivener, she turns stony and unresponsive while you suspect that, with other heroes, she might be more willing to play along. Why does she do this? Who knows. Why does anyone behave inscrutably in simple social interactions? Maybe it’s just that we haven’t learned to intuit, or to trust our intuition with, the motives of strangers who defy stereotypes, and thus expectations. Maybe we just want to avoid the embarrassment of misreading social cues.
1 Wikipedia. Whatever.
2 Despite Williams’s insistence that the term “neo-black” signals “continuity” with, and a “reinterpretation” of the black literary tradition, she nonetheless uses it to flag “the waning of that trend in Black literature in which writers addressed themselves to white audiences.” In other words, she uses it to signal a break with what she perceives to have been the practices of earlier black writers.