McKay, DuBois, and Hurston On Art, Politics, Propaganda, and Culture During the Harlem Renaissance

Three of the largest writers of the literary and political movement known as The Harlem Renaissance comment in their writing implicitly and polemical works explicitly on the role of culture, art, politics, and propaganda. W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most famous writer on black intellectualism during The Harlem Renaissance, writes in his polemical works about the social position of black people in aspiration of and argument for equity. This equity, for Jamaican exile Claude McKay, is one of socio-political or tactile action. As affiliated with the international communist party, McKay sought international social change and progress through art and revolution. Du Bois, as a public intellectual, however, promotes a quieter revolution, one of thought. Whereas Du Bois is concerned with historicizing the displacement of black bodies from equity and presenting the black intellectual as an identity brought into equity, McKay, as an artist, is concerned with the visceral representation of black life and thereby an acceptance into equity of a more ordinary, Everyman blackness by the white left. Finally, Zora Neale Hurston’s words on propaganda combine McKay and Du Bois both by suggesting art itself, as machinery of vivid life, performs an action-based propaganda. This paper seeks to explicate these intellectuals’ work in order to understand their intersections, dissonances, and ultimately to problematize any normative notions of the constellations of thought that come out of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1922, Claude McKay gives a speech at the Comintern in which he says white communists in America must “emancipate [themselves]” from their preconceived notions of blackness (16). Slavery’s descendant, he says, is “wage slavery,” the stagnant socio-economic position of blacks in America (17). He argues the very laborer revolution of the Marxist fight is the same of the black man in America, encouraging therefore communists to recognize that any talk about critical revolution can only come to fruition in America through black Americans’ hardship and experience. McKay’s political views exist explicitly for historians. Perhaps his connection to the communist party has deleted him from the canon of American letters, his name only uttered in the classrooms of African-American fiction. The Jamaican exile’s anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles come through in his fictional character of Ray, who appears in his first and second novels, Home to Harlem and Banjo. In each of his novels, Ray represents the despair of the black intellectual given the horror and inequity for his social position. In Home to Harlem, in an opiate-induced dream sequence, Ray questions race altogether and talks through color’s social representation (Home to Harlem 151-155). The novel itself is aesthetically concerned with color in many ways, often pinpointing specific shades of black and brown to describe the characters’ diversity of color.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes Black Reconstruction thirteen years later and begins his book with an explication on the black worker. This chapter historicizes the social position of blacks in America, particularly focusing on the fomenting of racism in the wider American consciousness. The capitalist need for domination, Du Bois seems to argue, not only creates socio-political plight in post-Civil War America, it also creates the systemic oppression of blacks by whites by pitting working class whites against newly freed blacks. The economic system ‘disrupted’ by the emancipation of slavery is stabilized, Du Bois argues, by poor whites placing themselves above blacks in the economic hierarchy. Their systematic creation of this social, political, and economic stature reinforces what had been known as slavery. In other words, slavery had merely been transformed into socio-political hierarchy based on race in the economic structure of America after the Civil War. The exploitation of black bodies for the gain of white control of the market and wealth was done so by pitting poor whites against blacks. This process foments a hatred of the black race in America (Du Bois).

Where Du Bois and McKay agree, therefore, is that the social and political position of black Americans can be historicized and therefore changed. Their prognosis for this change is, however, different. While Du Bois would go on to attack McKay’s work as “dirt” and “filth,” filled with “drunkenness,” “fighting,” and “lascivious sexual promiscuity,” McKay would argue his work does so to show the vivid actuality of ordinary black life  (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). McKay, in other words, understands Du Bois arguments toward equity to be uppity and lacking in the viscerality of the ordinary black man. McKay has his characters Jake and Ray struggle side-by-side in Home to Harlem, Lee M. Jenkins argues, as a means to explain this quarrel between elitist black intellectualism and ordinary black life (Africa 743-745). McKay addresses his critics in “A Negro Writer to His Critics,” and suggests the difference between propaganda and art is that the task of propaganda is much clearer whereas art may present itself as ars artis gratia, art for art’s sake. The “lonely, homely things” of everyday life can be represented in art and is left out of his critics’ elitist polemical movement. Finally, in a letter to Du Bois himself, McKay goes as far as to says “No where in your writings do you reveal any comprehension of esthetics and therefore you are not competent or qualified to pass judgment upon any work of art” (Letter from Claude McKay… 3). Thus, prognosis for change for Du Bois’ art is to present art as elevated. For McKay, it is to present it as truth and therefore as ordinary. McKay and Du Bois therefore also disagree on the position of art in culture.

Zora Neale Hurston did not write much if any literary criticism, yet her anthropological work and fiction does represent blackness in the public and private sphere, particularly black femininity. Hurston “dissolved the opposition between art and propaganda” that McKay drew explicitly in “A Negro Writer to His Critics” and which Du Bois drew implicitly in his criticism of Home to Harlem (Litz 178). African-American dialect and speakers have the ability to create “vivid and actual” stories such that they become propaganda by becoming action (ibid. 178). Hurston’s formulation of social action “raised criticism to the highest level, until it was in a sense synonymous with the verbal culture of the race” (ibid. 178). In other words, while Du Bois finds McKay’s vivid dialect and representation of ordinary blackness too filthy to bring about change in the social position of blacks, and while McKay grants art its own place as the platform for a debate on representation and politics, Hurston’s formulation combines them. She combines the dialect and representation of the ordinary man from McKay’s and her own work with the desire for socio-political equity that she, McKay, and Du Bois all share.

Works Cited

  • Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, edited by Noelle Morrissette, and Richard M. Juang, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nu/detail.action?docID=305238.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: an Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, 1935.
  • Litz, A. Walton, and George Alexander Kennedy. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. vol. 7, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • McKay, Claude. Letter from Claude McKay to W. E. B. Du Bois, June 18, 1928. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
  • —. “Report on the Negro Question: Speech to the 4th Congress of the Comintern, Nov. 1922.” International Press Correspondence, v. 3, Jan. 5 1923, pp. 16-17.
  • —. Home to Harlem. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928. Northeastern UP, 1987.

“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

The Female Gothic

In the introduction to a special two-issue cycle of Gothic Studies on the female gothic, Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace historicize and define the term as Ellen Moers in Literary Women did: “coded expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body,” especially a fear of childbirth (Smith and Wallace 1). Since the publication of Literary Women in 1976, Smith and Wallace note, the term has been problematized and challenged, bringing forth a large body of criticism itself. This ‘coded expression’ points to the elements each author employs in their use of the gothic in service of a female or feminine fear. In defining a particularly female or feminine fear, one can (and should) come up against critique. This, of course, is the body of criticism introduced by Smith and Wallace for the special issues of Gothic Studies.

Also in this introduction, Smith and Wallace trace some of the terms associated with the ‘female gothic’ tradition, including ‘gothic feminism,’ ‘lesbian gothic,’ ‘women’s gothic,’ ‘erotic gothic,’ and even ‘male gothic’ to “contextualize their discussion” (Smith and Wallace 1). One of these is particularly relevant: gothic feminism, which Smith and Wallace define using Diane Long Hoeveler’s 1998 Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. Gothic feminism is “female power through pretended and staged weakness,” and a gothic feminist work is one whose “heroines masquerade as blameless victims of a corrupt and oppressive patriarchal society while using passive-aggressive and masochistic strategies to triumph over [it]” (Smith and Wallace 2). Such pieces as The Maids by Jean Genet and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood come to mind. For Hoeveler, the creation of the gothic does not only serve feminism in pieces classified as gothic feminist, but the opposite is also true: feminism serves to create the gothic.

In the same issue of Gothic Studies, Diana Wallace writes about ghost stories and the female gothic. “Uncanny Stories: The Ghost Story as Female Gothic,” argues that ghost stories present a particular opportunity as a non-mainstream genre. By being a non-dominant form in the Nineteenth Century, ghost stories offered a rhetorical space for critique of male power and violence that contemporaneous mainstream domestic novels with marriage plots could not. She argues as well that ghost stories “explore how patriarchal culture represses and buries images of the maternal” (Smith and Wallace 4-5). The ghost story, according to Wallace, and more generally the gothic genre itself offers “especially fertile and sophisticated explorations of women’s dreams and desires, fears and terrors” (Wallace 66).

In a self-proclaimed “corrective” to Greg Johnson’s 1989 essay “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Carol Margaret Davidson places the genre ‘female gothic’ retroactively onto “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The female gothic mode, Davidson argues, is “a form that is generally distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood” (Davidson 48). Davidson goes on to argue that Gilman’s use of gothic elements is toward a more political end, echoing in some ways the motive of Hoeveler’s ‘gothic feminism.’ This is to say that for both Hoeveler and Davidson, while the female gothic may thematically follow a female and her fears of what it means to be female/feminine, the female gothic concerns itself with employing gothic elements to serve a feminine and/or feminist political agenda.

Explaining A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit begins her 2009 book discussing the essential nature of humanity. Not an easy task, Solnit’s argument is framed around critical disaster theory and personal experience and interviews that Solnit herself did while visiting the ad hoc disaster relief agencies after the Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Solnit argues that, despite the moral touchstones within Western society that demand humans are inherently self-serving or selfish beings, something arises that looks like altruism when disaster strikes. In her Prelude, Solnit discusses disaster’s ability to level any socioeconomic divide by quite literally leveling any property or means of centralized aid. Where altruism arises, Solnit argues, is between neighbors–no matter how diverse.

Mainstream media portrayals of selfish violence in times of disaster appear, Solnit argues, as early as Genesis. Solnit points out, “when God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (3). Cain calls to mind one of the most important questions about human nature: “Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” (3). What Solnit argues, of course, is that the question of taking care of one another is fundamentally tied to situations of disaster. What disaster shows is not a commitment to one’s own desires, beliefs, or economic circumstance but rather the ability to find common ground and shape a future that is beautiful, safe, and sturdy. The rupture of everyday life causes community enjoyment, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” (5).

Disaster can even help facilitate something like assimilation, Solnit argues, offering a story about a Native American who was trapped by dense tule fogs that overtook California’s Central Valley had ended up feeling for the first time “a sense of belonging” (4). It is disaster that forms a different touchstone–one of community, Solnit argues. Out of the ashes and dust of mourning and grief comes new relationships with those who participate in disaster relief and between different organizations that may have been founded on adversarial belief systems (or at least partly made-up of people who have adversarial belief systems). The grief and tragedy surrounding connotations of the word disaster are not in their intrinsic or immediate manifestation but rather in what follows. In other words, one can (and perhaps must) decide to change the grief into solidarity, beauty, and love. From this, Solnit arrives at her title: A Paradise Built in Hell. The paradise arises out of the hell of disaster–both in its material tragedy and in the denial of its representation in media that insists humans’ selfish nature. This concept of disaster, Solnit notes, can be revolutionary.

Recent history has blocked solidarity and moves toward communal paradise through intense privatization, something Solnit addresses early to discuss the fallout of W. Bush’s popularity but takes up more specifically in her discussion of New Orleans mayor post-Katrina. Though privatization has an economic connotation, Solnit notes, no “consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers–railways, water rights, policing, education–to the private sector” (9) can happen without also privatizing imagination and desire. The operation of disasters is in undoing this privatization, sending decision-making and impromptu life-saving to community, giving each citizen (which she defines) of that community “participation, agency, purposefulness, and freedom” (9). These “flashes,” as she calls them, of altruism and community building occur through disaster.

In her chapter named after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of “beloved community,” Solnit goes through several different organizations that begin post-Katrina disaster relief uniquely, fit in with each particular community uniquely, and then follows them through to their afterlives. Her first example of happiness from grief is provided by the mother of an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, Cindy Sheheen, who moved herself to protest the war at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to create Camp Casey (named after her son). In the improvised protest camp, Sheheen said it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, something which Solnit notes seemed to prove “grief had hollowed out all usual needs and left her nothing but a purity of purpose” (285). King’s “beloved community” accomplishes just this: an emptying out of adversity that is filled with good social change.

Solnit argues what is so perfect about King’s “beloved community” is King’s commitment not only to vast systemic change, the end of apartheid in America, but in community-building based on breaking down adversarial barriers, something perhaps much more difficult to accomplish. The disaster provides the perfect environment for the “beloved community” to come into fruition because it requires that centralized institutions work well in tandem with grassroots relief organizations, that each side is utilized for its different strengths and that in their cooperation, their nature as adversaries take a backseat. “Antiwar, environmental, social justice, human rights, and other movements generate new communities, often transcending old divides, and in the process bringing something of that urgency, purposefulness, suspension of everyday concerns, fellowship, and social joy also found in disaster,” Solnit says (286). Thus, communities are built by the neighbors that run grassroots organizations and with the wide-encompassing scope of more centralized institutions. This, Solnit’s book argues, is most capable after disasters– when the fundamental human nature is discovered as being compassionate, loving, and neighborly. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.

Different organizations that may have been built around opposing ideologies, who may have in everyday life become enemies of one another accomplish solidarity in times of disaster, Solnit argues. She lists two very good examples of these between organizations like Common Ground, whose founding came out of the same message as well as at least one member of the Black Panthers militant group of the 1960s, and the Rainbow Family, which derived from the hippie counterculture and LGBT rights advocacy movements. Common Ground found solidarity amid the huge socioeconomic racial divide in New Orleans and amid the racist portrayals of looters and criminals in the Katrina aftermath on news media worldwide. The Rainbow Family likewise found solidarity with evangelical Christians in the disaster relief community. Barriers break down and adversarial drawbacks dissolve in the service of fellow citizens when disaster strikes.

Decentralized decision-making and democratic community-building arrive to us, Solnit argues, through the material devastation of disaster. By providing disruption to everyday life, the ruins of disaster have revolutionary potential to thwart privatization and elitist fear. Joy from disaster, love from desperation, paradise from hell has been the major preface to what Solnit throws back out to the readers in her Epilogue. Solnit leaves us with this: “it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable” (308). As climate change accelerates and inflates disaster, the elites will panic and try to privatize. One’s job, then, as moral citizen is to see disaster as an opportunity rather than a damnation.

Explaining “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by Fred Moten

Fred Moten begins his “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” by praising Afro-pessimism in the work of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. He moves to agree that scholarship cannot be divorced from a hatred of blackness, yet acknowledges tension remains in his love for Sexton and Wilderson’s work. Moten says he plans to stage his position not in opposition to Sexton and Wilderson’s, but alongside them.

Given critical attention to the ship hold, Moten argues that a point of view from the hold is no point of view or standpoint at all, but is rather “refusal of standpoint” (738). Moten says he plans to explore how blackness precedes ontology and thus is not lived in social death as Sexton would have it, but is irreducibly social. To deny sociality exists within the hold of the ship would be, Moten says, to deny value to the terror of that position (a position which, in being a refusal of standpoint is also not a position). Given this, the black, individual standpoint is impossible and thus blackness, Moten asserts, is nothing—not even social death, as Sexton and Wilderson would have it.

Moten, as if to perform his own relation to the work of Sexton and Wilderson and their relation to Du Bois and Fanon, brings up Orlando Patterson’s work as a bridging piece (an image Moten later picks up) between Arendt, Moten, and the Afro-pessimists. This is to say that while Moten’s diction is closely concerned with the subtleties of word difference—like “social poetics” and “aesthetic sociology” (742), “fugue” and “fugitive” (743), “afro-pessimism” and “optimism” (742), “present” and “unmade in presence” (743), “inside” and “outside” (740), “elsewhere” and “elsewhen” (746), “on hold but not in the hold” (750)—his syntax argues that blackness is not a dialectic, but rather it opens up into a constellation: “I plan to stay a believer in blackness, even as thingliness, even as (absolute) nothingness, even as imprisonment in passage on the most open road of all, even as…fantasy in the hold” (742-3). This substitutive nature of subtly different—or vastly different—words pushes Moten’s argument for sociality further: namely, in suggesting that words in their Derridean form (which is to say, meaning nothing while signifying something) are also social: “What is the nothingness, which is to say the blackness, of the slave that it is not reducible to what they did, though what they did is irreducible in it?” (744). In what Moten explains Sexton and Wilderson see as difference between his argument and theirs is, and this is his term, “apposition.” In other words, their theories are subtly different yet have an inherently social relationship between one another in the same valence that the words themselves in his form have sociality.

Moten points out that by maintaining a position of both non-relationality and non-communicability, Wilderson creates a contradiction in terms, for it is only through acknowledging a possible communicability can its negative (non-communicability) be present. Thus, non-relationality is simultaneously impossible, because communicability (or its negative) recognizes intersubjectivity (748-9). Moten later poses this as the key to understanding the difference between pessimism and optimism, namely that the gap between “an assertion of the relative nothingness of blackness and black people in the face, literally, of substantive (anti-black) subjectivity and of an inhabitation of appositionality, its internal social relations, which remain unstructured by the protocols of subjectivity” (750). Moten, again, distinguishes his own theory and that of Wilderson and Sexton not as oppositional but appositional.

Moten agrees with Wilderson’s seemingly paradoxical notion that between blackness and antiblackness is “the unbridgeable gap between Black being and Human life” (749). However, he says what remains is the divorce of blackness from blacks and vice versa: “the necessity of an attempt to index black existence by way of … paraontological, rather than politico-ontological, means” (749). Blackness is required to “serially commit” this act of detachment (749). In this detached state, blackness (rather than blacks) is “unsettlement” (750). Moten makes use of Nathaniel Mackey’s mu from Splay Anthem to serially perform the centrifugal and spiral nature of returning to the sociality of the ship hold. The detachment, then, is a repetitive dissociation from subjectivity “so that what’s at stake … is a certain black incapacity to desire sovereignty and ontological relationality” (750). This incapacity either enables or is itself the stage for sovereignty’s brutal materiality, which Moten brings forth after quoting Kitarō Nishida’s “echoing [of] a traditional Buddhist teaching” (750). Nishida helps Moten to argue also that blackness is a place which has no place. This recalls his earlier figure of nothingness, “the rich materiality of … emptiness” (745), but takes it a step further in the direction of the dialectic: “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight” (751). Moten argues that the hold, in being the place which is a no-place, dissolves sovereignty, and in being “the social life of black things, which passeth understanding” allows for blackness and imagination within the hold to become one (752).

After assessing blackness, Moten turns to nothing, which in its fullness (and thus in its relation to blackness) can be called “fantasy in the hold” (752). Before this, though, he returns to mu, from which issues concentration to the “social materiality of no place, of Having No Place,” in the hold (752). Within the hold remains sociality, even via physical touching, but Moten, in reading Foucault and Deleuze-reading-Foucault, understands the inside of the hold as also a fold of the outside of the hold, the no-place that is also a place. Moten insists this rhetorical move is not a dialectic one, but one which opens up the in-betweenness of the passage, of the in-and-outness of the hold. This brings Moten back to the Afro-pessimists and the question of nothing being with nothing again, a question asked to be unasked, he says. This unasking, Moten argues, “is mu … because nothing (this para-ontological interplay of blackness and nothingness, this aesthetic sociality) remains to be explored” (755-6). Thus, Moten is serially performing, almost spirally within his text, the very thing for which he argues: mu, or “repeatedly circling or cycling back” (747). In returning to the question of nothing, Moten also returns to the notion of standpoint or position. He questions whether the sharing of life within and out of the hold can create sociality for the sake of “extra-phenomenological poetics of social life” (756). Out of the emptiness and nothingness comes, in exhaustion, friendship. This life is derived outside of being (given the detachment of blackness from being or the para-ontology of blackness).

On the Through-line of Violence from Slavery to Present

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Charles Chesnutt, who only receives an education because of the Freedman’s Bureau, writes in the Reconstruction Era America, fables of dispossession. The exploitation of blacks in America, we learn from these stories, does not end with slavery. His two characters John and Annie are created, I argue, as critiques of the Northern white capitalists come down to the South to take advantage of the economic destruction that was caused by the war. Slavery transforms into sharecropping whereby the economically wealthy class remains on top while the poor freed blacks are damned to tell their stories for amusement, joy, or if they’re lucky, publication. In Chesnutt’s case, publication only exists as playing into the stereotype of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (as we see from the cover of the original edition of The Conjure Woman) or the minstrel shows that came out of these fables of dispossession. The stories Chesnutt presents are stories of witness, witness to the disenfranchisement of blacks by the white capitalists. Instead of the slave master, the white capitalists of the north move in an notice the land is “neglected” as John says in one of the stories. What John notices as neglect is actually Julius’ owning the land. What John calls neglect is no white person owning the land and it is what gives John permission to recolonize the land for his own gain. Julius receives a job out of it as ‘consolation.’ It is in this way that slavery becomes expropriation to make sure blacks stay at the bottom rung of the economic strata.

Hurston’s female character Janie represents the triple exploitation of poor black women in the rural south of the early 20th century. Janie, in an attempt to find her ‘self,’ looks from husband to husband until she finally realizes in retelling her story to Phoebe that the self can only exist after such devastation within one’s own story. Even when she is with Jody, Janie talks about taking her self and putting replacing it with furniture. Or setting her self on a shelf inside herself. This dissociation of the self is, in my argument, Hurston’s attempt to represent what Marx calls our alienation from the self. What capitalism renders is people who have social relations with things and economic relations with people. After Jody opens up a story is when their relationship begins to deteriorate in the novel. At every marriage, it is the financial dependence or the financial insecurity that Janie has that ultimately, I argue, forces further divorce from herself. This is Hurston’s representation of the triple oppression of a poor black woman in the rural south.

What Walt calls Faulkner’s only reflective moment is at the end of Go Down, Moses with the character of Gavin Stevens. There is no reconciliation for the ultimate destruction and complete violation that is slavery. That seems to be the true tragedy of Faulkner’s novel. No matter what Stevens decides to do, obituary or not, money or not, funeral or not, there is no amount of present reparation that can create penance for slavery. This is to say that the economic structure of today is predicated on the economy created by the system of slavery, which means there is only one economic structure that has ever existed in America — capitalist slavery. It is only transformed from chattel slavery to another form of economic immobility.

The biggest moment in Brooks’ poetry that stands out is at the end of “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad of Emmett Till” when the complete horror that is the grief of Emmett Till’s mother just empties out onto a landscape, as if such horror can only be understood as being outside of oneself. It makes me emotional even to type this, because one can only imagine that the biggest tragedy is something that divorces oneself from even being able to look into its direction, the only option being to turn away and look out into a landscape. Emmett Till, the boy beaten for allegedly catcalling at a girl–something she has since admitted never happened–had been beaten so bad, almost beyond recognition. His mother wanted him to have an open casket, to show the world that the horrific violence committed against blacks in America had not stopped at slavery. For every progression, there is a steady response of retaliatory violence.

This transforms into the hoodie on the cover of Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. What the hoodie represents is a complete identification, or rather a stripping of individual identity, emptying out onto a landscape of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, and ultimately violence. This violence, in 2017, is protested but not condemned in court as unjust. Michael Slager received a plea deal just this week. He will not have to receive a lifetime prison sentence for shooting Michael Scott at a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. What may seem as isolated incidents from slavery until now is actually one throughline of violence. The subjection of black people to violence in America has only transformed in nature and name. It is still violence. Literature presents an opportunity to imagine a world that could be better, to call a world that is unjust what it is. Until true democracy is realized, the representation of violence will persist. What Rankine did is considered a political act. It is, therefore, a political act to represent reality. That is what is at stake in the “alternative fact” America.

The Development of Consciousness from James to Robinson

This was submitted in response to an essay question for the final exam of a survey of American Literature from 1850-present.

Henry James, as we read in Washington Square, is a student of the French Realist school of thought. This is to say, according to Standhal, the job of the novel is as a mirror that walks along the road, reflecting back whatever exists in the world. It is only then that criticism can be made. In other words, the project of the novel is in mimesis, or in a performance of a reality. Instead of a plotted reality, James is interested in the representation of consciousness. Instead of the first-person narrative, though, James chooses instead to acknowledge the narrator as an outside entity thinking in on Catherine, who has her own thoughts. This is to say that while we never have access to Catherine’s thoughts (except one brief moment toward the end of the novel), we do have access to the thoughts of the narrator. This access to the thoughts of the narrator means we have an outsider’s view of what Catherine represents within the tapestry of American life at the time. Catherine does not exist as a subjective being in a universe by herself, she exists having been defined by those around here, particularly by her father who is constantly obsessed with finding someone who is worthy of her value — her dowry, her economic value. So, when James sits down to ask himself how he can represent the reality of consciousness for a character, the operation of consciousness seems to be an attempt to represent a subject within the trellis of the economics, which is to say the operation is to call forth economics or social class and history in his representation of reality and of “real” consciousness. This leaves two possible functions for consciousness: If the social classes do not exist, then his representation is generative of the representation of subjectivity within the American economy. If the social classes do exist, then his representation is perhaps an early critique on the reduction of anything or anyone (especially gendered things and ones) to their economic value.

This shifts when we read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. With modernism, the narrator partakes in the action of the story. The only access to reality is through consciousness instead of standing on the outside, as if to stand on the (economic) structure itself like with James. Knowledge about the world is only verifiable for the modernist, for Cather, through a subjective perspective. The critique of one’s complete innerness being reduced to an economic value becomes complete submersion into subjectivity, an outright rejection of an objective understanding of meaning. In other words, there is no other Ántonia other than “my” Ántonia. The narrator’s relationship with the titular character is what brings her into reality. More specifically, it is Ántonia’s existence in the consciousness of the Jim, the narrator, that makes Ántonia “real.” Indeed, Jim Burden’s “burden” is that of the observer, the position from which one can call forth Ántonia’s story, as if without his story–the novel itself–there is no Ántonia. This is obviously a much more heightened version of what consciousness does for Cather’s writing. However, what we gather is the way subjective consciousness can either create–to the nth degree–or fail. There is nothing reliable about subjectivity and there is nothing objective about the representation of reality. That is how consciousness changes with Cather.

With Faulkner–still modernism–the focus is still on submersion into subjective consciousness. However, while Cather (and in many ways Hurston, as well) is interested in the ways naming things from a subjective point of view makes them real or somewhat real (flawed in that there is no objective naming, only naming that exists within the preconceptions of a single consciousness); Faulkner, on the other hand, is focused on the syntactical performance of consciousness itself. Faulkner is interested in the ways sentences are like thoughts. The project of the novel seems to instead of creating a plotted reality or a representation of reality, the representation of the performance of consciousness. Under Faulkner’s model, the reader does not simply understand that everything is subjective, but that subjectivity is so submersive that it is in reading a novel or chapter in its entirety that one gets the feeling that one has thought what is happening. In other words, only after reading the first chapter of Go Down, Moses does one have a sort of feeling of what is happening. Each sentence alone does not itself create story, it is the submersion into each thought, each sentence or as Pound calls the lines “flashing impressions”, into the performance of thought–altogether–that we understand plot or reality. Consciousness, then, is not represented just in its perspective as a subjective point of view, but as performed, as something which itself involves action. That is Faulkner’s innovation.

With Pynchon, we almost return full-circle to Standhal’s mirror from the Jamesian innovation. However, whereas the modernists tried to defamiliarize the process of consciousness (like Faulkner’s syntactical performances), the postmodernists use the over-familiarized commodity to commodify consciousness. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas gets caught up in the dendritic mesh of global capitalism. At every stage, she questions whether it is all real or whether the will is a hoax. We never get an answer to this, left to wonder whether consciousness itself has been commodified and sold and rebranded and resold, which is to say whether consciousness itself can be manipulated or is manipulated by global capitalism or deindustrialization.

Finally, with Robinson, consciousness circles back in a repeated spiral, constantly within both past and present. The first two sentences of the novel tell what the rest of the novel explains, first begging the question “why continue to read?” Walter Benjamin reminds us that everything in the present owes something to the past, the past owns part of the present. This is to say that consciousness does not only take place in the present. The final innovation of consciousness is its awareness in both a present moment and a fixed or unfixed past. As the surface action unfolds, it is both indebted to the past itself and the way the past exists in the consciousness of the self.

Distance in Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass”

There is no such thing as diversity in Arab America; there are diversities. We do not adhere to a singular body politic: we engage in all sorts of politics. We do not occupy an Arab American culture: we belong to numerous cultures housed, somewhat reductively but usefully as intellectual shorthand, under the rubric of an Arab American ethnic community. We do not produce a particular style of literary fiction: like all good authors, we write literary fictions spanning the available range of aesthetic and structural paradigms – sometimes we alter them to better exhibit cultural flavor, and sometimes we transcend them and create new ones.

Steven Salaita, p 2

Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics

 

The simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy gives distance a plural status in literature. One can be both near to something because of empathetic experience and far from it relative to its physical subject as a reader. If I relate to a character I am emotionally intimate with him or her while simultaneously distant from him or her, as I exist outside the fictional story-world, beyond the pages of the book. But how does this simultaneity help us understand plurality in world literatures? In this essay, I will explore how Hassan Blasim’s “The Killers and the Compass” takes up the simultaneity and relationality of distance by invoking the very act of storytelling and making rhetorical shifts in tense sequence. It is my argument that by so doing, Blasim’s story accomplishes the “ethic of plurality” Salaita says exists for Arab (American) literature and affirms Al-Ali and Al-Najjar’s claim that “Iraqis exist in the plural as any other population” (Salaita 2, Al-Ali and Al-Najjar 32). While Blasim is not himself Arab-American, the translation into English of his stories in The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq presents an important space to further problematize the dangerous us/them binary narrative that exists between what is represented as a dominant U.S. culture, which is itself self-actualizing and patriotic, and what is simply represented as “Arab” culture, which in its creation must oppose and threaten the former and thus must be un-patriotic and non-dominant and which becomes ultimately racialized. In an effort to explain what Carol Fadda-Conrey calls a post-9/11 resurgence of portraying Arab people “through an antihomogonous lens,” I will argue that by invoking distance in the very act of storytelling in “The Killers and the Compass,” Blasim’s characters inhabit a plurality in themselves because of their plural story-world (Fadda-Conrey 534). I will then move on to how the relational function of distance operates to break down or problematize non-plural representations of any peoples and simultaneously re-establishes the artificial boundaries that prevent yet necessitate different realities.

As his older brother, Abu Hadid, trots Mahdi around the neighborhood, each encounter invokes storytelling as a means to understand character. This is to say that for Mahdi, every relation he has to where and whom they visit is tied to a story. The muddy lanes are muddy because of a storm, the smell of fried fish becomes about Majid the traffic policeman’s being drunk, even Abu Hadid’s picking up a stone and throwing it at cats becomes a story about Abu Rihab and his daughter (Blasim 14-15). Blasim’s invocation of storytelling within his story aesthetically creates community within the story. It takes little narrative space to create a sense of a larger community within the neighborhood. Beyond this, it also creates minor structures of storytelling that are then echoed and expanded in the story-within-the-story of the Palestinian kid and the compass.

For example, the shirt as a device travels. Abu Hadid orders Mahdi to take his off then orders the mechanic to fetch a new one. The clean one is from mechanic’s son who is a student at medical college. This is to say the shirt is the article of relation – who wears it, where does it come from, what does it smell like. Associations between the shirt and those who wear it are also in tandem with the way the shirt encounters distances: literally from one person to the next and figuratively based on the experience of the shirt, the shirt “smelled of soap” and was that of the student’s (16). It also inhabits a space of surprise when it fits Mahdi. By invoking this sense that beyond every geographic location in the neighborhood, beyond every article of clothing even, is an infinite number of characters, stories, or memories relationally connected, Blasim is affirming the plurality of these characters. The narrator does not exist in one storyline or even two, but in any infinite number of storylines.

A bit later, there is a brief interlude within the story about Abu Hadid that makes shifts in tense between past, present, and future. What is so special about Abu Hadid that his story can operate both in a past tense that contains a future interlude? This only lasts one paragraph and then the story continues in the past tense. Beyond the paragraph, the story shifts from just past-tense to a future tense: “I would never understand what the man [who Abu Hadid sexually assaulted with a cucumber] had to do with my brother” (18). The interlude creates another circle of distance outside of the story. This is different from the earlier moment when Mahdi questions what his brother whispered to the gerbil: “All along the way I was wondering what Abu Hadid had whispered in the gerbil’s ear” (16). The latter happens within the story-world while the former is outside it. This shift with the interlude allows for the story-world to have another layer within itself. In other words, it’s a story within a story within a story, endlessly. In a story about storytelling, this device may also be a way to remind the reader that he is still reading a story. Nonetheless, the effect is that within each story is itself another story and so on forever.

The narrative distance seems to again affirm the plurality of the universe Blasim creates or is referencing. If there are an infinite number of stories within stories, the more realistic his world remains. While his darker more experimental style seems to toggle into the fantastical, the world Blasim creates is as real as it gets. It is this aesthetic of narrative distance that complicates each character’s life. In a story that seems to be about establishing one’s own god-ness through fear and violence, distance is also unequivocally tied to this relationship.

Distance is relational; it requires at least two parties. It is defined as the observable or felt space between two or more things (OED Online). Understanding something as inhabiting multiple valences of location – being relational, needing more than one part – is another way of saying it operates plurally. Salaita’s monograph, quoted as an epigraph to this essay, aims to take up different sociopolitical contexts for in-depth literary analysis of Arab-American writing, giving due acknowledgement to the frequently misrepresented peoples of Arab America in what self-manifests as a more-dominant American ‘mainstream’ culture. His impetus for this analysis is in establishing what he calls an “ethic of plurality” (Salaita 2). What does this plurality look like? One of the answers to this question may be in the relational quality of distance.

Distance can be far or near, long or short. Intimacy may be accomplished through a short distance while remoteness may be accomplished through a longer one. The plurality of distance exists in its relational quality. As Dara N. Byrne points out in her essay “The Future of (The) ‘Race’: Identity, discourse and the rise of computer-mediated public spheres,” social networking websites like AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and Naijanet can function to facilitate “diasporan interconnectivity” (Lane 439). The plurality that exists in distance’s relational qualities exists because of its simultaneous use toward intimacy and remoteness. One may find intimacy from a remote location by using the Internet. One can be both near to something and far from it because of the remote connection the Internet offers. Even the phrase “remote connection” seems almost oxymoronic given the context that remoteness requires vast distance. Remoteness, in fact, requires connection, for its very understanding lies in its relation to a different perspective.

In her review of Roy Scranton’s War Porn for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sarah Hoenicke says,

All of these characters, and all of us — we either face our realities or don’t, but they remain realities. The Iraqis are for the United States and against it; the people are religious but not always devout; there is intelligence on both sides, and ignorance.

It is the simultaneity of remoteness and intimacy that remains integral to understanding the complex underpinnings of any global landscape. The minutiae are doubly crucial and no local, simple view can suffice. It is by recognizing the vast complexities within each locale, the myriad of details in each character relationship, that we can begin to condense and collapse the orientalist binary that not only sets up West and East but ties them to an endless battle between one another. Further, it is also in recognizing that the binary exists for many people and that the orientalist west-east/us-them dichotomy is the dominant worldview that we can begin to find ways, like in analyzing Blasim’s fiction, to collapse this narrative. Before we can prove the boundaries we create between ourselves are artificial, we must first acknowledge the different power structures that create and benefit from these boundaries. I hope that this essay and other like it become a means to explore these issues further.

 

Works Cited

  • Al-Ali, Nadje and Deborah Al-Najjar, editors. We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War. Syracuse University Press, 2013.
  • Blasim, Hassan. The Corpse Washer and Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books, 2014.
  • “distance, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US After 9/11.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2011, pp. 532-555.
  • Hoenicke, Sarah. “When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s ‘War Porn’” LA Review of Books, August 16, 2015. Accessed 11 November 2016.
  • Lane, Richard, editor. Global Literary Theory: an anthology. Routledge, 2013.
  • Salaita, Steven. Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures, and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.