The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.
Or on the abuse of language
The word anxiety appears a lot in ordinary language. It is a neat, Latinate word, and therefore sounds, somehow, more sophisticated than its Germanic near-synonym, angst. Yet, people’s fascination with the word anxiety is not related so much to its origins, obviously, as but the idea behind anxiety as a social practice, as legible information, and as affect. It can be, perhaps, attributed to the introduction of commercial psychopharmacology in the 1990s that conversations about mental health have become more common place in American life, words like “anxiety” and “depression” losing the clinical or philosophical power to which they have been traditionally ascribed and becoming, somehow, talking points in ordinary conversation. “I was so depressed after watching The Grave of the Fireflies.” “The sound of your chewing is driving me insane.” “You make me so anxious when you say things like that.”
On the most base level, these words are being inappropriately used in these contexts. English is a vast language, and thus we cannot blame the lack of stand-ins for these quotidian and seemingly harmless abuses of language. The Grave of the Fireflies is, indeed, a saddening movie, and the sound of another person’s mastication is indeed incensing, and hearing people say things glibly and without regard for the impact of their actions can indeed make individuals nervous, but the words used above speak to and are representative of things beyond the scope of annoyance, aggression and sadness, ordinary emotions which construct the landscape of the allegedly ‘sane’ mind. It is not so hard to use other words, to be more precise with language, even if it requires – get this – having a degree of forethought and political introspection which often seems to us, as postmodern neoliberal subjects, utterly draconian. It is easy to write off these suggestions as simple political correctness, a term which, ironically, has become almost inappropriate when it is deployed. We must be politically correct not only because of the potentiality for inflicting pain and suffering onto individuals already subject to the pain and suffering of existing with perpetual stigma (being discredited or discreditable; being other or having the potential to be exposed as other; self-outing or out-able;), but also because political correctness requests something of us whose shape and feeling we only understand because of its fundamental absence: the knowledge that we are, at our very core, bigoted and uncaring.
I have talked already about affect and ideology, and thus I won’t bore you with the details of an unfinished and underfurnished theory. In short, ideology becomes affect in order to save us the work of constantly being of-the-world and present, of thinking always about the order of things and, most meaningfully, wrestling with the web of signifiers which both deprives us of power and imbues us with it all at once. Ideology is a kind of cloud computation – we allow the cloud of ideology and social belief to act on our behalf, to compute and analyze a sequence of events and thus yield a response. Because we do cannot know the logic of the ideology, we do not question it, nor understand it as fundamentally logical. It simply is, and we act upon it without understanding, for ideology and affect function outside of the mind, are part of the material of the body.
What does this have to do with political correctness? Well, we must first break apart this phrase. Political here has a significant meaning. It is not the variation of political which is related to civic politics, that’s to say, government, elections, mayoral campaigns, etc. It does, of course, figure in these kinds of institutions as a kind of vanguard of liberalism which seeks, it seems, to divest the American people of their freedom of speech. The political in political correctness is revealed therefore in this very idea. Political correctness attempts to rectify the power relations between the stigmatized (others) and the unstigmatized. (what Erving Goffman calls “normals”). It attempts to speak to people in the language which they feel comfortable using. The political in political correctness is the interpersonal power dynamics which structure everyday life, which distinguish stigmatized from normal, which mitigate the process of discreditation, or the divestment of someone of their humanity and thus rendering them an other.
Now for the other word: correctness. The term correctness is more or less related to the idea that individuals should be allowed to come to a consensus about how they wish to be addressed as a collective “different” (read: not other) from the norm. The term “Negro” is no longer correct because it had been decided at some point in the 1960s, it seems, that the term which the Black world preferred was “black,” a term which, at least in the Anglophone world, had been just as much as an insult as “Negro” is now. Yet, the word “Negro” is not time-bound in its significance. It does not necessarily mean “A person of African descent and/or with dark skin from before the 1960s,” for the term “Black” is retroactive. Phyllis Wheatley was Black, even if she may have rejected that term during her lifetime. Negro continues to mean “Black person” or “Person of African descent” or “dark-skinned person” in ordinary parlance, but it has become obsolete and dated primarily; it has fallen out of use, and has thus become incorrect.
The term correctness is thus troubling because it does not necessarily mean what we understand correctness to mean. The issue is not between right and wrong, for the word “Negro” and slurs like “nigger” and “tar baby” and “porch monkey” all semantically and semiotically mean more or less the same thing; a black person. The connotation of these terms are, of course, different, but none of them yield a fundamentally different signified image other than the black person. Because they all arrive at the same idea, they cannot be discredited as incorrect, so much as they are obsolete. Obsolescence is therefore a better idea because what is obsolete still functions and still yields results (these words still signify) but better, more appropriate and more reliable alternatives exists and should thus be used in its stead.
Let’s look elsewhere. The word “cripple” was once used as a term to denote individuals with impaired mobility. Folks who use canes or walkers, received mobility assistance from wheelchairs, or even people temporarily on crutches were called “cripples” in a language which was, in the early 20th century, not expressly derogatory. The word “handicap” did exist, but it was not necessarily a word which you were likely to hear in ordinary conversation; the word “cripple” was. The term is still used, although it has since become obsolete. Disability advocates shun the word primarily because it represents a time when individuals with impaired mobility were look upon with pity and fear. The dispossession of the self as an otherwise creditable person through the noun “cripple” divested individuals of their humanity, and thus its replacement sought to do away with the nominalization of identity markers all together. The same cannot be said of Black people, who are still often referred to as “Blacks” or as “the Blacks,” Asian people as “Asians,” although white people rarely figure as “Whites.”
Consequentially, gay men are rarely called “gays,” but the term “lesbian” is rarely attached to “women” as an adjective; lesbian is a fundamental ontological category. Gay men are, still, men, it seems. But to “refuse to yield” to the desire of men divests a woman of her essential “womanliness,” making her into a lesbian, a non-woman.
The advent of “queer” has helped to assuage this issue of language and sexual identity, although, like all new terms, it creates new spaces for ambiguity. Queer as a term is perhaps too broad, for it figures in that ever-expanding acronym as itself a separate category, despite it at least in theory attempting to encompass all non-standard, discreditable sexual identities. The very idea of queerness was reappropriated from the slur which the word queer was in the early 20th century, used primarily to label sexually aberrant men. The term meant “weird, bizarre, strange” but also physically/mentally unwell and these definitions ultimately coalesced into the pathology of homosexual behaviors as mental illnesses in clinical psychological discourse. Yet, the idea of unwellness was brought back and détourned in order to give rise to a new way of looking at these very kinds of ‘sick’ sexual practices. Yet, an interesting question in LGBTQIA discourse is the positionality of trans and intersex folks within the umbrella of queerness. Sexuality and gender identity are not the same, and some would argue that they are perhaps even unrelated. The term “queer” therefore represents an attempt to repurpose othering language while also in the process othering individuals whom its proponents and revitalizers have brought under their guise. It succeeds in weirdly counterintuitive ways at othering the very people it tries to save from othering. At the same time, the afterlife of the idea of sickness lives on in the word “queer,” primarily in the pathologizing behaviors to which we subject queered individuals, and the feeling of pity and disdain to which we subject them.
What do we do with the ghosts of words which refuse to fade, with these signifiers whose usage has been mostly banished to history-bound books we praise as classics of a national tradition, but which are nevertheless imbued with words and phrases which have not yet lost their significance, which are not lost to us, and whose cutting edge has not, it seems, dulled at all? Of course we cannot burn every book which ever contained the word “Negro,” nor can we avoid referring to others in identifying language. The omission of otherness, the refusal to acknowledge one’s own xenophobia, as we see in the case of metropolitan France, is itself odious, for it attempts to protect the seemingly just self from the revelation of our inherent and perhaps natural-feeling bigotry. To become suddenly aware of one’s powerfulness in a world which seems to prescribe you an unavoidable powerlessness is to be disenchanted, to lose sight of what it was that fueled your ambitions; the want of what you have been denied, at the expense of those you now deny. Yet, language changes, and so do human sentiments and social ideologies. Some words will be lost to us with time, and there may be a day when the noun “lesbian” does not yield any significant meaning to a reader or speaker. Yet, because it does now, we must strive to not only understand these words, but to interrogate the reasons why they are the causes of contemporary disdain. Political correctness is not about hurt feelings, which can easily be dismissed as the thin-skinnedness of millennials, but fundamentally attempts to democratize and destabilize power dynamics which everyday deprive the discredited of a power they were, unfortunately, never meant to have.
About a year ago, I was invited to be on my sister’s show the Grapevine. They were filming an episode about the relationships and tensions between Africans and African-Americans, and, knowing that I research contemporary (West) African literature, my sister invited me on the show for what was, in my opinion, a nice and informative conversation about the complexities of life in the United States for people whose bodies are read as Black, yet who experience Blackness in different, nuanced ways particular to their ethnic and national identities. The episode I was on was never aired, mostly because my sister and the showrunner, Ashley Akunna, were worried that it would start a war in the comments, but a recent reshoot of this segment, split across three episodes in order to include West Indian experiences, incurred such great vitriol among Black people from all walks that Ashley turned off the comments on the videos. I will provide links below, but I wanted to take the time to reprise a post I wrote in April of last year which defined African-American as an socio-ethnic marker in order to explore some of the pitfalls of this classification, as well as the great necessity for increased conversation on the merits and complexities of ethnicity in discussions of race in the United States.
In “threshold” I talked a bit about this issue with “inhabiting the now” that I’ve been having. I didn’t talk enough about it, so I’m writing this addendum to go into greater detail about what I’ve been feeling over the past three weeks at home.
For one, being home is annoying. I have a very distinct rhythm at school because I have the illusion of autonomy to corroborate that rhythm. I can move freely from my room to class to the dining hall to the gym without having to check-in with anyone or state that this is where I’m going. I can perfectly avoid human contact on days when I don’t want to be talked to or seen, and can surround myself with people on the few nights every full moon when I want to be inundated with the presence, opinions, voices of others. At home, I am in a perpetual state of in-betweenness. I have to interact with my parents, even when I don’t want to talk to anyone, and the idea of me not wanting to talk to them, or avoiding them, raises suspicions in ways which reflect more or less their perceptions of me than my own reality. This has been an issue my entire life – having constantly to maintain an image of myself in front of others which reflects their own self-interests and not my own. And that’s not at all to say that I don’t do this; I, however, acknowledge that I have constructed an image of you, a vehicle which coaches our engagement, and that I leave this image as fluid as possible so as to allow you to demonstrate your character as opposed to allowing me to corroborate that image. My family doesn’t do this, and I’m not sure they know how to do it. It’s hard, and I’m not very good at it myself.
While the past semester was stressful, I thrive in stressful, high-octane situations. How else could you explain me projecting myself into these situations, in spite the admonishment of my friends? I was told by so many people not to apply to grad school as a senior, not to be president of my black student union, not to have two (really three) jobs on campus, and each time I ignored them because naturally I know better than anyone else (duh.) Nonetheless, I did this because I knew that that more I had on my plate, the more precise and productive I could be. If I piled everything on, I knew that I would work as efficiently as possible because there’s always something else to do. Now there’s not. This break has been stressful because I haven’t had anything to stress me out.
I started to entertain the idea of becoming a professor when I was in high school. I suppose it was a loosely figured dream at that time, just a vague “this could be cool” fantasy. I knew that I liked books once I spent a summer at Cornell after having taken a particularly enlightening English class. The Cornell program was only for three weeks, and I had no idea that I had actually signed up to take a specifically German literature class (in translation, of course), but it was at this point, in the beginning of both my intellectual and racial “awakening,” that I began to focus my attention on the fact that I was not like everyone else. When I read certain texts, I felt a deeper connection with them than did my classmates, and the depths of this connection demanded that I advocate for these works in ways that I did not understand in high school. I felt hailed – interpellated – to speak on behalf of these works, not because of their arbitrary literary merit, but because they represented the lives of the people with whom I shared a mutual, deprived condition. In works like A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a certain degree, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to see myself, my image – the image of a collective other – etched into a description, into a mannerism, into stylized dialogue, and therefore felt the need to defend them to a class of students who nonetheless found these works obscure and difficult to understand, who could not see beyond a veil that I had to live within. It was at this point that I began to understand the vastness of our constellation of identities; the students in my classes were an array of bodies organized within according proximity to several political points, and while they all seemed to orbit the same bodies, some a little further out, some dangerously close to their parent star, I was somewhere else, having to scream across the void to make my experience known.
I have been trying to find the words to write this blog post for several months. It is bizarre and a little uncomfortable to write, mostly because it requires that I be frank with the reality of the world in which I am attempting to carve out a home. I have never been afraid of being a token, as I’ve already discussed in other posts. There is, of course, this pressure in occupying the token position, of being the other. The microaggressive comments which are lanced at you, the ways that your presence is hardly acknowledged, but your absence is always apparent; these are the realities of the persons of color in each history class, the transwoman in the woman’s studies class, the Native student in the American Studies course; the anomalies struggling to figure themselves into an epistemology, into an intellectual tradition. The understanding that you are in fact ahistorical – that you must fight to plug yourself into the collective chronology. This is the sort of pressure which exists for the others in school. They must endure not necessarily a bombardment of expletives designed to immediately wound, but death by one million small lacerations, a killing which you do not realize until you are too weak to move. Not everyone feels this way. Some people are okay with their tokenhood, see themselves, through the eyes of the dominant order, as images of progress. They look themselves in the mirror of identity and say “My cotton-picking, rubber-tapping, cocoa-farming, porch-sweeping, orange-yanking, tea-plucking, child-rearing, rice-winnowing, swamp-draining, cane-chopping ancestors would be so proud to see me among all these white folks, learning, being civilized.” And this is not wrong. Our ancestors are looking down on us with smiles on their faces because there has been some progress, because our lives are better than theirs were. But the burdens of tokenhood linger in the mind like a miasma; it sickens you, breaks you down, weakens your trauma immune system.
Part of applying to grad school has been looking for professors interested in the same research as me. In particular, I’m interested in postcolonial theory, which is, in a nutshell, making sense of “emancipation” as a historical truth and an ideological fallacy. A relatively sexy topic in literary and cultural studies, postcolonial studies allows the subaltern to understand their identities as produced by 18th and 19th century notions of personhood, citizenship and civilization. It centers the critical perspective on uncovering and examining their identities, although it still finds itself deeply rooted in a Western and therefore oppressive framework of thought. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do, at this point in my life. Whether that is subject to change is something for an older, wiser X to figure out. I bring this up because in looking for specialists in postcolonial thought, I’ve had to come to terms with a crushing reality in the discipline of comparative literature; there are very, very, very few Black people. And even fewer African-Americans. Now, I suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyone aware of higher education will tell you that there is a dire dearth of minorities in the institution outside of a certain narrow set of niches; Chinese professors teaching Chinese language & literature, women teaching women’s studies, African-Americans teaching African-American studies, and all the intersections which occur at the intersections of disciplines (African-American women teaching Black feminist theory, for example). Comparative literature is not one of these niches. The study of comparative literature has its roots in European thought and it is still quite entrenched there. It is a way of understanding literature as a historical and sociological exchange of ideas across cultures, but these cultures are of course tightly figured around the latitudes of Western Europe. There are tens of comparatists comparing French and German cinema or Early Modern Spanish and Italian poetry or Old English and Norse legends, but when we bringing in “subaltern” literatures, the numbers grow thin. Where are the specialists in South East Asian and Melanesian literature? Where are the comparatists seeking to draw ties between Feudal Japan and Feudal Russia? Are these specialists destined to represent the communities who cherish these literatures? Is it possible to break free of one’s race and culture in academia, to become something other than the Asian Literature person in your department?
The answer seems to be no. There is a systemic issue at play. In the interpellation process through which token undergrads decide to become token graduate students, there seems to be a push to further the niche study of one’s identity, so as to better understand one’s self and one’s history as contributing to the interplay of the world. This is a valiant effort; without this process, we wouldn’t have any ethnic studies at all. But the process by which this happens is a problem, for it dictates subconsciously that these studies, and that these specialists, function to integrate a space which otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them or their histories. The notion that the token must make their space safe for their personal and intellectual development means that the institution shows no interest in doing so. The token carries with them an identity which the academic institution sees as a hostile *foreign* entity; its antibodies of ideology and history and objectivity are deployed so as to subdue this body, to place it in a niche in which it can be understood and studied from a distance. This is why ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies are considered niche. They have their box, they have their tools, but they exist in their own institutional category, separate from all else, that which in its very nature is designed to curate objectivity, to take into consideration all of that which is of relevance to the academic institution, on which academe is founded.
Going into grad school, I am somewhat apprehensive of being the only Black person in my cohort, and this is the first time that I have ever had such feelings. As of right now, I am the only Black man in both of my classes, and likely the only one in the comparative literature program at Swarthmore, and this barely bothers me at all. Yet, the prospect of becoming the “postcolonial studies” guy, or the “African literature” guy, or the “black studies” guy or the “theory of colonialism and otherness” guy is deeply troubling, for it signifies the process of being rendered into a niche, the likes of which may relegate my work both in grad school and beyond nonconsequential to my immediate colleagues. I can imagine being a professor at __________ College or University, having to speak up as one of my colleagues in the department makes a questionable remark, or better yet, being eyed nervously, being called upon to validate their opinions on a subject matter which their grad program at Yale or Harvard or Brown believed was niche and apocryphal and therefore perfunctory to their development as a scholar. While I have to struggle through Molière and read copious amounts of Bourdieu, you can get your comparative literature PhD without having ever picked up the works of Albert Memmi or Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
This is why I am against canons, although it is impossible to really put up a fight against an institutional process so large as is canonization. Even the authors I have given as examples of “non-canonical” in literary studies, are canonical in their own small, othered niches. Nonetheless, the idea that there is a chronology of thought, an epistemological history, starting with Plato and ending with Derrida, excluding all of but a few women and POC, the likes of which were only accepted into the intellectual pantheon in order to diversify X and Y syllabi, ignoring all the other others who have constantly called for inclusivity, for qualification, for acceptance, is a problem that is far larger than myself, as the little black kid with his copy of Aimé Césaire in hand. It is a disheartening problem, and I feel as if I am being called on by the mass of the unheard and unseen to integrate a space which is perhaps more hostile to my presence than any other.
But I am doing so for my ancestors, to conjure their spirits back into the history books, to ground lofty theories in a world of experience. Some people have the privilege to live their lives as abstract notions, but my ancestors didn’t and neither do I. I wrote before that I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort, for my existence alone makes some shrink in their seats. I ruin the false image in their minds with my presence at their seminar table, and every time I say “let’s think about this in more concrete terms” I make them come to terms with the fact that their theories have real world ramifications, the likes of which are further away than they can imagine, but impact people’s lives in ways they wouldn’t believe. I have accepted this, not because I believe in nominal notions of diversity, but because it is important that I learn from the ignorance of the past so as to continue to develop a more progressive and inclusive future. I am not doing this for the students belonging to the dominant orders in my programs, for the future scholars of comparative French and Spanish drama or Prussian and Flemish poetry – I’m doing this for my Senegalese host mother and for my own mother, to figure them into the ways that we think about literature, and the ways we think about knowledge.
And so I must enter a niche and make a prison a home.
Featured Art: Juan Fuentes, Luis de Las Flores
I wasn’t going to post on the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I still don’t want to post about it. Going through my Facebook feed today, I saw so many comments on the issue from my close friends and loved ones, all voicing my personal feelings on the issue. The videos, the tributes, the think-pieces were all a lot to digest. I found myself searching for the specks of levity in my feed – memes, cooking videos, anything to distract my mind from the traumas of collective mourning. There was a negative energy in the world today which was inescapable. People were quiet, reflective, fearful. Everyone seemed to ask themselves and one another in private, just above a whisper: when will it stop? How can we make it stop?
alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.
I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.
The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.