On minstrelsy, Ta Nehisi Coates and cultural hopelessness
The word minstrel in English, coming to the shores of Dover by way of the Norman conquest, is a relative of another word in English, the high-born minister as in Prime Minister Theresa May, yet both were begotten by the same idea – servitude. The minister is the definition of a public servant; the ministerialis of yore were servants (serfs) elevated in status through kingly or courtly intervention. The term would go on to evolve, taking on specific ecclesiastical and, through there, governmental connotations until it became the word minister in English. Its dark-half, the minstrel from the Old French menestral (handyman, worker) never really left the bondages of enslavement and subjugation; even the medieval pre-American minstrels of Europe were bound to the whims of the crowds whose amusement they sought to rouse, public performers, but also servants to the crowd. In the United States, the singing, dancing, storytelling minstrel took on the dimensions which a history of antiblackness imbued with vicious ideas of the lowly, servile Negro. The minstrel’s exaggerated face is a specter of our history; it appears in our beloved children’s cartoons (You didn’t know that Tom’s owner in Tom & Jerry was a Mammy, a minstrel caricature?) in the reverse of our cultural icons (Don’t tell me you didn’t know Mickey Mouse was also a minstrel caricature? Or that the Jim Crows in Dumbo were supposed to be Black men?), in the lingering mist of your favorite amusement rides (You’re kidding me when you say that Splash Mountain, your favorite water slide in the entire world, is based on Song of the South, a film notoriously maligned for its racist depictions of a Black actor as a literal Uncle Remus). While its physical body fades from the American conscience due to a long and not-yet-won battle against the appropriation of Black skin (blackface), the image of the servile, sycophantic minstrel lingers in our cultural conscience, refusing to die.
How do you banish a cultural ghost?
hegemony [n] – the ideological manipulation of a subordinated group by a dominant ruling class whose intent is to convince the subordinated to view their domination as justifiable; the process by which the subaltern accept, internalize and enforce their alterity.
Shit. This is a big topic, and I’m of course not going to touch on all of the possible manifestations of hegemony, like kyriarchy, patriarchy and antiblackness, but what I want to do here is clarify a term which entered my vocabulary my junior year. I had seen the word hegemony or heard it in conversation, (reading it as he-guh-moan-ee) but never really understood its significance until I read an essay (which at the time I barely understood) in which the term was for the first time brought into its Marxist context. The essay was written by Antonio Gramsci, commonly understood as one of the forefathers of Marxist cultural studies, and Gramsci discusses hegemony primarily from the cultural vantage, going so far as to call his conceptualization cultural hegemony. Hegemony is one of those words like neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and patriarchy which are thrown about a lot in academic discourse, be it in papers or in seminars, in ways which can detract us from its basest manifestations insofar that its application seems ubiquitous. The overarching theme in many of our lives, it’s easy to riff on hegemony without really basing it in our everyday experiences as scholars. I’ve found that the vantages in my discipline which are used to concretize hegemony (which is, talking about in books) nevertheless keep the concept removed and bound within the theoretical world of race, as opposed to its real-world analog. If I accomplish anything in this post, I hope to clarify and make the concept clearer for an audience who perhaps hasn’t read Gramsci or Althusser, primarily through a study of what one of my primary research questions; the importance of ideologies in our lives.
In part, this post is also a definition of ideology, for we can’t really understand cultural hegemony without first exploring the mechanism through which hegemony functions. Rather than give a definition, let’s start with a story.
When I was young, I had a bunch of white friends. It was part of the experience of being in higher level classes in a school district which enacted its apartheid regime based on “intellectual capacity” that I only had white friends until I began to realize, at some point in high school, that I was not in fact white and that I enjoyed my Black friends’ presence a bit more than my white friends, although they weren’t in any way bad or, worse, racist (!) people. It was also a hassle to get my mother to let me go anywhere in middle school. I would have to call and beg for her to let me stay out in town longer than usual, and going to my friends’ houses was essentially a teeth-pulling fit every single time. I didn’t understand why my mother was like this until recently, when I began to reflect on what it meant to be a Black kid in a rather White suburb, and the discourses which parents transmit to their children in ways which are not directly legible. My mother would tell me every time she’d reluctantly acquiesce to letting me go to this or that friend’s house that I should “be good” and respectful and “never bring shame to the family name.” I thought this was kind of a medieval thing to say, conjuring up images of honor and chivalry, and I’d shrug it off. I didn’t really know how I could bring shame to the Lee family name, because everyone’s parents naturally loved me. I was a friendly, bright, funny and respectful young chap, but I was black. This was a realization I never really internalized, for my mother never really said it, but she knew that white parents would interact with me differently because of my blackness. They switched on a certain lens when interacting with me, be it conscious or not, and as a 11-year-old, I wasn’t aware of the switch. I had to constantly negotiate the fact that I was being interacted with through the veil of my blackness, through the concepts and notions which constitute a cultural ideology about what it means to be a Black person. This is perhaps my first introduction to the Gaze that everyone riffs on in critical theory; the concept that my otherness is visible and mapped onto my body, and that anyone interacting with me will perceive and inevitably act on notions which constitute the image which my visibility invokes. As a ten-year-old bourgeois black boy, I had never experienced marginalization outside of being picked on for being fat, which I inevitably internalized. This is hegemony, in a way, but a subject for another time.
One of my mother’s admonishments was: “Don’t eat at other people’s houses. There’s food at home.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I assumed at the time, comically, that it was because, in my family’s imagination, white people didn’t know how to cook. At the same time, there are tropes about white cleanliness in the Black community, too, which put me off from eating at their houses. So for the most part, I hesitated, but indulged from time to time. Yet, in retrospect, she told me not to eat at white people’s houses because they would think I either don’t have manners because of the way I eat, or that I don’t eat at home, two concepts which are rooted not in my general comportment, but in the specificity of my being a Black person. She was afraid they would map these rather stupid ideas onto me and mistreat me, and actively taught me to avoid such pigeonholing by curbing what would otherwise be “authentic” behavior. If I was hungry, I should eat, but because I was in the company of white people who may think that Black people don’t get enough to eat, or don’t eat well, or don’t eat exotic foods like lasagna, I needed to bend my behavior in order to spare myself the scrutiny and marginalization which would disillusion me and make me cognizant of the ramifications of my birth condition as an Other. That’s heavy shit, but it’s also something that many Black kids experience, particularly those who must exist in white space and occupy the position of the Other.
This is hegemony; the education of self-minimization to Black children, the transmissions of lessons which dictate that one’s natural behaviors, which may or may not be the product of one’s race, nevertheless inflect on others a reason to actualize and accept a preconceived notion of an entire group of people; that one must curb one’s natural tendencies in the presence of White people lest they corroborate a negative image of the collective Other which one represents. It’s teaching young girls to cover their bodies to keep the nasty boys from getting distracted by their bare shoulders and erotic knees. It is a remedy to a symptom of a greater issue, for the issue is not the Black mother or the father of teenage young girls, but those marginalize their children. It is so much harder to say to White people “maybe a Black kid is just hungry, and not hungry because he’s Black,” for a Black parent can’t speak to every White person their child will interact with. The easiest thing to do is to teach that child to bend and conform; and thus a hegemonic discourse is produced, internalized; it becomes an heirloom, transmitted across generations.
Hegemony interacts with ideology by responding to dominant narratives of the Self and the Other. These words, and the English language, aren’t discursive or expressive enough to really express what I’m talking about, but the Self in this case, sometimes also referred to as the Nation, is the conceptualization of the default person whose qualities therefore determine the existence and categorization of all else; the Others. Ideologies are best described as the assemblage of values, images, discourses and ideas which constitute a/the collective perspective of a people. It’s hard to distinguish an ideology from another, and for the most part, I view ideologies as rhizomic systems (from Deleuze and Guattari; something which has no central point of departure or arrival, and builds around a central core for which there is no fixed locus) as opposed to arborescent ones (something that has a root from which all else branches). When we think of race, for example, as an ideological system, we have no point to dictate the origins of the concept, for concepts rarely work this way. Even ideas which are coined, like intersectionality, are not necessarily new concepts, insofar that Black women have been riffing on the idea of intersectional feminism since at the very latest the 19th century.
I could get really heady, bringing in Althusser and de Certeau and Lefebvre to talk about how ideologies are manifest in physical space and in society, but this is a brief sketch. I wanted to really just tell this story, because my mother read my fellowship bio and noted that she didn’t understand what hegemony meant, despite me knowing damn well that she has experienced and internalized hegemonic discourses throughout her life, particularly when it was time to raise 4 young black kids in a New Jersey suburb. While I think it’s good to have other ways of talking about things, and that words like hegemony and discourse can raise more questions than they answer, I nevertheless remain open to the ambiguity of these words, and find that in their flexibility they can better speak to a system of conditions and experiences, as opposed to particulars which remain abstract and difficult to define.
On the rise of white supremacy and white activism on college campuses, and the great social unrest which is brewing between the White race and everyone else.
For the past few months, I’ve been keeping tabs on a subreddit called /r/WhiteRights. It’s fascinating stuff, and I do recommend that you check it out. The forum is a space for white conservatives and not-so-closeted racists to discuss their feelings of isolation and frustration within contemporary, liberalized American society. They often post links to articles written by questionable news sources, highlighting the negative aspects of African-American, Latino and Asian life in a way which seeks to uphold their own views of America’s failing social structure. The subreddit is growing quickly, although I suspect that many of the subscribers – or, if you’re like me, lurkers – are simply there to see how backwards these people are. Arguments about White Genocide and calls-to-arms to vote for Donald Trump all have their own space and time in this bizarre yet not clandestine corner of the Internet.
We are now at the dawn of a new racial conflict in the United States, a struggle which will extend to all aspects of our ordinary life. It will be prevalent in our political system, in our economic dealings with foreign nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, in our social self-cognition of ourselves as a mixed and homogenized people.
A thread was posted in the WhiteRights subreddit a couple of years ago asking why such a subreddit exists. One eloquent redditor responded via a quote from a presidential address given by Bill Clinton on the increased number of immigrants in the United States, echoing, fearfully, that the loss of the majority race in America’s urban sectors meant the loss of white social dominance. This is the central point I will seek to discuss here, to the best of my ability – the fear of White Americans at becoming other.
token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”