God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.

LA always hurt like hell too.

All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.

When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)

That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.

So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:

All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)

Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):

You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)

Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.

I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.

I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.

It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if  some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.

It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.

Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.

It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.

That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)

Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.

Patricia Hill Collins: Domains of Power, or Making Foucault More Interesting

I love the domains of power framework as it is developed here by Patricia Hill Collins in ‘Learning From the Outsider Within Revisited’. I find a great deal of insight in Foucault (like Society Must Be Defended) but a few things have always bothered me…such as in Discipline and Punish where in charting the history of the prison in France, he never really deals with the French Revolution or the fall of the Bastille. That bewildered me, where is struggle, then, in his theorising? Look at what Collins writes:

Power may be everywhere, as French philosopher Michel Foucault points out, but what exactly does this mean? If power is manifested and organized everywhere, how might we develop a language of power that is useful? (71-72)

Ah. She asks, how do we? And then she does. If I had read this a bit earlier, domains of power might have been my chosen framework for my thesis rather than Stuart Hall’s theories of articulation, because it seems full of explanatory power:

The framework identifies four interrelated domains where power is organized. (1) a structural domain, where social institutions of a society, such as banks, hospitals, schools, corporations, retail establishment, government agencies, and health care, routinely discriminate in favour of whites and against everyone else; (2) a disciplinary domain, where modern bureaucracies regulate race relations through their rules and practices, primarily surveillance; (3) a cultural domain, where ideologies, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism, are constructed and shared; and (4) an interpersonal domain that shapes social relations between individuals in everyday life. (72)

She gives as a short example the treatment of African American youth — everything that limits chances and stunts lives:

  • Structural power as it works through resegregation of housing and schools, hypersegregation of African Americans within cities
  • Disciplinary power — unspoken roles for different races, racial profiling, ‘neutral’ policies that have unfair impacts (testing, etc), police in schools…
  • Cultural domain — the new ideology of colourblindness, portrayal of a more integrated American through media
  • Interpersonal domain – strategies of everyday racism

Of course, all four of these domains are interrelated — again in seeking to think through this I reach for Stuart Halls ideas of articulation, his theorisations of how the political, the economic and the ideological (I add, of course, the spatial myself) shift and change and act upon each other to come into new formations. Comparing the two, you realise on the one hand just how much needs to be packed into the idea of structural power. This is at both the economic and the spatial, political structures and more. I like separating that out a little more maybe. Yet there is also the way in which the disciplinary domain  works across all of Hall’s areas, and demands to be addressed yet his framework does not require it. How the interpersonal and everyday kinds of violences are also often lost. They don’t quite map onto each other, while each seems to highlight key aspects of a liberatory analysis — I am just starting to think about how they might be brought together, or carried out in succession. Or something. Everything is so interconnected that I rather lose myself if I think about it too much…these are only ever conventions to help lend a little clarity to a very complex world.

A few more of the insights that Collins’ framework can give:

The domains of power framework also sheds light on the ways that ideas about difference can uphold social inequalities within and across all four domains of power. For example, within the structural domain, new commodity relations have found the focus on difference profitable. In the search for ever-expanding consumer markets, understanding differences of race, gender, class, and sexuality helps in identifying segmented consumer markers. “Racial” profiling and market research are two sides of the same coin. (73)

How this impacts within academia itself:

Within this context, people who claim outsider-within identities can become hot commodities in social institutions that want the illusion of difference without the effort needed to change actual power relations. (73)

how we as academics can, and must, use it for social justice. I love that always always Collins brings it back to this:

our scholarship does reveal how ideas about difference and its related constructs matter in both upholding and challenging racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism as systems of power. But sharpening our focus on power and developing tools that enable us to see how its domains are organized and can be changed, our engaged scholarship creates space for change. (76)

Women around the world are marching today — two of my most treasured possessions came to me yesterday, pictures of my aunt and uncle with placards in front of their Philly home. The times are dark but the struggle seems to be strong. From the marathon hacking to save government data on climate change to the myriad calls to action around Trump’s cabinet of CEOs cutting out the political middleman for pure corporate control. All this as I sit home sick and rather sad at heart…

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Patricia Hill Collins: The Ethos of Violence

I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…

Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.

Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)

Because this society was founded on oppression,  violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet

Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.

Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:

the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).

But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.

Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)

The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:

Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)

To look into each of these three definitions:

The power to define violence

First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)

She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.

Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)

The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech

The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.

The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.

Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.

I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.

Violence as routine

Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)

This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects  who  is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…

Patricia Hill Collins: Academia, Education and Speaking to Power

Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.

For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)

More that rings so true:

Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)

This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:

As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)

That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)

In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.

We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:

My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)

So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.

Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)

Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:

A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)

Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:

How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)

At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :

help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:

  1. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

  2. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?

  3. does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)

I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:

In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)

This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:

The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)

But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:

I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)

I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:

There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)

The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:

In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)

We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.

These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.

Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)

That means:

…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)

That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.

Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)

and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes

Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)

But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:

Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)

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Patricia Hill Collins: Space, Identity, Intersectionality

Patricia Hill Collins blew me away the first time I read her in any depth, and continues to do so every time I return. She is someone who helps me get through every time I despair of academic and intellectual endeavours, and On Intellectual Activism is full of both inspiration and knowledge, spanning he wide range of her work and thought.

A book to treasure. Especially given we face the inauguration of Donald Trump. It still seems unreal.

I’ve been working through some of the main ideas that jumped out at me this time around, some felt new and others, like intersectionality, felt solidified. In introducing the collection of essays and extracts, Collins writes:

Two main ideas are at work here, both of which focus on social structural sources of power….developed throughout my scholarship, I have used the thesis of intersectionality and the idea of the matrix of domination as interrelated constructs to describe social structures of domination. Intersectional thinking suggests that race, class, gender, nation, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other forms of social hierarchy structure one another. My goal has been to conceptualize intersectionality and study its manifestations in a matrix of domination from one social setting to the next. (xvi)

I am working on organising my thoughts a little more on how this structuring takes place, how this conceptualisation sits alongside and works together with Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation. So that will come later. Today just a collection of thoughts really. While these notes are from a very long time ago, I started giving them some kind of structure on Martin Luther King Jr day, so it was nice to come across this — a good place to start in thinking about Collins and her contributions to struggle because it starts with a goal and a vision — Martin Luther King Jr’s Beloved Community ():

The idea of Beloved Community envisions a public space that is heterogeneous and participatory, and where we each see how we are responsible for bringing it about. (145, from ‘Making Space for Public Conversations: An Interview, 2011)

she further writes:

I envision the Beloved Community as a social group that embraces all of its members. Yet, within the space of Beloved Community, with its ethos of social justice, there is also space for disagreement. People seem to assume that communities are happy places where no one disagrees. But to construct a vision of Beloved Community, there must be conflict and dialogue, and not running away from the conflict that might come from dialogue across differences. Communities negotiate power relations across differences. What makes a community a “beloved” community is that people within it are committed to working through these differences in power in ways that make communities fair for everyone. (148)

This kind of sums up in a most beautiful way what she is trying to accomplish — to not shy away from disagreement, from hard truths as we see them, but to communicate them respectfully. To explore them. To find strength in differences. To fix what is broken. And so much is broken, not least how we often conduct our justice struggles. Collins reflects:

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8, from ‘Why Black Feminist Thought’ presented 1990-93)

This helps explain why King, much as I love him, is the civil rights figure celebrated with a public holiday and to whom many not down with the struggle will point, rather than Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson or Rosa Parks in her role as secretary of the NAACP and the many others working for justice. Why feminism has been so important, why the LGBTQI struggle has been so important — and Patricia Hill Collins has been central in thinking how to create a politics that works against all aspects of oppression rather than just one. I love her critical thinking on the differences between collective and individual “identity politics”:

the Collective advanced a powerful theory of action, one grounded in analysis and experience with “identity politics” as the phrase that captures these complex relationships. In contrast, contemporary approaches to identity politics rely on an individualist notion of identity: identity as freedom from social constructions, no matter the power relations. (54, from ‘Still Brave? Black Feminism as a Social Justice Project’)

The erasure of an understanding of power here is key to the problem:

Social structures of intersecting systems of power disappear, to be replaced with by an endlessly changing flow of individuals, each trying to understand him- or herself. (68, from ‘Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited’)

The erasure of the collective is as problematic as well, like Freire, Horton and Baker, Collins sees work and theory as needing to be collectively created through struggle. The goal for her?

Black girls would not be consumers of Black feminism–instead they would create it (66).

This creation is central to a liberatory practice, because it matters where you stand, as she writes:

…the social location of being on the edge mattered. (66)

Taken all together, we have to understand power and identity in new ways:

I don’t see racism as a cardboard, one-dimensional filter…Instead, I see racism as an ever-changing system of power relations that works with and through gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, citizenship, and other similarly structured systems of power. (178, from ‘Are We Living in a Post-Racial World?’)

Working on segregation and privatisation as I do, this viewpoint brings valuable insights into both:

The logic of segregation says: Separate people into boxes (e.g., categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality), keep the boxes separate from each other, and rank each box’s worth. Racial segregation is the most visible, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. The logic of segregation affects all aspects of U.S. society and global politics that carve up the world’s people into nation-states. The whole notion of borders, boundaries, and segregation has been a very important cognitive frame for American perceptions of its peoples and the world. (33, from ‘Black Sexual Politics 101’)

This remains, despite the new rhetoric of colourblindness, their new geographic codes:

One distinguishing feature of the new racism is how it continues to rely on a logic of segregation that remains powerful yet masks its own operation. … not the stark either/or kind of the past…but a more genteel  version coded through euphemisms of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods…(34)

Their new social codes:

overt racial language is replaced by covert racial euphamisms that reference the same phenomena–talk of “niggers” and “ghettos” becomes replaced by phrases such as “urban,” “welfare mothers,” and “street crime.” Everyone knows what these terms mean, and if they don’t, they quickly figure it out. (35)

It is also described, justified, sanctified in terms of family values:

Family values are everywhere, motivating behaviors concerning race, class, and national priorities. For example, whites are told that the decision to move into a white neighborhood is not about upholding racism, but rather constitutes a personal choice to protect the interests of their children and provide them with a “good” education. (202)

She makes the connection between privatization and race, looking at academies and the white flight from public schools as changing other institutions as well so that

…the public sphere becomes a curiously confined, yet visible location that increases the value of private services and privacy itself. Public places become devalued spaces containing Latinos, poor people, African Americans, the homeless, and anyone else who cannot afford to escape. In this context, privacy signals safety; control over one’s home, family and community space; and racial homogeneity–all qualities that can be purchased if one can afford it. This version of privatization dovetails with Guinier and Torres’ notion of the privatization of power. If private spaces are better, then shouldn’t private entities run the public itself? (83, from ‘Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name’)

And of course, she ties it all back in to our history, to a global context

I see segregation as a metaphor for a broader set of social relations stemming from colonialism and nationalism. These political systems required drawing strict boundaries to determine citizenship, status, and the benefits and costs of belonging. Historically, sociology was uncomfortable with itself because it was a border discipline during a period of separation where, to know who you were, you had to pick a side…(108, from ‘Rethinking Knowledge, Community and Empowerment’)

These were just a few of the highlights of her wisdom around what we face, I’m still working through more on intersectionality and power, theorisations of violence, and the role of the intellectual…

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Novels as Written by Cats: Hoffman & Sōseki

A year ago we traveled to Hamburg, and in looking for what to read to learn more about the town I stumbled across the extraordinary book by E.T.A. Hoffman (1766-1822): The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. Hoffman was a splendid author of books filled with horror and fantasy you see, and he created a character, a musician, called Kreisler who was a favourite of both Schumann and Brahms (who did grow up in Hamburg). I wrote more about the romantic ideals of genius and music here, based on the chapters about the enigmatic Kreisler found within The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. The tomcat, however — whose autobiography sits ensconced within the Kreisler manuscript given the cat recycled the papers for his own purposes — Murr himself I saved for later. Because at almost the same time I started reading Hoffman, I received as a gift Sōseki’s I am a Cat, a rather wonderful coincidence. It did take me a year to get through the second — a novel read just before going bed and put aside during my many travels and travails of 2016. But having some overlap between the two was rather wonderful, as they share similar views of just what a cat might say when it is granted the ability to write and use them in similar ways to satirise human society. From Murr’s own introduction to his work:

With the confidence and peace of mind native to true genius, I lay my life story before the world, so that the reader may learn how to educate himself to be a great tomcat, may recognize the full extent of my excellence, may love, value, honour and admire me — and worship me a little.
— Berlin, May 18–

Above all I loved the playfulness of the language, the mockery of the romantic sublime:

My new friendship had made a deep impression on me, so that as I sat in sun or shade, on the roof or under the stove, I thought of nothing, reflected on nothing, dreamed of nothing, was aware of nothing but poodle, poodle, poodle! I thereby gained great insight into the innermost essence of poodlishness which dawned upon me in brilliant colours, and the profound work mentioned above, to wit, Thought and Intuition, or Cat and Dog, was born of this perception.

He’s quite an author, Murr, reflecting on the purpose of life, the limitations of friendship, and of course, love:

‘I have made inquiries,’ continued Kitty, ‘into your circumstances, and learnt that you were called Murr and that as you lived with a very kindly man, you enjoyed not only an extremely handsome competence but every other comfort of life, comforts you could well share with a pretty wife. Oh yes, I love you very much, dear Murr!’

Poor Murr, she would, of course, betray him. It is a brilliant counterpoint, however, to the grand tragedy of the figure of Kreisler and the aristocrats surrounding him.

SōsekiSōseki Natsume (1867-1916) wrote a different sort of book, more focused on the banal philosophies of an eccentric band of friends centered around the middle-aged figure of teacher of English literature (just like Sōseki). It, too, mocks the characters and the mores and fashions of the times fairly remorselessly as they are related through a feline indifference.

Nor does it fail to highlight the self-esteem and self-centredness of cats:

However, by virtue of felinity, I can, better than all such bookmen, make myself invisible. To do what no one else can do is, of course, delightful. That I alone should know the inner workings of the Goldfield household is better than if nobody should know. Though I cannot pass my knowledge on, it is still cause for delight that I may make the Goldfields conscious that someone knows their secrets. In the light of this succession of delights, I boldly dare to believe my brain is delightful as well. (103)

Sōseki I am a catThe cat has adventurous with friends and lovers, but above all it is satire on the very human condition. Here a laugh at his master:

every evening he makes a point of going to bed with a book which he does not read. Sometimes he makes a positive beast of himself and shuffles in with three or four boos tucked under his arms. For several days until a little while ago, it was his nightly practice to tote in Webster’s whacking great dictionary. I suppose this behavior reflects some kind of psychological ailment. (154)

His friends:

And who should it be but our old friend Beauchamp Blowlamp. With his arrival the entire cast of the eccentrics who haunt my master’s house was gathered on stage. Lest that should sound ungracious, perhaps I could better emphasize that sufficient eccentrics are gathered to keep a cat amused… (213)

But still, I know that what I love most is the absurd voice of the cat. This, I confess, made me laugh out loud:

Postponing my sea bathing to some later date, I have anyway decided to make a start on some sort of exercise. In this enlightened twentieth century, any failure to take exercise is likely to be interpreted as a sign of pauperdom. … [a long list of absurd cat activities] … Perhaps my most interesting exercise is jumping suddenly from behind onto the children’s backs. However, unless I am extremely careful about the method and timing of such exploits, the penalties involved can be uncommonly painful. Indeed, I derive so very little pleasure from having my head stuffed deep in a paperbag that I only risk this splendid exercise three times, at most, in a month. … Yet another form of exercise is clawing the covers of books. (225-6)

Stuffing a cat’s head into a paper bag! Rare punishment indeed. In these pages there is a mockery of fashion, nudity, masculinity, marriage, neighbour rivalries, love, wealth, ambition, the exploits of school children at the neighboring school and more. Through it all the cat remains above looking down, supercilious:

If we don’t watch out, even cats may find their individualities developing along the lethal crushing pattern forecast for these two-legged loons. It’s an appalling prospect. Depression weighs upon me. Perhaps a sip of Sampei’s beer would cheer me up. (467)

There is even a delightful tribute to Hoffman:

I have always thought myself unique in my knowledge of mankind, but I was recently much surprised to meet another cat, some German mog called Kater Murr, who suddenly turned up and started sounding off in a very high-falutin’ manner on my own special subject. … If such a feline culture-hero was already demonstrating superior cat skills so long as a century ago, perhaps a good-for-nothing specimen like me has already outlived its purpose and should no more delay its retirement into nothingness. (467)

But this foreshadows the — in retrospect the only possible and maybe rather funny — ending, which I found so horrifying to read I do wish I had not read it at all, only read about it. Which is why this sort-of spoiler is here, in case you are thinking of reading it yourself. It’s not a book of dramatic arc so this hardly ruins any of it.

Anyway, two amazing books by cats. Seems that cats offer a good mirror through which to observe ourselves.

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Pearson and Bryce: Liberal Architects of Global White Supremacy

2551707In reading Drawing the Global Colour Line (more of its main arguments here), I realised how many of the key figures in theorising and popularising a global understanding of white supremacy as it connected to land, labour, masculinity and nation were unknown to me. Here are a couple of them:

Charles Henry Pearson (1830-1894) Born in England, taught at both Oxford and Cambridge before emigrating to Australia. It was there in 1893 that he wrote the incredibly influential National Life and Character: a Forecast in 1893. Lake and Reynolds write that it:

caused a sensation, most particularly because of its startling prophecy. ‘The day will come’, Pearson wrote, in words that echoed the Chinese Remonstrance to the Victorian parliament and would, in turn, be much quoted:

and perhaps is not far distant, when the European observer will look round to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of the black and yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under tutelage, but independent, or practically so, in government, monopolising the trade of their own regions, and circumscribing the industry of the Europeans represented by fleets in the European seas, invited to international conferences and welcomed as allies in the quarrels of the civilized world . . . We shall wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile and thought of as bound always to minister to our needs. The solitary consolation will be that the changes have been inevitable.2

This view emerged out of liberal ideas:

Pearson had, indeed, shown a lifetime commitment to liberal reform. He was raised in a family with strong connections to evangelical circles. His grandfather, a medical doctor, belonged to the Clapham Sect, was one of the founders of the Bible Society, and was ‘intimate with Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, and the whole connection of Stephens, Venns, Thorntons and Babingtons’

It actually isn’t that surprising that one of the building blocks in imagining whiteness and its geographies should come from this kind of background, I’ve written more about the Thorntons and the Clapham Sect and their crazy racist Sierra Leone escapades. This strange mix of abolitionism and racism could help explain why Pearson was one of the few people to recognise Haiti:

In an essay in the mid-1880s, Pearson had pointed to the historical significance of Haiti – the first black republic – whose founding in 1804 provided a new dynamic in world history (loc 1230)

And based on that, to imagine a world where whites no longer dominated, to ‘forecast the emergence of a post-colonial world and the parallel decline of the white man.’ (loc 1095) Elsewhere they continue to highlight the contradictions of Pearson’s work and thought:

Although careful to state that ‘lower and higher races’ were ‘relative terms’, with no fixed meaning, Pearson’s argument encouraged racist thinking of a kind that his own forecast called into question.69 Though critical of the view that the ‘lower races’ were inherently, biologically inferior, Pearson’s arguments, like those of Bryce, encouraged a binary mode of racial thought that lay the basis for the division of the world into white and not-white, a dichotomy that would soon dominate the thinking of English-speaking countries and beyond.

Most importantly, Pearson’s book drew attention to what was happening in the world beyond Europe and challenged white men’s presumption….by pointing to the insecurity of white men’s place in the world… (loc 1330)

There is more on the fear of the Chinese in Australia:

The fear of Chinese immigration which the Australian democracy cherishes, and which Englishmen at home find it hard to understand, is, in fact, the instinct of self-preservation quickened by experience.

We know that coloured and white labour cannot exist side by side; we are well aware that China can swamp us with a single year’s surplus population; and we know that if national existence is sacrificed to the working of a few mines and sugar plantations, it is not the Englishman in Australia alone, but the whole civilised world that will be the losers.12

One of the results?

National Life and Character prompted claims that territory in the ‘Temperate Zone’ – in South Africa, North America and Australasia should be preserved as ‘white man’s country’ – even if that meant, in the words of one critical commentator, penning up ‘within the limits of Asia something like half the whole number of mankind’.11(loc 1168)

For Lake and Reynolds, ‘The most significant legacy of Pearson’s ‘epoch-making book’ was to shape the discursive and psychic frameworks in which much subsequent discussion of changing world forces would take place, in particular the idea of a coming rivalry between East and West. (loc 1325) The greatest question for the white race, which would be taken up by writers after him:

Would his pride of race guarantee his primacy of place in the world, or was he destined for racial decline and wretched humiliation, elbowed aside by the ascendant ‘black and yellow races’? (loc 676)

Viscount James Bryce (1838-1922) — Born in Belfast, professor of law, member of the Liberal Party and Ambassador to the United States.

In his essay ‘Geography as a Basis for History’, he:

theorised three forms of population movement: transference, dispersion and permeation. In the Romanes lecture, he developed a typology of four possible outcomes of conquest and colonisation or processes of ‘unequal race contact’: (1) the weaker races would die out; (2) the weaker race would be absorbed by the stronger; (3) the races would mix to form something new; and ( 4) racial difference was so great that it must result in social separation. (loc 1050)

This is the authority of the man:

By 1902, Bryce was an acknowledged expert on race relations in the New World. The American Commonwealth had become a compulsory reference work for nation-builders and political science students (loc 1056)

More of what he was writing:

To make race or colour or religion a ground of political disability runs counter to what use to be deemed a fundamental principle of democracy and what has been made (by recent Amendments) a doctrine of the American Constitution. To admit to full political rights, in deference to abstract theory, persons, who, whether from deficient education or want of experience as citizens of a free country, are obviously unfit to exercise political power, is, or may be, dangerous to any commonwealth. Some way out of the contradiction has to be found and the democratic southern States of the North American Union and the oligarchical republic of Hawaii, as well as the South African colonies, are all trying to find such a way. (loc 1031)

Just as telling as the words, the frustrated response from abolitionist Wendell Phillips Garrison:

‘I fear you will comfort both our Imperialists and the lynchers, for the latter have caste for their stronghold, and it seems to me you justify caste’.85 In a long review in Nation, Garrison regretted that Bryce had thrown ‘the weight of his humane authority into the white scale’ noting that he ‘pointedly omits to recommend abolition of the laws forbidding intermarriage’. In this way, Garrison charged, Bryce was denying African-Americans’ equal humanity:

the weight of the statutory prohibition lies in its perpetuating the doctrine of slavery, that the colored man is, when all is said and done less than a human being. This doctrine has not been eradicated from the white mind in the generation since the war, and it coexists with a logical toleration not only of exceptional punishments for crimes perpetrated by the blacks, but for atrocious cruelty reserved solely for them – the lynchings deplored by Mr Bryce, in which the faggot is ever ready to be applied to the dark skin.86

But Bryce continued to insist on the dangers posed to democracies by the influx of ‘half-civilized men’. The gift of political power to people who were ‘not only ignorant, but in mind children rather than men’ was not to confer a boon, but rather to inflict an injury.87 (loc 972)

Then there is American Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950), historian and political theorist, building on the ideas of these ‘liberals’ as an avowed eugenicist and clansman. As Lake and Reynolds write:

Pearson’s apprehension of a postcolonial world in which white men would be ‘elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside’ by peoples whom they looked down upon as servile, set alarm bells ringing around the globe. In his own alarmist tract, The Rising Tide of Color, published nearly two decades later, an American, Lothrop Stoddard, paid tribute to Pearson’s book as ‘epoch-making’ and hailed the ‘lusty young Anglo-Saxon communities bordering the Pacific – Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, and our own “coast” as pace-setters in declaring themselves “All White”‘. Nor were their policies separate developments. ‘Nothing was more striking’, Stoddard noted, ‘than the instinctive and instantaneous solidarity which binds together Australians and Afrikanders, Californians and Canadians, into a “sacred Union” at the mere whisper of Asiatic immigration’.14 (loc 95)

Not much difference between the two in analysis of the problem, only in its solution:

But while Pearson, a liberal and a stoic, had been resigned to the rise of the ‘black and yellow races’, Stoddard called for decisive action. ‘We stand at a crisis’, he cried, ‘the supreme crisis of the ages’. Nowhere could the white man endure colour competition; everywhere the East could underlive and thus outbid the West. The grim truth of the matter was that:

The whole white race is exposed, immediately and ultimately, to the possibility of social sterilization and final replacement or absorption by the teeming coloured races.

If the world were to avoid the hideous catastrophe of a ‘gigantic race war’, Asia would have to accept that the white man could not permit migration to white men’s countries or the settlement of the non-Asia tropics. ‘Immigration restriction is a species of segregation on a large scale’, wrote Stoddard memorably, ‘by which inferior stocks can be prevented from both diluting and supplanting good stocks’.20

These ideas were also taken up, of course, by president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919).

It was Pearson’s account of ‘the world-forces of the present’ that attracted Roosevelt’s attention and in particular his focus on the implications of comparative birth rates. European nations were entering a ‘stationary’ state while ‘the teeming population of China’ was rapidly expanding and spreading outwards. 17 With much of the ‘competition between the races reducing itself to the warfare of the cradle’, Roosevelt noted memorably, ‘no race has any chance to win a great place unless it consists of good breeders as well as of good fighters’.18 He would henceforth become a great champion of ‘good breeders’, but it was leading sociologist, Edward A. Ross, in his address to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1901, who gave a name to the problem of the declining birth rate: ‘race suicide’.19 (loc 1414)

A little reminder of how this all connects back to sexuality and the control of women, a requirement for racial purity.

Again, Roosevelt emphasised the world-historic significance of the new white commonwealths to their democratic insistence on race purity. It was aristocratic societies – such as Great Britain and Spain – that introduced coolie or slave labour, while the new democratic states acted to save the best portions of the earth as a ‘heritage for the white people’:

Had these regions been under aristocratic governments, Chinese immigration would have been encouraged precisely as the slave trade is encouraged of necessity by any slave-holding oligarchy, and the result would have been even more fatal to the white race; but the democracy, with the clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept out the dangerous alien. The presence of the negro in our Southern States is a legacy from the time when we were ruled by a trans-oceanic aristocracy.

Again, Roosevelt emphasised the world-historic significance of the advent of white men’s countries: ‘The whole civilization of the future owes a debt of gratitude greater than can be expressed in words to that democratic policy which has kept the temperate zones of the new and the newest worlds a heritage for the white people’.34(loc 1463)

more from Roosevelt on the provocations of peoples of colour’s freedom struggles in the eyes of white men:

The experience of the United States made this clear. If ever blacks or Indians threatened white domination, they were ruthlessly suppressed:

What occurs in our own Southern States at the least sign of a race war between the blacks and the whites seems to me to foreshadow what would occur on a much bigger scale if any black or yellow people should really menace the whites. An insurrectionary movement of blacks in any one of our Southern States is always abortive, and rarely takes place at all; but any manifestation of it is apt to be accompanied by some atrocity which at once arouses the whites to a rage of furious anger and terror, and they would put down the revolt absolutely mercilessly. In the same way an Indian – outbreak on the frontier would to this day mean something approaching to a war of extermination.40 (loc 1482)

Extermination… words and ideas like these were so prevalent, and not so very long ago at all.

There is so much more to the book of course, a highly recommended read.

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