Tag Archives: masculinity

Piri Thomas on Harlem’s Mean Streets

I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.

Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.

Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.

Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.

Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.

It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)

I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:

I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”

“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.

The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.

I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)

Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.

He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.

I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)

I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.

Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.

So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.

Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:

“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”

“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”

“Yeah.” (122)

I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.

Iron Fist, or white wish fulfillment from its beginnings

Ah Iron Fist. I read the Essentials Volume 1 because by the end of it he partners up with Luke Cage, and I love Luke Cage. I wanted to know just exactly who Luke Cage was getting mixed up with.

It ain’t pretty.

Too bad it’s way too late for Luke Cage to stay away.

Iron Fist wasn’t really enough to write about, but Netflix is making a series about the dude inspiring some controversy. Undoubtedly to cross over with Luke Cage (yay) and Jessica Jones (yay). I enjoyed a recent article by Noah Berlatsky with the subheading ‘iron flop’ and the title ‘“Iron Fist” proves Marvel is obsessed with rich white men—and it’s ruining their superheroes’.

Which is funny, partly because it’s true given there’s Iron Bat and Bat Fist and Dr Strangebatiron and more. Only one of them is an arms dealer at least. Iron Fist could have been, should have been Asian. He gets his powers from a fabled village in China’s K’un Lun mountains — where his DAD is from. Marvel argued they needed an ‘outsider’, which makes no sense as justification for casting a white guy. My favourite part apart from the title was actually the quote from Shaun Lau, an Asian-American activist and co-creator of the “No, Totally!” podcast (which I will have to listen to except I’m not much of a podcast girl and haven’t even finished my beloved Welcome to Nightvale since I quite farming):

“I don’t think people understand the extent to which ‘outsider’ describes the life of an Asian-American,” Lau said. “When I walk down the street, I’m not perceived as an American because of the way I look. But I did a family trip to China, Japan, and Hong Kong, when I was 19, and I didn’t fit in at all in any of those places. I don’t speak the language, just looking at me the people who live there knew that I was American.”

Unlike Rand, Asian Americans are perceived as aliens both in the US and abroad. “Asian-Americans really are this level of outsider that would work really, really well with the character of Danny Rand,” Lau said.

Ultimately, Lau argued that casting a white actor to play Danny was a “missed opportunity” for creating a new narrative.

It really was. It should have been done. Even in these early comics you feel how awkward and weird it is that Iron Fist is white, especially as all his family drama and their connections to China unfold. It never makes much sense. 1974 feels pretty late for that kind of shit, but there it is. Anyway, that shit keeps happening.

But reading the comics you realise this is something that often ‘ruined’ their superheroes. It is hardly surprising Marvel felt they had to cast Iron Fist as white — not that anyone in their production department necessarily read these early comics. But they are entirely white male wish fulfillment (and what else are many of these comics and films really about?) They are written as if *you*, the imagined (white, male) reader were iron Fist:

I know I’m still learning my way around comics, but I haven’t come across this before. I mean, look at that last panel, you, the imagined (white, male) reader *are* Iron Fist with crazy muscles about to kick some ass. It just keeps going.

I liked that it was ‘kung-fu’ heavy, but it so reminded me of the multiple films in which dudes from the US become martial arts saviours — they still get made even when the only explanation for white prowess is down to fate and watching kung-fu films. I never understood what was up with any of them, but clearly they belong in a long tradition of white guys longing to appropriate the awesomeness of another culture and pretend it really belonged to them all along. At least some of them train a few years for it, but still. I long for the film where Michelle Yeoh reduces each and every one of them into a quivering pile of humiliated jelly.

In fact the only good thing about Iron Fist is how awesome the ladies in it are, like Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.

Anyway, the various writers on the team keep up this writing style of making *you* , the imagined (white, male) reader the hero for a long time. You, the ‘master’ of chi.  At least, occasionally, there is a crazy cool monster.

Anyway, that’s me done ranting about Iron Fist, we definitely don’t need more billionaire heroes. Though I confess I did enjoy his visit to London. Look! It’s the Post Office Tower!

And ah, the London slums (?) between Maida Vale and Paddington. The good old days.

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Luke Cage: Back to Essentials #1 and #2

Luke Cage: Hero for Hire — I loved these, much prefer Luke Cage to Black Panther though I am not sure why… But maybe I am. My adopted home ground may have been South Central LA not NY, but these are the gritty streets, the hustlers, the African American and Spanish-speaking mix, the dirty cops, the unfair prison rap that you can never come out from under, the community clinic hanging on by the skin of its teeth that I know and love… and I know it’s still almost all white writers, but there’s inker Billy Graham and he had a shot or two.

Look at this opening cover. Maybe I love Luke Cage because it is as much (or maybe more) noir than superhero comic, look at the elements up in this mix:

origin-imageTrue enough he’s unlike any superhero before him, just like his background and his neighbourhood — no surprise comics are as segregated as real life.

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Straight out of (prison) hell to Harlem… Of course, it’s no surprise that I should think this is more like noir, because they make it hard to miss. There are all kinds of references, Luke’s just another PI, right?

There’s a homage to Dashiell Hammett in The Claws of Lionfang from Graham and Engelhardt, and a hint to what they’re kind of trying to do, but not too hard given Luke’s doing some of that ‘unromantic’ footwork, but it’s all to find a dude who can control giant cats with his mind:

There’s lot’s of this colourful language, like the writers can finally liberate themselves a little…

img_4868Three hours of expletives that never repeats? Goddamn, now that’s some street.

You gotta love Luke’s reactions to the superhero world too…

img_4870C’mon man…how many times have I said that to myself? Especially reading Iron Fist and those Fantastic All-American Four, but anyway.

I loved this issue. Doom assumes he has to hire a black man to find escaped slave robots who have also disguised themselves as black so they can better hide themselves after they have fled? A creaky setup, but there are some fucking layers here. Reminds me too, of that crazy quote from Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin:

“I think you said she was a Negro”
“I have no race prejudice–”
“I don’t mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I’ve tried.”
— Lew Archer to client

There are these moment when the distance between worlds crystallizes into just a few words, the off-hand commonsensical acknowledgment of just what a segregated society white folks have created, but treat as just the way of things.

Billy Graham comes more to the fore in Retribution, where he is co-scripter and artist. A side story, one of many, showing Luke Cage just can’t stop himself from helping people in trouble, and in this case the victims are the construction workers destroying condemned tenements for ‘yet another round of urban renewal’, and finding themselves trapped (like the tenants once were? are still?).

img_4875See, you’re just not going to find references to urban renewal in the Fantastic Four or the other story lines, not like this. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the world reflected here in such ways, yet still I am. Something about this black superhero allows things to be seen that are usually ignored completely. Then and now. They are suddenly part of the script, a sudden awareness of another reality.

Of course, the city in these stories plays its traditional role in the American consciousness — dangerous and dirty, home to criminals and those on the run. Still, it’s refreshing to see an ex-prison guard referred to in such terms, who’s the criminal now?

This guard advertises to find a job for himself in the personals? Almost makes you nostalgic….Check out these homemade costumes as well, they are pretty awesome…

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Back to Rich Man: Iron Man — Power Man: Thief. George Tuska artist, Graham inker, Len Wein writer. And the moment Luke Cage becomes Luke Cage (Black) Power Man. A little Black Power never goes amiss. Sadly he also starts calling people sugar.

img_4881Of course in this world you can’t just take on a name like Power Man and think you won’t get challenged by the last dude who had that name already. This is from The Killer With My Name — Tony Isabella with assist from Len Wein, drawn Ron Wilson, inked V Colletta — check out those middle panels:

img_4883Turns out the old Power Man is a bit racist…I enjoyed the shit-kicking Luke Cage gave him. I also liked the ‘my family was so poor…’ joke.

You can see, though, that they keep switching the team around, not like Black Panther who got a solid run at a consistent identity.

On to Essentials Book 2 – My old favourite flowery comic book philosopher, from the Black Panther in fact, Don McGregor writes some deep thoughts in Look What They’ve Done To Our Lives Ma!:

img_4894and Luke Cage faces Cockroach and Piranha. Piranha is a nod to the comic world, Cockroach a nod to the world of slums and predatory hustlers and shitty housing. I like the mix.

img_4895But in later issues the writing starts shifting around, as does Luke’s character. He is more and more violent, thinks less and less, then thinks more… they’re reaching to figure out what to do with him, so there’s Chicago storylines from Marv Wolfman as editor/plot and Ed Hannigan guest scripter, with Mace — just another vet who didn’t get the help with his PTSD that he needed:

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Luke running around trying to foil some harebrained scheme. And still succeeding with the ladies…

I don’t know why these panels make me laugh at loud, but they do. By the end of the volume it’s C. Claremont and Tuska

img_4900Oh shit, Black Buck? They came out and said it. Luckily there’s some people around to call him on it, sort of.

My favourite issue will be in a separate post — good old Mace starts up a gated community in the middle of nowhere and they try to blow up the Greyhound Bus Luke is on because it comes too close to their territory… I can’t even begin to describe how interesting that set up is to someone working on race and geography. Jaw dropping really. So I’ll keep that separate. It’s been interesting watching Cage change, get reimagined, first to be kinder, then to be more physical — though in truth all he knows to do is just go smashing in no matter what the odds.

I love it.

Sadly at the end he teams up with Iron Fist.

Oh, Iron Fist.

So annoying.

I might write about that essentials Vol. 1, I read them because Luke Cage comes in at the end…I also like the women in those stories I confess.

I might write too about the new Luke Cage series. I enjoyed them immensely,  though I’m a little bit conflicted about some things maybe.

Anyway, to end with a little salute to Billy Graham.

billygraham

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Drawing the Global Colour Line — Connecting White Supremacy

2551707Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds — such a good book. It charts how whiteness as an identity was constructed across the British Empire rather than just within individual colonies — it’s a brilliant examination of global formations of racism and its rhetoric, especially given the usual focus on a national context. I might quote with exaggerated enthusiasm here because much of this was new to me when I read it, though I realise it is much more familiar to those working in postcolonial theory. I’m catching up slowly.

This book argues, following Du Bois,  that the assertion of whiteness was born  in the  apprehension of imminent loss…and it charts the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, that was, as Du Bois noticed, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geo-political alliances and a subjective sense of self. (loc 73, 84)

This combination of the global and the personal, the connection between privilege and great fear of its loss, are shown to be key to understanding many of white racism’s dynamics, and it was eye-opening to read the constructions of racist beliefs growing in concert and conversation.

In recent scholarship, ‘whiteness studies’ have emerged as a productive new field of historical enquiry, but most investigations have conceptualised their subject within a national frame of analysis, identifying local dynamics at work within histories deemed distinctive or even exceptional.15 Studies that now acknowledge the necessity for a global context still confine their own analyses within a national interpretative frame and that has been especially the case with United States scholarship.16 But, as DuBois and contemporaries on the other side of the colour line saw clearly, the emergence of the ‘new religion’ of whiteness was a transnational
phenomenon and all the more powerful for that, inspiring in turn the formation of international movements of resistance, such as the pan-African and pan-Asian alliances… (loc 99)

A little more on the purpose of the book itself, its focus on racial technologies, and the nature of the global colour line. I find the authors most eloquent so these are long quotations:

In Drawing the Global Colour Line, We trace the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty. (loc 103)

Again, the importance of understanding what is happening at different scales, differences around particular implementations and histories but also to a great degree unified, particularly around a shared glorious racial past and the sharing of ‘best practices’.

Though recently established, white men’s countries sought legitimacy through locating themselves in the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon race history that dated back to the mythic glories of Hengist and Horsa. They shared an English-speaking culture and newly ascendant democratic politics, priding themselves, as Anglo-Saxons, on a distinctive capacity, indeed a genius, for self-government. It was their commitment to democratic equality that made racial homogeneity seem imperative. In the tradition of J. S. Mill, they argued that democracy could only survive in the absence of distinctions of caste and colour.

White men’s countries rested on the premise that multiracial democracy was an impossibility. (loc 139)

They used specific wordings to promote such ideas, which underline the geographies of race and democracy:

Colonial leaders preferred, however, to speak not of ‘local’, but of ‘self-government’, which they would later invoke to argue their sovereign right to racial homogeneity. (loc 614)

This connection between ideas of democracy and the need for racial homogeneity is a particularly important one to my own research, and seen over and over again. It is also one that continues to emerge in these days of ours, though often divorced from such openly racist rhetoric. Yet at the same time it is a connection glossed over or completely left out of most work on democracy and its workings.

They continue:

Previous studies have charted racial discourse across the British Empire or drawn attention to the links between the anti- Chinese policies of California and the Australian colonies, but few have analysed the inter-relationship of British and American racial regimes in the same analytical frame.29 Yet, crucially, the idea of the ‘white man’s country’ crossed and collapsed the imperial/republican divide, drawing on the discursive resources of both traditions to enshrine the dichotomy of white and not-white. The British Empire drew a distinction between ruling and ruled races; republican ideology drew a distinction between races fit and not fit for self-government. United States naturalisation law rested on the dichotomy of white and not-white.

In the figure of the white man, the imperialist became a democrat and the democrat an imperialist.
(loc 170)

Mills’ The Racial Contract is brilliant on exploring the underpinnings of this in terms of ideas of democracy, ‘social contract’ and race, but more on that later.

This worldview worked to simplify, to make binary a complex reality:

One indicator of the global ascendancy of the politics of whiteness was its ability to recast the previous multiplicity of nations, races and religions – Aryan, Caucasian, Chinese, Hindus, Kanakas, Islanders, Malays, Blacks, Lascars, Moslems, Japanese – in binary terms as ‘white’ or ‘not-white’. English-speaking countries were pace-setters in this regard. (loc 180)

We still suffer from this binary, still don’t quite have the words to deal with its falsity imposed over reality given it has wielded and continues to wield such force.

The Racialisation of Labour: Workers and Masculinity

There is clearly an important connection to be made here with masculinity as well as with democracy:

…when ‘glorious manhood asserts its elevation’, in the words of New South Wales republican poet, Daniel Deniehy, when pride of manhood found expression in pride of race to enshrine the white man as the model democrat. In the New World encounters of diverse peoples, the masculine democracies of North America and Australasia defined their identity and rights in racial terms: the right of Anglo-Saxons to self-government and the commitment of white workers to high wages and conditions, against those they saw as undermining their new-found status, whether they be aristocrats of ‘coolies’.

When glorious manhood asserted its elevation, white men monopolised the status of manhood itself. Coolies, Islanders, Asiatics and Blacks were cast as not simply deficient as workers, colonists and citizens, but also as men. They were docile, servile, dependent, unfree. Hence, the struggles of coloured and colonised men to achieve recognition, or restitution, of their manhood as well as national independence.
(loc 148)

So many remarkable interchanges occurred between countries despite the thousands of miles between them, as interesting as the differences.

Anti-Chinese agitation began to centre on complaints of cheap labour, low wages and unfair competition. Industrial employment as well as gold were claimed as the exclusive preserve of white men.

Agitation against the Chinese in Australia was frequently inspired by the example of California.14 A significant proportion of the miners on the Victorian fields had come directly from the lawless districts of the Pacific Slope and they often carried their preference for direct action with them. (loc 271)

Ah, the old spectre of grassroots violence. Makes it a bit harder to talk about the ‘grassroots’ as positively as we so often do.

Workers were in movement, and so were ideas, organising strategies and racism — here from California to Melbourne but drawing on anything useful, with labour pressuring the government to stop immigration (a familiar sort of current, I wish I could say differently today):

The Commission recommended a Californian-type tax to ‘check and diminish this influx’, but the Victorian government also introduced the first form of ‘immigration restriction’, utilising, at the suggestion of the Colonial Office, the British Passengers Act, that limited the number of passengers for health and safety reasons to one passenger for every two tons of ship’s burthen. (loc 300)

A goldfield in Australia called Jim Crow…Jesus:

Agitation against the Chinese continued. In 1857, for example, a public meeting at Geelong ‘numbering not less than one thousand persons’ sent a petition demanding the parliament ‘check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria’; the Local Court at Castlemaine presented a Memorial against the ‘Chinese influx’ while miners at a goldfield named ‘Jim Crow’ near Ballarat collected 345 signatures in favour of Chinese exclusion.23 (loc 315)

A transnational identity as a man and as a worker is being crafted here, but a racialised one:

When anti-Chinese activists thus campaigned against the Chinese as colonists, citizens and workers, they also impugned their manhood. ‘Rice-eating men’, declared Australians and Californians in chorus, had neither the rights nor responsibilities of masculine ‘beef-eating’ men. (loc 412)

I remember reading very similar phraseology at this same point in time from authors like Henry Mayhew writing about the Irish in London, and the ways they can live on a single potato or on nothing at all. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that it should be used independently or displaced against others, often by the Irish themselves.

The results:

International doctrines of freedom of movement thus collided with the ascendant democratic power of white manhood. In an age when “glorious manhood asserts its elevation”, in the words of republican Australian poet Daniel Deniehy, Chinese labour, represented as docile and servile, was cast as a profound threat to the new-found status of the independent, upright working man, a figure increasingly coded as ‘white’.47 (loc 415)

Workers were white men, and they were white men ‘under siege’:

In demanding the exclusion of Chinese workers, the labour movement increasingly defined the by his “civilized” standard of living. The difference between the Chinese worker and the white worker, said one supporter in the Victorian parliament, sounding an international theme, was the difference between ‘a rice-eating man and a beef-eating man”. “People who can subsist on a handful of rice and content themselves with the barest shelter are formidable opponents of European labor”, said a colleague.64 Moreover, the “unfairness of the competition is added to by the intense industry of these Asiatics. They stand in as little need of rest and recreation, apparently, as they do of a generous diet or wholesome housing…” (loc 473)

These constructions of masculinity were emerging both from workers and politicians, intertwining with more upper-class justifications and discourses of Empire:

Just as British statesmen looked to the United States as a future ally, so Americans looked to British imperialism as a model for a re-invigorated United States manhood. On a visit to Britain in 1895, the previously sceptical Lodge was impressed by the role of imperial government in building English manhood. ‘I am more than ever impressed with the vast difference between the Englishman who has travelled and governed abroad and those who have not’, he wrote on his return. ‘The latter are insular and self-absorbed and stiff as a rule and the former are almost always agreeable and worth meeting’.65 Imperialism was character-building, for man, nation and race. ‘I believe in the expansion of great nations’, Roosevelt affirmed to his friend, Spring Rice, in December 1899. India had done a great deal for ‘the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character’.66(loc 1569)

Women could only suffer in this equation, being pushed further into roles of pure motherhood to uphold the race. One example:

The Royal Commission placed the blame for the decline of the birth rate on the selfishness of women.64 A copy of the report was sent to the United States at the request of the Department of Commerce and Labor.65 White men’s countries shared the preoccupation with race suicide. (loc 2226)

The other tragic result? The focus in so many liberation movements on ‘recovering’ the masculinity of men of colour. We watched Marlon Riggs’ awesome documentary Black I is, Black I ain’t last night, which is eloquent in showing the cost of this to women of colour and to those finding themselves outside of definitions of masculinity through their sexuality or expressions. To those facing demands to conform or ostracisation.

Motherland v Colony: the complexities of Empire:

One of the most enlightening things for me were the differences, at least initially, in the attitudes and discourses (though not in levels of racism itself) of Britain as the coloniser of a far-flung empire, and its subjects who established settler colonies. I had never quite grasped the strength of the idea of a multi-racial commonwealth, all subject to the Queen. This created complex allegiances amongst the empire’s members, even in its highly imperfect state.

I remember a strange loyalty to this idea puzzling me to some extent in Gandhi’s biography when I read it very long ago, and I am fascinated by quite what that meant, and how it shifted along with power, technologies of exploitation and discourse:

But the imperial status in which Gandhi invested so much – the status of British subject – was fast being eclipsed in the self-governing colonies by the ascendant dichotomy of white
and not-white. In making an argument that Natal should follow New South Wales rather than the United States and declare explicitly against the immigration of Asiatics, one member of parliament was moved to observe that colonists should forget about Colonial Office objections on behalf of coloured British subjects, for ‘the idea of the British subject was fading more and more every year’. (loc 1905)

This kind of attitude was made possible by the nature of empire, by governing from a  country that remained white, an illuminating quote:

The shoe doesn’t pinch us; for in the first place each Asiatic in Natal must be multiplied by eight hundred to produce a proportionate effect on the population at home; and secondly this country being already fully populated, a relatively large influx of a foreign element could only be brought about by a corresponding displacement of the native element.36

Racial hierarchies existed within these limited categories of colonial subject, though all as a rule were seen as unfit for the duties and responsibilities of white men:

But there was a further problem in Natal: the presence of several hundred thousand ‘natives’. Even if a few Indians were to be granted self-government, they could not be trusted to govern blacks. The Colonial Office noted the impossibility of one subject race being governed by another:

In the contingency which this Bill deals with – that of Asiatics becoming the majority in a tiny electorate – a result would appear, which no-one ever contemplated, and which would be most anomalous and perhaps hazardous in itself viz the Government of a subject Race, which itself does not understand and is permanently unfit for representative Government, by another Race which does not understand it either which has no experience of it, and whose capacity to work it must be doubtful representative government is the monopoly of the European Races.37 (loc 1754)

Yet they remained subjects — a limited status yet one that settler colonies demanded be stripped. Thus it was the colonies that drove this process, and remarkably late in a sense — the end of the 1800s, which also saw the end of reconstruction in the US and the rise of Jim Crow:

The Australian legislation of 1896, in dividing the world’s peoples between white and not-white, regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects, marked a radical new departure in international relations. But the move was a logical development of the binary thinking that governed British imperial rule – the division between Crown colonies and self-governing Dominions or between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ races – and United States naturalisation law, that divided the world’s peoples into white and not-white. White Australia was produced in a convergence of these binary classification systems with the result that a vast range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Moslems, Negroes, Indians, Malays and Pacific Islanders – were lumped together (loc 2036)

Again, this underlines how this growing understanding of whiteness as identity, the creation of whiteness came from both bottom up and top down as it were, to return to the workers:

The project of White Australia was thus a contest over the meaning of civilisation itself. Much Labor vitriol was directed at the Japanese demand to be recognised as a civilised power. The Australian Worker reported the story of a confrontation between a local Labor man determined to ‘take down’ ‘a Jap standing outside a laundry’, who dressed above his station:

There you are looking like a crow decked out with peacock’s feathers thinking, I suppose, that you represent an up-to-date and enlightened nation. A great Power you call yourself, with your navy and your army, that you haven’t paid for yet, and your factories and other such western civilised innovations wherein you don’t earn enough in a week to keep a white man in beer and tobacco for the same period. (loc 2148)

But it’s all happening a bit later than I usually think of it, though the roots go very deep. We see Labour taking up the rhetoric of justice and democracy only when both are restricted racially:

In the new Commonwealth of Australia, Liberal and Labor parties agreed on the necessity of the state protecting the wages and conditions of white working men, an approach given expression in the policy of New Protection, so named because tariff protection would depend on employers paying workers a fair and reasonable wage. Deakin explicitly theorised White Australia as an exercise in social justice: ‘it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women – it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages’.55 (loc 2171)

I hate seeing words social justice appearing in sentences like the one above. This was not, of course, only happening in Australia, and it became part of a political toolbox, part of the increasingly hegemonic mix of ideas through strong-held faith alongside canny manipulation and political operating within and between nations:

Above all, metropolitan governments realised that here was an issue capable of mobilising whole communities and creating new transnational ones, of changing voting behaviour and political allegiances . The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, noted ‘an identity of feeling and of interests (real or supposed)’ between the Canadian inhabitants of the Pacific Coast and their neighbours in the United States.86 Washington and Ottawa talked about the possible secession of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California – “where the same question is agitating the public mind, and threatens to combine all classes, irrespective of boundaries, in one common cause” – leading to their amalgamation into a new republic.87 The British government feared that the United States would stand forth as the leader and protector of white men’s interests… (loc 2606)

I had to pause a moment to imagine the ‘what if’ of a west coast nation, especially given the onset of Trump. But really what is important is that it should be international rivalry in leadership pushing the British Empire to move away from earlier ideas that bestowed some rights and some degree of humanity within the term ‘subject’:

The British, too, worried about the Empire disintegrating, Britain being marginalised and the United States assuming leadership of a new white men’s alliance. In his paper ‘Suggestions as to Coloured Immigration into the Self-Governing Dominions’, prepared for the Colonial Office, Charles Lucas observed that this was ‘a question second to none in difficulty and importance’ for the Empire. The British government should endeavour therefore to show some leadership on the question:

There is also to my mind a constant and serious danger that, if we do not take the initiative, the United States may stand out on and through this question as the leaders of the English-speaking peoples in the Pacific as against the coloured races. This is not my own view alone.92 (loc 2621)

Roosevelt’s world tour with his ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1907 helped to establish US naval power while also consolidating  ideas and a solidarity amongst the white settler nations, working to push England to a similar position.

Provocatively, he told a correspondent of the New York Times that the visits (New Zealand was added to the itinerary) were intended to ‘show England – I cannot say a “renegade” mother-country – that those colonies are white man’s country’.33

The drive towards this conception in the colonies was, of course, a lot about the white ownership of land…

Whites in California had been critical of Japanese arrivals, even while they appeared as birds of passage, but their concern turned to alarm when the new settlers established themselves as successful farmers in settled communities. As Yamato Ichihasi observed, agitation in parliament and the press continued unabated. By 1913, it concentrated on the question of ownership and control of land. The claim to be a white man’s country was fundamentally a proprietorial assertion. Senator J. D. Phelan, who had become the most powerful figure in the state Democratic Party machine, set out his case for forcing the Japanese from the farming districts in an article published in the New York journal, the Independent, the same journal, ironically, that had published W. E. B. DuBois’ ‘Souls of White Folk’ on the claims of whiteness to the ownership of the earth forever and ever.

The second post looks more at the intellectual architects and popularisers of ideologies to support conquest, settlement, white democracy and genocide. I’ll end this terribly long one with some timely thoughts on some of the results on whites themselves:

According to a Frenchman, Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, who had been to the fore in summoning the second Hague conference in 1907, the brutality of imperial rule was not only destructive to the colonised, but rebounded on white men themselves and their ‘mother-states’:

Where is the white man, however excellent, who can be perfectly certain that in the great wide spaces of our various European colonies he will be able to resist the terribly demoralising effect of unlimited power, conjoined with the influences of solitude and climate? Where is the white man who has not in Africa and Asia felt himself to be more or less master, with power to act as he will, with power to oppress? There is . . . a regrettable and retrograde tendency among white men once left to their own devices to cultivate and foster deliberately a brutality whose evil traditions they then bring back with them to their mother-state.45 (loc 3338)

 

 

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