Convergence / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

To Outwit History

Stephanie Costello, Atlantis

Image Credit: Stephanie Costello, Atlantis, (2018), 23 1/2 x 20, Gouache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no justification, and that the West has no moral authority.

James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

We live in the era of the deleted tweet, and the American apology in the wake of egregious behavior. It reminds me of the earnest sentiment of the Western siren blaring with melancholic and urgent alarm, and paradoxically warning of the coming of agents of the state. The superficial protocols of the art world, of the literary cognoscenti, and academic life seem more indulgent and complicit now. I suspect this is what happens when one realizes that the stakes have always been high–that for some of us, everything has always meant life or death. How else to characterize a world at once brutal and fickle, shallow, and exacting–where this or that person is measured and catalogued in an order governed by rationales hostile to your very existence? That this is not a way to live, or can take your life, is neither revelation nor comfort. It’s simply something else to know in the relentless epistemic instruction required to survive the ecology of empire. In these proverbial “culture wars,” one must always “leave evidence,” as Gayl Jones’ protagonist Ursa Corregidora reminds us. The attempts to massacre and outwit history, as the dim Senator Ted Cruz does when he asserts that critical race theory is as “racist as Klansmen in white sheets,” means that the black radical tradition that is our collective inheritance must be rescued from the dulling properties of neoliberal privatization. We must refuse the thin symbolism of memorialization, cringe at the use of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” as advertisement for these pandemic-soaked Olympics, and generally challenge the regime of lies and relentless trickery that confronts us. Democracy is action.

The United States has been engaged in a “culture war” for decades now. The label is disingenuous for any number of reasons, but is immediately specious in a nation intimately familiar with the actual conventions of warfare and open hostilities. From atomic annihilation, cluster bombs, AK-47s, and the “shock and awe” of permanent war, to the low-tech efficacy of the lynch rope and its activating mob, the technological developments of the twentieth century have been pressed into regular service, expediting and amplifying violence on a massive scale. A number of these advancements have clear antecedents, so that the depopulating procedures of the state appear now as emblematic, metonymic occurrences brought home by the quotidian broadcast of social and planetary devastation on cable news. Since the galvanizing, televisual dissemination of the theater of the Vietnam War, and those images of water cannons, police dogs, and screaming white mouths terrorizing black citizens while blocking school buildings and lunch counters during the civil rights movement, Americans have feasted on visualized aggression. The routinized transmission of everyday atrocities represents the very condition of commercial possibility for going concerns like the BBC or CNN. And our refusal to really see or assimilate human disaster is accompanied by the active consumption of spectacularized death and tragedy, which finds contemporary expression in the obscenity of the police bodycam, the ubiquity of the mass shooting, and the public grief of the (black or brown) mother.

The national tendency to accept “war” as the metaphorical ascription to putatively salutary efforts is belied by our absolute lack of interest in the very issues themselves. Despite the familiar hand-wringing and bluster, Americans care little about campaigns to ameliorate poverty, obesity, addiction, or what they understand as “culture.” The coordinated slander of critical race theory and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine has been widely received as a return to the culture wars of the 1990s now steeped in our saturating climate of non-stop news and the declarative reportage of Twitter and other social media outlets. Terrified of a changing country, and desperate to regain national power, GOP funders, strategists, and legislators have settled on the vilification of racial analyses of American structural power as both dog whistle and rallying cry, banning its teaching in public schools or other state-funded initiatives. That this field was first elaborated by a cohort of practitioners in the legal academy, or that the Republican Party has not bothered with obtaining even rudimentary knowledge of its rigorous, dimensional critique, does not matter. Utterance has become fact, and a party that only recently incited a violent rupture in the practice of modern American democracy is nevertheless engaged as reasonable brokers, so racked with concern over the “radical” indoctrination of the incipient agents of white (male) authority they are prepared to evacuate history–yet again. All of this proceeds while what’s left of the franchise is being publicly restricted in full view of a Democratic administration still attempting to decide if securing the tenuous rights of the historically dispossessed (the very constituencies that voted them into office!) is worth standing up to the big money to which the political establishment is increasingly bound.

James Baldwin’s assessment of the bankrupt moral record of Western civilization that provides the epigraph for this essay, presaged and echoed the revolutionary ethos of black liberation movements and decolonial struggles that would reshape imperial arrangements at mid-century. For since it was the myth and lie of a “civilizing mission” that occasioned our dislocation and enduring fragmentation, the retort from artists and intellectuals of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the United States or the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM)1 in London, for example, was the necessity of rending the aesthetic and epistemic veil to bear witness to the structural and existential asymmetries everywhere in evidence. In his first two major essays, Baldwin wrote piercingly about the aesthetic fabrication that came to be called the American novel. Published in 1949 and 1951, respectively, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” exposed a national literary conceit. Appearing in 1852, and animated by what Baldwin registered as a “medieval morality” and a “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality,” Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly was hugely popular, becoming the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and was second only to the Bible in sales. For Baldwin, Stowe’s unwillingness to stage a genuine confrontation with the embodied racial calculus obtaining in the country resulted in “a very bad novel,” encumbered by the self-serving pitfalls of racialized sentiment:

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin—like its multitudinous, hard-boiled descendants—is a catalogue of violence…and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality—unmotivated, senseless—and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds.2

But what made the novel so wildly popular? What so compelled an American readership, on the brink of a Civil War, to repeatedly take to little Topsy and the ever-faithful Uncle Tom? The rise in print culture surely had something to do with it, but it was the spiritual rehabilitation liberal sentiment afforded Stowe and her contemporaries that made it a sensation. These early depictions of Life Among the Lowly, as the latter half of the novel’s title would have it, performed the necessary work of reconciling the moral corruption of enslavement for this preacher’s daughter. As Baldwin tells it, Stowe’s “virtuous rage” is inspired by “nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another…but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the devil” (Notes 17). The yawning distance between private feeling and public pronouncement is some of the problem with the protest novel. The contradiction betrayed by this distance is illuminating only if we wrestle with the semiotic and ontological insights on mass culture Baldwin advances in this, his first significant offering of a four-decade career:

The ‘protest’ novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “[a]s long as such books are being published,” an American liberal once said to me, “everything will be alright.” (Notes 19; emphasis added)

Like the fetishization of the tan and the tan line, the “not-me” conception of racial difference remains deeply seductive. Stowe’s hugely popular fabrication “represented the real” for a population committed to its own enshrinement and salvation. The contemporary analogue to the fiction of American morality and innocence expressed by Baldwin’s “American liberal,” turns up in such television crime procedurals as the perennial Law and Order and Chicago P.D.; in post-9-11 espionage vehicles such as Homeland, Black Hawk Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Madam Secretary, and Designated Survivor, among others; and in those always fledging productions on violent, white male disaffection or misguided heroism such as Netflix’s Unhinged starring Russell Crowe, or any of the shows in the NCIS franchise. While everything might not be “alright,” the silence from our colleagues in higher education and elsewhere as critical race theory and other pointed assessments of American power continue to be maligned confirms that we understand the instability of race as category, fear its fungibility, and know it must ultimately be revealed for the mythology it remains. But as long as there are books, films, and other dominant media that render the on-the-ground realities of modern life at once fantastical and simplified, glossy and gritty, Dave Chappelle will always win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to discern the life and death contradictions at work over all the thunderous applause.

The growing popular and academic interest in the work of James Baldwin is what returns me, in this writing, to the antiquated, but deeply relevant Mrs. Stowe.3 To suggest, as some do, that Stowe’s novel is out of fashion is to almost willfully miss the point. It is her early and enduring figurations of antebellum life that still demand study. As Baldwin elaborates, his childhood obsession with the novel had everything to do with how he came into racial consciousness. He was “trying to find something out, sensing something of the book of immense import for me” (Devil 14).4 This instance of premature knowing is a common feature of precarious black life. And it is important to remember that readers, depending on one’s place in the social order, typically approach such demanding, racialized material with radically divergent postures. This fact is being played out in our contemporary battle over critical race theory and the shattering silence from nearly all quarters. What Baldwin is asking in the middle of the last century is a still urgent query today: “How is it that we are so loath to make a further journey than that made by Mrs. Stowe, to discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?” (Notes 15). “Truth,” as he suggested, is a slippery proposition, but must be understood, fundamentally, as “a commitment to the human being, his freedom and fulfilment” (Notes 15). As Baldwin sees it, the disaster of the protest novel and its “hard-boiled descendants” erupts from “its rejection of life, the human being, his beauty, dread, power” (Notes 23; emphasis added). The crude and racy renderings of American life on offer in everything from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Richard Wright’s Native Son, to the contemporary vehicles listed above, confirm the suspicions of Baldwin’s liberal regarding the chilling motivations behind the publication of these dispatches from the interior. Whichever side one lands in the Oedipal-like break between Wright and Baldwin prompted by the essay, we may be able to agree that it is the possessive investment in whiteness (and racial difference itself) that not only accounts for the popularity of explicitly racialized material in our culture, but also the disavowal of the need for racial remedy those very expressions represent.

It is easy to be outraged and slack-handed in a calculus that pays dividends. We have heard about the wages of whiteness, of white privilege and fragility, and have lamented their pervasiveness in diversity trainings and academic conferences for at least three decades. Community outreach and public engagement programs and initiatives have become the default surrogates for real change, and talk of equity and inclusion are now boilerplate. Such projects, no matter how brittle, are canon fodder in this much talked-about “war” for fear that the master narrative be countermanded by a “woke” generation armed with talk of wealth disparities and intersectionality. Stowe and Baldwin remind us that we have been at war for centuries now. While the rules of engagement have changed from vapid sympathy and liberal accommodation, to corrosive lies and criminalizing the teaching of history, the principal drama has always been about whether or not we are a white country. This intractable dilemma is something we have steadfastly attempted to avoid and outwit. The sooner we face this reality (and its stakes!) and eschew declarations about precisely who we think we are, the sooner we will stem the steady flow of actual blood from the big and little wars raging all around.



1 Of the origins of CAM, the late poet and thinker Kamau Braithwaite (1930-2020), writes: “What was to become the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) started in December 1966 in my Bloomsbury basement flat. I had recently arrived from the Caribbean on study leave to Britain, and as a writer myself, wanted, quite naturally, to get in touch with as many Caribbean artists as possible. But where were they?… Since 1950, nearly every West Indian novelist worth the name had come to London and more than a hundred books had come from their typewriters and pens. But despite this, the British public didn’t seem to be very much aware of the nature and value of this contribution…This situation, it seemed to me, was something to be deplored. The isolation of West Indian writers from each other and from the society in which they lived could eventually only stultify development and could do nothing to contribute to perhaps the most important problem of our times – the problem of the future of race relations in Britain. “The Caribbean Artists Movement,” Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1/2, A Survey of the Arts (March – June 1968), 57.

2 James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 13.

3 For more on the contemporary significance of sentimentality and Uncle Tom’s Cabin see Laurent Berlant’s “Poor Eliza,” American Literature, 1998, Vol.70 (3), 635-668.

4 James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Vintage, 1976), 14.

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