Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures"

Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures" [UPDATED LINK]

Give it a listen.

Below are my notes about it.

The best thing that I can say about this trickster folk tale is that i received it from somebody black. That makes it resonate with the conditions under which such tales usually have found their way down through the generations in slave quarters and tenements and board rooms, etc).

On the other hand, the framing of the narrative by what sounds like a white announcer disrupts the liberatory potential of this narrative, and by the time the very nonblack seeming audience voices come in, we are back to this being a command performance for the master. The announcer says "overcome"... so, this is packaged as a narrative of "overcoming" "getting over" "making it"-- what does that mean? what ideologies are bundled with that? what do the artists who (re)created it-- the author and the actor-- mean by it? would they agree with the announcer? Okay, let's face it: I'm immediately on guard. Even if it is going to be read by Reuben Santiago-Hudson, it seems to be that this is an extension not of black culture or being but of what Hortense Spillers called "being for the captor."

The Hero (Daniel)
academic bonafides from Ivy League
excuse me, American Studies-- not African American Studies or Education or Sociology or Performing Arts or a sports scholarship recipient or any of the other narratives that have come to be so unsurprising for blacks in a university setting that they no longer instantly catalyze a state of mass (white) psychic crisis. then again, it's still understandable enough so that it's not something like if he majored in astrophysics or something more esoteric that would cause the whole brow to lift. you can see how black people would be in a field like American Studies that is so close to the humanities and social sciences. it is worthy of remark because it is probably the least radical of the relatively recent interdisciplinary (past 60 years) add-ons to the academic buffet. it is information that tells you something about the kind of character this Daniel is and the nature of the empathy he is formulated to induce/enable.

this is the perfect post-civil rights era negro! he exists in what a smarter person than i might call an asignifying oppositional relation to white expectations-- which is to say, he dances with them, ballroom style so that wherever they are, he is not. his blackness makes him asignifying; kinda like the place-name Hunter's Point, which is "black" until whites no longer want it to signify "black." then they move in. blackness is asignifying: it doesn't mean anything except a positionality in relation to whiteness. [Fanon: "not only must the black man (sic) be black, he (sic) must be black IN RELATION TO the white man (sic)" (my emphasis).] by dancing with white expectations, he doesn't seem to undermine, but rather reproduce, those very expectations. And whites can't thank themselves enough for all the things that he is able to do. They have "given" blacks their freedoms, freedoms for which whites themselves represent the standard. what is "black" in an era when there are no more "colored" fountains in south carolina? it is, as ever, whatever "white" is not. this story is about how this Daniel guy seems to be dodging the white expectations by confronting them. so, is that really "freedom"?

wow, and he's a gifted negro with authenticity: the musical performance. (before Dixie, we hear that he plays jazz standards and old slide tunes; after Dixie, he goes right into 'A' Train). this is the perfect negro, who can do all of these "black" things of which whites feel some delight in partaking, AND at the same time he can also serve as an antidote to the stereotypes that left-thinking white folks desperately WANT to jettison from their psyches but for which they keep finding evidence. whites get tired-- physically tired-- of the cognitive dissonance of saying, "I know they're not all like that," even after seeing how many of "them" ARE "like that." Daniel is already the perfect foil to their stereotypes. Maybe this is why he is loved? He is fetishized. They need him. They devour him and his authentic negro self with their eyes (scopophilia, as David Marriott calls it) and their ears. they seem to be saying, "My southern college-educated whiteness needs legitimation in the face of these old-school, OldeStyle-drinking frat boys. Come on, black man. Do something amazing. Say something amazing. I just LOOOOVE to hear you speak."

I am reminded of Stanley Crouch [ugh] quoting somebody else: (to paraphrase) American virtuosity lies in making the exceptional look easy, and this is one of the Negro's best gifts. sliding back and forth between different forms of command performance qualifies in this story as black freedom. This negro virtuosity is also one of the white's favorite fantasies of the black-- that is, until it causes them to lose "their" homerun title or "their" democratic presidential nomination.

His class status and his unproblematic class relationship with other slaves not only enable him to have some protective hedge against many day-to-day experiences of "racism"; they also save the author the trouble of having to bring up a lot of ways in which Daniel is continuously positioned as object and has not been repositioned by the money he inherited. Daniel's money, in fact, gives the author a wider array of tools to play with in suturing the audience members' empathy. Daniel's money makes it so that the author can crowd out ontological and structural continuities with slavery, because Daniel himself is able to crowd out thinking about them by his possession of an amazing house and classic car-- and, of course, the narrative has to mention all of these things.

It's interesting to see what requires a LOT of contextual explanation, and what requires very little.

The money this 23-year-old possesses is INHERITED. the money's not just his. it was amassed in the generations before his by his southern mother and aunt, who surely grew up before "the signs" came down. (he got this money "the old-fashioned way"-- one of many things that are "classic" or "old-fashioned" about him. To be 23, he's an "old" man which makes him asexual, as far as the story goes, even as he is charming and jazzy. just like the symbolic eunuch, louis armstrong, whose famous high-C's could drive white women literally swooning into traffic without his constituting a threat to white men. santiago-hudson is known for these kinds of roles. no hip-hop necessary. pleasing to the white audience. easy on their ears. if this were costumed, Daniel would for sure have a vestmentary code that was in some way suggestive of this "old-fashioned" quality about him.) the fact of this inherited money, of course, plays that aforementioned legitimizing function so that whites can pat themselves on the back for the things blacks did both with and in spite of them. Imagine that: "black entitlement" (oxymoron??)-- and no intervention of the state behind it!

but that is not my point here. my point here is that this information-- the inherited money-- needs to be mentioned and explained. it would not be believed if it were just flashed before us. a nigger with money? a 23-year-old nigger with money? a 23-year-old nigger in the eastern seaboard states (y'know, the ones that track Interstates 85 and 95, those major distribution routes for drugs coming from miami) who drives a fancy car, no less? it would require contextualization in order to be legible in the ways the author intended for purposes of empathy building. The story would not be able to move forward without this explanation.

Here's an example on the flipside. The performer's (Santiago-Hudson's) vocal selections of Dixie try to give us a taste of how Daniel must have sounded, but they don't give us a whole lot of information, they just give us a taste. almost a tease. In the very effective storytelling strategy of "leaving em wantin' more," we are left to simply *imagine* the power of the black voice, and the author and performer/director allow for the taste that we have gotten to be enough. The author doesn't spend too much time/space on this. It is known, it is a common literary trope: Niggers can sing. Unlike the supposition we are asked to make that a young nigger can have honest money and not work, we can accept a singing nigger a priori without much explanation and move on with the story.

Wow. I wonder about how strong the black presence was in the actor's audience as he performed this. hm.

This is a work of black authorial/performative fantasy-- and the fantasies are WHITE! the author frames racism as the preserve of a handful of grotesque frat boys, and poor whites, with maybe a few liberal southern white pecadilloes like the pat on the back sprinkled in for authenticity and liberal awareness that there are still some faux-pas that happen from time to time and that it's best to just ignore or play along with them and move on.

This is also part of the story's suture; it hails the audience's desire to do violence toward "those racists" and to relate to this perfect negro, whom they desire to see do well in the world; he, of course, has to be perfect in his harmless pranksterism. If he were at all angry, I wouldn't be hearing this story right now.

"Daniel didn't too much care for the slaps on the back, but he didn't focus too much energy on that"--

how interesting that the author felt the need to mention this! he would probably frame this as an example of "ignorant behavior"

it's not that this "ignorant behavior" merits no thought or energy; the author didn't say that.

the author does say that Daniel "DIDN'T" devote a lot of attention to "that"

but the author evades any meditation on whether Daniel COULD have focused "energy on that." after all, Daniel is in the Lion's Den. black rage is excised from the story because it would also very likely have found no use and no auditors in the bar that Daniel is in; but also and more essentially (especially to Daniel himself) because the regime of gratuitous violence that civil and political society can make manifest instantly on Daniel's black ass is so tremendous that Daniel is in essence forced to perform a white fantasy of the cool black jazz cat who can take the pats on the back and go back to performing for them.

claiming southern soil-- recognizing land as his-- MY ASS!!! black folk in the south don't even map certain parts of the south onto their geographies.

"gimme back my flag" he says to Pickett in his dream

vocality on Barb, Irmo-- hard rhoticity ("r" sound)-- what is the actor doing here?

"I called about the truck" he answers when travis first answers the door-- something about how his voice "darkens" here, loses some of its resonance, implying that Daniel is at least playing along with, if not completely acknowledging, the power dynamic

"He and Sara walked across the yard, got into the pickup, and waved to Travis and Barb, who were still standing in Daniel's yard as they drove away. Sara was on the verge of hysterics by the time they were out of sight. 'That was beautiful!!' she said. 'No,' Daniel said softly. 'No. That was true.'"

Curious passage. Daniel and the author both seem to be disavowing the regimes of violence that forced him and Sara to perform until "they were out of sight"

Slavery and Social Death says a lot that exposes this story as being, at best, a whimsical fantasy of how to "overcome" slave positionality, and, at worst, an enabling fantasy of civil and political society's regimes of gratuitous violence. It continues a policy narrative that the goal is to create more Daniels-- educated and castrated eunuch slaves-- to do the work of making whites feel good about themselves and helping them administer their empire.

In a sense, you can always destabilize the standard white narratives of blackness by altering its performance. Diahann Caroll and Sidney Poitier, among others, made careers of this.This is not the same thing as repositioning oneself as nonblack/Human.

This is a classic trickster narrative (Anansi, Brer Rabbit, High John the Conqueror) of the black outsmarting the Master/White. And the ubiquity of these narratives has never freed black folk.

He's still performing for the whites even in coercing them through mechanisms of class

The massive act of denial required to sing Dixie and buy a truck with the confederate flag-- i think that this is a recognizable behavior to many middle-class blacks who signify by feigning ignorance as a kind of ploy when the stakes are relatively low.

There is something dishonest about the title. Appropriating culture doesn't seem to quite fit. I mean, it's an ironic story and it's definitely an ironic title, since of course, "black culture" is usually the thing that is appropriated. But it falls kind of falls flat. I'm not sure why.

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