I was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely. But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously. Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand. I also liked the challenge of trying to write
about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment. Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate. A little flavor of this aspect of the review:
“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. While reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”
You can read the rest of my review here…
I am a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles, but I’ll blame Tears of the Sun on my son, Colin. (Ok, I admit it was my money that rented it). Tears of the Sun falls in to the general time honored genre of films and novels that are set in the context of racial difference but really serve to obsess over the continuing moral drama of whiteness and its discontents. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, or Leonardo Dicarpio in Blood Diamond, or for that matter Conrad, Kipling, and Fenimore Cooper. What gets me about these films, and Tears of the Sun seems especially egregious, is that all the moral wrestling with the curse of whiteness becomes, SURPRISE, yet another occasion for championing the moral ascendancy of white people. As if we say to ourselves “Look how hard I’m trying to be good, and humble, and true, and right, and how hard I am trying to atone for past racial sins; I must really be better than everyone else after all.”
Ok, I will admit that I liked the shoot-em-up scenes as much as any good war movie, and overall I can’t complain about the entertainment. But basically this movie was The Searchers (or maybe The Last of the Mohicans) dressed up in anti-racist drag. Bruce Willis and his band of commandos go to save the white missionaries and doctors caught in a Nigerian war zone. Predictably the doctor is gorgeously beautiful (and apparently French, perhaps a gesture toward globalization but more likely a gesture toward cross-national white solidarity), and we know that she and Bruce Willis will sleep together when they get back to base (which they don’t, actually, but we see them fly off together into the sunset on a helicopter. Let your imagination go to work). The film tries to develop a moral drama in which Bruce Willis “does the right thing” by risking himself and his men to disobey orders and try to rescue the Nigerian refugees in the doctor’s charge, one of whom, SURPRISE!, just happens to be a Nigerian prince who is being sought by rebel leaders of the coup d’etat. (The coup d’etat, generally, is a trope for Africanity in the American cinematic imagination). American individualism and rejection of authority becomes the source for global redemption.
I can live with all this since I like a good hokey story as much as the next guy (witness my oft-stated delight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film’s moral center becomes not really despair that attends a decade long civil war in Africa, or even a meditation on the variously subtle ways in which Western powers have contributed to the violence and instability of African nations. It becomes instead a meditation on the gloriously self-sacrifical superiority of white people. When, at the end of the film, the lead African female actor weepily looks into Bruce Willis’s bloodied face and repeatedly tells him how much God loves him and will bless him, I half expected the Nigerian nationals to pull out their American flags and start singing God Bless America. The film seemed to suggest that moral and ethical choices are occasions for narcissistic self-display. It also struck me as a propaganda piece for American interventionism. Released in 2003, perhaps we were still on the edge of believing that our guns and our good intentions could make the world a better place. Cf Iraq.
These things aside, I still like a good shoot-em-up, and I’m still a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles. Against all my better instincts.
For more of this summer’s guilty pleasures see:
Like most of the American world, I take summer to catch up on all the things I didn’t have time for in the past year, or twenty years as the case may be. Books I haven’t read that I wish I had or know I should, or someone somewhere says I should. Movies no red-blooded American can appear at cocktail parties without having seen. Or sometimes just shlockey stuff–other than TV–that I never give myself the time to enjoy because it’s…well…shlockey. Thought it might be fun this summer as I drift in to my new job as interim dean at the college to blog a bit about some of this year’s guilty summer pleasures. Guilty either because I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to some of these things until now (“WHAT!!! YOU NEVER READ MADAME BOVARY???” I admit, in fact, that I haven’t. Maybe I’ll get around to it this summer.) or guilt because I have to admit that I like every tawdry thing that tells me a halfway decent story. Guilt, I am good at.
Black Snake Moan with Samuel Jackson falls in to the latter of these I guess. But I can’t bring myself to describe it as shlockey exactly. On the one hand it’s a film that sells itself to all our most prurient desires. You know, the desire to see Christina Ricci in her underwear, or less…the desire to see Samuel L. Jackson dragging her around chains, which plays I guess to the lurking fetishist in all of us. And the title, “Black Snake Moan”? That speaks for itself, I guess.
Still, I found the film weirdly compelling for the way it commented on and reorganized our American obsessions with the combination of sex, race and violence…a combination that goes back in literature to, SURPRISE!, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Probably before, but UTC is the signature bit in American literature on this score as far as I’m concerned. And Black Snake Moan strikes me as a kind of revisionary commentary on Stowe’s masterpiece. The parallels are so obvious to me that I looked around on the web for a half hour or so but could find only one glancing comment on a blog that saw the connection.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in this case, is Samuel L. Jackson’s cabin on his farm in the depths of Mississippi. Christina Ricci is a perverse Little Eva, almost as if the repressed sexuality that made Little Eva saintly in UTC comes bursting out in rage in the nymphomaniacal performance by Ricci. It’s a testimony to Ricci’s performance that after a while you stop wondering about whether she’s going to remove the rest of her clothes and actually start to care about her character’s development and healing. Which may be part of the commentary on UTC I guess. One of the problems with UTC is that all the good people in the novel are too good for the world. They demonstrate this goodness primarily in two ways, by being asexual and by dying. The two seem to go hand in hand. Craig Brewer, the director, says in the special features on the DVD that he felt he was making a religious movie. It’s certainly a film about redemption and healing, and also a film about the saints of this world rather than the next. In other words saints riven, and sometimes lacerated, by desire but who manage after all to keep on living.
The film flirts more overtly with a barely repressed pedophelia that lurks around UTC, and with the cross racial sexual taboos that the novel merely hints at. Eva fainting evermore on Tom’s welcoming breast, he laying her ever gently into bed. The relationship between Legree and his mistress. Ricci, of course, is hardly a child, but her deeply damaged psyche as a result of child abuse, and her self-abuse through drugs and promiscuity render her weirdly innocent and vulnerable, tended to by Jackson’s inexplicable kindness. Indeed, I worried that Jackson was too much the Uncle Tom character in his resistance to Ricci’s sexual advances. The big hack on Tom is that he’s sexless, a reassuring white fantasy that black religion renders black men neuter. Still, I thought the movie negotiated that by having Jackson have a separate flirtation, and through his guitar playing and blues singing, which, for an actor who hadn’t played guitar before this film, I thought was absolutely phenomenal.
So I guess I thought this reading of UTC was actually really interesting. Building recognizably off of the themes and imagery of the original, but inverting all of them in a way that critiques them. Showing that the white mania with black sexuality is a perversion of both instinct and generosity, and not one that will be healed through sexlessness, but through a healthy embrace of life. One that Brewer finds equally in the blues bar and in conventional marriage–which may have been a too conventional way to end the film, but one that again replicates the sentimentality of a UTC original–equally in the steam of eros and the prayers of the church.
The whole earth is moaning, awaiting its redemption. Black Snake Moan, indeed.
Scandal mongerers alert! Barack Obama’s heretofore unacknowledged sex-change operation threatens to derail his quest for the White House.
(Side Note: I have discovered that including many words like “sex-change,” “porn,” and “diarrhea” really pumps up your blog stats. Count on them from here on out).
“If Clinton loses the nomination, do women lose? Rights? Power? Visibility? Clout? Are they not taken as seriously by the political establishment? A month ago I would have told you yes. Now I believe the answer is no. Why? Because metrosexual, pro-choice, pro-health care, anti-poverty Obama is, in every political sense at least, more of a woman than Clinton.
“Clinton’s female supporters who are watching Obama’s movement coalesce, solidify and take over should console themselves there will be a woman Democrat in the White House either way if the Democrats win the general election. The nominee will either be a woman with double-X chromosomes, or one with XY chromosomes who votes more like a woman than most with XX.”
Perhaps Bonnie Erbe has come up with the true and deeply troubled reason that Barack Obama draws tens of thousands of screaming female fans at whistle stop campaigns throughout the country.
He’s a gender-bender.
And just what does this say about the tens of thousands of screaming young and middle aged men who rush the stage. Deeply repressed problems with gender identity no doubt. Something we have always suspected of limp-wristed liberals and moderates anyway, yes?
Seriously, though, the gender weirdness of this campaign continues to demonstrate that Americans have a keenly developed, if not completely sick, sense of the politics of sexuality and gender. Obama is suspicious because he is too much of a woman, and Clinton is unappealing because she is too much of a man.
It is interesting to me, though, that Obama combines and focuses a great deal of discursive energy when it comes to the politics of not only race but gender. Several years ago in a class I was discussing the tradition of Black Christs within African American religion. My students, mostly young female Christians, largely agreed when one said that as she tried to imagine Christ as an AFrican American, she imagined he was more definitively male than the white Christ she had grown up with.
Well, this is the classic stereotype that we’ve lived with since the 20s. (I realize I’ve already posted on this, but I just can’t get over it) Black men are somehow supposed to be outrageously and uncontrollably masculine–all brawny testosterone, no brains, no tenderness. White men are somehow soft and feminine–at least if they are religious or educated. Jesus holding Mary’s little lamb. Obama’s “metrosexuality”–his softness, his charm (think, what kind of men do we describe as charming?)–humanizes the threatening masculinity his blackness might otherwise entail for white audiences. Clinton’s ill-fated effort to paint Obama as a seducer, as well as the effort to link Obama’s appeal to Jesse Jackson was not only dismissive, it was also an effort to link him to an older form and stereotype of threatening black male sexuality.
But now that we know he’s actually a woman. We don’t have to worry about any of that, do we?
Is it any wonder that the rest of the world wonders when we will grow up?
In the final 24 hour run-up to Hillary Clinton’s victory this evening, seduction was in the air. Literally, actually, as a word used in repeated reference to Barack Obama by Clinton supporters interviewed in the street. I somehow remember Hillary herself or someone from her campaign using the word, but it may be a false memory. I can’t find a reference anywhere on the net, in any case. This a different kind of jab at Obama’s eloquence than those I’ve noted over the past couple of days, but one still freighted with gender and the politics and history of race in the United States.
Just out of curiosity, I googled “Barack Obama” and various versions of the word “seduce.” Seduction, Seducer, Seduced. I came up with about 70,000 instances. Discount the ubiquitous advertisements for sex aids and dating services and you’ve still got a healthy discourse of Barack Obama, the seducer of our political souls.
According to one news service, “Obama woos women,” and describes Obama as “not just attracting scores of young voters, but also seducing women and independents ahead of Tuesday’s primary.” A blogger on the Huffington Post tells us the that “The mere idea of someone who can write (and presumably therefore think) in a complex yet compelling fashion is almost irresistibly seductive” .
Main stream news outlets use the term, and the discourse extends overseas. The Brits especially seem a bit dismayed by Obama’s overly sexualized politics. The Economist says that at a typical campaign rally “Mr Obama eventually moseys onto the stage and starts massaging the crowd with his seductive baritone.” Barack Obama, political call boy.
(And “moseys”? Do the Brits even know what “mosey” means? Having grown up in Oklahoma where people really do mosey, I can testify that Obama does not do mosey. My general sense is that Kenyans, Hawaiians, and Indonesians–the cultures which Obama grew up around–don’t do “mosey.” Chicago? I have my doubts.)
Even French philsopher Bernard-Henri Levy has gotten in on the act saying that Obama has decided” to stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead”.
What role is the representation of language, especially as it plays out in relationship to race and gender, serving in this campaign. The emphasis on Obama as a seducer makes his eloquence—his greatest political asset—a net negative. The seducer, almost always a man, uses language to deceive others, almost always vulnerable women, for his own nefarious ends. The image of Obama as seducer in some ways “hypermasculinizes” his use of language, over and against the femininizing implications of using flowery rhetoric that I parsed yesterday. In either instance, though, language, especially as used by a man, is empty and suspect.
There’s a long tradition of being suspicious of language in the West. Satan was, if nothing else, a good rhetorician. In the American context, the Puritan plain style that dominated American letters from the Puritans to Hemingway and on to latter day inheritors like Raymond Carver was deeply suspicious of ornament and rhetorical figure. This tradition was, in practice, deeply masculinist. The real man, like Raymond Chandler’s heroes, used words sparingly if at all, and the words he used were to be direct and to the point. Girls, by contrast, talk too much and use language too well.
The figure of the seducer, then, embodies an interesting conflation of hypersexualized masculinity and a failure of manliness. I say “failure” both because the seducer depends upon language–a “feminine” and suspect tool–and also because the purposes to which that language is put fall short of various images of manly integrity.
The portrait of Obama as a seducer leaves me a tad uncomfortable in terms of the discourse of race, especially as it has been applied to Obama’s appeal to young white women. In some ways Clinton has positioned herself as the maternal protector of the virtue of the nation, and of women especially, sounding cautionary notes to all those wayward and impressionable young 18 to 30 somethings who are in danger of being swept off their feet, swooning in the arms of a grinning black lothario.
I suggested yesterday that Obama’s literary persona blunted fears of a black male planet; but it is intriguing to me how the rhetoric of seduction plays in to and enhances those very same fears. In the New York Times yesterday, Gloria Steinem all but explicitly cast down the challenge to white women to stand up to the black male threat—pointing out that black men have always gotten ahead before women.
The specific of race, class and gender make Steinem’s claims dubious in themselves. Look at things like the life expectancy or class status of white women and black men and ask whose shoes you’d like to be in on average. More, Steinem conveniently glosses over the fact that many white feminists in the nineteenth century actively opposed black male enfranchisement on the basis of racial superiority. I don’t think Steinem goes quite that far, but I don’t like the smell.
The image of Obama as a seducer may not be being actively promoted by political operatives. It may even be true. And I’m not sure it has had that much of a political effect. Clinton won because she worked hard–as is her wont–and because New Hampshire voters troubled by the economy thought she would do a better job. Not, I think, because she mocked Obama’s use of language.
Still, it’s not too far from ugly.