Books, Race and Politics by Robert Edison Sandiford – “Antigonish Review”
“Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.” — Eudora Welty, “Place in Fiction”
“This is what change looks like.” — President Barack Obama, in a speech delivered after the U.S. House of Representatives approved his health-care reform package
Oh, what a difference a season or two in politics can make to the reading of a book.
It was Sunday, February 11, 2007, that I began to write a piece on Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Book of Negroes. With a deadline in mind, I had every good intention of producing 800 words on Hill’s book. But something happened on my way to the computer: Barack Obama had begun what would be his campaign to become the first black — or, more precisely, African-American — president of the United States of America.
I had made notes on The Book of Negroes — more than I had on other books in recent times. During the summer, an uncorrected proof of White Men Can’t Hump (As Good As Black Men) by Todd Wooten ended up on my book pile. I leafed through it occasionally as well. My deadline for the Hill review approached and passed. After another self-imposed deadline came and went, it appeared I may have been trying to shake my assignment.
I had stopped thinking about The Book of Negroes. I followed the United States elections and made notes on that instead. I couldn’t write anything on the book, or any other like it, until I knew the outcome of November 2008, and then, with that, not until I had witnessed the presidential inauguration in the New Year.
I didn’t write anything on The Book of Negroes or the elections until Thursday, February 25, 2010. It has taken me three years to review a book I should have wrapped in a couple of months.
It was — is — impossible to read; The Book of Negroes, and as it so happened White Men Can’t Hump, each researched, written and released well before Senator Barack Obama’s political pre-eminence, without thinking of how his rise to the American presidency — supposedly the most powerful office in the most powerful democracy in the free world — might affect that reading.
In his third novel, Hill, a Canadian born of American parents—a black father and a white mother — tells the story of Aminata, a bright 11-year-old girl abducted from her home in Southern Mali and taken into slavery in mid-18th-century America, who finds liberation and respect among whites as much as blacks through self-improvement and self-discovery. The book, published outside of Canada as (significantly) Someone Knows my Name, won the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in 2008, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award, and CBC Radio’s Canada Reads.
Volume 1 of Wooten’s book, Race & Sex in America, has taken its author across the country he loves so much to speak on talk shows. As part of his thesis, the former United States Marine discusses in some detail Hollywood’s repeatedly negative and biased portrayal of black people on television and in film to the detriment of American society as a media-wired people.
Neither Hill’s nor Wooten’s themes or arguments are new or unfamiliar, which may partly explain their popularity, but prior to Obama’s election I would have thought differently about these books because I would have thought differently about the position and power of black men (and women) in the Americas. Hill’s clean, lyrical, lightly ironic prose explores how much has changed or can be changed with regard to racism in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean despite slavery’s legacy. Wooten, in a style of delivery closer to that of a freewheeling stand-up comic dispensing casual insight with love, considers how much remains the same in places like these because of aspects of that legacy. Both books raised for me at the time of reading paralysing questions about the expectations of the literature itself. Mine had changed, or were changing, in a way I was finding hard to define. Aminata, proud and precocious, is portrayed as something of an aberration — but of her time only? Am I honestly to believe, as Wooten might, that Obama’s non-threatening sex appeal to white men had as much to do with his ascendancy as did his brains and self-assurance?
What has changed in a post-Obama world in the reading of black North American literature, what I’m coming to grasp, is that new interpretations are finally possible. What’s more, Hill’s novel and Wooten’s essay need not, as I suspected they had, stop short of revealing the triumph of the African experience in the Americas beyond slavery. It seemed enough for characters to survive and their families to thrive in the literature; to overcome but just. “The biggest message that you may pick up when reading The Book of Negroes is a message of courage and of fortitude — simply having the strength to carry on when your life is literally falling apart around you,” said Hill in the April 2010 issue of TRAVIS Magazine Online. “The thing about the book is that it celebrates a woman’s courage in the face of momentous difficulty, the courage to just continue living; not just to survive, but to love, and to live lovingly.” This is true. What’s also clear from the novel is that the limitations of Aminata’s world feel very much projected onto our own when she observes, “There was nothing united about a nation that said all men were created equal, but that kept my people in chains.” Or: “When it comes to understanding others … we rarely tax our imaginations.” Wooten’s even more blunt about such failures of imagination when he declares in a section sub-titled Survival Tips For Black Men Who Don’t Want to Struggle To Survive, #2 Choose realistic goals: “Remember, no one’s gonna walk up to you and say, ‘I could Make you President of the United States.’ That kinda ‘Bush-like’ shit will never happen to Black Folks.” But it did. And because it did in reality, Black Folks could now say it did in our writings.
Obama had done it. But what had he done? What was his accomplishment? (It is too early to discuss his accomplishments in the present tense.)
One, he avoided making race the primary issue involving his candidacy in a United States presidential election. He strove to embrace people, not demographics. Surely his approach was discussed behind closed doors with statistics-minded advisors. Strategy, however, is one thing; delivery of a message is quite another. So two, coming with a catchy slogan — Change we can believe in — at the end of an unpopular incumbent’s term in office helped. Four years earlier or later would probably have yielded different results for Obama at the polls. The man met the moment with his arms wide open to the challenge, when convinced he could win.
Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison, fifty years prior to Obama’s election, once said: “I would like to see a qualified Negro as President of the United States. But I suspect that even if this were today possible, the necessities of the office would shape his actions far more than his racial identity.” This was from an interview with Ellison reprinted in his 1964 essay collection, Shadow and Act, another book I was dipping into while reading Hill and Wooten.
“The office” has weighed on Obama’s neat shoulders, causing them to tense a little. Many thought his acceptance of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize hypocritical when the United States was planning to send more troops to Afghanistan. In his acceptance speech, he spoke of America’s policy of “enlightened self-interest,” and he had always said Afghanistan would be a priority for him as commander-in-chief of “a just war.” On the home front, his battle for health-care reform has not led to the audacious bi-partisanship on Washington Hill for which he had hoped, yet he has had to find a way for politicians, who are people after all, with all the power and prejudice that implies, to bridge philosophical divides.
I don’t know how much of his actions so far have been shaped by “racial identity.” Nor can I say, like former President Jimmy Carter attempted to almost a year after the elections, how much “of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.” It’s not something you break down into percentages. We all — many of my friends and family, black and non-black — wished to see the day there would be a black president of the United States. It was not something I expected to see in my lifetime, and I was only 39 when Obama announced he was running. My own experience of racism in Canada, Quebec specifically, growing up and coming of age during the’80s, when too many of my French-Canadian contemporaries still weren’t aware that “nègre” was “un mot péjoratif,” had informed me such an event was rather unlikely south of the border, where tensions between blacks and whites seemed more overt and violent. That’s what oppression can do, Hill and Wooten remind us; or put another way, that’s what the delineation of “racial identity” can do: beat down a spirit that it can’t see the way up anymore, even though the ladder remains a few feet away.
Was it really necessary for Ellison to add the word “qualified” to his statement? We wouldn’t usually say this when talking about a white candidate or a Hispanic one, would we? The reason my family and I looked forward to a black president in the White House was because we saw such an occasion as the inevitable recognition of every person’s potential in the United States, and possibly as the retiring of old assumptions and tired prejudices. If this could happen there, this could happen anywhere on this planet; or so we secretly believed. Just in the use of the word “Negro” in Shadow and Act, current for its time, I was reminded of how much had already changed for blacks in the literature. Although still used, the term today sounds so generic, so pale, compared to, say, African-American.
This assumption about the literature, I realize, may be unfair. What does any story, actual or imagined (but either way true), promise really, except to be convincing and, in its ability to make us suspend whatever disbelief we will for a while, entertaining?) The offer of beauty, enlightenment and hope may be part of the bargain. I enjoyed Hill’s and Wooten’s achievements, and felt the sincerity of their distinct visions. But after Obama’s election I was having difficulty being entirely convinced: of Hill’s creation, of Wooten’s assertions, or even of Ellison’s rectitude.
I now had unanticipated concerns: What would the 18th- and 19th-century characters of Hill’s novel have said about the inevitability of a black leader of their “free world,” especially about a leader so clearly of African and European descent going forward with the name of Barack Hussein Obama? Why didn’t Wooten, living and writing much nearer to the occasion, consider it a possibility? In 1968, Bobby Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, felt it was not unlikely that “a Negro could be president in 40 years.” Was it America’s mythology as a land of open-ended opportunity and boundless frontiers that persuaded him of this or his nation’s great potential for self-correction? Maybe the United States’ emphasis on self-correction, constitution and the rule of law is so strong because, as Hill and Wooten suggest, its wrongs have been so appalling.
The Book of Negroes is a slave narrative, the story of a purposeful life realized through imposed hardship. The novel takes its name from the ledger documenting the service of blacks to the British during the American War of Independence. “I have escaped violent endings even as they have surrounded me,” says the aged Aminata at the beginning of the book, which opens at the end of her life, in 1802 London, England. She is about to meet King George with a group of abolitionists who have petitioned her to join them as, essentially, an educated black woman representative of what her race can be, even free. Aminata, as a “once uncommonly beautiful woman” who long came from a “civilized” people (her father wrote and read Arabic, and knew the Qur’an; her mother was a midwife), views their motives with healthy suspicion and some humour.
She was born circa 1745 in the village of Bayo, “three moons by foot from the Grain Coast in West Africa.” At 47, after a life of slavery in the American colonies and spent escaping its shackles elsewhere, she remains sprightly: “I have wondrously beautiful hands. I like to put them on things … and before my time is up, I would like to place those hands on a good man’s body, if the occasion arises.” She mourns her lost husband, Chekura, and longs most for the children stolen from her, missing “them the way I’d miss limbs from my own body.”
The description of the English slavers’ abductions, of their branding of slaves, is hard to comprehend — until you relate it to the actions of a serial killer terrorizing a city or state. African slavers Aminata calls “less than porcupine shit.” To her, the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is as self-serving as the trade itself. “Never have I met a person doing terrible things who would meet my own eyes peacefully. To gaze in another person’s face is to do two things: to recognize their humanity, and to assert your own.”
The abolitionists call Aminata “their equal” while believing her incapable “to grasp the details in their complexity,” particularly notions of “property and compensation and the rule of law.” She sets them straight: “I cannot speak against the slave trade without condemning slavery.” She is “a Bamana. And a Fula. I am from Bayo near Segu. I am not what you say. I am not an African.” The construct is theirs, not hers. It is they who do not “grasp the details in their complexity,” which she understood long before her captivity: “I belong to nobody.” Even when Aminata becomes “Meena” to others, she always knows who she is. Unlike her slave mentor Mamed (Mohammed? Maimed?), who represents the collision of two continents that results in a freakish creation instead of the wondrous hybrid he could have been.
“There was nothing united about a nation that said all men were created equal, but that kept my people in chains,” says Aminata. Wooten echoes this, as did Ellison and as have many writers and activists and everyday people, white and black and other. The English of the period weren’t the only ones capable of fatal self-deception. If America is for Americans, then that means all Americans.
What slavers (and this includes everyone from governments to their agents on both sides of the Atlantic) refused to acknowledge was that the people they hunted, abducted and chained were just that — people. Superior technology, i.e. firepower, did not make for a superior society. Wooten believes this lack of enlightenment has retarded humanity’s progress: the goal for Europeans — white people — was never to understand Africa, and it still isn’t today. The abolitionists want to ensure the “authenticity” of Aminata’s story by writing it themselves. Not much has changed, Wooten would argue, if you count the number of movies geared toward black people that are neither produced by black people nor with their sensitivities in mind. In them, with them, there is a tendency to treat people as chattel, merely as objects quantified.
For the ex-Marine turned firefighter/paramedic, one of the worst things you can be in America as a black man is be uncritical. It was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, seen surreptitiously at age 12, that opened his eyes to the way white people in America might actually view blacks. Many have their most chilling lines from the classic mafia movie; what caused him to freeze in his basement seat in Zanesville, Ohio, was one mafia boss’ explanation of his policy on drug dealing:
“I also don’t believe in drugs. For years I paid my people extra so they wouldn’t do that kind of business. Somebody comes to them and says, ‘I have powders; if you put up a three-, four-thousand-dollar investment, we can make fifty thousand distributing.’ So they can’t resist. I want to control it as a business, to keep it respectable. I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”
These words have left Wooten feeling “empty” and “numb” since hearing them, and led to a later conclusion probably reached by watching too much film and television: white people, men in particular, are threatened by black men physically and sexually. He notes how the ultra successful sitcom Friends addressed the no-black-Friends issue by introducing “the beautiful Aisha Tyler” as a love interest for two of the male characters. In a majority white, patriarchal country, it is not so surprising for the focus of its popular media to be white male sexuality. But Wooten makes the point (once past the generalizations and grandstanding and occasionally patronizing tone) that film and television in America, either as art forms or entertainment, are not about understanding other people, rather about selling an image palatable or tolerable to as many people as possible that allows you to sell as many products as possible.
There seems to be a level of brainwashing that is experienced with Hollywood fare. The message Wooten identifies as dangerous — black women with white men is OK, black men with any woman non-black is not — is doubly so because of its likelihood of becoming part of people’s psyche the more they see it. Hollywood movies are generally built on the repetitive, the formulaic, the easily assimilated, not the maverick position, the challenging or the unacknowledged.
There is some uncertainty about Wooten’s commentary. His analysis of, for instance, Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino’s work makes me wonder if we saw the same movie, are talking about the same director. Wooten doesn’t believe Tarantino is innocent in his use of language or imagery borrowed from black America, particularly the N-word; to me, for the most part, as a director and scriptwriter, Tarantino understands the choices he’s made and why he’s made them — uncomfortable as they may be for his viewers.
What makes Wooten’s movie lists (“Ho-in’s Alright, When the Pimp is White,” “America’s Most Neutered,” “Hollywood and the Black Penis”) the most compelling parts of his book is that they reveal in a small but significant way what audiences essentially know yet continue to accept, white or black, about Hollywood producers: “Some people are Racist and they just don’t realize it, because they display it through Indifference instead of Hate or Ignorance.” This, for Wooten, goes back to that scene from The Godfather and the way in which it is echoed throughout too much American film and television. It is what he defines as “Slavery’s Legacy: A Black Life is Less Valuable than a White Life.”
“To fully appreciate our differences, you need to rub shoulders with those who are different from yourself.” How many of us want to or would find such an experience gratifying? Obama’s election could not and has not swept away generations of racial prejudice in the United States or elsewhere. If the world likes him, it is as a man they can trust, do business with. His fellow Americans seemed to be of the same opinion when they elected him. Of course, it helps that Obama (like Aminata) is accomplished: well-read, well-reasoned, passionate about the right things, not given to reckless excess. It helps, too, Wooten would say, that they can see someone like Will Smith play him in a feature or made-for-TV movie — a white-friendly choice for audiences. Would America or the world have warmed to Obama if he had locks or his hair was in corn-row? Not that there was much doubt the image he portrayed was reasonably in keeping with the man himself.”
Wooten’s reliance almost exclusively on Hollywood productions as source evidence is dangerous. His lists are a little tedious and obviously subjective. Hollywood, even as a regular contributor to the American myth, doesn’t speak for all Americans. Yet his thesis has merit: many of its mass-market movies, notably of the mid-to-late 20th century, project disturbing images of white America’s fear of black men and their sexuality. It may be one possible argument for why a majority of blacks in America won’t — can’t — simply “get over it,” to use that very Caucasian phrase: forget slavery, oppression, lynchings, and centuries more to embrace some form of collective closure. There’s this suspicion white people have yet to get over it themselves; in their actions, attitudes, sense of proprietorship when it comes to the accomplishments of this world (not so much its failures), there’s this suspicion that they could always adopt an undeserved sense of superiority again. Since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, “Hollywood [has given] us make-believe, but there’s no debating the impact of that make-believe,” writes Wooten. “The truth is, the make-believe world of Hollywood plays an enormous role in shaping American culture. If it was all just make-believe, would there be protests, boycotts, hate mail or Congressional hearings? … It’s all in the eyes of the offended, and you better believe someone’s always going to be offended. That’s the beauty of our democracy. We can be offended and raise hell about it.”
Here’s the question: Would learning aliens actually exist make the science fiction written and read up to this moment more convincing or less convincing? And how would such a discovery affect the science fiction written after it? How do you react when the apparently impossible becomes the very possible? One assumption could be to acknowledge most events are not sudden; instead, they take place over an indeterminate period of time. South African literature must have experienced similar enquiry with the end of Apartheid, though in reading the work of writers like Nadine Gordimer I was often left with the impression that the dismantling of their abominable political system was inevitable. In her fiction, it was never an if, only a when, and likely in our lifetime.
The Book of Negroes and White Men Can’t Hump cover similar territory. “Reading, writing, adding and subtracting are all about surviving and have nothing to do with acting White,” Wooten reminds readers. These are the activities Aminata follows as a black woman on her road to emancipation — not, as the friendly wife of anti-abolitionist Alexander Falconbridge suggests, as a result of being seized and “civilized” by her enslavers, but as a matter of course, a stream her parents would have seen she follow had she not been made to endure the Middle Passage. Hill and Wooten are very persuasive, entertaining, edifying, and if not outright hopeful then somehow optimistic. And all this still isn’t enough, their books still are not quite satisfying to me, because of what they seem to have left out despite everything else they’ve reasonably put in.
Hill’s and Wooten’s setting is a world in which a black man could become president, not one in which he would be or was already. Another spirit guided their writing, and maybe it couldn’t have been any other way. But books are about opportunity as much as responsibility. Opportunity to do what? I’d say to dream. Writer or reader, we all have a dream, we all desire the familiar freedom that word, or words, implies. “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’” said Bobby Kennedy, closely paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, during his 1968 Presidential campaign. “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” Books, race and politics aside, are about what we allow ourselves to dream; and, having dreamed, what we seek in such great effort to make a better part of our everyday existence.