Jamie’s post, in which he writes of his recent encounter with a Hard-Nosed Liberal White Guy Who Won’t Be Mau Mau’ed By The PC Police Anymore (H-NLWGWWBMM’edBTPCPA asshole, for short), reminds me of perhaps my seminal experience as that guy.
I was a grad student at Columbia at the time, working (“working” is an exaggeration) my way toward an MFA in nonfiction writing, and I was one of the readers, one wintry night, at our twice-monthly student salon.
The scene was the Night Cafe, an atmospherically, perhaps calculatingly seedy bar on Amsterdam Ave., on the upper west side of Manhattan. The smoking ban wasn’t in effect yet, so I was smoking, as were a lot of other people. I was drinking a bit, but not to excess. I was happy to be in my element, amongst fellow grad student writers (i.e. very bright people who hadn’t quite grown up yet, who were unconsciously terrified that someday they’d have grow up, who were happy to just be in the moment reading, writing, smoking and drinking).
The essay I read that night was one that I’d actually written a year and a half before, only a week or two before I began the MFA program. It was, in fact, the first essay/article that I’d ever published in a real, professional-like, bona fide (on-line, non-paying) magazine, and though I’d written better paragraphs and sentences since joining the MFA program, I’d written nothing that was as concise and polished, and nothing that was as reliably provocative.
The essay was called “The Friendship That Was: James Baldwin and Norman Podhoretz,” and it told a small but interesting story from the literary intellectual history of the 1960s. It opens:
In the fall of 1961, Norman Podhoretz, newly baptized editor of Commentary, asked James Baldwin to write an essay on the Nation of Islam and its leader and prophet, Elijah Muhammad. The Black Muslims, as they were then known, had been railing against the white devils for some thirty years, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s, and the rise of Malcolm X, that they became important enough for anyone to care. Podhoretz wanted to know who these people were and why their message suddenly had such resonance; he called on Baldwin, top dawg of black letters, to provide some answers. Baldwin accepted the assignment, and went on to write a long essay entitled "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind."
Which he gave to the New Yorker. He owed them an essay, on a different topic, and when he finished "Down at the Cross," and realized how extraordinary it was, he was unable to resist the lure of their deeper pockets and greater circulation. It was published to great acclaim, and soon re-published in book form, together with a shorter essay, as The Fire Next Time. Thus was literary history made, and Baldwin celebrated. And Podhoretz ? was left with a terrible void in his magazine and the rank taste of betrayal in his mouth.
Furious, he turned to his friends to validate his anger only to watch them trip over themselves making excuses for their black comrade. When Baldwin finally sat down with him to "talk this thing over," Podhoretz found that he was far angrier with the people — white, (mostly Jewish) Leftist and liberal intellectuals who refused to censure Baldwin than with Baldwin himself. His sense of personal affront quickly gave way to a critique of the Left. How can we hope to truly integrate, he raged, if we can’t even find it in ourselves to do something as simple as condemn a black man for selling out a friend?
I won’t re-publish the entire essay, but you should read it (it’s still reads well, I think). The relevant moment comes in the next paragraph, when I write:
It wasn’t just the red-blooded racism of the South that stood in the way of progress, but also the "liberal racism" of their intellectual cohorts, the benevolent condescension that refused to judge immorality when it came wrapped in dark skin, that refused, as it were, to call a spade a spade.
Do you catch what I did with that last clause, which I’ve bolded for your reading pleasure (and isn’t it nicely resonant, by the way, that bolding is a kind of blackening)? I brought together the fairly innocent saying, “to call a spade a spade”which, if this website is correct, began as an ancient Greek expression which was then mis-translated by Erasmuswith “spade” as a derogatory term for black people, in order to evoke the anger that Podhoretz felt when trying to convince his friends to join him in condemning this black man.
I was, and still am, pretty proud of that wordtrickery, and not just because I like puns. I think it conveys something about the complexity of racial dynamics, and about the way that a certain goo-goo liberalism prefers to deal with the uncomfortable nuances of racism and racialism by condemning everything that has a hint or a tint of racism rather than engaging the more difficult task of figuring out how, in a multicultural society, to dignify people’s confusion and anxiety without pandering to their fear. This white liberal guilt (to use the proper terminology) doesn’t want to deal, except by way of condemnation, with the way that a lot of white people, and not just the hardcore racists, sometimes say to themselves, when they’ve been pissed off, for one reason or another, by a black person, “fucking black people.”
I’m sure Podhoretz didn’t say, “fucking spade,” to his friends, but I’m equally sure that a racially inflected (infected? invested?) anger was a subtext. He talks about it, explicitly, in his essay “My Negro Problem and Ours,” which he wrote after the whole Baldwin dust-up:
?for a long time I was puzzled to think that Jews were supposed to be rich when the only Jews I knew were poor, and that Negroes were supposed to be persecuted when it was the Negroes who were doing the only persecuting I knew about and doing it, moreover, to me. During the early years of the war, when my older sister joined a left-wing youth organization, I remember my astonishment at hearing her passionately denounce my father for thinking that Jews were worse off than Negroes. To me, at the age of twelve, it seemed very clear that Negroes were better off than Jews indeed, than all whites. A city boy’s world is contained within three or four square blocks, and in my world it was the whites, the Italians and Jews, who feared the Negroes, not the other way around. The Negroes were toughter than we were, more ruthless, and on the whole they were better athletes. What could it mean, then, to say that they were badly off and that we were more fortunate? Yet my sister’s opinions, like print, were sacred, and when she told me about exploitation and economic forces I believed her. I believed her, but I was still afraid of Negroes. And I still hated them with all my heart.
“My Negro Problem and Ours,” which was the best thing Podhoretz ever wrote (it was all downhill from there), doesn’t argue that such hatred is justified, or that Jews were in fact less oppressed than blacks. It says, correctly, that the vectors and harmonics of oppression, guilt, hurt, morality, righteousness and hypocrisy are wicked, wicked complicated, and a paradigm that’s satisfied with saying that all racialist thinking is bad and must be extinguished is one that’s doesn’t meet the burden of reality.
If we people of good intentions want to heal our racial dysfunction rather than just suppress it (though suppression is, of course, vastly preferable to encouragement), then we have to deal with the reality of how deeply racialist thinking penetrates into the psyches of even the best-intentioned white peopleinto even the psyches of black people! Dismissing everyone who’s ever felt or mildly indulged some racist notions as a racist i.e. bad — is a great way to feel righteous about yourself but a crappy way to help people keep their racist tendencies in check and in perspective.
When I wrote the “a spade a spade” line, I was, I thought, trying to suggest some of that nuance. A black friend who happened to be there that night, when I was reading, didn’t think I quite pulled it off. He detected a touch of glibness in the line, a little too much self-satisfaction in my bold, vigorous, brash willingness to venture into such politically incorrect territory. He didn’t stop being friends with me. He didn’t even seem offended; he just thought he’d let me know that even if no one else in the room noticed the game I was trying to run (and no one else seemed to), he’d noticed.
Fair enough. I wanted to be provocative, and to have that conversation, and I was open to the idea that I hadn’t negotiated the politics as deftly as I‘d hoped. My defense wasn’t that I had pulled it off, but rather that I was close enough to pulling it off, and my intentions were good enough, that as an artist I was entitled to some leeway in my efforts to be artistic.
As an artist, however, I should also, always, expect to be interrogated about my choices, particularly the riskiest choices. There’s the most to gain in that realm and there’s the most to lose — which is as it should be.
The problem with Jamie’s acquaintance/friend/privileged white male, it seems, is that he wants to be free to reap the benefits of writing about racial shit as a white boywhich is an inherently provocative thing to do, and therefore one which gives him a freebie in attracting readers’ interestbut he doesn’t want to accept the risk that he’ll fail. I don’t think it works that way.
That said, it’s also the responssibility of his fellow students to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t ignore the potentially racist language, but don’t turn it into a personal attack (you must be a racist) unless it’s way over the line. Treat it instead as a craft issue, a matter of tone. If he hasn’t handled the racial stuff well, then he needs to work on handling it better, and he should be helped to do so as well as commended for taking up the challenge. It’s a fucking minefield, after all.
It’s the same kind of challenge, and a similar kind of minefield, that Jamie and I are trying to navigate with this blog. How do we talk about “how to be a man?” without reinforcing all the reactionary, bullyboy bullshit that sets the tone for beer commercials, the Republican Party, and the Jim Rome show, but also without pretending that either of us will ever reach a place where “being a man” in some very traditional ways isn’t important to us.
I don’t, and shouldn’t, take it for granted that I’m without racism or sexism. Either of those things could, I’m sure, creep into my writing from time to time if I’m careless. I guess what I take for granted is that there should be an implicit compact between me and my readers– if I’m willing to listen to criticism, and to consider the possibility that my writing is offensive in various ways, then my critics should be willing to assume, unless they’re given extremely good reason not to, that my intentions are good.