Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The dance of the white man

In one chapter of his newest book The Artificial White Man, Stanley Crouch "discusses" David Shields' book titled Black Planet. In other words, Crouch makes Shields look like a philisophical twit. Shields, a white Jew, writes about how he identifies with and idolizes the maverick black basketball players in the NBA, especially the ones who are the most rude and boisterous. Evidently, Shields equates this type of player as freedom and moral courage (standing up to "the man"); such courage, in his mind, is lacking in his own life.

Crouch performs a literary bris on Shields. He deftly and, at times, forcefully circumcises Shields' ideas of what it is to be a black man--and what it means to be a white Jewish writer for that matter. Crouch gives the following passage from Shields' book (which he then comments upon):

Shields: "In and around Seattle, you see kids wearing not only Sonics jerseys . . . but also jerseys of players from other teams--almost always guys who not only are great players but have a fuck you attitude . . . Today, for instance, because for some reason there seems to be an amazing number of kids walking around wearing NBA jerseys, you can feel with a certain clarity what the whole thing is about: how much of these kids' swagger comes from the players, the sheer volume of hope/possibility/resistance these guys represent. Is it just my imagination, or does even Natalie [his daughter] raise more hell than usual when she's wearing her Sonics outfit?"

Here is a piece of Crouch's commentary:

"The immaturity expressed in this passage is heightened in the overall terrain of the book because it is the result of a willful adolescence . . . For Shields, 'fuck you attitudes' and 'cool' are the ultimate achievements and amount to qualities that black men such as Gary Patton have, of course, in spades . . . Shields does not perceive black Americans in the realm of humanity at large. He tries but finds it impossible. They exist primarily as blackboards on which the chalk of white fantasies are forever moving."

It's worth a read just to hear the verbal thuds of Crouch's intellectual fists. But I do think that Shields' sentiments are not those of some lone novelist. The glorification of these type of men, these type of black men, is wide-spread--and many of those doing the glorification are white men.

I find myself wondering why. I think it's true that many white men glorify black men in a way that both pigeon-holes black men and allows white men to side-step traversing the terrain of their own identities. We see the former in how we celebrate black men: they are basketball players and other types of athletes, rap-stars and, occasionally, movie stars. They are typically not intellectual or political leaders. They are not super-heroes. They are not the pardigm for the good father. The latter effect, the way white men ignore questions of their own racial identity, is more pervasive; we find it even in those white men who have a more human vision of black men.

The question of what it means to be a white man in the United States is a confusing one. It is confusing because white men do not have to grapple with this fundamental question on a regular basis--if ever. White men do not seek the roots of their whiteness; they do not share a deep common experience; most are not put in real, on-going circumstances in which they have to think about how their whiteness might inhibit their success. Men and women of other races (as do white women) have the experience of seeing their identities differing from those in power. Jewish men, like Shields, share this experience, yet, as Crouch points out, Shields misses his opportunity to explore how being a religious minority has impacted his formation as a man. Yet even if this exploration happened, the question of what it means to be a white man would still be unanswered.

Perhaps the question of what it is to be white is confusing because whiteness isn't a shared culture. We are Irish-American, English American, Canadian-American, French-American, German-American, Scottish-American, Australian-American, Russian-American, and so on. With so many--virtually uncountable--ingredients, can you really put your finger on the white man in America?

Well, maybe you can. It's true that the white man does not have a shared past--or the experiences of those pasts are so different that they might as well be of different colors. But there is a shared present for most, if not all, white men.

The one prevailing characteristic of the white man, as I see it, is this: a white man is human being. This may sound redundant or trite, but it is a significant part of his identity. His human-ness allows him to act and react in a world of white humans, where the shared experience is simply that human-ness. A white man knows intellectually that men of other races are "human". They have a head, arms, they move and can eat. But a white man does not see a non-white as a human being, not really. A white man certainly does not see a non-white as a white man--and that lack of whiteness equates to the lack of human-ness.

Because I am a white man, I cannot begin to know what how a black man sees the world. Nor do I even have to try. A black man living in a white world must try to see things from a white perspective if he is to succeed. The prisons are filled with young black men who either refused to conform to the vision of white men or conformed perfectly to that vision. I assume, then, that a black man must on some level perceive that he is not human to a white man. I wonder if living in such a world has created a black man who also views himself as something other than human. Does a black man accept that a white man is a human being?

There may be other cultural norms for the present white man. Religious beliefs are disparate but most seem to burgeon from a Judeo-Christian mythos. True, many white men practice Eastern religions and some are, of course, atheists, but the vast majority live in a world where there is one God, one father in the household, one leader. We see it this idea in our political system, our classrooms, and in our stories of heroes. The white man also prays at the common alter of capitalism which, naturally, forges our conception of who we are, what we eat and wear and think, who we drop bombs on, and what our future looks like--and what it should look like.

It seems that the only way to discuss what it is to be a white man is to discuss the white man's relationship with other races (especially the white man's relationship to the black man). This notion seems important, though I have not worked out just how important...and my inability to do so, I fear, is because as a white man I suffer from a lack of insight into how my self-identity hinges upon my conception of both myself and others who are unlike myself. Perhaps that, too, is what it means to be a white man: to dance without a partner.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


The educational system in America, in California particularly, is under construction. It has been for some years. Perhaps you missed the signs, but they were there.

"The Road Most Travelled--Your Tax Dollars at Work"

Unfortunately for you, students are being taught not to think, or, rather to think along only certain edge towards certain paths...all of which serpintine towards the glorious horizon of unthinking. These paths all have crosswords with signposts: "Which college should I go to?" "How much money will I make?" "How far is Starbuck's from here?" "Should I become a doctor or just marry one?"

Ah, but why is this unfortunate for you? The answer is that YOU are already there, in the bright silken throne of comfort and career where you have, for the most part, stopped thinking. Perhaps you have vague existential yearnings. But they are (thankfully) buried in iPod commercials and the nighborhood gossip and the aroma of herbal tea and croissants. Who, then, will think the thoughts? Who will ask questions to find the clues to find the secret door which opens to the path which has been hidden all along? THAT road won't be travelled by you. Or at least not without a guide.

Who will think us towards what humans will be?

Following this paragraph is an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (the fictional narrator/writer is giving a speech inspired by some very real experiments which occurred almost one hundred years ago). I think it is so cool that I typed it up. The analogy he is forming is clear...but less clear is how to fight the scientists who trick, punish and torture us out of our thoughts. Ultimately, I believe, we are our own scientists--having locked ourselves in our overpriced Californian homes filled with enough "stuff" to occupy our consciouses for decades. Read on if you like. I must go play video games. My attention span is not what it used to be.

"In 1912, the Prussian Academy of Sciences established on the island of Tenerife a station devoted to experimentation inot the mental capacities of apes, particularly chimpanzees. The station operated until 1920.

One of the scientists working there was the psychologist Wolfgang Kohler. In 1917 Kohler published a monograph entitled The Mentality of Apes describing his experiments. In November of the same year Franz Kafka published his “Report to an Academy”. Whether Kafka had read Kohler’s book I do not know. He makes no reference to it in his letters or diaries, and his library disappeared during the Nazi era. Some two hundred of his books reemerged in 1982. They do not include Kohler’s book, but that proves nothing.

I am not a Kafka scholar. In fact, I am not a scholar at all. My status in the world does not rest on whether I am right or wrong in claiming that Kafka read Kohler’s book. But I would like to think he did, and the chronology makes my speculation at least plausible.

According to his own account, Red Peter was captured on the African mainland by hunters specializing in the ape trade, and shipped across the sea to a scientific institute. So were the apes Kohler worked with. Both Red Peter and Kohler’s apes then underwent a period of training intended to humanize them. Red Peter passed his course with flying colours, though at deep personal cost. Kafka’s story deals with that cost: we learn what it consists in through the ironies and silences of the story. Kohler’s apes did less well. Nevertheless, they acquired at least a smattering of education.

Let me recount to you some what the apes on Tenerife leanred from their master Wolfgang Kohler, in particular Sultan, the best of his pupils, in a certain sense the prototype of Red Peter.

Sultan is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming.

The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three metres above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him.

Sutlan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: Why have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought—for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor?—is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?

Sultan drags the crates under the bananas, piles them one on top of the other, climbs the tower he has built, and pulls down the bananas. He thinks: Now will he stop punishing me?

The answer is: No. The next day the man hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the wire but also fills the crates with stones so that they are too heavy to be dragged. One is not supposed to think: Why has he filled he crates with stones> One is supposed to think: How does one use the crates to get the bananas despite the fact that they are filled with stones?

One is beginning to see how the man’s mind works.

Sultan empties the stones from the crates, builds a tower with the crates, climbs the tower, pulls down the bananas.

As long as Sultan continues to think wrong thoughts, he is starved. He is starved until the pangs of hunger are so intense, so overriding, that he is forced to think the right thought, namely, how to go about getting the bananas. Thus are the mental capabilities of the chimpanzee tested to their uttermost.

The man drops a bunch of bananas a metre outside the wire pen. Into the pen he tosses a stick. The wrong thought is: Why has he stopped hanging the bananas on the wire? The wrong thought (the right wrong thought, however) is: How does one use the three crates to reach the bananas? The right thought is: How does one use the stick to reach the bananas?

At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards the lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied. Although his entire history, from the time his mother was shot and he was captured, through his voyage in a cage to imprisonment on this island prison camp and the sadistic games that are played around food here, leads him to ask questions about the justice of the universe and the place of this penal colony in it, a carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics towards the humbler reaches of practical reason. And somehow, as he inches through his labyrinth of constraint, manipulation and duplicity, he must realize that on no account dare he give up, for on his brothers and sisters may be determined by how well he performs."

Friday, January 07, 2005


An ex-student (I'll call her Laura) came to visit me today during my off-period. I hadn't seen her in a few months, as she is studying back east.

"I need to talk to you about something," she said, the cue for me to boot all the other students out of my room. And when we were alone: "I needed to tell you how much your class has impacted my life."

I've heard this before:

boy, my writing is impressing my professors...
I've decided to become a teacher because of you...
I remembered something you said in class one day...
Your speech about choosing your own path in life has always stayed with me...
You were the one person who taught me how to...

If it sounds like I'm bragging, it's because I suppose I am. I'm a great teacher. I could teach circles around Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society--and still have time to grade some essays (how many papers did you see Mr. Keating grading, hmm?). So a student returning home from a first semster at college has been a frequent occurance, and compliments from kids and parents equally as forthcoming. Consequently, I make light of the nods in my direction. Today, I was reminded that making light of the good I do is not modesty but depracation of something sacred.

"I don't think many people knew this," said Laura. "But my father battled cancer all last year--ever since my freshman year."

"I didn't know that," I admitted, which was true. I did know a lot about her, but I knew also that she was careful about who she let in--and how far they would get. She has a strength of will, a "centeredness" I find in few people. She wants to stand alone not to push people away but to prove that she can.

"He got really bad over the last few months, and this December, he...he passed away." And then before I could figure out what to say. "Yeah, so we had some talks, just me and him, and we had one last talk before he really went downhill and became incoherent. He talked about what he would miss and about dying and some other stuff, and then he finished....he said everything he wanted to say to me. And then he asked me 'Do you have anything you want say?'"

She paused for a moment here, collecting herself.

"What am I supposed to say to THAT? I have no idea. My mind is reeling, and then I thought of something we talked about in class. I can't remember what exactly it was, I think a poem...but you talked about how you never really know the meaning of your life until the end of it."

The poem we had discussed was "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" by Robert Browning. I presented a paper I'd written about the poem to my AP English students in which I explore the way the poem mystifies us by not ever "stopping"; it ends with the beginning, and we never achieve a final "meaning" to the poem. In the lecture to the class, I mentioned that one reason we read is to enjoy that moment of the last word on the last page, the moment in which we can experience the final "meaning" of the book's journey. It's like a "small death" in a way, and, in that sense, we are seeking a glimpse at our own death--the moment of understanding the "meaning" of our lives.

"I told my father that death is really a gift, and that the point of death is when he gets to look back and realize the meaning of everything he's done, of what his life means. Later, I was talking to my Aunt--she had talked to him too. She said that he'd told her all about what I had said and that he was so proud of me, proud that his daughter--that I could say such things. I needed to tell you that's what your class gave me...the ability to talk to my father for the last time."

Monday, January 03, 2005


This fetid mud-choked devil
Crawling between mosquitoes and muck
Looks like Grendel's fetus,
Croaking midnight cries and croaks.

Hold its slippery mass;
It swipes and slips in your palms.
Better not kiss it;
It's warty hide could be yours,
Or worse, it could take your flesh,
And then what would you loathe?