February 15th, 2006


On a day when more destructive protests against the cartoons of Mohammed are in the news together with further developments in the Abu-Ghraib torture story, I was very, very glad to be able to read something illuminating and strong on my Live Journal "Friends" list:
What is the problem with constructing such a narrative in which particular subjects must first be "civilized," or cultivated (to use a particularly loaded nineteenth century term), in order to enjoy "rights" which claim human equality? The contradiction is apparent in the statement itself: supposedly we are all "equal" and therefore must all be represented as such in order to live in "free" society, yet some people are not yet ready for this kind of freedom. This notion of having to first prepare oneself to be equal actually negates the initial contention of equality, designating human concerns as significant only when they come from "developed" interests or parties. This essentially relegates the "not yet" subjects to a less human space, what Chakrabarty has aptly termed the "waiting room of history." Seated in that waiting room (or tied with a chain around one's neck, or seated with woman's panties covering one's head and then photographed, take your pick), marked by degrees less human and conveyed readily through various narratives and images, are Iraqis, Iranis, Muslims of all backgrounds, and countless others. The racial and economic factors undergirding who is in this waiting room paint a disturbing, yet by no means new story about power; the fact that the waiting room has become self-evident or commonsensical--"Of course they need to become ready before they rule themselves"--exposes western hegemony in a frightening and dehumanizing moment.
Thank you wondrousbeauty for bringing civility and insight to discourses that generally lack them.

Free Association Isn't Free

This is the fundamental problem, the difficulty of showing how I got from there to here when every tracing back is also a step forward. We move ceaselessly into a past that’s future. Where did it begin? I bring Audre Lord’s The Black Unicorn with me to read while I wait, selecting it only because I want poetry and it’s on the shelf I can reach. But it’s on the shelf I can reach because I put it there to be reachable, along with Brenda Hillman’s Fortress – she used to work at UPB in Berkeley, like Dean Young, not to mention me – because one day I decided I should read more contemporary poetry by women when I have five or ten minutes to read something while waiting.

In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss devotes a two-page spread to the Waiting Place. The words and pictures haunt me. Waiting for the sun to shine. Waiting for a better break. Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’m tired of waiting. The Kinks song is playing in my head, “So tired/tired of waiting for you. . .” And then, before I could even type that last sentence, it was supplanted or, more properly, overlaid, like you’d see in a stack of partially transparent materials, by the Beatles’ song on The White Album, John Lennon’s slightly slurred voice repeating, “I’m so-o-o tired/I haven’t slept a wink/I’m so-o-o-o tired/My mind is on the blink. . . I wonder should I call you. . .” I’m always wondering whether I should call you. And wondering what to call you. Wondering what to call myself. But I’m off track again, moving forward into the not-yet-thought of my five minutes of waiting instead of the already-thought-about that I sat down to record.

The fundamental problem has doubled back on itself. Now I have to worry, not only about how I got from there to here, but how that here become another there. We only have two tenses, but our experiences nest like those Russian dolls in the opening credits for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Where was I? That’s a better question, precise as it is vague. I was waiting, reading Audre Lord. “I do not mix/love with pity/nor hate with scorn,” she writes. “I am/woman/and not white.” Or, “My mother had two faces and a frying pot,” or, “her breasts are huge exciting anchors,” or, “The Coniagui women/wear their flesh like war.” Snails eat the corpse of a snake struck by lightning. I am where I do not belong. And now I am rereading past the point where I was, reading ahead against my orders, the orders I’ve given myself. “Thunder is a woman with braided hair,” she writes. “My throat in the panther’s lair/is unresisting.”

What was I trying to express? We are what we eat. I eat words. But what comes out in the end bears no clear relation to what we take in. I am not woman and white. Everything is inappropriate. "Identity is both a shelter and a prison," I tell my students. "The trick is to maximize the percentage of the former." I wonder, though, what that really means. Is it simply a matter of perception? I look at the bars in front of me, panther pacing back and forth for the paying customers, and see a prison. I look at those same bars, fortified by an inappropriate mixture of Stoicism, Emerson, and Zen, and see windows a soul can pass through with ease.

If I read Audre Lord, does that mean she is part of me? My class floods me with pictures. Not just Oedipa, sick of the Tupperware seal, a prison to prevent decay. Not just Acosta, shedding his legal degree like sunburn. But Rabbit, remembering what it felt like to have an illusion of freedom. “Got a wife and kids in. . .” No, not Baltimore. It’s Redding, Pennsylvania, I realize, though I want it to be Bethlehem, though it might as well be, given the description. Hills. Run-down houses. A despair drained of color. What’s the name of that town as you come over the hill, when you drive in off 309? Fountain Hill? The slopes are improbable, the steelworks spread out somewhere below and, if you look back up the hill you drove down on from the valley, then track the ridgeline heading, I don’t know, east, away from 309, you can see the corporate offices glinting near the top, Olympian lair of a once-great corporation.

There were plenty of black people in the metropolitan area, but I never saw them. The supermarket was filled with Puerto Rican and Hungarian goods, but all I saw were ashen faces and faded wood façades. This is how race works in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth-largest cities in Pennsylvania. And this is how it works on me now, pulling my mind from The Black Unicorn into white flight, a shot of James Caan peering through his windshield, fleeing his vanishing point. Talk about suture. The first thing I notice when I see a film set are the cars with cameras on their hoods. When I see his face, I’m looking over my shoulder. We all are. The rear-view mirror shows the driver his past. That shot through the windshield shows us ours.

And what do I see? A man who is tired of waiting for more of the same. “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s black history month and I keep seeing dingy whiteness. Bruce Springsteen is a bard of dingy whiteness. John Cougar Mellencamp is too. And all those Brits as well. If boredom is what makes us human, then the bit players in my past must be humanists. I would sit in front of the television, watching those first years of Sesame Street and think, “I want to live there, where there’s more brown than gray.” I would sit in front of the television, watching LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen, and think, “I’m waiting for my Tennessee.” Terribly inappropriate, I’m sure, but as true as anything else I’ve written about race and class.

When you pull the dead ones from the ground, the roots are gone. The sight of that lack disturbs me. Charles Olson advises, “whatever you have to say, leave/the roots on, let them/dangle.” And I agree. But when there’s nothing there, all that will dangle is air. So I sit and I wait and I read, troubled by the realization that The Black Unicorn seems more plausible to me than a white one. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Entropy, on the other hand, will. Did I mention that I’m tired? Did I tell you how much I want to call? Did I make it clear how desperate I am to find a calling, one that will pry me loose from all this tedium?
  • Current Music
    Thunder Road - Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
  • Tags

Fire Update

Since my partner and I have both posted entries on last night's fire in the apartment complex next to our subdivision, I thought I should link to the latest news report, which confirms that no human beings were hurt -- though pets may have been and personal possessions were destroyed and also provides the confusing information that no one was home in the apartment where the fire began. It still could have been caused by a gas grill, I imagine, but perhaps one that had been left on for longer. Our neighbors told me that the complex doesn't have gas lines to the apartments themselves, so a burner with the gas turned on, the most likely culprit, would be ruled out unless they are mistaken. I'm actually more unsettled knowing that no one knows what started the fire.