Stick to the Routine: “Bad Niggers” versus “Good Niggers” in the Election Aftermath

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By Google Shawn StJean

“Always do the right thing.”

Whether or not you recognize that line from 1989’s film of the same name, if the terms of the statement raise any kind of question in your mind, then you probably noticed the quotation marks around it, and in my title: as an eductor, I have about as much love for racial slurs as the author of 1885’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  But they do continue to exist.  Both Spike Lee and Mark Twain interrogated institutional racism, a century apart–and by extension sexism and classism–in America, by the risky means of inverting usual terms of right and wrong (among them, the n-word: “He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was,” Huck assures his readers, in a horrifyingly realistic moment of combined affection and condecension.)

We’d like to believe things evolve with time.  Will America be any further along in 2089?  How about 2019?  Evolution is a process of fits and starts.

Many feel the recent election results, installing Donald Trump in the White House, do not signal progress for the immediate future.

The white, male, and (racially, if not economically) privileged part of me agrees with the other whites out there, including those who wanted neither Clinton nor Trump for a leader: it’s a society, we have rules, the man won the election under those rules.  Get over it.  BUT the part of me that feels the threat by the undeserving wealthy, the corrupt system of campaign finance and two parties, and knows the rules were made and bent to serve some and not others, agrees with Wanda Sykes and the protesters, and even the rioters:  it’s not a time to be good, play the humble, obedient citizen, and smile.  It’s a time to resist and show anger and use bad words.

The girls smile

and people forget

the snow packs

a skier tracks

and people forget

forget they’re hiding

The Who’s 1982 song “Eminence Front” reminds us we are asked to, and demanded to, wear masks, of one type or another, all the time: that the face Bruce Wayne is in fact more false than Batman’s cowl.  We wear them so constantly in our waking hours, like eyeglasses, that we forget we do it; and life is one long costume ball.  Only when someone drops their mask, do we remember, and project our resentment.

Black comedian Wanda Sykes dropped her mask a few days ago during the Comics Come Home charity fundraiser for cancer care in Boston, abandoning any pretense of her usual routine and instead ranting about Trump, for which she was booed off the stage.  She shouted and gestured obscenities at the audience in response.  Not what they expected; totally inappropriate for the occasion, I imagine many said.  Denis Leary, who reportedly got big laughs for his jokes about Trump earlier in the evening, later said publicly that it is not the business of the event-runners to censor the performers.

One needn’t invoke Malcolm X here for a precedent for Sykes’ actions.  Dr. King himself, a minister by trade  and protester by necessity, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” made it clear that change will not come from conforming to the rules others set, or from waiting for an appropriate time or behaving in conventionally acceptable ways to suit an occasion.  I have always believed this was why the Occupy Wall Street protests were culturally ineffective.  Those folks set up tents in a pen in Zuccotti Park and grazed there within its confines, using the portable toilets, policing their own trash, doing as they were told, behaving, essentially, and utterly failing to disrupt business as usual until they left less than two months later.   The intentions were politically and morally correct; but the tactics were about as threatening as a Boy Scout jamboree.

On the same night as the Sykes debacle, a few hundred miles south, another black comedian, Dave Chappelle, hosted Saturday Night Live, and received almost universal acclaim for his monologue on Trump and the racial divide in America.

Don’t mistake me: we all have our varied talents, and Chappelle killed it, as they say in show-biz–I have no quarrel with him, no iota of disrespect for anyone following their true conscience.  Sketches following the monologue, notably one in which Chappelle was joined by Chris Rock, assured us all that the white-liberal idea that racism is dead in America is laughable.  It’s creative protest.  I believe Dr. King would approve–with reservations.  We all need to remember that, in the final analysis, Chappelle’s being what Ralph Ellison characterized Invisible Man‘s (1950) protagonist as: a “good nigger.”  Not so much because of what he said, but what he did.  He’s helping, like President Obama himself, to defuse a potentially explosive situation, and diffuse the mass of energy that collected and creates the danger of blowing up the status quo: “we been here before.”  And while it might not be pretty, folks of the Wanda Sykes temper, white or black, whether ranting or rioting, are refusing to exit so quietly and quickly from the stage as Hillary Clinton and the rest of the so-called white liberals out there.  For them, the stakes are higher.

Chappelle uses the n-word freely, as so many black comics have done over the past decades, and we laugh.  The level of discomfort is lessened because he’s part of that “historically disenfranchised” group, and he’s earned custody of the word.  As he said, “If I could quit being black today, I’d be out’ the game.”  And we’re reminded subliminally by that one word, in the context of a comedy routine, of all the associations of it: slavery, lynchings, racial profiling and shootings, gentrification, poverty, institutional prejudices from schools to the military to the workplace to the neighborhoods.  And in the hermetically sealed, artificially constructed TV bubble of SNL, we’re authorized to laugh–and we do, because we know those things are all true.

By contrast, the image of the “bad nigger,” as epitomized for many by Malcolm X, by the time of the 1990s, had become so familiar that white filmmaker Kevin Smith parodied (thus depowering) it in Chasing Amy,*following Tarantino’s more tenuous effort in Pulp Fiction (for which, in a real-life travesty, Samuel L. Jackson was misclassified in the Oscars as “supporting actor” to John Travolta).  Both filmmakers capitalized on the ur-image of fear in America: a man of color with a gun.  MCG.  Not just a mouth–an equalizing weapon.

Inasmuch as some of us like to refer to “most people” as if we were above all the fear and hate, human beings are, at bottom, visceral creatures.  We are still a primitive species, as of the dawn of the 21st century.  It’s possible that all the pundits have over-sophisticated the explanations for Trump’s victory; that fundamentally, it all comes down to change, or more precisely: backlash.  Eight years with a black man as national leader, no matter how good or bad, there was no way a woman could win it, here and now.  People wanted the package of white patriarchal values back, they’re comfortable with it, and, in the great pendulum swing of the rise and fall of American civilization, they again have it.

I recently listened to a college radio station near Amherst, MA (supposedly one of our country’s many pockets of liberalism.)  Three white, male sophomores discussed, in the perfect comfort of privilege, which professional sports teams’ names and logos should be abolished, and which are okay.  Cleveland’s Indians, apparently, are fine with them, but Washington’s Redskins are offensive.  Being an inheritor of power, a “fortunate son,” usually entails such presumptions.  These are the spiritual grandsons of our president-elect.  They decide; the team owners decide; maybe the players get a vote; the people living on reservations are not consulted–or perhaps worse, their opinions are collated and presumed for them in one deft, hypothetical/hypocritical-hybrid gesture.

As a great man–though not an American– once said: “…they know not what they do.”   But that won’t stop them from passing judgment.

Chappelle’s act and his concluding promise to “give Trump a chance” followed by the script’s ritualistic “We got a great show tonight!” receives universal At-A-Boys from such white folks, while Sykes will suffer condemnation and consequence for her 15 minutes of infamy.  Some people will undoubtedly try to blacklist her (our very language reveals its lingering biases).  She left her place.  But did she do the right thing?  Did he?  Is staying within one’s designated sphere, keeping appropriate, saying please and thank you, using the servant’s entrance, waiting for approval, bowing, conceding, hoping for the best in the face of overwhelming evidence; are these actions the “right thing” when one perceives a clear and present danger?

I’m not certain throwing middle fingers or throwing rocks or looting are the most effective tactics; then again, I’m not entirely sure they’re not.  As opposed to the over 50% of all voting Americans who didn’t really want their candidate in office, but voted for them in order to keep the other candidate out, and who will now shrug and do nothing (“wait and see”), or those like myself who declined to vote at all, at least Sykes (and Chappelle) are doing something.  You want change?  Doing something, then, will always be more right than doing nothing.

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*of course, there exist enough layers of irony in Smith’s film to cast doubt on exactly what he’s parodying.  The character I refer to turns out to be a gentle, gay (black) man who wears the public mask of “Hooper X,” the creator of  White-Hatin’ Coon, in order to profit off the cultural hero worship of the racial/rebel hero.  Is his tirade against white supremacy then rendered inauthentic?  Is he merely an opportunist?  Unfortunately, all this being a lot to sort out for a comedy, won’t the individual viewers take away whatever interpretation most supports their own perspective?

The Perennial “Should Literature Moralize?” Debate

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When I’m not writing or under the hood of a car, I teach, so I’ve seen this question take a number of forms over the years. The way Amanda Nelson phrased it yesterday, in the title of her blog post “Literary Pet Peeves: When Characters Preach” relies on a reductio ad absurdum: a rhetorical misapplication of a concept, to make it seem self-evidently ridiculous. The text of her article has at least the virtue of more words:For me, the most irritating, infuriating, rage-inducing Literary Thing is the preachy book that uses the conversations of the characters as a mouthpiece for the author’s Message-With-A-Capital-M.” See her entire post here:http://bookriot.com/2012/09/04/literary-pet-peeves-when-characters-preach/

I posted a brief reply in that venue, which I’ll revise and expand on here.

Ms. Nelson’s frustration is not unique. I’ve heard it from some of my very best college students, about some of the very best books ever written, because it is often a tick on the gauge of one’s own sophistication as a reader, to be able to detect an author’s “cheap” tricks, and to call them heavy-handed; that is, not subtle enough for the sagacious reader. Putting one’s own “message” into one’s fiction, whether through the mouth of a character or narrator (sometimes both,) is supposedly an offense to the very audience one writes for, by undervaluing their intelligence.

Of course, one goes to church and expects to hear “preaching”; but not in a novel. The problem with Nelson’s formulation is, she’s mis-characterized the foibles of a few works and writers as a universal problem, and reduced it to a creative-writing-course-level violation of a DOs and DON’Ts list.

Hawthorne (writing in the 1830s-1860s), arguably the best author America has produced, explained that writers, before our Civil War, were even then burdened with a residual convention: Fiction had to be equipped with stated morals, because novels and tales themselves were morally suspect (poetry was real literature,) and had to rely on a few artificial contrivances to gain legitimacy with the public. Mark Twain and Henry James both railed against “preaching” only a century after Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (really a conduct manual for girls, in the form of a narrative) but they were in the luxurious position of doing so, after the consumption of fiction had become widespread.

Ms. Nelson has a disclaimer excepting older fiction, so let me address newer material–what we “read” today. Things have hardly changed.

When the Fox network rose to challenge the “big three” TV networks in the early 1990s, their shows were under a similar probation as early novels. Simpsons and Married with Children episodes tended to conclude moralistically, then—and the morals were not ironic. Until they gained a foothold in popularity, that is, and the fledgling Fox became unassailable in the market–and look what it has gotten us, twenty years on: Family Guy (a cartoon unsuitable for any child), Survivor and its ilk (which glorify betrayal), and prime time shows in which gender slurs like “bitch” routinely and frequently drip from characters’ mouths—pick one. D’Oh, much better! So much more subtle, and respectful of the audience!

Literature teaches us humanistic values, one way or the other. Nelson merely quibbles with an aesthetic, a style. Counter-preaches, in fact. Ellison and Baldwin leveled the same charges at Richard Wright. Here’s the problem: when you’re too “subtle,” people won’t hear you. It’s hardly “cheap” to declare what you believe in, using a difficult medium like fiction to do it. Cheap would only be doing it without providing any evidence, any examples and counter-examples, and context.

So I think Ms. Nelson’s real problem is (or should be) when writers don’t earn it. A novelist has to earn practically everything from readers—and here, money is only the start. Many readers share a variant of a 100 (or 50, or 20) -page rule: if it hasn’t “grabbed”them by then, it gets binned. We writers earn the willing suspension of disbelief, for example, by not violating our own rules. We earn the patience of expository material—introduction of characters at the beginning, filling in of vital information—which is necessarily slow-moving at times, by paying it all off in the later acts. And if we have lain out our thematic threads carefully throughout the narrative, through use of symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, characterization, and other devices, we do earn the right to some formulation of our philosophy into concrete terms. Whether that be dramatic, as with Tom Joad declaring “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy. . .I’ll be there,” or fairly subtle, as with Huck Finn’s previously amoral posturing being abandoned to condemn Jim’s selling price as “forty dirty dollars” (strongly reminiscent of Judas’ thirty pieces of silver,) the difference is really only stylistic. Really not much different from preferring deadpan humor to bawd and slapstick—a matter of taste. Perhaps Ms. Nelson prefers the thematic end of the spectrum to the moral end. Fair enough. But, as Fox proved, it’s all-too-short a step from moralizing to amorality, and thence to immorality. We do need moral literature—it’s really what it’s ultimately for. Literacy and morality go hand-in-hand. They beat back the tide of mental flotsam and jetsam that threaten to overwhelm us, in our workaday lives. And in an increasingly less-literate culture, where are our values coming from, if we can’t provide moral alternatives to churches, for intellectual people?

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