White Mischief IV

The Imus Effect

A critic advises
not to write on controversial subjects
like freedom or murder
but to treat universal themes
and timeless symbols
like the white unicorn

A white unicorn?
—Dudley Randall

One wag once wagered that from the modernism we choose we get the postmodernism we deserve.  Kathy Lou Schultz has observed that the nature of Melvin B. Tolson’s relationship to Modernism remains a subject of real contention some forty years after the poet’s death, and implied in that observation is the correlative that the subjects of African Americans’ relationships to both modernism and postmodernism are themselves equally fraught.  In the shadowland between these observation we can remark the place where ignorant armies clash by night, where critical issues of race and racial issues of criticism have been brought to bear in such a way as to produce modernisms and postmodernisms that far too often reinscribe all too familiar patterns of ex- and con-  fusion.

Tracing the histories of these contentions is fairly straightforward in the opening stretches.  For the first decades of its existence as congeries of critical discourses, the study of modernism proceeded as if peoples of African ancestry were either subjects of or subject to forces of modernity; on hand to lend their art to the naming of the era (“the jazz age”), or to serve as the blank screen upon which a fabulous primitivism, much dissected in subsequent revisions, might be projected.. Beyond that, scholars of modernity during the field’s long march to maturity conducted themselves for the most part as if black people had nothing to do with the modern, existed, as it were, in some atavistic Hegelian realm of history’s outside (see Ellison, Ralph and Reed, Ishmael).  Poets such as Allen Tate and Louis Simpson routinely wielded the heavy cudgel of the universal against the efforts of black poets.  Tate for example, even as his own poetry featured the Confederate dead and “Negroes who cannot sing,” could manage only to commend Melvin B. Tolson for having assimilated the tradition, not for having produced or even contributed to it.  Simpson infamously remarked that Gwendolyn Brooks had no hope of becoming a serious contender in the ranks of modern verse so long as she took as her subject matter the purportedly parochial concerns of American Negroes.  Brooks, in her turn, wrote: “The soldiers had their orders, but the Negroes looked like men.”  The timing of Simpson’s racially determined critique rendered it all the more remarkable, for it came on the heels of the second World War, which had supposedly rendered us all more cognizant of the deadly outcome of racisms, and in the very midst of the revivifying Civil Rights Movement.  (As is so often the case, what Tolson termed the “eighth ambibuity,” the ethnic, was to catch up to Simpson’s judgement when he later learned that he was himself part Negro.) What Tate persisted in overlooking, on display in the very poetry he was introducing when he spoke of Tolson’s assimilation of Western verse tradition, was Tolson’s insistence within the poem that African peoples had played a role in the bringing into being of central tenets of modernist aesthetics.  It was Benin, writes Tolson, whose “ivory and gold figurines larked / space oneness on the shelf ice / of avant-garde Art.”  In the decades leading up to Tolson’s initial publications black scholars including Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James had argued convincingly that the black New World presence had been the very condition of possibility for the rise of modernity, and yet their works were then found on no syllabi of modernism that any white scholars were likely to peruse.

All of that began to yield with the advent of such phenomena as multiculturalism, African American Studies and the growing globalization of literary studies, and it is rare today to find a scholar of modernity who will not make at least a nodding gesture in the direction of inclusion, and yet the broad picture of modernism we find communicated to emerging ranks of young professors is one in which African American participation remains an attenuated and, there is no other way to put this, peculiar institution.  This results from the ways, too many to count let alone delineate in a short talk, that race operates in contemporary criticism, both in the discussions of canonical white moderns and in the representations of any possible black modernism.  On the former score, two quick examples will have to suffice.

Some years ago, UCLA’s Christopher M. Mott made a presentation as part of the panel offered by the e. e. cummings Society at the meeting of the American Literature Association in San Diego, a version of which later appeared in the Society’s journal Spring.  Introducing his talk on that occasion, Mott, who gave no sign of having consulted any relevant bibliography on the subject, announced that heretofore noone had seriously examined cummings’ work in relation to race and that he was there to fill that presumed lacuna.  Mott’s project in this effort is to recuperate cummings’s racism by means of an analogy to, of all people, W.E.B. DuBois.  Mott argues of cummings, quite rightly, that “he too confronted the ‘problem’ of race” (71), oddly surrounding the word problem in scare quotes.  DuBois, according to Mott:

“set the terms of debate.  Those terms were, by and large, the terms Cummings used in his investigation of race.  DuBois asserted the titular souls as the defining feature of black folk.  Moreover, he defined soul and spirituality against the rationality and ingenuity of white folks.  Cummings also represented soul, feeling, and spirituality as the defining features of black folk.  At the same time, he foregrounded the exuberant spirits of black folk against a background of machinating whites . .“ (71)

This passage brings into full view what I have chosen to term, anachronistically, the Imus effect, though I suppose we could equally well term it the Paula Deen syndrome.   In much the way that Don Imus and his defenders recently attempted to dismiss criticisms of his racist joking about the Rutgers women’s basketball team by ingeniously (perhaps demonstrating that ingenuity of white folk Mott points to) arguing that he was simply deploying the same terms that black hip hop artists have recorded.  While I would never argue that race in and of itself is determinative of who can say what to whom, I would assert that racial context is indeed a part of the metalinguistic environment that constitutes and defines meanings.  Which is simply to say that it is not true that DuBois and cummings are in fact using the same terms.  What Mott’s argument serves to obscure is the reality of passages in cummings’s work such as the following:

some folks aint born

somes born dead an

somes born alive (but

                                   niggers

                      Is

              all

           born

     so

Alive)

                                      (Poems 622)

While it is certainly the case that DuBois wanted the soul and spirit of black America to be recognized on its own terms, one cannot imagine DuBois writing anything remotely like this, and all a reader needs to do is to turn to the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk in which DuBois is debating Washington on the subject of black access to liberal education, precisely to opportunities to exercise to the fullest extent the inherent powers of their own rationality and ingenuity, to see just how reductive Mott is being as he attempts to draw the two writers into a common line on race.  While Mott, whose essay treats primarily of the novel The Enormous Room is forced into a final acknowledgment that there is at least something of romantic racism in cummings’s work, he repeatedly attempts to ameliorate that acknowledgment and to recuperate cummings’s worst instincts.  So, for example, Mott remarks that it is “an unfortunate historical coincidence” that “cummings’ emphasis on a playful, childlike spirit paralleled racist reductions of African Americans to children, to entertainment” (72).  As any reader of cummings’s play Him can readily attest, it is far more than a coincidence; it is at the very heart of cummings’s thoughts on race.  Rather than come to grips with what cummings is doing in any productive way that might further the crucial work of producing what David Theo Goldberg might term an anatomy of racism, Mott calls upon us, in fact insists that “we must”  “assume that Cummings was fully aware of these racist overtones” but that he was engaged in a “project to reinflect the conventional, proper, reductive meanings of words and concepts” (72) and Mott again insists that in this project cummings “seems to parallel the (African) American tradition and the African American political agenda” (72).  One wonders just what part of the African American political agenda is paralleled in the poem that reads:

Clamored Clever Rusefelt

to Theodore Odysseus Graren't

We couldn't free the negro

because he ant (poems 321)

Even more to the point, one might think it incumbent upon critics who insist that seemingly racist language is in fact a subtly subversive deployment of racist tropes against themselves in the interests of ending racism to demonstrate at some point that such efforts at subversion actually subverted something, in the author’s own writings if nowhere else.  While it may seem too much to expect that cummings might have, by means of subversive poetics, gone a long ways towards undoing the virulent racism infecting America in the modernist era, it shouldn’t be too much to hope that he could at least reinflect the conventional meanings of racist language in his own life; but as shocked readers of cummings’s letters and other casual writings are far too aware, he was given throughout his life to the most disturbing racism, even as he often wrote in favor of greater human understanding.  It is that confluence of ameliorative stabs in the political dark with continued racist insult that we need to study and understand if we are fully to comprehend the role race has played in modernism, not some imagined antiracist long term program that operates by means of repeated instances of hateful representations.

(to be continued)