CohabitUS: Toward covival
A review of/reflection on 'Help' by Claudia Rankine
Covival, not just survival.
There are many chairs and no tables in this depressingly uplifting play, Help, which is about a new table we need right NOW, “NOW that is the ‘n-word,’” as the play says: a kind of roundtable, virtual and actual, where we can all sit around to talk “us,” cohabitus, especially the souls of White folks.
Calling for “a new narrative” in this world of high-tech amnesia and seamless disconnect, the female narrator in the play, in white sneakers, the sole Black person in the staged crowd of White faces, a “representative of my category, 8% of the US population known as Black women,” she says, retells the real-life stories of her various conversational encounters and confrontations with White people from many colorful walks of life. These informal chats in transit range and often change from nice to nasty, yet what remains constant is its irreducible neighborliness, a sense that they happen right here or there all the time and will not disappear at will, whether one sees them or not. Such situations restaged here, comparable to those in the Sartrean no-exit, would also remind one how the everyday reality of anti-Black racism in the US tends to turn instantly into talking points and datapoints, often leaving the actual, violently violated mindbodies not really accounted for, let alone cared for. By unpacking the voice box of the personal vis-à-vis interpersonal this way one by one, Claudia Rankine, the list-keeper, characteristically and indeed “amazingly stays within an explosive moment of negation,” as Simone White puts it, a series of those micromoments when racist Whiteness is reflexively defended or evaded, often at once.
“You’re always trying to get me!”; “Oh, I get you.” In this heuristic drama about a mélange of the Amerkin “you” that attracts and resists ethnoracial naming and framing, the second-person singular and plural, metonymized by the rollable chairs and the suited bodies in motion, is intimately embodied and impersonally positioned at the same time. And it is this critical distance at an intimate distance that makes and helps you think along, whoever you happen to be also as a member of the audience in there together. A kaleidoscopic tragicomedy filled with citational allusions and social commentary on what has been and still is happening “now,” this theatrical collage feels like a public lecture, a stand-up comedy, a musical, a travel show, a poetry reading, and an experimental theatre performance, all in one. Director Taibi Magar and set designer Mimi Lien have animated the script with such compositional finesse while remaining focused on bringing to the table questions of Whiteness and its topological polyvocality; racialized Whiteness, too, becomes a name that has too many names at various intersectional, interstitial, intertidal moments, especially when its ongoingness, “going White while being White,” is disclosed, called out. Just note, also, the richly nuanced tapestry of monologues, poems, prose, social theoretical concepts, and staged scenarios delivered or cited by the lucidly weary, brilliant actor, April Matthis, whose forensic language of intersubjective phenomenology and psychology is further amplified by the body language onstage articulated by the choreographer Shamel Pitts with such dexterity and dynamism. Original composition by JJJJJerome Ellis — “a blk disabled animal, stutterer, and artist” who “through music, literature, performance, and video, explores blkness, disabled speech, and music as forces of refusal, possibility, reparation, and healing” — is hauntingly present. In the midst of all this, the message of Rankine, a visionary poet and playwright of despairing hope, travels across the stage so vividly, leaving everyone to wonder at the end, as Rodney King once did: “Can’t we all get along?”
“See? We are in the hold of our history, in the emergency” room, the narrator points out, while implicating the audience at the Shed, which, let us admit, is not a shed. The fact that the show happens in a theatrical bracket in an artsy district in New York City, too, counts. By showing the (White) elephant in the room that a majority of White American characters fail to see or tend to skirt around, with that counterswerve to dramatic irony, Rankine manages to keep the conversation going and going off stage; so next time you see an Amex Lounge at JFK, you might recall the surreally simplified glass menagerie staged at, actually before, the start of the show, where you see everyone seated or standing behind the window, nine men and two women, all white, all in business suits, lounging about, alone together with noddingly familiar conviviality.
Again, you see, neither contained conviviality nor curated compositionality will save us in these simply united states of amnesiac alienation, as Just Us, Rankine’s book of real-life conversations, online and offline, reminds us, a theatrical sampling of which is Help, a reactivation of the original archive for her 2019 New York Times piece, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked,” which first formed part of Just Us. So why this “continuation of conversation” yet again? The poet’s play this time, preceded by The White Card (2019), probes deeper and wider into the symptomatic Whiteness of the current epoch of planetary crises inseparable from the legacy of Anglo-European colonial violence and all sorts of institutional manifestations of its settler ideology, where aviational contemporaneity, too, is coextensive with nautical modernity, both forming reversible trees of knowledge and ignorance, “the two faces of American freedom,” as legal scholar Aziz Rana incisively observes. The theatrical gaze that remains open-ended turns such otherwise ordinary liminal spots of perpetual dissonance into animated life-size dioramas, where all moving objects in such transitional spaces eventually take off, as do many conversations that follow and stop eventually. Help tries to keep alive such connective spaces, restaging their mini-con-temporary synergies as well as blockages as a stage we are at; now, could there be some kind of covivalist rethinking emerging? I, too, wonder, for hope, “a thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson once saw, is also “a discipline,” as Mariame Kaba pointed out more recently. And true, a discipline requires patience and practice.
But What? Did you say White Privilege?! Or did we hear White Male Privilege?! Why all White and what about women? How homogenizing and so totally misleading! Besides, ain’t some of us non-White and/or actually trying to go transracial? Aren’t you, too, in a so-called White space?
After all, an angry fiery “what?” being a contraction of much calmer “what (the f) is X?,” even just a bit of a good old common sense could save us all. Perhaps. The Rankinean storyteller there, initially positioned outside the airport lounge we are invited to look at, does not claim to be a truth-teller perched at a vantage point. Rather, she acts like a bank teller working right there who pays documentary attention to every detail that matters. “What does it mean for a life to matter in American society today?” asks this play in such soberingly simple terms that can never be simplistic or dualistic. What does it mean for an X to matter here and now? What matters?
But again, are we not talking about just some small talk? All this drama because of some flyaway remarks? Why not just throw them away? Are we not centralizing our own minor(ity) traumas?
From dialog to diatribe, from reparative reckoning with the irreparable past to rumbling resentment toward undeservingly colorful others who steal our seats, slyly eruptive, casually implicit expressions of White racialized cruelty, “a comment away” is part of future realities that can’t just fly away even if you try to run away from them. “Away”: where does it come from and lead to? Where? What gets trashed? Who tends to get away? Who can walk away? How? Why?
Many of us are angry former children. We are part of various ongoing spilling mo(nu)ments of emotional and psychosocial disturbances on the move, whether they involve episodes of microaggressive encounter with “the other” in the psychoanalytic and philosophical senses or traumatic events of historic magnitude or both, as is often the case, which is what Help is trying to help us see clearly through a racial lens, a discourse of casual White racism in particular. Then, instead of just saying “no (comment)” or “ok (whatever)” or walking away or talking to the hand, we might want really to com-ment, to think together, transcending together in togetherness.
So, mark it, read it, study it, as Adrienne Rich recommends in “Transcendental Etude (For Michelle Cliff)”:
No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
— And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.
Hence, again, help: responding appropriately to all such hauntingly simple calls, an SOS, could mean learning to “leap into transcendence … in the midst of the hard movement.” No need for defensive self-rationalization or obsessive ruminations. Don’t just help yourselves but one another. Don’t just play your card or game but pause and ponder how things interplay, interact, interfere, intersect, whether you find them interesting or not. Don’t just line up but also read the line and between the lines … and the room and the air. And indeed, what about tone-deafness? How is that sometimes socially accommodated or even culturally accelerated and why? If such basic, seemingly didactic lessons for cohabitation and civic ethics need to be somehow reminded, professorially or not, the rationale, the reason itself, is in the eclectic series of stories and reflections we overhear here. Just read again those expressive movements, gestures, and postures of the actors that musicalize the colorful Whiteness of dominantly White spaces.
Some of us might still feel racially profiled, radically questioned even, we understand. If so …
Consider the concept “legacy.” Think about legacy admissions or the legacy of slavery and indentured servitude in the ongoing, self-globalizing history of racial capitalism and the extraction economy; are the two related, not just literally? What does White privilege have to do with that “leg” of such legacies? Log it. Walk with us. Trace the footsteps. Use words for real.
If you are privileged in some respects, you have a certain degree of power that can be used blindly or relatively consciously. If an unearned or naturalized privilege such as the privilege of being (born) able-bodied is something you usually don’t have to think about because you have it and unless and until you lose it, “White privilege” or privileged Whiteness as an inborn social advantage (akin to what W. E. B. DuBois refers to as “public and psychological wage” prepaid to poor Whites in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century) is also something you have earned without having to earn; you are born into such a socially and politically valued or preferred position if you are White-identified, and typically you do not have to do anything to keep that relatively elevated social status except breathe, which can be an ongoing existential challenge for some people, especially those whose lives tend to be systematically and asymmetrically undervalued, even deemed disposable, because of their demographic profiles socially categorized as such. So again, you are, in part, born into that legacy, that line, lineage, genealogy, of deeply rooted dominion, the dome of domination, of which you might not have had to step outside also because it remains an inalienable “right” for you, which you do not have to claim or reclaim unless you suddenly see it gone especially from yourself.
That is partly the reason why philosopher Naomi Zack, for instance, quite rightly says that “White privilege” can be a “misleading” term:
A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. But I think that is what “white privilege” is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do. I was talking to a white friend of mine earlier today. He has always lived in the New York City area. He couldn’t see how the Michael Brown case had anything to do with him. I guess that would be an example of white privilege.
Right? Such a universal human right to exist, naturally assumed, given to and taken by you, is supposed to remain inseparable from you, every one of you, whoever you are; yet, some are almost naturally deprived of that right for being not born White, which is where a “privilege” is born, in turn, conceived as a relative term for the implicitly universalized, implicitly racialized standard by which “non-White” is marked as substandard for its negative social ontological value. In short, some of you “get to exist” and some don’t, as the play says. So, again in implicitly practical terms, the “White male privilege” we are studying here could mean that you usually wouldn’t have to worry about being randomly attacked or arbitrarily arrested or cursed at for looking somehow wrong because you look White and because you look like a man, and those dually standardized categories have already melted into the social fiber of your being in a way that you, sometimes you alone, do not see. So, if you have “it,” the privilege at work, quite possibly you might not know it until you come to see it, somewhat transcendentally, and if you still don’t know it, it might not be entirely your fault; “it is not just him,” as the play reminds us in chorus, with that gaping openness, pointing to the systematic production and promotion of collectively naturalized and neutralized ignorance. Your blind spot, however tiny, could just be or overlap with part of their, my, our lifeworld, structurally and extensively, and you could just drive on or press on without realizing or acknowledging, while denying or trivializing, what you have done or caused directly or indirectly. It is not just him or thim even. It is also all part of us, habitus.
Privilege as a power thing, part of your or their or our political capital, an epistemic walnut so hard to crack, can be such a lonely philosophical puzzle and yet can be cracked together relatively easily: privilege can be shared as it is meant to be like a gift you often do not even try to earn. What we need to fight together is not Whiteness but privileged Whiteness that perpetuates injustice. And we could coexamine White privilege as systematically socialized and politically mobilizable effects and aftereffects, as redirectable resources, as vastly ordinary and powerful as histories and cultures. If you still don’t get it, if you can’t or won’t see that special bond between legacy admissions and the psychocultural legacy of inadmission right there in front of and behind and around you, you are also likely to deny or ignore that someone in you might be performing White denialism for you and your “people,” although your exceptional denialism written on your skin might be something everyone except you can see. Acknow thyself, even just a bit, why not.