Saturday, April 12, 2008
Most white people don't realize that hundreds of insightful books have been written about them in terms of who they are, as white people. In pursuit of both self-understanding and a broader awareness, I've read a lot of these books, and I'm always reading more. Every Saturday, I'll offer a review of one of the better ones. I'm intentionally starting with a book on whiteness written by a non-white person. I want to acknowledge that the first great intellectual observers of whiteness were black people, members of a group that carefully observed and measured the ways of white folks, because they had to.
Born in 1902, Langston Hughes lived to see the fruition of the Civil Rights Movement that he helped ignite; he died in 1967. White readers now tend to befriend Hughes, selectively enjoying his work as that of a mild-mannered poet, one who asserted the humanity of black people proudly, but quietly. However, to interpret his work this way, even his most famous poems, such as "A Dream Deferred," "Theme for English B," and "I, Too, Sing America," is to overlook the anger and frustration simmering at its core. Hughes' poetic list of possibilities for what happens to a "dream deferred" ends with an italicized warning that if the dream of recognition and equal rights for black Americans is put off much longer, it's liable to "explode" (and indeed, it did). "I, Too, Sing America" has a similar warning, if people are willing to hear it.
In the stories collected in The Ways of White Folks, first published in 1934, Hughes deploys a variety of styles and moods to dramatize and analyze common white behaviors. In the opening story, "Cora Unashamed" (which was Masterpiece-ified by PBS in 2001), Hughes examines, from a black maid's perspective, a respectable white family's destructive allegiance to sexual propriety. "Slave on the Block," in which a couple of socialites adopt a handsome black man as their pet Negro, satirizes some of the more condescending tendencies of the wealthy white patrons of the black arts during the 1920s, when the Negro was in vogue.
In other stories, Hughes steadily unveils his characters' destructive tendencies, diagnosing specific symptoms of their pathological dedication to racial divisions. A white sailor visits one of his favorite black prostitutes but then leaves, unable to acknowledge what seems to him a horror, his own child. A small southern town refuses to acknowledge the genius of one of its own, a black musician returning from a journey to Europe who shouldn't be playing that music, and who shouldn't be dressing so well and then talking to white women, to our women.
In "Passing," a light-skinned man writes a subtly anguished, delirious letter to his black mother, who has agreed to silently pass him by on the street because he's passing for white. In "Father and Son," a proud, patrician Southerner with a kept black maid refuses to acknowledge the humanity of their "black" son, who in turn willfully refuses to suppress his own pride and promise. In all of the stories, tensions and conflicts rise to a boiling point as Hughes deconstructs the absurdities of the fiction that is "race."
In a way, Hughes reminds me of Barack Obama. In Hughes' time and in ours, public figures who are not white have to play a game in terms of race. As with Obama, many whites comfortably embrace Hughes as a black leader who clearly "is" black, but who also seems to "transcend" that blackness. For Hughes, coming across this way was a strategy, a way to lure white folks in with sweetness in order to give them a dose of medicine.
Obama's recent speech on race was written and delivered in calm, measured tones, the polar opposite of the traditional style for serious black oration, as exemplified by Reverend Wright, the black speaker whose very style was what made Obama's speech necessary. Like Hughes in The Ways of White Folks, Obama's speech analyzed both black and white issues with compassionate clarity, and with a directness that he had never displayed before. Time will tell if he'll be able to continue doing so, or if, instead, Hughes' dream of finally dealing directly with America's racial wounds will continue to be deferred.