THE CRITICAL NEGRO
Book Review by John Farris the artificial white man essays on authenticity Stanley Crouch Basic Books 244 pp.
Columnist, novelist, essayist and television commentator Stanley Crouch has done it again. Always controversial, the MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center's latest tilt at popular culture is this selection of nine essays he has chosen to title The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity. Moving swiftly with often withering authority and a sometimes jaundiced eye across the American landscape, the subjects of literature, music, sports, film, sex and class are scrutinized with a view towards issues of race and authority. Examined from this perspective is the work of luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Michael Jackson, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Thomas Wolfe, Duke Ellington, Alfred Appel Jr., Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton and the Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges among a grand panoply of others on the world stage that are encountered along the way. Arguably the most important byproduct of the American experience, the blues is offered as qualifier, the term given titular reference in each essay as though movements in a blues suite. Attitudes concerning race being indelibly stamped throughout the range of diverse cultures that have evolved to become uniquely American, it is how these attitudes are approached by the various proponents of Mr. Crouch's perusal that allow them the passage of muster or not. Modernism, per se, comes under attack in a manner that all but undermines notions of authenticity: "We have been modern so long that authenticity is largely a meaningless term, though there are distinct ethnic styles that don't quite tell us what we think they do. One reason is that this nation -- long ago -- switched tracks from the local to the express. So influences come and go at high speeds. Traditions are remade and abandoned or reimagined, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst -- which is where the blues almost always makes its move. Our country is some kind of a mongrel that is spiritually a chameleon but always remains a bastard. And you can be sure that starting as an American bastard in a world where former European bastards have family lines long enough to make them arrogant is another reason why being authentic might be something of a recurring problem." He goes on: "The elite version of authenticity used to begin above but now has been discredited. Nothing has survived the holocaust of close, close scrutiny, not government, not business, not religion, not ethnicity, not the upper class, not the family, not parenting, not adolescence, not childhood, nothing at all."
Culture is born in the crucible of trial and error, of step and misstep. In the context of the continuing evolution of American culture, what is it Crouch is yearning for here -- is it a return to the antebellum, with its peculiar notions of government, of business, of ethnicity? If not, what is to be the model for the new ethos? How exactly should we redress what we all know nature abhors -- what are to be the new notions of religion, of family, of class? In other words, losing the blues, what do we gain -- and how?
Referring to author David Shields' yearning for cultural transference and maybe a tad of the black male's physical proportions and purported lack of inhibition in sexual matters and otherwise in the title essay, Shields is excoriated for his approval of the attitudes of certain black basketball players in Black Planet, a book that follows the Seattle SuperSonics through the 1994-1995 season in journal form. Of the subtitle, "Facing Race During an NBA Season," Crouch says, "Shields presents himself as a suburban Virgil leading us into what he considers the frenzied dreamworld of other white men like himself whose hearts, hopes, and fantasies rise and fall with the fortunes of basketball teams dominated by black men. Shields believes that something essential about our country is found in that set of real -- and dreamworld relationships." Having earlier decried and derided hip-hop culture in contemporary youth for its ready flirtation with negative social values, an attitude he terms 'a new minstrelsy,' Crouch states that "Disdain for manners is a driving force in this book."
Somebody's model of both the 'elite' and the 'authentic' have been discarded. Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, in our society the nature of youth is rebellion, as there is not now nor has there ever been a stable cultural armature in America beyond that of free expression. Indulgence in our fantasies in most cases is part of that -- a big part. Louis Armstrong chose jazz, and even Crouch has to admit to attitudes surrounding the culture it introduced, both intrinsically and in terms of the prevailing social milieu particularly after the advent of Prohibition (which was effected in what we now know was a futile attempt to rectify a perceived decline in contemporaneous social mores) and the gangsterism that went with it, a gangsterism Crouch refers to as real -- I suppose for its sense of organization and authentic business acumen. Charlie Parker chose be-bop, and more unfortunately, heroin. What Crouch doesn't seem to realize is that being outside of today's youth, he doesn't get to choose what they do; they do, based on or in reaction to the models they see arrayed before them and what resources they have to bring to the table. The players Shields admires are referred to variously as 'knotheads' and 'shadow figures with rubber balls.' I, for one, would like to see Mr. Crouch call Dennis Rodman that to his face. I bet he would soon see whose balls had the most bounce in them.
In an earlier essay title "Segregated Fiction Blues," the target is a certain solipsism that appears to inhabit the fiction of today's young writers: "As life in America becomes an even more intriguing mix of styles, relationships, alliances, and even more combinations of cuisine, things have gotten so mucked up and segregated in the world of literature that one does not expect American writers to tell us about anything other than themselves, their mono-ethnic neighborhoods, their own backgrounds, the narrowest definitions of the classes from which they come, their erotic plumbing and its meaning, how much or how little melanin is in their skin and so forth." He reasons that "this might easily be the result of the public flogging William Styron took from Negros for his Confessions of Nat Turner," a novel published in 1967 that is a fictionalized account of the black man who led an unsuccessful revolt against forced servitude in 1831. In a reference to Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast," he quotes that "fiction editors at publishing houses gave up expecting to receive books about this roiling, ever more surprising society." The self as subject, Crouch allows, is now the norm: "Punking out. Hiding under the bed. Walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully by liquefied fear." Richard Price's foray into ghetto economics vis a vis his novel Clockers is offered as a more refreshing alternative, or Philip Roth's Human Stain, a novel about passing for white. Faulkner, who lived in the American South among black people when race was a determinant of every factor of life including going to the toilet is revered for Go Down Moses in that he "not only stepped across the color line in the book, but he also succeeded in portraying 'different kinds of Negros' , none of whom fit into anybody's stereotypes about poor Colored folks down south."
Crouch might begin by stepping into the twenty first century. These kids today might not have to worry about where they have to use the toilet except in the case of homelessness. 'Negro' and 'Colored folk' have gone the way of the segregated toilet -- the term replaced by the demographically correct one of 'African Americans.' Was this merely what has been pejoratively referred to as 'political correctness' ? I don't think so. Rather, it allows a geographical and historical context to a people that the word that the word 'Negro' and Crouch himself it seems, does not admit beyond the incursion of Europeans into Africa -- and who it appears had a propensity for misnaming everything -- and the unfortunate incidence of slavery, the clamor for its replacement mostly by a disgruntled youth Crouch has dismissed for the most part as 'wild-eyed knuckleheads.' In fact, 'nigger' -- or 'niggahs,' which Crouch and society in general views suspiciously might be more acceptable, being etymologically close to 'Niger,' a region in West Africa where most African Americans happen to be from. Whatever. Though were Roth's Nathan Zuckerman to take a look into that toilet, he might find some excrement in there. Certainly the modernism that Crouch decries as occasioning the artificial. This insistence on the term 'Negro' to describe black people places him squarely in the modern; if not in the vanguard, then certainly in the rear guard.
Danzy Senna's Caucasia, a 1998 first novel by the then twenty eight year-old about a family of mixed ethnicity in which one sister is dark-skinned while the other is white enough to pass is reviewed favorably: "What makes Caucasia such a particular event," says Crouch, "is that it is not a rant, but a complicated human picture of a number of worlds that we have not seen so well investigated before, or brought together with such clarity. The lucidity of this epic rendering allows us to recognize those varied worlds as part of the on-going dilemma of identity, which is deepened in its complexity as more and more cultures from outside the West become available." How now brown cow! Celebrated is Joyce Carol Oates' 2003 I'll Take You There in which a "young slim girl falls for a willfully hazy Negro student of philosophy ten years her senior." Crouch is deeply affected: "The way," he relates, "the young woman stands up to the corpulent dean of students who is disturbed by her sleeping with a Negro shows the girl's courage, and in a masterful turn, her gloating pride at not being a bigot or a coward." Talk about depersonalization!
After a celebration of Saul Bellow and a pass at Michael Jackson in which the tragic, surgically disfigured singer's metamorphoses are never compared to any sort of minstrelsy, a stunning comparison of the genius of Ellington, Borges, and Hemingway, in which Hemingway comes out the poorer, Alfred Appel, Jr. is noted in an essay titled "The Late, Late Blues" for Jazz Modernism while being taken to task with merit for failing to mention the Albert Murray (long Crouch's mentor) of Stomping the Blues or Ralph Ellison, though Quentin Tarantino is given the lions share of Crouch's attention.
Begun as a letter to the New York Review of Books in response to an article by David Mendelsohn published in its December 18, 2003 issue, Crouch relates that it was presented as an essay about Tarantino's Kill Bill; as fine a piece of minstrelsy as ever seen by this writer. "What Mendelsohn thought about the film or Tarantino's output in the long dismissive piece was of no importance to me." Mendelsohn himself thusly dismissed, Crouch notes that "whether Tarantino's films or screenplays are good or bad, race and crime and what they reveal to us about our society are always what his work is about, which is why he is important. He seems to have no other subjects and given what the ones he focuses on can provide, there is no need for them. Tarantino's obsessions and the questions they raise are not encompassed in single-syllable words like race." Values be damned when it comes to Tarantino, what matters is that he is an innovative filmmaker. Considering Crouch's concern with moral deconstruction, this might be a frightening thought.
While none of this is to say that I have any problem with what clearly is Crouch's frankly formidable sweep of cultural information -- always the mark of obvious intellect (which in at least the estimation of the folks at the MacArthur Foundation borders on genius) -- I do have a problem somewhat with how he processes that information. Maybe I just don't understand genius, but I get the feeling sometimes reading Mr. Crouch that were he to take a seat on the Supreme Court, he would come off more as a Clarence Thomas sort than the Thurgood Marshall he rightfully, respectfully reprises. While I could give a couple of notes to his editor, I will suffice to end on this one which is more or less in line with my rant on etymology: a 'tinker's dam' was a device for diverting water from his grindstone. It was never a curse.
By the last essay, titled "Blues to Go," Crouch appears to have triumphantly entered the millennium, reducing the Spanish language 'Negro' to an adjective by translation into English and adding the noun 'people.' The effect is so much more becoming. "For those great contributors with bigoted limitations," he says of William Shockley, "One must always be ready to say, thank you, and fuck you very much." I say, "Ivey divey."