Hey y’all, I’m writing to share some happy news (and then I’ll get to Yeezus): a novella I wrote, SORRY FOR PARTYING, was recently named a runner-up for the Paris Literary Prize, a novella competition run by the wonderful Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris. On top of the honor itself, the sponsoring de Groot Foundation flew me out to Paris for the weekend to celebrate literature with my co-runner up, Svetlana Lavochkina, for her novella DAM DUCHESS, and the big winner, C. E. Smith, for his novella BODY ELECTRIC, along with all the wonderful folks in the Shakespeare & Co Community.
“Night is deliverance.”
– Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
She took her to Toledo to seduce her.
Toledo, Spain, that is, not Ohio, and she being Aisha and the other she being Lena, my older sister, the eldest of us four Kahanes.
Let’s try that again.
Aisha took my sister Lena to Toledo, Spain, to seduce her. This was back in spring of 2006, when they had been living in Berlin for a year, working diligently (too diligently, actually, thus the trip) on their modern American English-language translation of the Thousand and One Nights, and not sleeping together, which is not what Aisha had had in mind. They lived and worked in a storefront flat in Kreuzberg, the Turkish neighborhood the hipsters loved, but back then they still sat at their desks with papers spread around them, and the Persian rug Aisha stole from her husband sat unused on the floor, dotted with cushions, a kid of leisure-lounge area. (Eventually they would eschew the desks and spend all their time on the floor, lounging. But we’ll get to that.) In spring of 2006, you recall, the two American wars were dragging on and Katrina had recently doused New Orleans and Dubya’s approval rating hovered around twenty percent.
But Lena, my sister, wasn’t concerned with American current events. She had graduated from Princeton with a degree in Linguistics and was living in Europe with her favorite professor, Aisha Wasila, and together they were rewriting The Nights for a modern American audience. It was going very well: if nothing else, those four years at Jersey’s fanciest country club had imparted to Lena excellent writing and research skills, and military-grade study habits, a work ethic the nation’s premier Presbyterian university could be proud of, in a Calvinist, good-works sort of way. In their first year in Berlin, Lena and Aisha had categorically sifted through the thousands of Xeroxed pages of multiphonic versions of The Nights Aisha had copied from many dozens of manuscripts and anthologies in the tri-state area over the past seven years, then schlepped across an ocean in seven boxes when they moved. Now the copied tales were laid out along the southern wall of the apartment, organized by provenance and subject, Toledo, Istanbul, Paris, Algiers across, Sindbad, Aladdin, Scheherezad down.
It was from this well-lit, well-organized enclave of healthy work habits and professional relationships that Aisha looked up one morning from her work table and turned innocently to Lena, her charge, and asked, “Have you ever even seen a Medieval Arab city?”
“No,” Lena scoffed. She lived plumbly in the ahistorical present, in a converted storefront apartment in the formerly East Berlin, with a woman who had been her professor and would be her lover, but for now was only her roommate, and her boss. “Have you?”
“Only my hometown,” Aisha replied, but did not give its name. She looked at Lena’s profile, its cameo sheen: the long white neck, the subtle nosey bump, the black shadow of hair. The girl was ready for the next step. “You don’t find this problematic?” Aisha went on. She clutched at the papers that littered her desk. “That you will write Basra with never having seen it?”
“I’m not going to Iraq,” Lena said.
“No.” Aisha looked out the wide front windows at the chic Berliners ambling by. “I suppose no one is, save your soldiers and your tanks. No, we will go to Toledo.”
“They’re not mine,” Lena whined. She was still looking at her computer screen, where she’d been typing out a new draft of the Hunchback’s Tale. “You’re American, too.”
“Citizen, not ethnicity.”
“There is no American ethnicity. I’m Jewish.”
“Don’t remind me,” Aisha said. She stood up, closed her laptop, and smoothed her hair. “Come, we must pack.”
 It always opens with a scene.
Or perhaps use a question:
How does one begin a story like this? With a scene:
Or maybe I could allude to the beginning of The Thousand and One Nights, which opens at the bedside of a dying king.
No: Too soon. Patience, storytelling is all about Patience, Nathan (I tell myself: I being Nathan, your humble narrator.)
Let’s leave it as it is: A scene. The rest is implicit: every story opens with a scene. Even the first one: big bang, om, tsimstum, breishit bara, heaven and earth, lingam and yoni, Krishna and Shiva, the opening dance.
All right, okay, I get it: a scene, sure, but my God, make it grand.
 This would be in sharp contrast to my own experience at Princeton, where I gleaned the alternative skill set of hobnobbing and substance abuse, a charted course which would eventually see me duly punished, freeing me up to narrate the unusual tale of my sister’s escape to Germany (an 21st century inversion of the typical holocaust-era tale).
A plotter, Aisha had already bought the tickets. Aisha was cunning, but she was organized about it. Had she even pushed Lena and Ted together, that first day in Arabian Nights class? I don’t know. And if she was already researching the Nights at that time, she redoubled her efforts, so that by the time Lena graduated four years later, Aisha had a foreign fellowship all lined up. All she needed was an assistant who could read Turkish, Arabic, French, and Greek. Luckily, she had trained her protégé well. Now Lena watched as Aisha packed for a long weekend escape: two cashmere sweaters, a black cardigan and a white pullover; three t-shirts, black, white, and tan; one pair of slacks and one pair of jeans; two brassieres, one black and one beige; five pairs of underwear, three briefs and two thongs; four pairs of socks, one wool; one pair of water-resistant boots and one pair of loafers; and a small cosmetic case containing mascara, lipstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste, conditioner, shampoo, and a hotel-sized bar of soap. Then she separated out the boots, the jeans, one sweater, one t-shirt, one set of underthings, and looked up at Lena, who had stood above her, watching, and said: “For the plane. Plus jewels. Well? Go pack.”
Lena put some clothes in a bag and soon they were on the airplane. The Eurozone crisis was a vague forethought in the some corners of the universities and Spain and Germany had nothing to say one another. The metro on both sides was good, but Berlin’s was better. When they arrived, Aisha could speak Spanish. They took the Metro to the Atocha station and Aisha bought their commuter rail tickets to Toledo and they killed an hour in the atrium, drinking espressos. Around them under the filtered sunlight milled dark women with their sleep ponytails tied into elaborate knots and this was what Lena had thought Italy would be like, and did, until a few months later when they went to Rome.
The commuter rail sped south and to Lena, who had never seen Spain, or any other arid landscape, the blank plateau seemed designed by Miguel Cervantes himself for the express contextualization of Quijote’s interminable quest. Looking out the window, Lena recognized that for the Knight of La Mancha, son of this flat, expressionless land, delirious fantasies were the only recourse for spiritual survival. On the train car with she and Aisha was a large group of schoolchildren shepherded by two school teachers, one old and one young, who turn turns ignoring the children. Aisha sat in the aisle seat reading a magazine in Spanish and periodically looked up at the window to deliver Lena a disquisition on how the Mideival Moorish occupation of Spain had brough not only Scheherezad but also algebra, astronomy, and Aristotle to Europe.
Then, in an hour, it was eight hundred years ago. From the train Lena watched Toledo rise out of the plain like a city built atop a giant turtle’s back, all the stone and brick the same color as the earth itself, the buildings like barnacles stuck to a shell. From the train station at the outskirts of the city they took a taxi to the studio apartment of an absent person Aisha knew from somewhere. (In every European city they went, and this was the first of many, Aisha would know a missing person. So Lena never met any of them, never found any witnesses to fill in the gaps about Aisha’s life. Lena got to know Aisha’s friends by their houseplants, their foreign woven rugs, their furniture, stark or plush, the painted details on their dinner plates.) The cab wound up into the city through narrow streets, and the locals hugged stone walls to let it pass. Their apartment was on the third floor of a building undifferentiated from its neighbors, denoted only by a numeral alongside the narrow wooden door set into the stone, which opened to a surprising formica liner on the stairs. Inside, bright white walls and a window box that needed watering, suspended over the view of a beautiful alley. In one corner a kitchenette, in another a loveseat, in a third, a narrow futon with sleeping space only for one.
For two days they walked. Munching on marzapan bought made in a convent by nuns, they entered every synagogue and cátedral and mosque. They saw suits of armor in shop windows and children’s swords for sale and above every streetred streamers were hung as though a festival had just ended, or was about to begin. Each church boasted its own Goya, the jazz-age faces wracked with grief, the heavenly light dissolved among the jewel-toned villagers and hills. In an ancient mosque-cum-synagogue with faded Coptic Jesus on the wall, Lena caught her breath and hoped those were tears in her eyes.
Lena insisted they go to the Jewish museum, tugged by some vague unstoppable internalization of our mother and her mother and hers: You went to Europe and not to the Jewish museum (there was always one, wasn’t there)? Ach! Go! Go! Go!
Inside the retiring synagouge the walls were covered, floor to triple-high ceilings, with Hebrew script. Lena stood under the light emitted by the rose-cut windows in the high stone and felt like a black ant inside a Torah scroll, ecstatic, trapped. On the second floor, the women’s section had been converted into a gallery for dead Jews’ things. Lena stood at a map of the post-inquisition diaspora and watched as the Jews to whom she was least related fled Spain for Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Algiers. These Sephardic Jews were not our Jews. When the Temple fell, they went east, into Europe, while we middled in Germany, inventing Yiddish, before schlepping east.
A fat Spanish woman with hair dyed red approached smiling and asked, “Eres Judeo?” and Lena said, “Si,” and when Aisha appeared the woman included her in her broad beatific gaze. “Hermosas?” “No,” Aisha said, “somos investigadoras de la historia Judaismo,” and the woman smiled sadly and nodded her grey roots and drifted away.
Aisha led Lena by the elbow to a glass case holding shawls and candlesticks begging to be used, but locked away instead. “The Megillat Ester,” she said, indicating a tiny scroll unrolling into endless miniature Hebrew script. “Orientalists suggested—mostly notably in the 1912 Encyclopedia Brittannica entry on the Nights—that Scheherezad and Queen Esther were the same woman, both second wives to an ancient, insomniac Persian king, both with unusual sway over such a powerful man.”
“Is that true?” Lena asked. She peered into the glass case, looking for answers.
“Are the texts true?” Aisha stood close beside Lena, matching her breath. “It doesn’t matter if they’re true. They’re symbolic. They’re true mythology. Look at the symbolism in the first few lines.” And she offered an approximatae translation. “And there, in the time of Ataxerxes—he Ataxerxes, who reigned then from India to Ethiopia, and so forth, in the third year of his reign, and seven chamberlains, and the seven princes.”
“It’s a lot of sevens.” Looking closely, Lena could see the repetition of the Hebrew word seven, שבע , across the first few lines, the mythic three-pronged ש, the little crowns rising off its slick calligraphy. Lena turned and walked to the banister and looked out over the empty shul. Here in the women’s section the light from the rose windows hovered at eye level on the far wall, igniting the calligraphy with flames. On the ground floor, three steps led up to an ark that stood open and empty, the velvet cushions long gone, the Torah scrolls adopted or burned.
That night, after tapas and Tempranillo on Zocodaver square, Lena and Aisha returned to the absent friend’s flat. The night before they had slept chastely side-by-side, but tonight Aisha had other plans. Of course, I wasn’t there. But I can imagine. Did they stand at the window, watching the moon hover over the narrow streets, downing another glass of wine? Did Aisha brush a tendril of my sister’s long hair from her face, did she whisper entreaties of love? Or perhaps it was a roving foot, a meandering hand, that reached for my sister’s body when they were already tucked into the narrow bed. She must have expected it, in some way. Aisha was a highly sexual person. Lena was a year gone from Ted, her first and last true love. Who knows what her body needed, or could settle for, in that heady moment, head swimming with intellectual excitement, her body hot with the day’s excercise and wine. I imagine a few tender kisses in a foreign city was all it took, the first finger pulled (if I may say so) from the dyke. When they returned to Berlin, to their shared apartment, Lena was Aisha’s, at least until now.
* * *
Phew! Call it Freudian, but for me writing and shitting have a lot in common. Both involve dropping my pants (figuratively in the former sense), my most private self exposed, and dedicating myself the difficult work of self-excavation with extreme purpose and single-mindedness. I really have to push. In both cases I must identify hidden interior material, composted and compacted after its long, winding journey through my being, and eject it (moaning and groaning all the while) into some blank white receptacle of my distress. If Geertz suggested that delayed gratification is the central psychological feature of the modern world (not to mention the modern novel, am I right? Bueller? Cervantes? Anyone?” then I am not ashamed to declare myself the first to proclaim (if not downright discover) that constipation just might be the governing metaphor of mankind’s contemporary, technologically mediated existence.
Of course, if Lena were here, she would object that our world’s first novel, if we are defining the novel by its embrace of the conceit of delayed gratification (which is to say, suspense), is not Don Quijote but rather that endlessly iterated collection of tales to which my sister would insiste the Quijote is obviously, indeed explicitly, indebted, Nathan, that is, The Thousand and One Nights. But returning to an earlier point, the invocation of The…Nights, in whose pages waiting strikes a decidedly sexual tenor, allows us to infer that the action of delayed gratification is an inherently sexual or preferably sensual act. By which I mean—the holding it in—before, you know, letting it out—I mean—it feels good.
And woe to you if you call them “The Arabian Nights,” since as Lena will tell you (O for she has studied—under, literally under!—such a venerable scholar of The Nights) these tales traveled the Silk Road from Africa to China, and were originally recorded by the Persians, and have been transposed into all the world’s great languages, soon to be including (no offense to the Briton Burton) American English.
I know what you’re thinking—what, suddenly with a BA and three years of private cunning linguistic lessons from Aisha, Lena’s the master of the modern American idiom? Ahem?! Narrator here!
Far be it from me to protest that she doesn’t even live in America, because, then again, neither do I.
But I oughtn’t apologize: this is my story, even if they’re Lena’s facts, and so what if I’m cramped up in a moldy bathroom on the repossessed Israeli shores of the Mediterranean. (Yes, despite Aisha’s protestations, this story is Jewish. But at least my heritage offers the literary precedent of Portnoy, Sr., for my cramped-up kischkes.) And sheesh, if Lenaa told this tale, you’d miss the whole delicious context: that is to say, our family, the Knight-Abraham-Kahanes. As much as Lena may have thought running away from us all to Germany exempted herself from this grand Jewish-American tale of which she is a necessary part, it didn’t. Why do you think she ran away in the first place?
I’ll tell you why: it’s because she fell in love with a schvartze. A black.
Ted Knight, no relation.
Tadik “Ted” Knight, whose Arabic-inflected given name didn’t help matters as far as the social hostilities unleashed by Lena’s miscegenation were concerned, despite everyone’s protests that the issue wasn’t that Ted was black but simply, defensibly, that he was a goy.
Yeah, right. The old shaygetz excuse.
Of course, ours is a contemporary American family, so our bigotry was never so explicit (except in a few instances, when it was), but Lena was a good girl and a good daughter, played soccer in high school and excelled in her studies, she went to Princeton for Chrissakes, and so after years of satisfying my parents’ every wish for her this last, enormous failure needed only to grate on her for a few years before the bough cracked and she split.
It didn’t help that he asked her to marry him. What was she supposed to say, yes?
Aisha was the wild card. Aisha, who had been watching Lena and Ted since the first day they met, who then, when Lena was at her most vulnerable, pounced. She carried my sister away to Berlin, business class, where they still stay, living, working, and fucking even now, as we (figuratively) speak.
But, in Lena’s case, every trip has to come down eventually. Even now, as dusk falls over Berlin, the rumblings of her next abandonment are beginning to break the placid surface of her socialist work-life-conflation with Aisha. (Aisha, who, like any adulteress, hadn’t minded Lena’s fickleness when it was she Lena was leaving for.) If Lena had anything to say on the matter, she would insist that bad luck has followed her from the get-go, that she’s not a leaver but a loser, not the schlemiel spilling soup but the schlemazel unto whose lap it is spilled.
Oh, fuck her and her long hair.
Forgive me. As the eldest of her three brothers, I am not impartial. I am also among those whom Lena has left.
This is all easier to tell than show, but I know that isn’t the way. I won’t waste any more of your time hypothesizing as to the roots of Lena’s commitment-phobia, whose infinite set of possible originary causes begins with our parents’ divorce and extends back to the Russian pogroms, the destruction of the Second Temple, the eviction from Paradise itself.
And here I get ahead of myself, or more precisely, behind. I’ve all but already declared that storytelling takes patience, takes time—from both of us, reader, you and me, so stick around and I’ll explain it all. Just picture me the hare, plodding forward one step at a time, while fleet-footed Achilles (standing in for my plot) advances upon us from the starting line. Movement may be impossible—I know, I know, tell it to my bowels—but it is certainly probable (thank God!), that is, difficult to avoid. Zeno’s protestations notwithstanding, I promise the story will catch up with us in time.
And anyway, it’s midnight here, and I’ve been perched on the toilet too long, and I know you’re eager to get to Berlin, where my sister and Aisha lay sprawled on a woolen carpet embroidered with a rendering of Eden (whose potent symbolism will presently be revealed).
Could it be? I think I feel something stirring down below. If you’ll excuse me, I have pressing business to attend to. Ah, the armchair historian sinks to a new low.
Black Noise is a work of literary criticism by Tricia Rose.
White Noise is a novel by Don DeLillo.
Black Noise was published in 1994, White Noise in 1985. Both books are about the effects of industrialization and a consumerist capitalism on Americans. Black Noise is about inner-city youths of color; White Noise is about a family of white suburbanites. Both are about noise– “a rapid and urgent cadence” (DeLillo 157); “rap’s volume, looped drum beats, and bass frequencies” (Rose 63)– and chaos. They are about human responses to trauma.
White Noise is a novel about a family living in a town over which descends a toxic cloud, a “toxic airborne event.” The novel is about the persistence of the quotidian in the face of real airborne danger. It is about absurdity and marriage, aging and death. DeLillo’s protagonist says, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots” (26).
Black Noise is about the absurdity of life, not death. It is about hiphop’s creative resistance:
“Let us imagine these hip hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them. However, be also prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways that will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics” (39).
While White Noise is about trash…
“I went home and started throwing things away. I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationery, manuscripts of articles I’d written, galley proofs of the same aarticles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-outtoasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house.”
…Black Noise is about recycling:
“The postindustrial city, which provided the context for creative development among hip hop’s earliest innovators, shaped their cultural terrain, access to space, materials, and education. While graffiti artists’ work was significantly aided by advances in spray paint technology, they used the urban transit system as their canvas. Rappers and DJs disseminated their work by copying it on tape-dubbing equitment and playing it on powerful, portable ‘ghetto blasters.’ At a time when budget cuts in school music programs drastically reduced access to traditional forms of instrumentation and composition, inner-city youths increasingly relied on recorded sound. Breakdancers used their bodies to mimic ‘transformers’ and other futuristic robots in symbolic street battles….Hip hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afrodiasporic communities” (34-35).
Taken together, these two books chart two perspectives on the white flight from the postwar urban center, the fear and confusion of all involved, their recourse to things, their desire to create and be meaningful, the market forces that constrain them, the noise that fills their ears, the sound of being American.
Does this ever happen to you? You take a book out from the library, start reading, and almost immediately realize (prompted, perhaps, by the urge to underline something) that this is a book you’ll return to again and again, it ought to be annotated, ever on your shelf, and perhaps you should stop reading immediately, go buy the darn thing, and process it pen in hand. Well, that was me and Invisible Man. Library property notwithstanding, I couldn’t help folding up bottom corners of important pages, and I’ve been renewing its check-out online all summer, since I read it in June. The time has come for me to record what needs recording, unfold those folded pages, and let Invisible Man appear to the next thirsty reader.
(Irony of ironies, when I first went to check this book out, four or five copies were actually missing–invisible–from the library. Maybe because it’s so good? But definitely time to get mine back into circulation.)
I picked it up on a tip from visiting scholar Adam Bradley–the author of The Book of Rhymes and The Yale Anthology of Rap. He was at Michigan to give a lecture and we got talking about his early work in the Ralph Ellison archives at Harvard. Ellison, he insisted, had much to say about hiphop. After a first unsatisfying stint with Ellison’s Collected Essays, I finally found my way to Invisible Man. Now, three months later, bear with me as I work through my enigmatically dog-eared but un-annotated copy, as I rewrite, riff and remember…
He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed form the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,”” he whispered fiercely; then he died. (16)
That, there, was the first shock: learning, so early, so explicit, so extra-curricular. And learn what? The art of signifying, of subterfuge, of saying yes and knowing no, of nodding along but knowing so. This page, appropriately, I left un-marked. But my first dog ear returns to a similar concept, after I hard realized with much joy that our titular character would spend the first part of his story at school.
“Ordered you?” he said. “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness–smallpox–or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My god, boy! You’re black and living in the South–did you forget how to lie?”
“Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?”
He shook his head with a kind of anguish. “And me thinking I’d picked a boy with a brain,” he said. “Didn’t you know you were endangering the school?”
“But I was only trying to please him…”
“Please him! And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” (139)
And then a moment that really struck me, the vignette that not only launches our hero into politics but reminded me so strongly (now, one year later) of the stated goals and principles of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, this section of Invisible Man warrants its own post, essay, critical study, as the invisible man and a crowd of citizens functionally occupy an eviction.
“We’re dispossessed,” I sang at the top of my voice, “disposessed and we want to pray. Let’s go in and pray. Let’s have a big prayer meeting. But we’ll need some chairs to sit in…rest upon as we kneel. We’ll need some chairs!”
“Here’s some chairs down here,” a woman called from the walk. “How ’bout taking in some chairs?”
“Sure,” I called, “take everything. Take it all, hide that junk! Put it back where it came from, It’s blocking the street and the sidewalk, and that’s against the law. Put it out of sight! Hid it, hide their shame! Hide our shame!”…
“We ought to done this long ago,” a man said.
“We damn sho should,”
“I feel so good,” a woman said. “I feel so good!”…
“It’s a good idea.”
“Let’s have a demonstration…”
“Let’s parade!” …
“What’s going on here?” a gold-shield officer called up the steps….”You,” he called, pointing straight at me.
“We’ve…we’ve been clearing the sidewalk of a lot of junk,” I called, tense inside….
“You mean you’re interfering with an eviction,” he called, starting through the crowd.
“He ain’t doing nothing,” a woman called from behind me.
I looked around, the steps behind were filled with those who had been inside
“We’re all together,” someone called, as the crowd closed in.
“Clear the streets,” the officer ordered.
“That’s what we were doing,” someone called from back in the crowd.
“Mahoney!” he bellowed to another policeman, “send in a riot call!”
“What riot?” one of the white men called to him. “There’s no riot.”
“If I say there’s a riot, there’s a riot,” the officer said. “And what re you white people doing up here in Harlem?” (281-283)
My next folded corner was prompted by a theme that has interested me since I researched feminist theology in college: the theme of self-actualization or coming out–what W.E.B. DuBois called that “second self” and what feminist theologian Judith Plaskow termed “the yeah, yeah experience” of realizing that other women have had the same experience of difference that you have. This is a theme you may hear more about from me: I’m not only interested here in the overlap between of-color, queer, and feminist literatures and ways of thinking, but also of the more general notion that every fully human adult person has to undergo some sort of coming-into-coming-out experience. Here’s Ellison’s take:
And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left the campus; but now a new, painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere…and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit….Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge. (259)
And this one, which reminded me of my abiding sense that more people are different than not, that minorities are a majority, that the queer, disabled, of color, female, poor of the world added together make many more than the various normals do:
Let’s get together, uncommon people. With both our eyes we may see what makes us so uncommon, we’ll see who makes us so uncommon! (344)
At the end of this speech, our protagonist adds:
I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity!…With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. (346)
Beautiful lines which harken to Ellison’s commitment, stated in his essays and especially in his comments that “”Richard Wright is no spiritual brother of mine” (I paraphrase, I think), to a humanity that is beyond race, that uses race only to transcend it. But our narrator’s later reflections belie the newness, the novelty, of this novel, and I marked them for my craft-lesson frustrations with them, for their belaboring an already-made point:
Words, phrases, skipped through my mind; I saw the blue haze again. What had I meant by saying that I had become “more human”? Was it a phrase that I had picked up from some preceding speaker, or a slip of the tongue? For a moment I thought of my grandfather and quickly dismissed him. What had an old slave to do with humanity? (354)
And here, a joy of novel-writing that no essay can ever accomplish: fiction’s distinct dialogism, its capacity for dialogue, for two modes of thought within one piece of prose:
“And you, mahn,” the Exhorter said, “a regl’lar little black devil! A godahm sly mongoose! Where you think you from, going with the white folks? I know, godahm; don’t I know it! You from down South! You from Trinidad! You from Barbados! Jamaica, South Africa, and the white mahn’s foot in your ass all the way to the hip. What you trying to deny by betrayin gthe black people? Why you fight against us? You young fellows. You young black men with plenty education; I been hearing your rabble rousing. Why you go over to the enslaver? What kind of education is that? What kind of black mahn is that who betray his own mama?” (371)
More on learning:
“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”
“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”
“Brother, he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning– Please sit down.”
“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us tehse days. We could use this time more profitably.” (465)
And later, the question of leader vs. leaderlessness returns when our hero faces his superiors:
“Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”
“You’ve said that,” I said, “and that’s the one thing you can tell them yourself. Who are you, anyway, the great white father?”
“Not their father, their leader. And your leader. And don’t forget it.” (473)
A Genesis shout-out:
And back and high on the wall above him there arched the words in letters of gold: LET THERE BE LIGHT! The whole scene quivered vague and mysterious in the green light, then the door closed and the sound muted down. (498)
And a reminder of the book’s weighty, tangible use of symbols::
I took a cab. Hambro lived in the West Eighties, and once in the vestibuleI tucked the hat under my arm and put the glasses in my pocket along with Brother Tarp’s leg chain and Clifton’s doll [a mammy figurine]. My pocket was getting overloaded. (500)
And the boomerang comes back again:
It was a joke, an absurd joke. And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emrson merge into one single white figure….I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used….I didn’t know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I’d overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I’d let them swoller me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them chocke on it….would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? (508-509)
And in anticipation of Lil Wayne…
“I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.” (571)
So I’ll end with an epigraph I’ve used before, on Signifying, from Weezy:
I see the end in the beginning
So I’m not racing, I’m just sprinting
Cause I don’t wanna finish
They diminish, I replenish. (“Let the Beat Build, Tha Carter III)
These have been Notes on a Future Seminar Paper. Peace, y’all.