When It All Falls Down: Hmong Remix

“Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?”

— a 70- or 80-year old Hmong man displaced to California, quoted in Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

A year ago, I had never heard of the Hmong people, a nomadic Asian hill tribe continually settled and displaced across China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand until, after the Vietnam War ravaged their homelands, many came to settle in the United States.

I first encountered the Hmong in Jason Aaron’s SCALPED, a deliciously violent and seamy comic book series about the overlapping criminal and political exploits of the Lakota people on the fictional Nebraska Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. In SCALPED the Hmong are antagonists, a group of tattooed gangsters from Minneapolis who finance Chief Red Crow’s casino and then demand accountability for their investment.

The next time the Hmong crossed my pop-culture consumption screen was a few months ago when my boyfriend and I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino. Aside from the Hmong lead’s lovely explanation to Clint that it’s pronounced “Mong,” not “H-mong,” and the prominent characteristics of family and gift-giving versus criminality and gang-inclinations we see in the extemporaneous Hmong characters, the film was a more accurate showcase of Western cultural values, since to be the hero of the movie Clint has to (SPOILER ALERT!!) sacrifice himself (see Jesus, Harry Potter). In this case, the povertorific Hmong are living in scary urban Detroit where we see a lot of cars, underemployed teenagers, and threateningly sexual black people.

Or, as Bill Hader put it last Saturday, “Get a Chrysler. And get off my damn lawn.”

After those two unseemly representations it was a blessing I finally found my way to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s wonderful exploration of the cultural impasse between an epileptic Hmong child’s family and her doctors in Merced, California. People, this book is SO GOOD. It is empathetic, historically aware, culturally and linguistically sensitive, expertly told, beautifully written, mythological. Fadiman treats the Hmongs’ history as though it is as nuanced and important as our own, and Western medicine as based on the assumptions, mythologies and legends that all worldviews are. She writes in her Preface:

After I heard about the Lees’ daughter Lia, whose case had occasioned some of the worst strife the Merced hospital had ever seen, and after I got to know her family and her doctors, and after I realized how much I liked both sides and how hard it was to lay the blame at anyone’s door (though God knows I tried), I stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which mean that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong. (x)

What a sentence! Interestingly, my only criticism in reading this book came in right after my epigraph, above. In the same paragraph in which Fadiman quotes this gentleman wondering how, after hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years of civil disobedience, migration and survival in Southeast Asia, so many Hmong have become impoverished and dependent Americans, Fadiman’s irascible optimism finally distressed me. “Much has broken down , but not everything,” she writes. “I can think of no other group of immigrants whose culture, in its most essential aspects, has been so little eroded by assimilation” (207-208).

What a deflection–and in the face of this book’s most powerful incrimination of the American war empire, which enlisted Lao Hmong to fights its superfluous war in Vietnam, then granted Hmong asylum into an American community that knew nothing of their contributions abroad and instead often associated them with the enemy. The old man’s question “Why…is everything breaking down?” teased at the fault lines of our notion of a free society. By Fadiman’s account, the Hmong people she interviewed didn’t want welfare payments but arable land to replace the 10-gallon tubs-cum-planters full of herbs in the parking lots behind their homes.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has raised similar questions. Protesters’ efforts to flood streets and camp in parks en masse have drawn attention to the loss of genuine public space in our polity. The great irony of Zuccotti Park was that in this newly monitored era, only a private park like Zuccotti wouldn’t close to the public overnight.

Further, while SCALPED is written by a White American, its attitude of subversive resistance to America’s public transcript–regarding Indians, criminality and the FBI–finds linguistic potency in its frequent use of the words “nigger” and “nigga” toward and between Native Americans. I am coming to suspect that understanding these words, their meanings, usages and differences, is fundamental to apprehending the contours of hiphop.

In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R. A. T. Judy attempts an ontological question: what does it mean to be nigga authentically? Judy’s essay attempts to upend the easy genealogy posited by others between the contemporary hardcore rapper, the gangster, that nigga, with the antebellum “bad nigger” and the postbellum badman by suggesting that the hardcore rapper is not an extension of these characters’ oppositional relationship to authority and paradoxically self-policing role within the community. Judy sees the question of nigga authenticity as an ontological question, not a moral-political one.

Defining “nigger” (in nearly Beloved-esque prose), Judy writes: “The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains…That force is the thing that the planter owns. It is the property of the planter that is the nigger. The nigger is that thing” (109).

On the relationship of the a/moral badman to the police: “…for Spencer…the heroic badman is a figure of legitimate moral resistance to white oppression. ….As W.E.B. Du Bois remarked…the systematic use of the law by white authorities to disenfranchise blacks after the resumption of home rule in the South caused blacks to make avoidance of the law a virtue…In this understanding, the black community becomes the police in order to not give the police any reason or cause to violate it. ….In other words, the function of the police, as officers of the courts, is to turn the negro back into a nigger” (107-110).

Occupy All Streets?

On nigga authenticity: “This is the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodification, and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect….The nigga is constituted in the exchange of experience for affect….[T]he hard-core gangster rapper traffics in affect and not values. In this sense, hard-core rap is the residual of the nonproductive work of translating experience into affect….[N]igga defines authenticity as adaptation to the force of commodification” (111-112).

That is (and it took me many reads to figure this one out), according to Judy, the nigga is not the reincarnation of the badman or the bad nigger but of the “simple nigger” (his term) who, like his antebellum ancestor enmeshed in the struggle between thingness and humanness, has recast himself for the modern terms of the debate as the site of the conflict between commodity and humanness. According to Judy, “Nigga is a commodity affect”–that is, nigga is the feeling of being a commodity, nigga is the feeling of being an interchangeable, saleable good, a feeling that is made to be exported, precisely in that it is the feeling of commodification. It is intrinsically exportable. Though I wish Judy would go further to account for the apparent reclaiming of this term by commodified peoples.

In the context of Judy’s argument, what does the nigger/nigga dichotomy mean from and for nonblack peoples of color? In SCALPED, “nigger” is used by white characters to describe Indians and “nigga” is used by people of color to describe themselves. Judy writes, “Black folk, who have always been defined in relation to work, went the way of work” (104). In the context of the cooping up of the real Hmong-American people in Fadiman’s study, perhaps nonblacks’ appropriation of nigga hints at the ontological dilemma faced by all people of color (whose bodies in America have also always been associated with work) in a contemporary post-work America, in the same way that whites’ creative employment of “nigger” to describe a whole host of ethnic people confirms America’s presumed equivalence between non-white bodies and labor commodity.

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White Americans Don’t Believe in Death (a collection of testaments for Dr. King, belatedly)

Last semester, after my students were done working on a small-group activity involving theologian James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, one of my students announced that Cone was guilty of reverse racism. From the section on “The Blues and Sex,” here was the passage which offended him:

People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love.

Now, this book is and will continue to be a hard book to treat in an introductory class, not least because of Cone’s fondness for the steadfast binary (here, at least) between “white oppressors” and “black people.” But that body/spirit split so central to Western Christian thinking is worth meditating on.

I first came upon it in feminist criticisms of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which criticized this binary as not only an underappreciation of the fullness of the human condition, but–in the way that the spirit was continually valorized over the body–a construction that led to an overemphasis on sins and salvations of the spirit. Judith Plaskow wrote in her Sex, Sin and Salvation:

First of all, Niebuhr’s concern with the negative side of creatureliness may be part of what leads him to underestimate the sin of sensuality. The fact that Niebuhr ignores the positive features of human naturalness may prevent him from fully apprehending sensuality’s temptations. Not seeing human beings as continually, positively involved in the world’s vitalities, he is less likely to view loss of self in some aspect of these vitalities as a clear and ever present danger. (1980, 69)

How great of a word is creatureliness???

But this distance from the realities of the human body have repercussions outside the realm of the theologians, in spaces spiritual and political. In his book The Fire Next Time (1962), James Baldwin explained the conundrum simply and powerfully (as he explains all things in that little book).

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality–the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life….But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. (Cone’s emphases)

Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes related comments in his essay “Dia de los Muertos,” from his 1961 collection Laberinto de la Soledad, in which he contextualizes death’s disappearance as a paradox of modernity.

Modern death (Paz writes) does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. It is rarely anything more than the inevitable conclusion of a natural process. In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact, contrary to all our concepts and to the very meaning of our lives, the philosophy of progress (“Progress toward what, and from what?” Scheler asked) pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account, it is suppressed everywhere: in political pronouncements, commercial advertising, public morality and popular customs; in the promise of cut-rate heath and happiness offered to all of us by hospitals, drugstores and playing fields. But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. The century of health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.

In his recent article for the Washington Post, “Why do we ignore civilians killed in American wars?” John Tierman detailed the many ways that official tallies undercount the damage done by the Iraq War–but his argument is more about the attitudes that underlie such a callous inattention. Suggesting that America’s wars of the last 50 years have produced around six million casualties (no Holo), he refers to a theory called the “just world” theory, “which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational” and explains that the “The public dismissed the civilians [of Vietnam, Korea and Iraq] because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world”  (Tierman).

Sounds to me like Mr. Tiernan found–but didn’t name– another reason Americans ignore death: chauvinism.