By John Kendall Hawkins
One of the strangest-turned-ugly conversations I’ve ever found myself trapped in had to do with the pronunciation of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Should you say it with or without the accent? I was beginning a new career as an English teacher overseas — in Istanbul — and was unpacking my books in my new “digs” when an Australian female visitor noticed the novel. An argument so pedantic ensued that it is shocking to remember to this day. A British woman was brought in to the tiff, aligning herself against the Yank (me), and we went around, like an Anglo menace, turning the accent mark off and on like a light switch. No mention of the novel’s contents ever braved itself into the mêlée.
Toni Morrison loved language, not just the way a writer does, but as direct source of liberation, of taking personal ownership of the meaning of one’s existence — a way of escaping the reification of utterances, and the black-and-white nuances that made libearal arts students canon fodder for the Ivy-towered academics who controlled the Ways of Seeing our common culture. In the uncivil war that ensued between the plantationists and the counterculture in the Sixties, Morrison dodged many a canonball, in the fight for literary reconstruction in America that made her beloved Beloved a curricular — and an eventual Nobel prize-winning — possibility.
Toni Morrison reminds me of the Oracle in The Matrix, a source for insight, a provider of clews to those lost in the Minotaur’s maze (ostensibly what the Matrix System is to the unenlightened). Interestingly, in her Nobel Prize speech Morrison describes such an “old blind woman” who is a seer of riddles. Some children come to visit the woman with a bird in one of their hands, and, as a prank, ask her to say whether it is dead or alive. She will have nothing to do with their game, and is uninterested whether or not there is a ‘diacritical mark’ attached to the bird.
Morrison continues, “Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know’, she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’”
Morrison could easily be speaking not to mischievous children about a bird, but to the old childish guardians of classical culture who want to keep out the challenges of postmodernism in the curriculum by tripping up and undermining Morrison’s understanding of the Free Bird we call language. She seems to be saying to them, If the bird is language, it’s up to you who hold it to determine if the bird is to be dead or alive. Nobel literary prize winners are often called on to address their contribution to language evolution. I consider Morrison’s gift of ‘the bird’ a kind of parable.
Her Nobel address also echoes the beginning of Beloved (inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner), where she places Sethe, an elderly Black woman, in a chair on the porch of her house, looking outward and inward at the empty landscapes. The house is a kind of maze of memories from which she has escaped, but not without catastrophic collateral damage, the result of running away from monster slavery. Though hard to fathom anymore, because we live in the ever-white-noisy age of the Internet, Sethe sits there, her mind, between memories, bringing in the language of silence that comes at her like a microphone’s automatic gain. The language of people and the language of being. The tweet she receives is a bluebird’s.
When Sethe receives an old friend, he notes her existential blinding. She has: “A face too still for comfort; irises the same colour as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes. Even in the tiny shack, leaning so close to the fire you could smell the heat in her dress, your eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing. Even punched out they needed to be covered, lidded, marked with some sign to warn folks of what that emptiness held.” Of course, the rest of the narrative recalls the evacuation of her humnaity.
Morrison is an oracle, a teacher, a guide. And over the years I’ve tried to come to grips with her vision and her wisdom. Earnest in my desire to relieve myself of one white man’s lifelong burden of racial ignorance, I have come to Morrison, like Neo, to beseech her, to find the common language that binds the riddler and riddlee. Some critics have claimed that Morrison writes exclusively of the Black Experience, which she rejects, like the bird in hand, as a trick of language, pointing out the obvious: “Tolstoy,” she says, “did not write for me — a little colored girl.” What I have garnered from Morrison requires traversing the inner terrain of my education and experiences in race relations growing up in America.
Well, it’s not like I haven’t tried to educate my way out of my racial ignorance. Like Beloved, one recalls Kate Chopin’s tragic miscegenation tale, “Desiree’s Baby,” where a drop Black blood in a white-seeming woman results in racial catastrophe. One thinks of Sydney Poitier in A Patch of Blue, To Sir, With Love and In the Heat of the Night. One thinks of John Edgar Wideman’s tragic life and his Homewood trilogy. Jack Johnson crossing state lines. Langston Hughes interrogating a raisin — until it explodes. The Last Poets. Sun Ra. To Kill or Not to Kill a Mockingbird. Spike Lee. Malcolm X. MLK. And all Morrison’s early novels. It’s a lot to process.
And early days filled with violent intersections. Being robbed at knifepoint in the snowy darkness on the way to a Boston shelter, carrying Dylan’s Planet Waves. Robbed again outside a church hosting an all-night jazz festival looking to score some weed. Playing violin chords in a jazz trio and blowing the vibe later by asking the Black saxophonist why he liked listening to Wagner. Once, once dropping the N-bomb in earnest, to my shame. Living through Boston bussing, racist regentrification, and the American flag thrust as a weapon toward a Black man’s abdomen.
Time has shown me, over and over, the obvious: America can never get past its legacy of slavery. It brings up, yet again, Morrison’s answer, her hope for healing such a glaring racial divide: Language. In her marvelous introductory comments for the Oxford edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Morrison defends the continued teaching of Mark Twain’s novel, having come around to the value of its vernacular, after years of “a feeling I can only describe now as muffled rage, as though appreciation of the work required my complicity in and sanction of something shaming.” What turned Morrison to defend Huckleberry Finn’s continued presence in the classroom is the dialectical equality that exists between Huck and the slave Jim, and her growing trust in Twain’s moral and literary integrity.
“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises…Although it’s language — sardonic, photographic, persuasively aural — and the structural use of the river as control and chaos seemed to me quite the major feats of Huckleberry Finn…Some of the stillness, in the beautifully rendered eloquence of a child, is breathtaking.” And it’s true, in Twain’s work, that there is a silent vista that opens up, especially around the river, that speaks a pre-lingual language that is largely emotional and doesn’t require justification. On this level, Huck and Jim “speak” the same language.
As the generations pass — beyond the postmodern period — and past any notion of a Hegelian Master/Slave synthetic rapprochement that progress us beyond the legacy, we seem driven to continue making one-step-forward-two-steps-backward progress. Eminem shows a middle class white boy can rap. Quentin Tarantino will delight us with controversial dialogues between white and Black characters meant to make hip a tension that continues to deflect and fantasize the reality on the street. Forcing the Master to give the Slave a blowjob, as Tarantino would in The Hateful Eight, serves only to validate sado-masochism, not freedom.
Jordan Peele, and other Black directors, will continue to make in-roads into relevant cinematographic portrayals of the contemporary Black experience. In fact, Peele, arguably developing a new genre — Black political horror — may be an excellent forward-moving bearer of the Morrison vision. Inspired, perhaps, by James Baldwin’s long ago assertion that “inside all of us is a little white man,” Peele’s film Get Out seems to probe the co-mingliness of the black-white buddy trope, and suggest that inside every white person is the desire to have a hip Black man implanted. A horrifying thought that leads to Peele’s title cry: Beware the MIghty Whitey’s psychical cannibalism.
Us, too, seems to deal, appropriately, with the contemporary Black persona in crisis. Not only is there the danger of the introjected Mighty Whitey inside every Black man, looking to “just get along,” but there is that terrifying 400 year-old fear, that Ralph Ellison explores so well in Invisible Man, that one is not quite real, that in the existential phantasmagoria of trying to be at all in the dominant culture, one is catastrophically dissociated and unable to recognize the doppelgänger in the mirror. This trebles the horror expressed by Get Out: the Mighty Whitey counter-introjecting the doppelgänger in a kind of fetishistic celebration of pain-making over pain itself, the plastic Jesus dangling from the rear view mirror over Love sacrificed on the Cross in full view.
I saw the woman from Istanbul again recently. She insisted again, after 25 years, that I got the pronunciation wrong. But I can’t even remember any more where I placed the stress.
A highlight of this year’s Black History month will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X in New York’s WashingtonHeights, a neighborhood just north of Harlem. He was gunned down while he was delivering one of his firebrand speeches to a rapt crowd.
In the wake of Ferguson and all the other thousand bullet points of darkness and slow deterioration that have settled upon the black experience in America since his death in 1965, for many African-Americans the Feb. 21 commemoration will no doubt represent a new appreciation for the militant values Malcolm espoused.
For a few days, political rhetoric will abound, conspiracy theories will make colorful re-appearances, white hands will ring black bells, and as with the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution the mainstream media will stim sentimental tears down well-fed cheeks for a news cycle or so, then it’ll be back to baton and macing Dixie to keep her in line. However, I’d like to eschew all that jazz and instead talk about what Malcolm X and I had in common.
Now, you wouldn’t think that someone who grew up in a household where the adults referred to blacks by racial slurs would have much wisdom in common with the likes of Malcolm X and his army of angry, silent, well-dressed acolytes, but I did: three things, actually.
The first was good old Hate. If love is the twinkly twilight that makes us all feel warm and pretty, then hatred is its dark matter firmament, the source soup or secret sauce connecting the dots of all visible materiality. And, certainly, I shared that dispositional pattern — that hatred —with Malcolm X. We all do, in degrees.
But that’s not what I had in mind. Rather, our common hatred was in the form of the racial lines one must not cross. In the mid-Sixties I was living in Mattapan, a lower middle class and predominately Jewish section of Boston that was (is) separated from lower caste Dorchester by Blue Hill Ave. and Morton Street, and was just a stone’s throw, as it were from Roxbury up Blue Hill a bit, where Malcolm X was firing up local blacks with his consciousness-raising speeches about the lines of hatred whites had taught blacks to draw around themselves like cages. And then he’d push his listeners to erase those lines “by any means necessary.”
Morton Street and Blue Hill Avenue weren’t exactly akin to the passage between Israel and the Gaza Strip, but the hostility between the two cultures was sufficiently charged that crossing into the other’s territory was dangerous for whites, and for young blacks meant immediate surveillance, and likely the cops.
This friction between America’s two great ex-slave diasporas, who together have provided more cultural value and depth to American life than any others, dazed and confused me for a long time — until I better understood the corrosive nature of capitalism.
The Jews I lived among were quiet, cultured and devout. On trash collection days my neighbors would throw out amazing stuff (to an eight-year-old) — working bicycles, mounds of books, and antiques, like the old Victrola wind-up with a stash of platters where, right there on the sidewalk, I put on a record and heard a Beethoven symphony for the first time.
But blacks were scary, my Jewish friends said, people to fear and, ultimately, to hate. “If you get off at Dudley [a train stop in Roxbury], you will be jumped,” one of them might say. And so I hated blacks, for no real reason. That was the line drawn, and I drew it around myself.
The second thing I had in common with Malcolm X was a gone father, a mother prone to nervous breakdowns, and a carousel of foster homes. This may be our deepest sympathetic chord. Because such a combination of seeming abandonment and neglect, of constantly being handed off like a football, creates an existential crisis that is beyond issues of race and goes to the core of one’s being.
There’s the black diaspora, but it is surely blacker to be put aboard a ship that sees no shores. It’s not possible to be anchored in selfhood, when your so-called being-in-the-world is flotsam on a sea of anxiety.
I can understand how Malcolm would later reject all authority, until he temporarily found a haven in Elijah Muhammed and his Nation of Islam teachings. Malcolm’s was a deeper journey than mine, perhaps, if for no other reason than his crisis of integument.
When he embraced Islam in prison, and set his life “straight” as a result, giving up criminality to become the charismatic leader of a black supremacy movement under Elijah Muhammed, he may have discovered in his early abandonment the inspiration to think outside the box and the courage to believe in himself.
I found similar purpose and inspiration in my later phenomenological studies and Buddhism, which released me from the anxiety of impermanence. Most of the time.
The third thing I had in common with Malcolm X was name-changing. Malcolm Little found that he needed to change his identity altogether, to wrest control of his fate from the white system. Changing one’s name can provide a sandbox in which to experiment with the possibilities of self that were there before the dominant cultural structures imposed themselves on the will, without providing the self with a sense of belonging.
Little rejected the corruptive desires of capitalism, by embracing an Islam that promised purification, equality and a new start.
Similarly, I had long held in reserve a pen name that was in fact a kind of alter ego that allowed me to suspend the self I had been given and focus my attention on the pure act of writing. At the same time, I wanted to make a political statement that asserted a certain conclusion I had drawn about the world.
Thus, I began writing some but not all pieces under the name Jim Crowe. To me, the world was clearly demarcated by a series of dividing lines that spoke of exclusions, whether race, class, sexuality, or economic control.
During this new commemoration season, as the usual suspect pundits apply their analysis anew to old conspiracy theories about Malcolm’s assassination, I will dwell instead on his legacy of representing the black/white divide that still controls the sociological dialectic of global power.
The truth is, I didn’t really learn much about Malcolm X until well into adulthood. I tend to avoid fetishized icons, whatever their stripe. But I have to admit that Malcolm X’s speeches still move today with their prophetic understanding of the underlying dynamics of power and exclusion.
His speeches where he posits the consequences of America’s imperial actions “coming home to roost” is, even today, perhaps more so than ever, a fiery, soul-confronting reality check that, when properly understood, goes a long way toward revealing the machinations of our Kissinger-esque New World Order; it’s the same old world order – just the truncheons are shinier and the prisons are fuller than ever with black angry faces strutting around the yard all cock-a-doodly-doo, like the shape of things to come.