Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Poetics Of Miscegenation: How Poetry Can Speak To Issues Of Race

IN THE PAST MONTH, race has strolled down the red carpet of American popular culture in recognizable but surprising garb. On the one hand, the overwhelming popularity of the website Stuff White People Like has foregrounded the icons of bourgeois whiteness through humor and self-mockery. On the other hand, Barack Obama's candidacy for president, the views of his pastor, and the various comments and strategies by Senator Clinton, her husband, and their staff, have lit America's preoccupation with race from a different angle. Most of the time, Americans tend to turn to journalism, history, or sociology to get a better glimpse of the nuances of race, but with National Poetry Month around the corner and with a recent release of a special gift edition of Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, Native Guard, this seems an appropriate moment to explore the matrix of poetry, American culture, and race--especially the nearly taboo issue of miscegenation.

Senator Obama has talked a great deal about being a child of an interracial marriage, and his prominence has made the issue of mixed relationships and miscegenation part of a national discourse for the first time in decades. One of America's greatest writers, Langston Hughes, asks important questions about miscegenation and misogyny in his daring 1927 poem, "Mulatto:"

O, you little bastard boy
What's a body but a toy?
The scent of pine word stings the soft night air.
What's the body of your mother?

It would appear that one of the goals of Tretheway's book is to answer Hughes' provocative questions. Tretheway, whose father is white and whose mother (now deceased) was black, explores the tensions and violence at the heart of mixing races. In her short but powerful poem "Miscegenation," she maps the transgressions of her parents as they leave their home state of Mississippi to marry:

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong--mis in Mississippi.

Though her parents no doubt believed they were engaged in a kind of exodus of liberation and love, Tretheway can't help but hear the resonances of foreboding (sin and mis) in their escape, as if the long-armed ghosts of history were the puppeteers of her parents' relationship.

Indeed, for Tretheway, miscegenation is all about crossing borders, sometimes, even the border of the body (as Hughes suggests). Tretheway's mother was murdered by her second husband, and though Tretheway does not draw a direct line between her murder and the legacy of violence against the bodies of African American women, one senses through poems like "What The Body Can Say," "What Is Evidence," "Myth," and "After Your Death," that the poet may see her death as the culmination of a chain of events that began with that first exodus from Mississippi. When Hughes asks, "What's the body of your mother?," one wonders if Native Guard is Tretheway's probing and deeply felt answer. That said, Tretheway masterfully avoids making easy assumptions or tying off the narrative with over-simplified palliatives; instead, she leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots of history, land, violence, and love.

Though no one would expect a book of poems to unlock the complex problems of race in America, Native Guard does provide some measure, some lineament of understanding of the effects of racialized America on an individual. It may also allow Americans to see the person who could very likely be their next president through a different and clearer lens.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Stuff White People Like: Redux

LAST WEEK, WHEN THIS site was mentioned in a Houston Chronicle story about the web-phenom, Stuff White People Like, The Weekly Rader received more hits in one day than it had received for the entire calendar year of 2008. Clearly, the interest was less in TWR and more in what TWR had to say about what white people like. One thing I do know, white people like Stuff White People Like.

There is no question, the site is crazy, over-the-top, steal your beer popular. In fact, at the time of this particular post, Mr. Lander's site had over 17 million hits since whitening up the web in early January. Indeed, the main question the reporter had for me was why SWPL is so popular. Though I was quoted correctly, there is much more to say about this site and why it has struck such a chord.

The first reason it's popular is because it is benign. The topics are funny, the photos are oh-so-recognizably vanilla, and the tone is non-threatening. In short, as I say in my previous post and as many others have observed, the site is not really about race but about other things like class, yuppiness, and coolness.

Because the site is innocuous, people feel free to post unfettered. Were the site really about race, racial politics, Affirmative Action, slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese interment, or modern day hate crimes, the site would have a different look and feel. It would lose its breezy self-mocking tone. Right now, the site does not ask to be taken seriously. If it confronted true racial problems (racial profiling, graduation rates, anti-Arab sentiment), then it would have to change its presentation.

So, one reason the site works is because it points to harmless signposts of racial differences that we all know exist. We are all painfully aware of racial divides in the United States (see my post about Obama and race, for example), and SWPL gives us permission to laugh at the commodities that are the fetishes of a certain kind of whiteness--the whiteness of San Francisco, Austin, New York, Seattle, Portland, Boston, and Chicago. These signposts of whiteness are iPods and coffee rather than the Stars and Bars or the swastika. In other words, they are more about consumption than skin color, more about acquisition than Aryans.

The site pokes fun at cultural affluence as practiced by left-leaning college educated people in urban areas. As I write elsewhere, I grew up among many White people in rural Oklahoma, and almost no White person I know in Oklahoma fam land likes anything on this site. Stuff White Oklahomans like (which, as I type this sounds like a winning Web site), would include Chicken Fried Steak, trailer parks, iced tea, OU football, the 4th of July, watermelon, The Old Testament, and Ronald Reagan. I don't foresee any of these on SWPL, though I guarantee that in the United States, more white people like Chicken Fried Steak than Asian Fusion.

One more reason SWPL has resonated is due to its very smart awareness of what I call "Overculture," which is the subject of my next book. Stuff White People Like is fantastic at mapping the icons of Overculture--those popular texts that indicate an ubiquity in American consumer and popular culture. For example, Starbucks plays music heard on The Wire, which gets written about in Slate, which has an agreement with NPR, which reviews books available in Borders, which sells coffee and expensive sandwiches. Overculture is a new kind of cultural map that circumscribes everything that has hit a tipping point, everything educated people should either consume or be aware of--any text, whether it is a book, a film, a TV show, food, a city, or a belief that can help shape identity.

Stuff White People Like has struck this chord of Overculture like no other text, so it will stay popular as long as there are icons of identity formation out there that make their way onto America's cultural playground. As long as they stay on the playground (and not the battlefield), this will continue to be fun. If SWPL really turns racial, though, play time will be over.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

March Madness . . .for Books?

THE NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL tournament is my favorite sporting event of the year, and to me, the most democratic, the most American of the high-profile sports pageants. Imagine my joy when I discovered two of my great loves now love each other!

That's right; the good folks at The Morning News have finally brought brackets to books:

It's a great idea, and I'm very sad The Weekly Rader didn't think of it first, though we may launch something similar in the near future.

The brackets get everything right from the drama of head-to-head competition to the seedings. Just as in the actual tournament, there is potential controversy surrounding this year's seedings, but of the books that qualified for tournament play, there is no doubt that Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is the book to beat. However, fans will be pulling hard for Junot Diaz's widely reviewed and soundly loved first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

This year, the actual NCAA selection process came under fire when a few teams (Arizona State, Ohio State and others) with solid records and good wins were not invited to the Big Dance. Well, the Tournament of Books (which we may dub "The Big Read," but we're not sold on that moniker) has that feature in spades. For instance, where is The Post-Birthday World? A Thousand Splendid Suns? Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union?

For me, the biggest omission was Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs, which may have been the best novel of 2007; so I was looking forward to pulling for it against weaker rivals and overblown blockbusters. We wonder about the Tournament of Books' selection committee, but we praise the committee for giving us even more to second-guess. It's what keeps us and Dick Vitale in business.

The first round is barely over, and already there is a big upset. The Savage Detectives (which was seeded too low) lost to the underdog Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, in what appears to have been a hard-fought scrap of a contest. However, the most shocking upset came when the upstart, Remainder, that even the most loyal fans had written off as a flash-in-the pan, toppled the UCLA of the book world, Ian McEwan and his foamy On Chesil Beach. The reverberations are still being felt throughout the book world. When asked for a comment outside a Border's, the sweaty, jubilant Remainder quipped, "We fought hard. We stuck to our plan. We just wanted to come out here and be a good read. All the credit in the world goes to Chesil. It's a great book. But, this is the best feeling in the world. I'm so glad Jesus loves us more."

The best part of any bracket discussion is the predictions. Enough said.

The Weekly Rader will go out on a limb and pick its Final Four:

Tree of Smoke vs. You Don't Love Me Yet (winner, Tree of Smoke)
Oscar Wao vs. The Shadow Catcher (winner, Oscar Wao)

Though Wao brings the wow factor, in the end, I think Tree of Smoke's 2,500 pages edges out Wao in the stamina and girth departments. In the final, look for Tree of Smoke to emerge as the victor in the 2008 Tournament of Books, an accolade that should get it one of those special gold stickers for the book cover. I'll talk to the folks at TMN to see if that's in the works.

If your office pool has a special category for dark horse candidates, put your money on either Remainder or Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, both of which could make a push for the Final Four.

Until then, a special thanks to TMN and to Chris Haven at Grand Valley State University for the tip-off (that's a little basketball humor).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Obama Lucky To Be Black! A Special Mid-Weed Post

AS SOMEONE WHOSE JOB it is to pay close attention to language, especially heightened language about race, gender, and class, political discourse in the United States over the last ten days has been unusually . . . meaty.

From Samantha Powers' Howard Dean-esque rants about Hillary Clinton to the Elliot Spitzter fiasco to the Geraldine Ferraro footmouth, the follow-up footmouth, and the final footmouth last night on NBC, it's been a rough few days.

The Ferraro's transgressions, however, seem even more disturbing than Spitzer's. His sins remain errors of hubris and desire; they are private. Ms. Ferraro's sins, however, stand as errors of community and common good; they are public. As such, they add to a mounting discourse of reverse racism that perpetuates the misguided notion that ethnicity=identity=accomplishment.

Though she made several observations about Senator Obama's good fortune in regard to his race, this is her most troubling:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.

After typing the above quote, I realized I was at a loss of what to write next. I was so baffled by its obtuseness, I had nothing enlightening to say about it. There are so many things wrong with her assertion, it's hard to know where to begin. On one hand, my training as a close reader of texts makes me want to parse each misstep in her statement, pointing out how ill-informed it is. On the other hand, it seems prudent not to endow her observations or her defensive responses with detailed unpacking.

I would say only this: her statement comes in a long, long, long line of seemingly benign observations about race and accomplishment that are neither benign or observant. Her defense was that her words were taken out of context, that she never intended racism; rather she praised the Black community.

In the world of literary studies, this is a classic case of connotative versus denotative meaning. The denotative meaning of a word is its literal dictionary meaning. In a purely denotative world, "that dude is hot" would mean that the dude's body temperature is higher than it should be. Connotation is the cultural associations attached to a word or idea. In our pluralistic, connotative world, "that dude is hot" means that the dude is attractive.

Denotatively, Ms. Ferraro never comes out and says "Senator Obama is less qualified than Senator Clinton, and he only achieved what he achieved (admission to a good college, a law degree from Harvard, good teaching position, state and national congressional seats) because our culture has decided to lower the bar for Black people because Black people are inferior."

Because she never literally said this sentence, Ms. Ferraro claims she was not being racist. But, our culture has a history of coded speech about race; hot button words and phrases that denote one thing and connote another.

One of the many things Obama's candidacy has done is make our vision sharper to better see through such language. No one fell for it, no one bought it, no one believed it.

The great irony of her comments, though, ignores the larger issues of race that are probably, for some, still affecting his candidacy. Sadly, there are some--maybe Ms. Ferraro--who simply will not vote for someone who is Black. In other words, if Mr. Obama were a White man, he may already have the nomination.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Thomas Jefferson Bible

IF ONE WERE TO poll most Americans, asking them to name one person who embodies American values, it's rather startling to think--at any length--who people would pick: George Washington, Donald Trump, Oprah, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, even, perhaps, Barack Obama. Though all of these are good choices, none--at least in my mind--mirror the complexity, the ambition, and the contradictions of the United States like Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson stands as a model of dueling forces and desires; from his stance on Native American issues to his love of land and farming to his relationship(s) with African Americans (including his own slaves) to his puzzling religious beliefs. Of all of his complicated stances, the latter has undergone the least scrutiny but remains, on some levels, the most beguiling.

Indeed, during his lifetime, Jefferson was thought to be an atheist by some, but almost no former president was more obsessed with God, Jesus, and the Bible. In fact, in 1803, Jefferson literally invented a new New Testament that he thought Jesus would approve of. Convinced Jesus' real message had been obscured by the hocus-pocus of miracles, Jefferson's Bible 86's the Christmas story, the Easter story, and the miracles. Instead, he focuses on Jesus' moral teachings, which Jefferson believed was the spiritual core of the New Testament and Jesus' greatest asset. Now, thanks to the inventive folks at BeliefNet, one can get an interesting glimpse at the Jefferson Bible and its edits.

Icons of little scissors allow the reader to see what Jefferson cut, and a fascinating backstory by BeliefNet's editor, Steven Waldman, provides even more detail on the history of Jefferson's interest in the Bible, Jesus, and his enigmatic belief system.

Waldman correctly chronicles Jefferson's public statements of his Christianity, despite claims to the opposite. Here is Waldman quoting Jefferson: "'I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians.'" And yet, Jefferson's multi-decade Bible project attempts to remove from Jesus' legacy the very details that, for most, make him divine.

This project proved to be consuming for Jefferson, who worked on his Bible off an on for the next 20-odd years. So determined was he to get at a true New Testament, he assembled a four-column text (pictured above) that included Greek, Latin, French, and English translations of the New Testament in hopes of liberating Jesus from what he thought was centuries of poor packaging and mis-labeling.

Since Jefferson is the ideological architect of some of this nation's most important documents about freedom, liberty, and rights (all of which enter public debate about the religious infrastructure of the Republic and its laws), it is useful to know what he was grappling with as he was trying to sculpt a new nation and a national discourse.

One of the great mistakes many Americans make is conflating the religious beliefs of the Pilgrims with the religious beliefs of what we have come to call "The Founding Fathers." In his new book, Founding Faith, Waldman addresses this issue, as does Garry Wills in his recent study, Head and Heart: America's Christianity. Both authors debunk the myth that the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States sought to enact specifically "Christian" laws with a "Christian ideology."

Imagine Jefferson running for president today--trying to convince the American populace that even though he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ or the virgin birth or any of the miracles, including the resurrection--that he was still a Christian. How odd that as our society and our world has become more progressive, our capabilities for tolerating and nuancing religious beliefs have narrowed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Plagiarismgate: Preparing for the Next Six Months

THE RESULT OF TUESDAY'S Democratic primaries means that the campaigns, speeches, and the scrutiny will last another six weeks, maybe more.

Without question, Senator Clinton's campaign will be looking closely at pretty much everything Senator Obama says, no doubt, hoping to catch him in some sort of transgression, like plagiarism.

Last week, my letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle generated some correspondences and questions that I thought I would address here and at The Daily Kos.

When Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s campaign communication director, accused Barack Obama of plagiarizing a speech by long-time Obama friend governor Deval Patrick (D-Mass), it set off a cross-posting conflagration in the blogosphere that has acquired the moniker “plagiarismgate.” Wolfson’s snarky charge prompted columnists like Maureen Dowd, Bob Cesca and others to excavate phrases, passages and entire portions of Clinton speeches that seem to suggest she stole from Jimmy Carter, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, and even Obama himself. Nothing burns in cyberspace more than the combination of global text search and scandal. It is the blogosphere’s Duraflame, and these issues may flare up for the rest of the campaign.

Amidst this great back-and-forthing, however, no one is asking what it means to plagiarize a speech or even what the consequences might be for such a transgression. It’s a rare but glorious moment with the Venn diagrams of writing and literature professors merge with that of political discourse. Plagiarism is our purview; we deal with it every day in our classes, in our student papers, and in our own scholarship. It may be the most important ethical code of our profession, and yet, it can confuse the most persnickety, especially now.

As the world digitizes and YouTubes and blogs, the rules of who authors what and who owns what complicates traditional notions of theft, piracy, and appropriation. For example, Obama and Patrick use the same campaign strategist (David Axelrod), and both men admit they regularly share ideas with each other. Obama even joked in a speech last year that he was “stealing” a line from “his buddy Deval Patrick.” There is no question that a portion of Obama’s speech about “words” echoes one Patrick gave in 2006; in fact, certain passages are verbatim. But the fuzzy nature of political speeches problematizes the hard-and-fastness of plagiarism because of what I call “authorial invisibility.”

We know James Joyce wrote Ulysses, and we’re certain Wallace Stevens penned “The Snow Man,” but, in political discourse, authors are almost always invisible. Who writes Mike Huckabee’s speeches? Hillary Clinton’s? President Bush’s? Did Axelrod write the 2006 Patrick speech? Did he write or consult on the recent Obama speech? If so, is he guilty of self-plagiarism; what we in academic circles call “double-dipping?” If so, does that exculpate Obama? Could Patrick have actually stolen the idea from an old conversation with Obama?

Part of the problem lies with the cultural associations endowed to written and oral discourse. Oral discourse carries an ephemerality that somehow excuses it from the same ethical codes as written texts. There is something about the impression of printed material, its permanence, and its three dimensionality that makes its theft more egregious than parroting a speech in a speech. When an author steals from another author, that act carries a pre-meditation that violates the sanctity of printed, copyrighted, authored material.

But, what of material whose owner or author is unknown and unknowable? What does this do to the question of ownership and theft?

In the world of oral political discourse, asking if Obama’s speech plagiarizes Patrick’s is a bit like asking if Lebron James’ drive to the basket plagiarizes Michael Jordan’s. Words, concepts, performances, gestures, and clich├ęs are the threads that weave the ever-expanding tapestry of digitized free media that we wrap ourselves in every day. Now and then, we’re all going to be guilty of stealing the covers.